A big news item this past week was the resignation of the Dean of Admissions at MIT, Marilee Jones. It seems Ms. Jones overstated her academic qualifications when she first accepted a job in 1979 and never bothered to correct this as the career carrot was repeatedly dangled and she was promoted to higher level positions of increasing responsibility, topping out as the Dean of Admissions. Not shabby at all. As if that weren't enough, she drew the neon arrow to herself by publishing a book on navigating the college admissions maze.
Forbes.com just had a little article on AOL about the percentage of resume padders and academic falsifiers - it's a pretty high number. Shame does strange things to people. I know, I have lived with it in my life.
Many of you know that I come from a large family - I was the seventh of ten children born to a charismatic dad who comes from a long line of alcoholism and a large family himself. He was forced out of school in or around 8th grade to help work and earn money for his family. He was one of the older boys and so the responsibility fell squarely upon their shoulders. Their father was out busy drinking apparently. My mother also from a large Irish family - did well by most standards and graduated high school and got an office job in New York City...until she got married I believe.
My father was not illiterate by any stretch of the imagination, he read and was often showing his prowess in those word games in the Readers Digest and the daily puzzles. But of course this does not an education make. He was however, pretty clever with the turn of phrase and would often win the slogan contests at work - a precursor to today's caption contests if you will.
Anyway, I digress. The topic is shame and growing up in a blue collar town whose entrance was dotted with oil tanks bordering the New Jersey Turnpike can make one acutely aware of that gnawing sense that you just don't measure up somehow. Of course being set adrift into the world without benefit of a formal education can present some interesting choices - earn a living or earn a living? I guess put that way, I'll earn a living. You see college was never even mentioned. There were certainly no institutions of higher learning in town and I didn't have any sort of mentor from my high school days. High School ended up being a turbulent time for me and try as I might, fond memories are few. Oddly I remember being in the top percentile when taking those standardized tests yet nobody bothered to figure out why I just wasn't applying myself in school. The reasons might have been too difficult to deal with I suppose.
But I survived and soldiered on and moved in with my older sister who had an apartment and set about the business of earning a living. Oy vay. I mean it was all legit, but nothing glamorous I can assure you. A job was arranged for me by my aunt in a certain hospital affiliated with The University of Pennsylvania. So close, but you see I was 19 or so and spent lunch hours "enjoying nature" with the doctors' kids, who were themselves working as they went to school. Everyone was so educated, I burrowed deeper into the shame that seemed my only birthright as I continued "to earn a living".
So fast forward to Ms. Jones' living a lie. Shame can be a debilitating thing to live with. I understand the misstep she made to secure a foot on the ladder upward. I do believe that she should have confronted this issue earlier and spoken to someone. But I also believe shame can become a sickness in and of itself, not unlike alcoholism in that you can be made powerless by it.
It takes work to see accomplishments that aren't on a parchment degree, yet they are there for me and they are not inconsiderable. I am extremely proud of the person I've become and my humble start in life has made me rich in many ways.
I did, however, have a conversation with my nine year old daughter recently in which she was herself mulling college:
"Mommy, what college did you go to?"
"Tali, that's an interesting question. You see..." I felt myself flubbing and faltered on "I didn't exactly graduate from college".
Her eyes went wide. I went on to explain that I didn't have a college degree and she said in her very pragmatic way, "You know, Julian and I are getting a little older and pretty soon you'll have more time for yourself. Maybe you could go to college then".
You know something Tali, you just may be onto something.