Late Bloomer

The Highest Dream, written by American author Phyllis A. Whitney in 1956, about a recent college graduate who begins her career at the United Nations as a tour guide.

The Highest Dream, written by American author Phyllis A. Whitney in 1956, about a recent college graduate who begins her career at the United Nations as a tour guide.

Late Bloomer

When I was a girl, I read a book called “The Highest Dream,” by Phyllis A. Whitney, who died in 2008 at the age of 104. Her tome, about a young woman who had recently completed college (published in 1956, I should note, a time when not many women attended college), stayed with me throughout my younger life. Her protagonist, Lisa Somers, took a job as a tour guide at the United Nations, and then went on to other career paths in that storied place. How she managed to scale the halls of diplomacy, I didn’t recall until I recently re-read the book, but something about her story resonated with me and I tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind, that that’s what I wanted to do ‘when I grew up.’

I recently read Fear of Failing by Julie Scelfo, in the Education Life Special Section of the August 2, 2015 New York Times. The article addresses pressures felt by college students, especially college freshman, many of whom have grown up with performance expectations that far exceed their emotional quotient. There have been many such articles written in recent years about the numbers of students committing suicide, most of them simply not mature enough to understand that college is but a stepping stone to self discovery, which in turn, will open up future paths, future being the operative word, an indefinite structure of time and space within which to realize one’s dreams and aspirations for their futures. Reading this article brought back some uncomfortable truths in my own life, and even made me question some of the expectations I had of my own children growing up.

It’s not like I went to college thinking I would one day work at the UN, but the story was a persistent presence in my very uninformed plans. My major in college was Foreign Languages (Spanish, German, French), and I studied Linguistics and Spanish Literature as well. My mother who raised three exceedingly bright children (one of them me!), had a few unfulfilled aspirations of her own, due in no small part to lack of opportunity, and a lack self-confidence, which she made sure to instill in me, my brother and sister. After graduating high school a year early, she worked for a year and then joined the Women Marines the day she turned 18. The Marines were her higher education and she was enormously proud of having served her country. After 2 years in the Marines and 4 years as a reservist, she went on to work for U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Ralph J. Arnold, who served on the U.S.S. Yorktown during the Battle of Midway in World War II, and managed a staff of a dozen people in his office. She married my dad, left the Navy and raised three children. She called motherhood the highest profession.

Since I had no idea what I wanted to “be” or “do” at the time, my mom urged me to take courses in Education so that I could teach, something that at the time did not appeal to me. In hindsight I could have used a little more guidance from faculty advisors but my mom, who was also my greatest supporter, continued to provide sound practical advice, urging me to take courses in Business Administration or International Relations, to provide a broader perspective to my language studies, not to mention other employment opportunities. My one concrete plan was to study abroad in Spain. When push came to shove, my mom asked me: “Well, what DO you plan to do with it? (referring to Spanish). With no sprinkling of irony, or irritation, I answered: “Well, speak it, of course.” (None of this will surprise any of my devoted friends, who have stuck with me over the years in spite of my penchant for speaking!)

Back then, college for the most part didn’t prepare you for a career so much as provide opportunities of study that might interest you in some future endeavor. I suppose that’s still true today but it seems that more and more high school seniors come straight out of their 4 years knowing that they want to be: teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, IT experts, communication specialists, computer hackers. Many of the guys I knew in college were business majors, expected to go on to become future businessmen or CEOs, (and some did), and some of my friends studied art and education, finding work as lifelong educators or professions in a myriad of other creative endeavors. I found little guidance by faculty advisors asking me what I wanted to do with my Spanish or German, nor direction or advice about what I might do. No one ever asked me what I liked to do, which was to take pictures with my Kodak 104 Instamatic camera, given to me by my Aunt Sis as my 8th grade graduation present. It had not occurred to me to study photography.

Studying Abroad

What was to have been a semester-long stay in Spain lasted my entire senior year and beyond, as I learned to speak Spanish fluently with a bona fide Andalusian accent. Spaniards love a good joke. I learned the language, timing and its cadences, by writing down jokes and retelling them to my patient Spanish friends, and by drinking a fair amount of tinto (red wine) and sherry, and by not being embarrassed by my mistakes. I took dance lessons (‘sevillanas’) and taught English as a second language in a private language institute after graduation, something I was reasonably good at with my adult professional students, but an abysmal failure with the 7 to 10-year-olds, who loved me but tortured me with their classroom antics. While living in Europe, I took pictures but wondered why they weren’t the masterpieces I’d imagined.

En-route from Seville to Cordoba, Spain, 1974. I suppose taking a photo with a Kodak 104 Instamatic from a moving train did not necessarily make for a sharp picture!

En-route from Seville to Cordoba, Spain, 1974. I suppose taking a photo with a Kodak 104 Instamatic from a moving train did not necessarily make for a sharp picture!

At the end of my senior year in Spain, while all of my American friends had already departed for the States, I loved Spain so much, I thought I might stay forever. I had lunch one afternoon with my faculty advisors, who urged me to return home. But I had acquired some Mediterranean blood in the process of learning the language and was determined to stay. I asked rhetorically why I hadn’t come sooner and they were firm in their response. “It might have been a completely different experience,” they said. “You might not have been ready, or mature enough…timing is everything.” In spite of my fierce determination to stay (and I did!), they were also trying to tell me that this is but one of many experiences I would have. But this was probably the first time in my life that I felt I might have had some sort of path, however unclear. 

