Raise Your Hand — What I learned from The Paper Chase and Sheryl Sandberg
I confess. I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” but I get the gist. I did view her successful Ted Talk that inspired her to write the book. In that talk she made a point of saying to women, “Don’t leave until you leave,” suggesting that women pull back from workplace opportunities long before they have children, simply because they plan to have a family — some day. That’s a valid point. No use preparing to leave the workplace for your family years before you even have one. But I’m taking it even farther back. I’m taking it to school. I’m suggesting that women and girls should not let others do all the talking and just freaking raise their hands in class . . . and say something. It doesn’t matter if you’re not sure if you ever want to run a Fortune 500 company or even whether you like the class. If you’re in school, raise your freaking hand. The corporate world is tough. In many ways it is not an even playing field. In some professions you’re not even allowed to speak if there is someone more senior in the room. So while you’re in school? Before you get out there in the real world? Dang it — if you’ve paid your tuition and you’re going to sit your butt down at the desk for the next two hours, you might as well say something.
As a child I remember accidentally seeing the movie The Paper Chase on television. The Paper Chase is a 70’s flick about a first year student at Harvard Law School. I was a kid. I had no dreams of going to law school. I’d never met a lawyer, to my knowledge. I guess in my ultimate laziness I didn’t feel like changing the channel, so I watched the movie. It stuck with me. In the film, the main character noticed that everyday in class only a few students raised their hands, only a few volunteered answers to questions posed by the imposing professor. Of course, the professor called on unwilling participants via the Socratic method, but only a few dared volunteer. They were the Upper Echelon.
At this point, I think it’s important to note that law school exams in the first year are usually anonymous and not given until the end of the semester. There are no extra points for prior class participation.
So why bother speaking in class, then?
First, because it helps to learn and analyze the material.
Second, it establishes the student as being in the Upper Echelon, and
Third, it makes the student think of herself in the Upper Echelon.
Fourth, being in the Upper Echelon might get a student noticed, and some perks.
In The Paper Chase, the main character made a conscious decision to “jump in” and raise his hand, to join Upper Echelon. Once he did, he was viewed — and viewed himself, differently. Other students sought him out for assistance during the study period for finals. He eventually got an “A” in the course, if I recall.
I’m not sure why seeing this movie about Harvard Law students had such an impact on me whilst I was in the 6th or 7th grade or so, but it did. There was something about the guy deciding to jump in with the other students who had the bravura to do it from day one.
Fast forward a decade and then some. I found myself in Law School (not Harvard).
Like the main character in The Paper Chase, I noticed that there were only a few people who volunteered answers in class. And it was always the same people. The Upper Echelon. Most of Upper Echelon were men. I think there was one woman. She, no surprise, was not well liked.
The second tier was comprised of those students who spoke when called on and would speak voluntarily on occasion — on very rare occasions. These students were sitting ducks, waiting to get called on. If the professor was not teaching the Socratic method they were quiet, relaxed ducks, passively letting the material wash over them. (Well, wash over us. I was with them, with my highlighters and colored pencils and markers.)
And then there were The Quiet Ones — the ones who never volunteered to speak, and would even “pass” when called upon.
In law school, there was a saying, “Beware of The Quiet Ones” as they were often the ones who, when grades came out, seemed to have pulled a 4.0 out of their asses. With that 4.0 they could get on Law Review, and continue to collect academic credentials that would yield many, many opportunities in the legal profession or other any chosen professional career. When grades came out, suddenly The Quiet Ones were the cream of the crop, yet no one had ever heard them speak or even noticed they were there. In my years at my school, The Quiet Ones were women. Reluctant geniuses. Secret weapons, possessed of powers unknown to man (literally). Statistically, however, there are only a couple of those kinds of Quiet Ones. Most silent students were left crying or shaking their heads when grades come out. The straight-A Quiet Ones were an enigma. There’s only one Batman . . . but I digress . . .
I’m not really talking about grades, anyway, I’m talking about perception and learning and opportunities. We learn by engaging. We are perceived to be knowledgeable by engaging. We show what we’ve learned and how we think — by engaging.
