Thursday, May 1, 2014

Proud to be a Hutchison Girl

It's that time of year when the annual giving fund comes around, and for the first time this year, I had the financial stability to be able to give something back to the private, all-girls school that I attended from the time I was 3 years old until I graduated from high school. The Hutchison School for Girls, established in 1902.

A lot of people are surprised when they find out that I'm a Hutchison alum, because there are a lot of preconceived notions in Memphis about what Hutchison is and the kind of girls that attend it. In the last few years, I have become one of Hutchison's most outspoken supporters and all-around cheerleaders, which has been somewhat of a shock to those who knew me when I was growing up there.

There isn't a time when I don't remember being at Hutchison, and with predominantly the same group of girls. Some came and went as the years passed, but collectively, it was a solid group of roughly 60 girls in my class, all of us stubborn, independent, proud, hilarious, and very, very smart. Now, I spent a good chunk of my time at Hutchison with the distinct feeling that I didn't "belong" there, and not because of the girls in my class or the teachers. I just never felt settled, like I was supposed to be some place else--I never felt comfortable, I was always just a little uneasy and out of place. Again, these feelings had absolutely nothing to do with my classmates, it just was what it was. I lived in a neighborhood where I was the only kid that didn't go to public school, and I wasn't allowed to forget that fact. The other children I grew up seeing every day, mostly boys, lived to mock me about the fact that I went to Hutchison, with my dresses and occasional uniforms that we wore over our gym clothes, and the required dance and art and music and French classes. I remember a boy that I had grown up with once accusing me of thinking that I was better than everyone else in our neighborhood, which was pretty much a working class area. My dad works in the telephone business, and my mom was a nurse, so we didn't exactly live in the suburbs. It was a very urban residential zone, with the interstate running directly in front of my house, a major street running behind it, and a fire station at the end of the block. So between being my general discomfort of being at Hutchison and the taunts of most of the kids in my neighborhood that never let me forget that I didn't fit in with them, I grew up a pretty solitary child; I was quiet, nose always stuck in a book, with a very small, but very close-knit, group of friends. I wasn't unhappy or anything, I just kind of kept to myself. My best friend in the whole world lived next door to me, so I spent most of my time away from school with her, and at school, again, I just kind of kept to myself.

As the years went by, and as I got older and became more resentful of being called out for going to a private school and being "different," I began to place blame on Hutchison for the way I was being treated by kids in my neighborhood that I had known all my life. Like any child, the opinions of other kids mattered to me, and I began to see Hutchison as the primary source of my angst. Again, it was never directed at my classmates, but at the larger institution of "Hutchison." It's like when you get angry at the "government"--you're rarely thinking about your congressman or senator or representative. It's like a giant looming figure that you can't see but that impacts every aspect of your life. You shake your fist at the sky and say, "It's the damn government that's ruining everything!" That's what Hutchison became to me for a long time. I was angry at having no say-so over where I went to school, that I didn't have any voice in where I got my education. As I got into middle school, I discovered that I had a real talent for music, and Hutchison had very little in the way to offer a budding musician--it was a college preparatory school, and anything outside of that was just extra-curricular, and not supported within the academic system. I saw my best friend going to the top creative and performing arts public schools in the city, and I wanted to have that experience. I thought music was the only thing I was any good at, and I could really do something with it if I had the training that those schools could offer me. My parents were adamant--I was going to go to Hutchison, I would not be going to public school, and no, I did not have any choice in the matter. Cue the quadrupling of resentment.

That being said, by the time I got to high school, I had given up even trying to convince my parents to take me out of Hutchison. I had been there for over a decade, might as well just give it up and finish it out. It was then that I allowed myself to start becoming more than just the girl who obviously didn't want to be there. I started trying to make better connections with some of the girls in my class, and unsurprisingly, I was welcomed with open arms. Look, I'm not trying to say it was perfect--of course there were cliques that we sorted ourselves into, and yes there were catfights and tears and "world-ending" levels of drama. Those things never lasted though, and the cliques were never exclusive. Just because we had our small groups of friends didn't mean that others weren't welcomed. My class of girls were (and this is backed up by any member of the faculty that taught us, I assure you) stubborn and persistent and, in many ways, total renegades. There was a general hunger for understanding of knowledge in our class. We were never the "Is this going to be on the test?" class. We wanted to know WHY. We pushed boundaries in our classes, much to the delight of our teachers (mostly), and challenged long-standing Hutchison traditions that appeared to have lost their relevance, or stood in the way of the changing views of what a woman could and should be. More than anything, my class, the class of 1996, genuinely loved each other. All drama and bickering aside, if any one of us was in trouble, the rest of us came storming up to surround that girl and take her side. It was, and to this day still is, exactly what a sisterhood should be. We held each other up, supported each other, and accepted each other, warts and all.

