The Weight of Expectations

elaine

An excerpt from Bonnie Miletto’s book “Dedicated to the Cup”
By Elaine Rea

Imagine if, upon your birth, a single expectation was placed upon you. And imagine that, at the age of 19, you failed in your attempt to meet that expectation.

I am the daughter of two academics, highly educated scientists, and grew up in a college town. The parents of my friends and classmates were highly-educated people who, like my own parents, were from far away. They were widely-traveled, had broad interests, and told terrific stories of places they had been and things they had done. The town may have been off the beaten path, but the people I knew and admired had seen the world and made me want to do the same.

My dad worked long hours during the school year to keep up with the demands of teaching, research, and graduate students, often returning to his office after our family dinner and staying late into the night. In the summer, though, his time was ours, and we looked forward to spending it with him. We got to travel (in our trusty ’68 Buick Special station wagon) to national parks and monuments and to visit relatives. My brother and I both learned to swim in motel pools on hot summer afternoons when we just couldn’t stand driving another mile in a sweaty car. Those trips also often included stops at colleges and universities to visit my parents’ colleagues. We’d tour the manicured grounds and admire the ivy-covered walls, and it was on those visits that I learned what that single expectation was: I must earn a college degree. I didn’t fear the expectation. In my mind, colleges were exciting places. Places I had happily visited with my family and where we had made fun memories. There was one thing I could influence: which college I would attend. It was fun deciding that.

When I was in ninth grade, my class had to watch a series of films called “The World of Work.” (I can still hear the catchy soundtrack, “The world of work, reach out and take it,” which made it all seem like a big adventure.) The accompanying lessons had each student answer questionnaires about personality and aspirations. Here it was revealed to me: you are suited for a career in the “travel business.” My young life filled with meeting people from other places and taking trips with my family had generated a spark. I wanted to visit interesting places, spread the word, and help other people see them too. I frequently visited the career center in my high school, poring through college catalogs and the Comparative Guide to American Colleges, searching for schools with a travel management program. It was there that I landed on the idea of attending the University of Hawaii. It had a fairly easy admissions process, wasn’t expensive, and sounded really exotic. And best of all, it would make my friends insanely jealous! I thought my plan for my future seemed solid: apply to just one school (UH), get accepted, and never look back. The questions of distance and culture didn’t cross my mind, so I made the first steps confidently.

That is how I found myself alone on an airplane flying out of the Eugene, Oregon, airport with two suitcases and the address of my dormitory in Honolulu, Hawaii, a school that despite my not having visited was certainly the perfect match for me. I got off to a great start: settling into my dorm, making friends, joining the marching band, enrolling in classes, and enjoying the freedom of being away from home. Slowly during my first year, though, imperceptible cracks began to appear in the façade of a full university experience. I was certainly not mature enough to recognize that certain things left behind in my hometown were impacting my life away. The people who influenced and mentored me had been of all ages—family, friends, teachers, and pastors and members at my childhood church—and now I was limited to the constant company of college students between the ages of 18 and 24. The courses I took were typical of any freshman: broad, survey classes taught in huge auditoriums, which meant that I wasn’t having meaningful discourse with instructors outside of the lecture hall. So I did what the rest of the 18- to 24-year-old students were doing by enjoying the sun and the beach, and, more often than not, consuming alcohol. The constant stream of tourists visiting the bars and clubs in Waikiki ensured a non-stop, revolving door of new people to meet and party with. I had bouts of homesickness, especially for dinnertime favorites, and missed the solitude and wide-open spaces not easy to find on a densely populated island. Disappointed in my 2.8 GPA at the end of the first year, I knew my less-than-dedicated study habits were to blame. But, I was having too much fun majoring in “life” and “growing up,” so I accepted mediocre results because it was easier than changing.

Spending that summer at home was great, and I was refreshed and still fearless as I flew to Hawaii for my second year. But, some of my closest friends had moved on, and because I had skated through the easy classes on momentum and not rigorous studying, I found myself quickly falling behind. The courses were more challenging, and even the most basic strategies for being successful still eluded me. The tide was shifting, and I became hopelessly backlogged with my assignments. Then my life-long lucky streak ended when I came down with strep throat and landed in the emergency room. For the first time, I felt the plan for my life was slipping away and was filled with a sadness that wouldn’t go away. Sitting alone in my dark dorm room in the middle of the night, I looked out the window where the year before a distraught student had chosen to jump to his death and wondered what more would have to go wrong in my life before I would reach the same conclusion he had. To this day, I don’t know why, but I sought the advice of a university psychiatrist in the Student Health Center who recommended that I immediately withdraw from classes and fly home to be with my family. Not able to break the news to my parents myself, that call came courtesy of my academic advisor. I was a college dropout and had therefore failed to meet THE expectation. My dad picked me up at the airport, and we rode home in silence.