Tapas and Tinto

What I did love, was teaching English to adult professionals. My favorite class was a group of 3 aeronautical engineers, one of whom spoke little to no English at all, another who faked it ‘til he made it, and another who translated into English “The Little Engine That Could,” an unsolicited undertaking which nevertheless warranted an ‘A’ for effort. One day, the owner of the language institute announced that the building would be undergoing renovations for 4 to 6 weeks. After several days of inhaling grit and dust, I decided my engineers and I would be better off with our conversational English in a local bar. With the permission of my boss, we decamped down the street and their English accelerated, while I decided I might have a future teaching after all. Once renovations were completed, though, we were politely asked to return to the academic environment.

In the meantime, I took the Foreign Service exam at the U.S. Consulate in Seville, thinking that an avenue in foreign relations might open up with my excellent spoken Spanish. Of course the exam was in English and had nothing to do with my language, culture and literature studies (but it did in fact have a great deal to do with the international relations and history studies that I had refused to take while back in the States to round out my education). I have a vague recollection that I never received my grade, so miserably must I have failed the exam, and no one came looking to hire me from the U.S. Consulate for my expertise in world affairs, so I pretty much gave up on any idea of diplomacy in my future. (Current college students, listen up!) 

A Dream Deferred

But alas, I digress. Ah yes, the UN…When I returned to the States, I remembered the protagonist Lisa Somers from “The Highest Dream,” and made my way over to the United Nations where I interviewed for a position as a tour guide. Although the interview went well, I was surprised when I did not get the job. Not to be deterred, I went back the following year and had a wonderful language interview but it was clear that my principal interviewer disliked me instantly and I never went back for the hat trick.

In the meantime, I spent several years working for Spanish Wine Products, the New York office of RUMASA, S.A., a holding company, whose interests included real estate, banks and the wine industry. RUMASA owned some 40% of the sherry and Rioja wine production in Jerez de la Frontera and Logroño, Spain, and was trying to entice the American market with underappreciated Spanish wines. It was here that I made good on my promise to my mom to speak Spanish every day.

To further enhance my rather marginal knowledge of wines at the time, I took Julius Wile and Harriet Lembeck’s Wine and Beverage Course at the Waldorf Astoria and graduated Summa cum Laude, the only thing I’d ever graduated from Summa cum Laude. Dean’s list, yes; Summa/Magna, NOT!

My boss and I entertained our Spanish exporters on their marketing trips to the States. We ate at every 4 and 5-star restaurant in Manhattan and got to know sommeliers in each, trying to persuade them to branch out into Spanish wines. I designed wine labels, met with potential clients and spoke to our colleagues in Spain on the phone every day and wrote and sent telexes back and forth to our bodegas, with growing orders for Spanish wines. (Ancient though it is now, the telex machine was a marvel of technology. You could carry on an entire conversation with the person on the other end, by typing messages in real time, just as one does now with Instant Messaging. The keyboard was painfully slow and cumbersome, much like working with a manual typewriter, but it had the same effect…instant communication.

One of the highlights of my work at Spanish Wine Products, was a 3-and-a-half week business trip to RUMASA’s headquarters in Madrid, and to our bodegas in Logroño, Sadurni de Noya, Montilla and Jerez de la Frontera, to observe the wine-making process first-hand and to meet with our export directors. Unfortunately, 2 years later, RUMASA had major legal problems resulting in a takeover by the Spanish government in the early 80’s (which spelled an end to an enormous company, a hundred thousand jobs in Spain, and an end to what had been a promising career for me, making good on my promise to my mom, and learning about the wine industry.)

Children and Photography

I am impressed with young people who seem to know what they want to do in their lives and go at it with warp speed, not to mention apparent success. Taking a path with an unknown and unplanned destination is one filled with adventure, but also insecurities and occasional self-doubt. Motherhood was incredibly fulfilling, but it was also fraught with sleep deprivation and a perceived if not real lack of identity, possibly genetic, but also one fueled by cruel social commentary, by women who might otherwise have been supportive of others struggling to define themselves. In 1992, during a Nightline interview with Ted Koppel, Hillary Clinton, weighed in with a not-so-subtle commentary about stay-at-home moms: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” she said, “but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life. The disconnect was really huge among my own peers, all of us trying very hard to uniquely define ourselves, and to either meet or defy social expectations. Truthfully, there appeared to be little support among women, for each other. As I was seeing my children off to school in the mornings in my sweat pants, I spent my day volunteering for school trips and parent associations, and came home to laundry meals, dishes and baths, as some of my friends, in their work attire, were waving farewell to their children, (and to me), to what I perceived were fabulous careers.

It took me quite a few years of growing up before I could say with any degree of confidence and without feeling that I was somehow letting down a generation of working women, that I was a stay-at-home mom.

When my children were small, I took classes in photography at a local college. During my first darkroom experience, I felt as if for the first time, I had discovered a part of myself that was uniquely my own. It was a life changing experience.