How I learned the meaning of Success.
I’m in my small apartment kitchen, and my father has something to tell me.
My family lives in an enclave of immigrants, mostly Holocaust survivors, in Washington Heights, New York. Our kitchen is like this: oilcloth on the table, pigeons flapping and cooing on the sill, hot tea in a glass, rye toast with butter. An Old World feeling.
“Brass buttons,” my father declaims. “I want you to have them.”
I am seven, so I don’t understand. That’s not unusual. I know very little.
He explains that “brass buttons” means authority, stature. Someone with those buttons would be making the rules, instead of being subjected to them.
My father had been subjected to them. Getting to America, even to this immigrant’s enclave (and small kitchen), had been a long, heroic journey. Born in Lithuania, he’d had to leave school at thirteen. Then, world politics emboldened mobs, then countries, that considered him subhuman – “less than a dog” was how he put it — and put him at the mercy of everyone’s cruelest whim. In his twenties, my father was forced to walk in the gutter, and then into a crowded ghetto. Those were the better days. Next, he was separated from his widowed mother and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. Years later, stateless, he waited in a German DP camp for authorities to let him into a country, any country. He wanted his child to have a real say in the New World.
Brass buttons were typically worn by males. At the time of my birth, women stayed in the kitchen, banging pots and sweating in their aprons. If they dared venture out, they became secretaries to “important men.” Still, because I was super-hard-working and did well at school, my father treated me like someone with more potential – like a boy. He dreamed great things for me in this land of opportunity. Senator? CEO? Brain Surgeon? Judge? He was unclear about the exact steps, but told me that I should continue to work hard at school. Then, the toughest, most tradition-bound university (like Harvard or Yale, which even we had heard of) would be the launching pad for my achievement of The American Dream.
Ten years whirl by. I get A’s on every course, and my hand is always up in the air. My Number 2 pencils are sharp, and they fill in the little dots correctly on my PSATs and SATs. So when eventually, I become a high school senior, my headmaster suggests I could get into Yale – forbiddingly Gothic in its brochure — my entire myopic being screams YES! When I am told that Yale has only recently begun admitting women, I scream YES, and YES again! I quickly learn that Yale ha a British bulldog for a mascot, and a choral group called The Whiffenpoofs, who sing falsetto of their old male traditions. It seems very exclusive. Very intimidating. Brass buttons to be had there, for sure.
Months later, I’m all set to go to Connecticut and storm the castle. But I am summoned back to the kitchen table. Same oilcloth, same tea and toast, different pigeons.
“I have one request for you,” my father says, after a pause.
“Huh?” I’m so ambitious that the sound of any one else’s voice is a distraction from the pleasant, shell-like roar of my ego.
“Sonia. My precious child. Stay home in New York. Don’t go away. “
“Go to college here in the city.”
I was so disappointed I couldn’t speak.
I knew I couldn’t let him down. My father, who’d earned his B.A. at Dachau and his Ph.D at Landsberg Camp for Displaced People, couldn’t even speak English when, penniless, he got to America. He still spoke the language with a thick accent. He read slowly, and had trouble understanding the rules of spelling (which, in English, are multilingually sourced, and impossible to generalize). I’d been his little amanuensis, secretary to the “important man” he really was. I was his support, his guide, reading and writing letters for him. He couldn’t imagine letting me go. And I couldn’t imagine not honoring his request.
Summer goes by, and autumn arrives. I wistfully see that everyone is packing trunks to go off somewhere. But I’m just going downtown… on the local city bus. And now (a few stops later) here I am, at a small, all-women’s college, with many of the same friendly, smart girls with whom I went to high school. Barnard is nice, inclusive and welcoming. There’s even an inspiring statue of a running goddess/athlete, torch in hand. But no brass buttons here.
Still, at Barnard, I learn that we are not mere girls, but women. I open up as a human being, not just an ambitious, driven student. In yeshiva-like scholarly seminars, in the glass-paned library carrels, at the Barnard Bulletin, I slowly find my own, individual meaning of success — in creativity, generosity, respect for others, and earned wisdom.
Sitting in Barnard’s tropical rooftop greenhouse, inhaling the languid, humid air, I slowly relax, and daydream. For the first time in my life, these are my own dreams. My mind, too, dilates, taking in knowledge and experience. I study decadent Modern French Lit with the beautifully-named Domna Callimanopoulos Stanton. (She wore chic shawls just so, smoked cigarettes, and was so slim, she could cross her legs twice.) I took yoga — relaxing all my muscles, when before this, I’d never relaxed any of them. And it was at Barnard that I began to write…not for my father. Not for the professors. For me. In my own voice.
Still, I had that immigrant’s itch. I had to prove myself by scrabbling up to the BOYS ONLY tree house (or clubhouse). Yale Law, the year I graduated Barnard, took only about fifty women. I got in by the skin of my teeth. Now I could enter the center of the American Dream— and finally conquer it.
But once I got there, I felt a strong sense of displacement. Here was the fabled ruling class, overwhelmingly male and smug. I was shocked by the burly guys who chest-bumped each other, roaring “Big Bucks” in the law school lunchroom. They gnawed at slabs of meat, drank gallons of milk, and dreamed aloud of conquering the world. They jostled my tray as they high-fived each other across me. I experienced a strange mélange of nausea, terror, and deep weariness.
It took a while, but I have come to realize that Barnard, with its supportive, female, collaborative environment, was the rare gem that neither my father, nor I, nor most people in this world, had ever been taught to appreciate. She was the American Dream, and you didn’t need a Y Chromosome to achieve it! Barnard is where I came to life as a woman, scholar, author, mother, and speaker. It’s where I’ve gone back to, ever since — interviewing candidates, auditing classes, and browsing in the library where I now see my own books housed.
So yes. I did make it past the fabled Castle Moat, got past the trolls on the bridge (they make people take LSATs and Bar Exams). I petted the proverbial bulldog, sipped single malt with the suave and kindly Dean, and ate beefsteak with self-named “Masters of the Universe.” But the brass buttons didn’t suit me, and I’ve gradually taken them off. What I got at Barnard was far more radiant and precious. If you could look inside me, you’d see the shining gift this little college gave all its graduates – the courage to be true to ourselves.