I was now pioneering a new trail, this time without the familiar sense of confidence but rather with uncharacteristic fear. It would take more than a year before all of the sadness was gone and I felt like I was once again standing on firm ground. Trying to play it safe, I took secretarial classes at the nearby community college and, still interested in the travel industry, worked as a front desk clerk in hotels for a while. Without ever saying it, I knew my parents wanted me to enroll in the local university. After all, my high school classmates were all still in school. Also, I knew it was tough for them stay positive about my prospects when they were constantly being asked what was I going to do next by their friends and acquaintances who had seen me ride off to Hawaii in a blaze of glory only to return with my flame out.

Some of my former luck returned when I was hired to assemble calculators for a large manufacturing company with a factory in my hometown. The company had a strong reputation, and the pay and benefits were pretty good. My parents were hopeful, but the production line job was mind numbing, and I suffered a repetitive-motion injury that I internalized as another failure. How could I not even be good at the simplest of jobs? I stayed as positive as I could, having daily conversations with myself to be grateful, stay motivated, and under no circumstances slip back into dark sadness. I had an unconscious need to find something gratifying and started helping out at a community theater in the next town where I had done a couple of plays during high school. Besides offering a creative outlet to my uncreative work routine, I found myself in the company of people of all ages who had interesting life stories and experiences they openly shared with me. And I could share my stories (and failures) with them. It had been a piece of the puzzle I didn’t realize was missing, but I embraced their mentoring and influence. It was from one of these newly-found mentors that I received a profound piece of advice: “Never play when you should be working, and never work when you should be playing.” I wouldn’t come to understand that phrase’s importance right away, but it resonated in my brain.

After several years of making the best of it on the assembly line, I learned of a job opening for an entry-level secretary and somehow landed it. One of the girls in my department was signing up for an evening accounting class at the community college, and although my new manager wasn’t particularly encouraging, he agreed to pay for me too. It was a big step to return to school, but one class felt manageable to me. We carpooled to the class one night per week for a year. I did well and it felt great. I probably don’t need to mention that my parents were elated!

I found a better secretarial position and continued to take one class per term in night school. This time, my manager saw my potential and suggested that he could live with a part-time secretary if I wanted to attend college full-time. I am still grateful for his generous gift because he shone a light on a new path for me, one that I hadn’t dared go looking for on my own. Taking four classes in that first term, I drew upon the advice of my mentor. I worked hard, but when my homework was done, nothing would stop me from taking the break I deserved. After earning straight A’s, my parents took me out for a celebratory dinner. For the first time since graduating from high school, almost eight years earlier, I felt on track and ready to complete my college education.

My choice was to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business and, as a nod to my high-tech employer, minor in computer science. My life was balanced. I had a steady job, was attending the university where my father taught, and stayed involved in the community theater. At the beginning of my final year of college, my manager delivered a blow: my part-time position was being eliminated due to a poor economic forecast and budget pressures. Keeping my job meant I had to return to full-time status. I had come so far, had control of my emotional stability, and was driven to meet a long-desired goal. Seized with fear, I thought losing momentum again might mean never finishing my degree.

I asked my parents for a loan, borrowed against my life insurance, sold all of my company stock, cashed in retirement accounts, and handed in my resignation. It was a huge risk but one I knew was worth taking. Counting my pennies, I lived like all college students—frugally—knowing that I would run out of money within a few weeks of graduation. Ten years after graduating from high school and wearing a “high honors” cord on my shoulder, I took part in the university’s commencement ceremony. No parents in the coliseum that day were happier or prouder than mine. I had a college degree. Expectation met. Weight lifted.

The following week, I interviewed with a high tech firm about 100 miles away. Ten days later, I started my new career and the next phase of my life, which came with new expectations: get married, own a home, become a mom. I met those expectations, too, but none has ever felt as good as graduating from college because I had to regain lost confidence and believe in myself again.

Elaine spent 17 years in the high-tech industry working for Hewlett Packard and Intel. She currently works as a self-employed demographer for commercial real estate firms in the Portland metropolitan area. In addition, Elaine chairs the Mission-Endowment committee at her church, volunteers at a residential treatment home for teen-aged boys, and is a member of the Portland Air Cargo Association. She has made several humanitarian trips to Uzhhorod, Ukraine with the Corvallis Sister Cities Association. She and her husband Bill reside in Beaverton and have two grown daughters.

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2 Comments

  1. I didn’t know all this, of course, having departed Corvallis before a lot of this came down. Great that you felt like sharing, and, as my Australian friends say, “Good on ya,” for persevering through it all!

    Bless you

    Rob

  2. Elaine, I don’t think I knew until now just how many elements your life and mine had in common: academic parents, high expectations for college, disappointing grades, dropping out of college, depression, weird career changes, a long-delayed degree. Well, I guess there were a lot like that in college-town Corvallis….

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