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College Isn't For Girls

Story ID:6725
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Story
Location:Oak Park IL USA
Year:1957
Person:Nancy Julien
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College Isn’t For Girls
By Nancy Julien Kopp

I made a career decision by the time I finished second grade. I wanted to be a teacher. At home, I voiced my intention to teach many times, but my mother never responded with enthusiasm. More often than not, she ignored the statements I made about being a teacher. It didn’t deter me one bit. I envisioned myself standing before a classroom imparting knowledge, so my mother’s indifference failed to upset me.

In 1953, I signed up for the college preparatory course when registering for high school. My parents didn’t understand. Neither one finished high school nor knew anything about college. And being a teen, I never bothered to discuss it with them at length.

Dad attended high school for three months before his father died suddenly. These were the Depression years, so he had no choice but to leave school and work to support his mother and himself. Mom became the better-educated, for she finished a full year of high school, then quit to help her mother in a small family bakery. Their education had ended.

Early in my senior year, I mentioned college more and more, but I found no encouragement at home. Mom’s mouth set firmly whenever I spoke of continuing my education, but I never wavered on my intent to teach. I would not let her deflate my dream.

One day after school, I helped Mom put groceries away. “Miss Horner, my dean, called me into her office today,” I said. “She thinks I’d prefer Illinois State Normal University instead of Blackburn.” I picked up two cereal boxes.

Mom grabbed hold of me as I turned to put the cereal in the pantry. “Now listen to me,” she said. Her voice matched the fury in her eyes and the firm grip on my arm. “You have got to get this college idea out of your head. College isn’t for girls. We have three boys to educate. They need good jobs. You don’t!”

If she’d struck me with a doubled-up fist, I couldn’t have felt any worse. Not go to college? After I’d lived with the dream for years? Tears welled in my eyes and slipped unchecked down my cheeks. I ran to the bathroom where I could cry alone. Seeds of resentment toward my mother were sowed that day.

That night after a quieter-than-usual dinner, Dad said that we had better talk about the crazy idea I had about going to college. “No one in our entire family has ever gone to college,” he said. “What makes you think you’re worthy of going? What makes you think
we have that kind of money?” He took a long swallow of his coffee, and an edge of steel coated his voice when he went on. “Your mother’s right. You have three younger brothers, and if anyone is going to college, it will be them.”

It meant the end of the conversation. I had no chance to explain my case. In the mid-nineteen fifties among working-class families, higher education existed for boys and a few fortunate girls, but obviously not for me. The lucky girls who continued to study after high school became teachers or nurses. Others went to work in an office, a factory or the retail world, clerking for a pittance until marriage. Anger and more resentment flared, but I didn’t voice it. In my family, only the adults won arguments.

That night, my parents tried to destroy my lifelong plan with only a few words. But the next day, I woke up as determined to go to college as I’d been the morning before. I could not, would not, accept my parents’ declaration. Somehow, I’d pack my suitcase in the fall and go to college. I continued to consult with the dean at the high school, never telling her what happened at home.

Mom continued her mantra of “…college isn’t for girls…” One day, she even said she felt bad about it, but the boys had to come first. They would be the head of the household as adults, and I probably wouldn’t. We were all spaced several years apart, and I knew she probably pictured a long period where the three boys needed financial help to finish their education.

When the time came to fill out the college application, I confessed to the dean, forced to tell her I’d failed at home. I spoke haltingly, head down, voice almost too soft for her to hear. She questioned me at length, determining that money proved to be part of the
problem and that gender was another difficulty. “Let’s not call this the end,” she said as I rose to leave. I left her office daring to hope again.

A few days later, after we’d finished dinner, I began to clear the table while my parents drank their coffee. “Sit down,” Dad said. He acted nervous, stuttered a little as he began, but then his voice grew firm when he said, “If you want to go to college, we’ll find a way. I never had the chance, so maybe you should.”

My heart did a flip-flop until I saw Mom’s expression. My brothers and I left the kitchen when Dad gestured to us. I listened as raised voices and heated words enveloped our tiny kitchen and swirled through the rest of our apartment. I sat on the sofa trembling a little, hands clasped in prayer, while the boys played a game.

Finally, Dad came into the living room, face flushed, hands in his pockets. “Send the application in.” He’d had the final word, and from that moment on, he became the supportive parent. My mother never did agree, but she didn’t argue any longer either.
What had moved Dad to change his mind? I never knew, but I wondered if Miss Horner had contacted him. The fifties was an era when many children were not given explanations, and to my parents, I was still a child. Perhaps they’d agreed to keep it secret. If so, Dad never revealed it.

Soon after the decision, Miss Horner helped me fill out an application for a scholarship offered by the Panhellenic Society, and she put me on a list to receive a state
scholarship as well. My dream and reality grew closer when I received each award.

Four years later, my parents attended my graduation on a hot June day. The gratefulness in my heart surely matched the pride in their eyes as I accepted my degree. The resentment I’d harbored all those years disappeared, as well.

I became the first person in my extended family to attend college, followed by all three of my brothers. The four of us worked and contributed to our education, we earned scholarships, and my parents sacrificed in ways that we probably never knew. In our family, the desire to attend college finally took precedence over all other considerations.

I don’t believe I fully appreciated what my father had done for me until it was too late to tell him, too late to thank him. My own parenting years brought the entire episode into focus, and I realized the great gift my dad had given with love.

Note: This story has been published in a Thin Threads anthology book. The title of the book is
"more real stories of Life Changing Moments" Published in 2010