On a late August day, my father and I wove ourselves into a crowd of boisterous French middle schoolers in order to get closest to the large institutional iron gates. The gates swung inward slowly as if for some dramatic Napoleon effect and a roar of melodic French goodbyes sounded off as the commotion started to engulf us. My father looked as scared as I was as the crowd moved in, but nonetheless said goodbye cheerfully and started to push me forward. He said discreetly, “Go, Go” and I replied “No, no.” This dialogue went on back and forth very quietly until my father gave one last nudge and walked away. Paralyzed with the fear that everyone knew I was American just by looking at my jean jacket and streaked blonde hair, I stood probably looking the most French I ever have with my lips in a disdain pout and wild fear in my eyes looking for a way out. This intense fear of being judged for simply being who I am, rather than by what I have achieved or who I aspire to be, has returned this year.
At sunrise, I stepped out my car surrounded by cars and silence except for the abrupt slamming of distant doors. As the security gate became visible in the weak morning light I started to notice older men slowly walking in the same direction. I could feel their stares dart at me, a young woman with a tight ponytail and crisply pressed slacks. I had the urge to yell that I was an engineer, as if that would divert attention. I faced my car locking and unlocking frantically, this went on to the point that I knew I was defeating the purpose of trying not to draw attention to myself. I turned around and faced the security gate, I had to tell myself that despite my engineering degree or my ambitious dreams of law school, I would be seen for now, as simply an American women. As the men grunted past me, I realized that my only hope was to break myself of this fear of being labeled, was to instead contribute to the dramatically changing definition of the American woman. I threw my keys in my purse and militantly marched to the security gate with a smile so American you could see my teeth from a mile away.
It has taken me a while to forgive my father for leaving me at the school gate, but that gave me enough strength to walk away from my own self-conscious fears and to empower myself by adding to the definition of an American Women rather than being defined by it. The empowerment of defining instead of being defined by labels is an invaluable lesson as I start my career. I believe that as American women we must positively contribute to the definition of who we are.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.