The Words I Needed to Hear

One evening over dinner, when I was 16 years old, my family’s conversation took an unusual turn. There was nothing remarkable about the circumstances to that point. As usual, I was planted in my seat, all eyeshadow and angst, thinking about how miserable I was. That’s how I spent most of my time those days.

I was smart, but troubled in a way no one realized. I’d skated through high school earning top marks with minimal effort, a high IQ compensating for my undiagnosed ADHD and depression. I craved distance and an opportunity to reinvent myself, or at least upgrade to a happier model. I thought university would be my magic bullet. Going to college meant leaving home, and leaving home was the key. Education was secondary.

We did talk about university that evening. As I was a junior, we talked about it often. But that evening was different. That evening, my father dropped a bomb.

Without lifting his head from his roast beef, my father casually suggested I may not go to college at all. He saw no reason to go unless one planned to have a career. He wasn’t sure that would be the case for me.

Based on my mother’s reaction, you’d have thought my father had declared himself an orangutan. In the socio-economic group to which my family happily belonged, university enrollment was a foregone conclusion one would never dream question.

Yet there was no ill intent behind my father’s statement. He had a point. I was unmotivated, and rudderless. By seeing university as a means of escape, rather than as a source of education and opportunity, I was selling myself short. I had the chance, and even the expectation, to do something that for many was a desired but unattainable goal. I had always known education was a privilege, but one I hadn’t really appreciated until now.

I did go to university. Armed with an improved attitude toward school, I worked harder than I had in before, earning a spot on the Dean’s List.

After graduation, I found work as an assistant at a brokerage firm. It was a fine job, but one I could have obtained without a college degree. Most of my tasks were simple ones I could perform by rote. At that point, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t realize I was already grown.

One of my bosses, Bob, had a “reputation” among the other assistants. I was warned his moods ran the gamut from surly to furious. Despite that, he and I got along from the start. He never reacted in frustration, because I never frustrated him. I completed his assignments well and on time. We were peas in a pod.

One day, I arrived at work to learn that a number of brokers had been laid off the evening before. Bob was one of them.

I was working at my desk two days later when the call came. Bob said there was something he’d always wanted to tell me   He regretted he hadn’t, and he wanted to make that up to me before he moved on. The brief conversation that followed was, in hindsight, probably the most pivotal of my life.

Bob told me that I was worth more than what I was doing. He saw my job as a waste of my time in which my talents would neither be recognized nor utilized. He told me to go back to school, or do anything it took, to move forward in a career that was suitable, and not just a job for which I had settled.

He told me:

You’re too smart for this. You’re just too good to be doing what you’re doing.

I’d always been told I was smart, and even talented. But in hindsight I realized that those compliments, while delightful to hear, ended with the words themselves. There was no lesson behind them, no instruction on how to use them to my benefit. Before that day, no one had ever told me I was wasting my talent. No one had ever suggested I should go back to school, because I deserved something more. Nobody ever insisted that I could do better, because I was better.

Bob and I never spoke again after that day. A few months later, I moved back to Tennessee. Soon, I applied to law school. I worked during the day, and attended school at night. I eventually went on to earn a M.A. in Counseling. None of this would have happened without Bob and that 90 second phone call.

I am so much luckier than most. Few people on a global scale can access higher education. Worldwide, women are less apt to have access to education than our male counterparts.

The United States is not immune. While the desire is present, higher education and training remain out of reach for those unable to afford the cost while already struggling to support their families. Fortunately, programs such as the Live Your Dream: Education and Training Awards for Women help women serving as head of household continue their education to improve their employment prospects.

Robyn Frank Smith is a retired attorney and mediator who now teaches Conflict Resolution at the university level. Though originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Robyn has lived in a variety of places (some more interesting than others), including Memphis, Washington, D.C., and the Republic of Singapore. Her hobbies include weightlifting, creating upcycled furniture and décor from found objects (she is currently working on a project with an Amish buggy door), and fighting about politics with strangers on Facebook. She also enjoys pretending she’s happy being a vegan, and traveling the world with her husband and teenaged daughter. She lives in Pennsylvania.

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