So I decided. I would jump in. I would raise my hand. I would talk. Just like in The Paper Chase, it was a conscious decision. Just like in The Paper Chase, it was a decision that would take me out of my comfort zone. The thing about it was, I was there anyway. I was doing the reading anyway. We were all students. No one had any grades yet. Might as well jump in. If those guys (and one woman) could throw themselves into the Upper Echelon from day one, why not me? I would be just like that guy in that movie I saw when I was an impressionable youth.
I admit, in the night before I decided to jump in I was a little more attentive to my reading. My array of notes was a colorful masterpiece. (It was the markers and colored pencils, you see.) I didn’t know in what direction the professor would be taking the discussion, so I simply vowed to say something about . . . something.
And, the next day, just like in the movie — I raised my hand. I don’t believe I had ever spoken voluntarily in class before.
Heads turned. I was no longer invisible.
After I spoke that first time, I raised my hand again. I argued. I answered. I wasn’t always right, and since it was law school, there wasn’t always a right answer, but my words were heard, my point of view considered, and even when I had no real point of view, I practiced taking a side anyway. I became one of the Upper Echelon, just like in The Paper Chase. I’m guessing that I also joined the ranks of students other students disliked, but whatevs. I walked a little taller.
One day after class a Professor asked to see me. Admittedly, this dude scared the crap out of me. He was not the Professor I had a crush on. See Another Embarrassingly Moment, Another Crush. No, this professor was a classic unapproachable (or so I thought) academic whose pearls of wisdom often seemed to float out of reach above my head. This was the professor who made me nervous, and though I spoke in his class with an unsteady voice, I was always convinced that what I said — or what anyone said, for that matter, was just — not quite right. I didn’t know why this professor wanted to see me, but I dutifully went to his office.
To my surprise (utter shock, actually), the professor asked me to be his research assistant.
Not one of the original Upper Echelon members.
Little old me.
The music student who was really just acting out a scene in a movie she’d seen by accident as a kid.
I accepted his offer, and my research (for which I got paid work-study money) contributed to his book, in which he gave me credit by name when the book was published. He also became a mentor and a professional reference, and my work with this professor, who was a former clerk to a Supreme Court Justice, certainly didn’t hurt me in securing my own Federal Clerkship, a position coveted by many.
All because I raised my hand. All because I decided to raise my hand.
If I hadn’t starting talking in class, he wouldn’t have known who the hell I was, and the research position, along with the opportunities and experience that flowed from it, would have gone to someone else.
But it didn’t. It went to me, because I raised my freaking hand.
I’ve tried to explain all of this to my kids, especially my girls, but they don’t get it.
I’m all, “Did you raise your hand?” And they’re all, “No way, I don’t talk in class.”
And I want to kill myself.
Time to break out the old movies, methinks. One of my daughters has seen The Paper Chase (thanks, Netflix), but I don’t think she got it. I must try again — on her — and the other kids.
One of these days somebody will listen to me.
Just Me With . . . my hands in the air, waving like I just don’t care . . .
I just had a horrifying thought. Much of this was triggered because I happened to see the movie The Paper Chase on television when I was a kid.
Think of the things kids “happen” to see on TV these days. I shudder at the thought.
Related: Tales From The Bar Exam
My High School Self, My Vampire Boyfriend
I was a couple of weeks shy of eighteen, we’d been dating for two years. He had recently become my first, I was not his. I loved him. He loved me. One of the things I loved about being with him was the fact that I could be myself. Ididn’t have to prove anything or act a certain way. I didn’t have to try to fit in or be a certain type of girl. He gave me something– not school related — to do. In hindsight, what he provided me was a way to escape those awkward teen years of discovering myself, making choices and mistakes, finding my own way, being proud of who I was and who I wasn’t, making new friends, and learning how to be social. He had already made some decisions about life, had some bad experiences and had strong opinions about almost everything. He was an old soul. I was not. It ate me up.
