“You should really learn to be more humble,” my college guidance counselor told me. I was seventeen years old, alienated from my parents, a scholarship student at a very expensive high school, an opinionated and outspoken young woman with only male teachers and administrators, about to go before the judicial committee, and my arrogance was all I had to fight back the feeling that my life and plans were completely out of my control and quickly unraveling. But there was a mom, my boyfriend’s mom, a successful corporate attorney mom, who stepped in and stopped the unraveling for me.
When I started high school, my own mom and I chose a small school with an emphasis on fostering a relationship between teacher and students. I was president of my class, a starter on the soccer team, and a lead in the school plays. Life was cookie-cutter. Then, the school changed policies in order to make more money. Teachers would be addressed by their last names, a rigorous dress code would be enforced, fewer scholarships would be given out, no affirmative action would be undertaken, and many of the old teachers were let go. I changed as well: rebelling in typical teenager fashion and not speaking with my parents for months because of anger over their divorce. As a scholarship student, I was already a drain on the school’s resources. As a rebellious scholarship student, I had to go.
Accusations began. First, I was sent home for dress code violations all the time. Then, I was accused of smoking. Then, cheating. Finally, using drugs. The first two were true, the second two were absolute fabrications made by the teachers supposed to be guiding me. I was taken aside and told to be more humble. I was taken aside and told that no one would be as understanding as the school had been and so I had better shape up before I graduated. The accusations were made publicly as well: my AB Biology class was asked to vote on whether I should be punished for my alleged cheating. Finally, during the allegations of drug-use, the school called a meeting with my boyfriend’s mother to warn her about me.
Instead of taking the school’s warnings to heart, she told them what a good influence I had been on her son. She warned them that they were driving away the very students who would one day be a credit to the school. And then she invited me to her home and warned me about the new policies of the school board and administrators. She watched over me for the rest of the year and I grew to rely on the consistency she provided. But she also provided inspiration. She told me of the professors who had warned her that she was just not smart enough to be admitted to law school, let alone to be a lawyer. She told me of returning a few years later to tell those same professors that she was valedictorian of her law school. And then she told me that she continued to work with the same people who had discredited her.
I hated my college counselor for his condescending exhortation of humility but I learned about true humility from her: she did not need to be loud or aggressive or prove any particular point to anyone because she did not need their approval. She had earned her own sense of worth in the face of so many people’s doubts and she would have it no matter what doubts might be raised. And she was able to not hold other people’s prejudices and assumptions against them - once she had proven them wrong. Those lessons and her mentorship not only got me graduated from high school but they continue to be of use in the competitive and often petty world of law school. Sometimes when other people express unjust assumptions and opinions, it can be the best place to find self-definition. The worst opinions expressed by others are ultimately most helpful in demarcating self-opinion and other’s opinions. I’ve never been able to explain exactly why I chose to attend law school but I think at least some of it has to do with this woman who had defined and embraced herself because of following a long hard road against sexism and unfairness.