Conformity, Education, life

The Professional Good Girl: Early Life and Training

For several years, I have followed Blogenspiel, written by Another Damned Medievalist, whom I will call ADM.  Many of you know that I am also a medievalist. A couple months ago, ADM wrote this heartfelt postabout why so many academics, especially women, put up with second-class citizenship, musing that we female academics were PGGs, Professional Good Girls.In one those wonderful serendipitous events, Lena Corazon wrote a wonderfully sensitive post  earlier this week, on her loneliness growing up and why finding the online writing community was such a tall drink of water to a parched throat.  I have only known Lena since July when we both joined Round Three of the Round of Words in 80 Days, but she and I connected quickly.  We are both academics who have written creative works for years, but have only recently gone public as creative writers.

The two posts struck chords: Lena’s stirring memories of my early schooling through graduate school, and ADM’s describing both graduate school and work life. ADM posits that Professional Good Girls had a common trait of not finding love and acceptance at home, but rather at school. I certainly fit that model.

I was the youngest child in my family, the “oops” child.  Although only recently diagnosed, my mother has suffered from depression since before I was born.  My earliest memories are of her sleeping on the couch all day while my father was at work and my siblings at school.  My father had a very difficult childhood and did not know how to react to children, so although he was there in the evenings, he was distant and withdrawn.  I spent most of my time alone, as my siblings were several years older.  My sister who is nearest in age has described me as a faery child, who lived in her own imagined world.

I found the yearned-for approbation and love at school among my teachers, although my creative efforts got me in trouble throughout school.  I made up fantastic stories in first grade; my teacher called my parents to tell them I needed a psychiatrist. I wrote a story for a creative writing course in sophomore year of high school; my English teacher called me parents to tell them that I needed a psychiatrist.  My parents didn’t believe in psychiatry; I have often wondered if I would have been better off if they had.

As long as I followed the rules, my teachers liked me, so I learned quickly to conform, to be a Good Girl. I was not so lucky with my fellow students.  I was a very small, sickly child, so I could not run, skip rope, or play the games that were popular in the early grades. n fourth grade, I had a strep infection that attacked my kidneys, so I was out of school for the entire spring, which made me more of a cypher to my classmates.  Although my teachers liked me, their attention made me more a target at times. My first-grade teacher found I could already read, so she had me read to the class while she went to the teachers’ lounge.  Her actions led to my being threatened with beatings on the playground.  My sixth-grade teacher announced my IQ to the class, making me more unwelcome among my peers than I had already managed to make myself.  After that time, I took a blanket and a book to school, reading on the grass alone in a far corner of the playground during lunchtime.

High school, with all its concomitant social machinations, was sheer hell.  Although I was an attractive girl, no one dated the brain.  At best, the boys saw me as someone to help with homework, or worse, to offer advice on how to get the girls they liked to go out with them. I was beneath the notice of the popular girls; my one friend and I spent all our time together, in the unbreakable bubble that surrounded us. When my friend found a boyfriend t the end of sophomore year and abandoned me for him, as often happened in those situations, I was bereft. I did continue to receive love and approbation from most of my teachers, and put my lonely nights and weekends to learning even more.  Actually, my loneliness helped me to leave high school early, as I took enough courses to have all my requirements for college by the end of my junior year.

I went to a very small college, where I really bloomed as a scholar.  My personal life was not going as well.  After my sophomore year, I had dated perhaps 6 or 7 young men; only one had ever asked me out more than once. Feeling that no one else would ever be interested in me, I married him.  My marriage worked on exactly the same lines as being a Professional Good Girl:  do whatever I was told, never question authority, never rock the boat, never stand out in anyway.  My ex-husband was also very young; he did not know any better, so he constructed and maintained the box in which my soul and personality was locked away.  I became a chameleon, without opinions of my own.  I mastered quickly the ability to find out others’ thoughts and reflected them.

When we divorced four years later, I realized that I did not know what music I liked, what books I enjoyed reading, or what foods I liked to eat.  I knew how to be a scholar, but I had to learn how to be a person.

All of this training made me the perfect candidate to became a Professional Good Girl; I will give you my thoughts on graduate school and my work life in another post.

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10 thoughts on “The Professional Good Girl: Early Life and Training”

  1. This rings very true: I was too smart for my peers and a teacher’s pet. I knew I always wanted to write, and my original plan was to teach at the college level. I’m not sure whether it’s lucky or not, but I found out I was not a good fit with academia. Luckily I seem to have a Punk Girl somewhere inside: I only wish she’d get the Good Girl out of the way. The internet is a blessing, truly: or else I would never find people who understood me.
    Great article!

    1. Thank you, Alisette. I thought I’d gotten over all of this long ago, but it raised all sorts of echoes. I’ll talk more about my graduate school experience in another post, but I only inhabit the periphery of academia. I’m too old to have a Punk Girl inside, lol, but I do have a spring-steel Southern Magnolia Girl inside!

      Yes, thank goodness for the Internet–for all us serif girls to be able to find one another!

  2. I hadn’t read ADM’s post before now, but that phrase sums it up perfectly: Professional Good Girl. I had a good relationship with my parents, but as the oldest, and because I was always mature for my age, I was saddled with more responsibility than I probably should have had growing up. And I hate conflict, and still can’t abide breaking the rules.

    Your first marriage reminds me a little bit of my first long-term relationship. During the first few months, maybe even the first year, I was just… silent. Passive. I didn’t want to rock the boat, and because I tend to be fairly easy going and “up for anything,” he made all the decisions about where we went and how we spent our time. I had to fight so many of my own insecurities to be able to use my voice (especially because he liked to hear himself talk), and while it got easier the more that I did it, it would still leave me feeling all anxiety-ridden and sweaty-palmed. I was always looking for ‘nice’ ways to express less-than-positive emotions, and the energy that it took… Yikes. As much as I cared for him, in the long run, I’m glad that the relationship is over.

    I’m looking forward to the upcoming post about your grad school experience.

    1. Yes, ADM put it perfectly, didn’t she? Medieval Studies is one of the last bastions, sad to say, of the old-boys-network, emphasis on the “boys.” I will be interested in your grad school experience contrasted (I hope, contrasted) to mine. I definitely look back on those times as the “bad old days.”

      Your comment on your relationship raised the hairs at the nape of my neck. Yes, you’ve captured it exactly. The tension between keeping the peace, and burning to find out who I was and to be that person–it was exhausting, in the end. I’m looking forward to the next post; I hope you will find it of interest.

  3. Wonderfully expressed. There is an underlying hopefulness as each phase removes a layer taking you towards finding your thing and being yourself and being comfortable with that. It is something that resonates with each of us in different ways and it should be a joyous discovery as we move away from other influences that dull, extinguish or don’t see our our light shining.

    Acknowledging it is to celebrate moving past the obstacles.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Claire. It is definitely an on-going process, and one that I wanted to rush through at an earlier age. I finally realized that I had to work through the layers, rather than ripping them off like onion skin. I still struggle with self-image, and will address that struggle in a post about the Imposter Syndrome, but I am finally beginning to like my little light.

  4. Heh, this was me too: “High school, with all its concomitant social machinations, was sheer hell. Although I was an attractive girl, no one dated the brain.” I think it applies to a lot of women in graduate school.

    Thanks for that post and take care. Hope you have a wonderful week and great Thanksgiving! *hugs*

    1. Oh, absolutely, Ruth. You will see in my “part 2” post about graduate school that the nuclear containment field around me continued.

      I’m glad you appreciated the post–it helps to know I’m not alone. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and *hugs* back to you!

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