I remember being on a choir trip my junior year in high school. I ran down to the room of another girl to ask her a question, and she invited me into the room she was sharing with three other girls, none of whom I had really ever talked to despite the fact that I had known all of them for my entire life. They were all messing around with their hair, seeing how crazy they could make themselves look. Within minutes, I found myself sitting in a chair, laughing, as one of them pulled my hair (I have curls, and a lot of them) away from my face. Suddenly, everyone settled down, and the girl who was pushing my hair back looked at me and very quietly said, "My God, Angela. You are gorgeous." She didn't say it as if she were surprised or anything, it was just a matter of fact. I glanced over, and the other girls were genuinely smiling and nodding in agreement. For the quiet, ill-at-ease bookworm with devastatingly low self-esteem, it was such an important moment in my life, and one that I have never forgotten. In that moment, I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be. I was accepted, and appreciated, and valued. These girls were my sisters. Hutchison was my second home.

We graduated the next year, and at the traditional mother-daughter luncheon that follows graduation, I realized that this would be the last time that all the girls in our class would be together in the same place at the same time. At that exact moment, I made eye contact from across the room with a girl who had been one of my best friends from third through fifth grade. We had drifted into different circles over the years, but we had always maintained something of a connection. Our eyes met, and we smiled at each other. I walked over to her, and she said to me, "Oh God, you're not going to start crying are you?" I burst out laughing (because I was absolutely about to start crying), but I was spared from having to answer her as another girl interrupted us. Another moment I'll never forget. I could spend all day talking about my class and all the memories we made, like how we built "houses" out of hay on the lower school playground, or the time we got into a food fight at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and were yelled at for half an hour outside in the freezing cold. Our skits for Spirit Week every year were legendary, and our enthusiasm contagious. Thanks to social media, I have been able to reconnect with most of those girls, and many girls who were in other classes as well, and what a gift that has been, because I have spent the last fifteen years wishing I could let them know just how much I love them. I would do anything for any one of them, at the drop of a hat, without question, no matter what time, day or night. I have never known such a dynamic, spirited, bombastic group of women in my life, and it was Hutchison that gave them to me. I am so grateful that I was and continue to be a part of that place.

There are many other, very personal, reasons that I feel a close connection to Hutchison that don't belong here. Maybe one day, when I'm braver and more at peace with myself, I'll share them. For now, it's enough to say that if I ever have a daughter, she will without question be a Hutchison girl. I never appreciated how much my parents, who did not have the financial resources to afford Hutchison, had to do in order to make sure that my sister and I were able to go there. It required a lot of help from a lot of people, and a lot of sacrifices. I can't tell you how many nights our dinner was a box of macaroni and cheese, or tortilla chips with a can of chili poured over them. My mom and dad worked so hard, and were so exhausted at night, yet they still found a way to put me through 15 years at Hutchison and pay for 14 years of piano lessons as well. I grew up wearing hand-me-down clothes and driving to school in old, sometime beat up vehicles. Since both my parents had to work just to keep a roof over our head, I was a latch-key kid by the time I was 12. My parents desire to make sure I went to Hutchison was the reason that I had three hours every afternoon in my house by myself, and I spent almost every second of that time practicing piano. My mom and dad did everything they could for me to get the best possible education. In return, I paid them, and Hutchison, back by getting a full scholarship to college--yes, a substantial music scholarship, but the vast majority of the scholarship money I received for college was based on my ACT and SAT scores, thanks to the skills I learned at school. Hutchison gave me the strength to fight for what I wanted to achieve, the skills to attain excellence, and the drive to become whatever I wanted to be. That school gave me the foundation to build my future on, and an unforgettable, and irreplaceable, group of women to share it with. I am extremely proud to be a Hutchison girl, and eternally grateful for the gifts that Hutchison, and my Hutchison sisters, gave to me.

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