He was completely against drinking (which is not a bad thing for someone underage, but he would not even go to parties where others might be drinking, even if they were hiding it.) I respected him for that. I supported him in that. He had had a rough upbringing. His mother had a bad reputation, his brother was the local drug dealer, other family members, including siblings and his mother’s boyfriends had addictions, and teen pregnancies were the norm in his family. So having been brought up in the underbelly of suburban drug and alcohol addiction, he swore never the touch the stuff and forbade me to get near it. Forbade. In his family, he was the one good child. He wanted to stay that way. He was painfully shy unless involved in a sport, so he wasn’t one for hanging out. He didn’t want to travel because he didn’t see the need, and was uncomfortable out of our town. He hated the beach, sand; he hated crowds. He was also very possessive and jealous, so he kept me close and would become angry if he felt threatened.
But he was very cute, tall, slim with haunting light eyes.Teachers loved him, though he was not academically oriented or talented. I think, like me, they saw a polite guy who, despite his family, seemed to be a good kid. He was charming that way. People wanted to help him. People wanted to forgive any shortcomings. He had a smile that could and did charm everyone — that is, when he did smile. Most of the time, unless people were looking, he appeared sullen, angry. Some folks were a little scared of him. (Years later a friend described him like this: He’s the kind of guy where when he walks into a room, the temperature drops ten degrees.)
Me? Well, I was an achiever, academically, musically and athletically, but socially I had struggled, been a victim of past bullying. I was a book smart girl from a good (if not wealthy) family; my parents were teachers. My siblings were in college, they had gotten away from our suffocating suburb. I was lonely. I wanted to have fun but I was basically the stereotypical “good girl” from a stable family. I would never want to do anything that would embarrass my family, and my girlfriends weren’t drinkers or party girls either. Still, we liked to go to parties and dances and just have some sober fun. Before I started dating him, I had had only one short relationship with a boy. Nothing to speak of. No broken hearts. I don’t think we ever even went anywhere together. My hymen was still intact.
At my tender teen age, I thought I’d never have a boyfriend. I just wasn’t seen as girlfriend material in my circles. At the time, I truly thought he was my only and best chance at having any attention from a boy, at least any attention from a boy who was respectful to me. He was what I needed.
Miraculously, once I started dating him, the bullying stopped as well as the false rumors about me. (Somehow, I had gained the reputation of being a slut according to popular, misinformed opinion, even though I was a virgin.) But with him, I had support. No one wanted to mess with his girlfriend.
I see now I was co-dependent. But then? I was in love.
I didn’t know. I had nothing to compare him to and no one to talk to about it. My girlfriends weren’t dating, they didn’t know any better than me. My siblings were gone. After having been treated so badly by other kids, I thought this was right. In a way, it did save me. (The reasons for the bullying primarily have to do with race, and are just too much to get into now.) I never told my parents about how I had been treated at school. I should have. An early, huge regret, one of many to come.
He and I were inseparable, but completely antisocial. We rarely went anywhere with or around other people. He didn’t want to be around people. Usually we went to movies or hung out at his or my house. He met me at my locker every morning. We met between classes. (We never had classes together, I was in the college prep courses, he was not). We were such a cute, dysfunctional couple. Both tall, and we even looked a bit alike.
One night, there was a Friday night basketball game, as usual. He was a star player, I was a cheerleader. (I know, gag me, and this did not mean I was popular). We never went to the parties afterward, though, if there were any. But this night, for some reason, he decided he wanted to go to a party. I don’t know why. I never knew why. He usually was against such behavior. He told me to go home, I wasn’t allowed to go with him. Obediently, I went home. Telling me what I was allowed or not allowed to do was normal for us.
I didn’t see him for the rest of the weekend, which sometimes happened since neither one of us had a car, and in addition to my studies I had a part-time job.
The following Monday, he did not come to my locker. When I found him, he seemed distant. He wouldn’t make eye contact all day. I knew something was wrong. I knew something was different. Paranoid, and suddenly needing reassurance, I asked him,
“Don’t you love me anymore?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
My very being shook to the core, I felt as though I died a bit. My knees buckled.
In another cruel twist of fact, it was Valentine’s Day, the day we celebrated as our anniversary.
I was still reeling from his answer when he added that — he wanted to see other people!
Then he finally looked me in the eyes. He said, “I don’t want you to, though.”
“Okay,” I said.
I know, I know. In my head the voices still scream No! But I was already under his thumb, caught completely caught off guard. He had unilaterally changed all the rules without any warning. I was still freaked out just because he went to a party! And now this? I had given myself to him in every way possible, and now, it wasn’t enough, or it didn’t matter, or — I didn’t know what was happening!
For about two weeks, heartbroken, devastated, and confused, I nevertheless continued to allow him to meet me at my locker, walk me in the halls, kiss me hello and goodbye. I was still his girlfriend (property). But there were more goodbyes than hellos, and I saw him flirting with other girls, one in particular. He didn’t hide it.
He had a swagger about him. I felt small.
Since we’d been dating for two years, we were quite an item. But kids talked. Through the high school rumor mill I found out later that during the party he attended a girl I knew had flirted with him. Well, she grabbed his crotch, is what I heard. That must have been enough to turn the tide, to make him take the next step after control and isolation, to further humiliate me, his girlfriend of two years — but still keep me at his beck and call. He acted as though this was completely normal. And I allowed it. It was the beginning of a hurtful and unhealthy pattern of accommodation I have struggled with ever since.
One day, a friend of his and fellow basketball player who was in one of my classes said to me, unprovoked,
“I don’t know how you put up with it.”
I think I visibly shuddered. I was trying to operate under the illogical belief that no one knew what was really going on or at least wouldn’t acknowledge it in front of me.
The nice boy continued, “I mean, given his family and all it’s amazing he’s turned out as good as he has, but still — he shouldn’t be doing this to you.”
Hearing that from another boy, a boy who was a old friend of his but who didn’t know me that well, got to me. Then, I did some thinking. I had more time on my hands, after all. Throughout this whole thing I kept coming back to the fact that I loved him. I kept telling myself, “But I love him.” But then I asked myself, is being in love supposed to feel like this? Because this doesn’t feel good. This isn’t fun.
Love shouldn’t feel like this.
The next day I was not at my locker when he arrived to meet me.
He had to find me. When he did, I told him I wasn’t going to do this anymore.
When an abused woman hits back, it’s useless unless she kills or runs. Hitting back and standing there just sets her up for another beat down. Mine was coming.
I cannot remember what he said exactly, I do know that he was angry, that he demanded to know why I wasn’t at my designated place. He also told me he did, in fact, love me. I think I may have blocked most of the rest of it out, because it was so contrary to my sense of self-preservation. I’ve beat myself up for years because of it.
Bottom line: He got me back.
He said he wasn’t going to see other girls. We were monogamous again. (Well, he was monogamous again, I had never been free.) I didn’t date anyone else in high school.
He was still my boyfriend when I went to college.
Years later, I married him.
Months ago, our divorce became final. He has since remarried.
Interestingly, I heard later that the girl who had felt him up at the party told him she couldn’t actually date him because her family would not accept her dating a black boy. His would-be conquest wasn’t having it – or him. Whatever. His coming back to me had nothing to do with me — except that he wanted to keep me — unto him, under him.
When I started to pull away, he pulled me back — and he was stronger.
With him I had traded one kind of bullying for another, really.
But something broke inside me then, not because of how he treated me, but because I allowed it —- and I think — just now, I’m trying to get it fixed.
Just Me With . . . a love story?
P.S. Why all the Twilight pics? I have a hard time with the series because of my romantic history. A high school girl who does not fit in should have a chance to experience life outside of high school before changing her DNA for a boy. Bella is so sad and tortured and Edward makes her feel better, but I want her to go to college, get a job, move to a place where she chooses, and have fun, make friends, have boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, without all the danger and without having to forsake her belief system, family, and biological options before she’s had a chance to even develop them.
It’s okay not to have a boyfriend in high school. It really is. And it’s okay to break up with your first love.
For a story on what it was like to still have this boyfriend when I went away to college, see The Night I Became Cinderella.
And for how I feel about him now? I Don’t Love Him.