Monday, June 25, 2012

We were told the world was now ours. Little did we know.

This originally appeared in the Kennebec Journal as a column on June 22, 2012. That's me in the picture, at 16, second from the left in the top row.

The front page of Sunday's Kennebec Journal had a sweet coincidence: Right above a story about the 40th anniversary of Title IX was a photo of the Cony High School softball team celebrating its state championship.
Sweet, indeed.
(The story, without a photo, was on page C1 of Sunday's Morning Sentinel.)
I played softball for Cony, too, on the junior varsity team my sophomore year. But the gap between me and those girls is way more than the 34 years between us.
A picture in the 1977 Cony yearbook says it all: We're not in uniform -- not because we didn't know it was picture day, but because we didn't have uniforms. The ill-fitting polyester blouses and trousers we're wearing are what we played in, topped by ancient knit field hockey vests too rank for even the field hockey team to use and too ugly for us to model for the photo.
Our names aren't listed; instead there's a caption: "It was a year of experience for the JV softball team being its first year in existence. This team, coached by Miss Choate, was young and all are looking forward to a rewarding season next year."
I don't remember our record, but I know it was short on wins. We rarely had even one spectator. We played on rocky, unkempt fields that often didn't have baselines, or sometimes even bases. I played second base and remember charging a grounder, a sure out -- until the ball got stuck in a patch of muddy snow. An easy single.
That 1977 yearbook describes many of the girls' teams as "young." I'm guessing the sudden bloom of girls' teams was a result of Title IX, but I don't know if I even knew it existed. I was just happy to be there. Most of the other girls in the picture look like they are, too. Why not? We finally had a team to play on and the future could only get better -- looking forward to decades of rewarding seasons to come.
Title IX came crashing into my consciousness the fall of 1978, when I was visiting my sister, a freshman at Holy Cross, and tagged along as she did interviews for a school magazine on the state of Crusader sports.
The one clear memory I have of that weekend is the captain of the volleyball team crouched against the wall in the hallway of her dormitory, talking with an intensity I can still feel across the decades. She was passionate, angry and proud, and I realized that the unfairness I'd felt for years had a voice much stronger than my own.
That voice came to mind frequently when I was sports editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader from the mid-1990s and on and off until 2011. The conversation about Title IX had stalled and every time a woman filed a lawsuit or a college dropped its baseball team, wrestling team, or -- God forbid -- football team, someone would say, "blame Title IX."
I can't count the times I defended it over the decades. Don't blame Title IX, I'd tell the guys, blame the school's priorities. But that's a tough leap of logic, even in 2012, for people to make.
When I was a kid and wanted to do something "girls didn't do," I was sometimes asked, "Why do you want to be a boy?"
I hope that question isn't asked much anymore, but the argument whenever there's a Title IX complaint is philosophically the same:
Women's sports don't make as much money for the schools. Scholarships going to girls who aren't that good mean there are fewer for boys who are. Men's sports are harder and take more effort, so deserve more compensation. When a men's team is cut, talented men can't play sports they've been playing all their lives.
I wish every 17-year-old girl in 2012 could have a moment like I did in that beer-soaked, noisy Holy Cross hallway and hear that volleyball captain pour out her frustration, but with a determination and passion that still makes it a vivid memory 34 years later. It makes a lie out of all those arguments for rolling back women's opportunities.
It's a far different world for today's young women, but many of the challenges of getting fair treatment, or even the basics, still exist.
My generation is luckier in some ways. We got to be part of the fight, and we have the strength that comes from having to struggle for something and defend it. There's a special knowledge that comes with that.
Let's hope the girls celebrating on the front page of last Sunday's KJ, with a lifetime of rewarding seasons unfolding ahead of them, can hear what those ragtag girls in the polyester shirts have spent decades getting the world to know.

Maureen Milliken of Belgrade Lakes is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

To the class of 2012 -- Be yourself. Or not.

Hi graduates. Exciting day, huh? Thanks for asking me to be your speaker. As Principal Skinner said, "You've covered so many graduations as a journalist, we thought you'd be perfect."
Oh yeah. Yes I am. So much good advice here today. I know even though I had my ears buds in. After all, this isn’t an end, but a beginning, right? You'll miss each other, but make new friends. You’re going to look back with affection and nostalgia and go out into that brave new world. Oh, the places you'll go!
Did I leave anything out? Oh, right.
How about that advice to be yourself? Has anyone told you that yet? Don’t care what other people say, just be yourself!
Oh – heh heh – whoa, okay, calm down. Woooo! Biggest ovation of the day. Yeah. I get it. To your own self be true. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and you’re taking the one lest traveled by. Letting your true colors come shining through.
But it’s that one piece of advice about all others that are being thrown at you today that should make you sad. Because everyone says it -- over and over. They even believe it. But few live it. 
Sorry to say for many of you, it’s too late.
Wait, Principal Skinner, don’t pull the plug on the microphone! Hear me out. I promise I’ll say something uplifting by the end.
Where was I? Right. For many of you, it’s too late. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. It started before you were born when your nursery was painted in gender-specific colors. There was a lot I was going to say about how important it is for girls to be pretty, boys to be strong and sporting. But you've heard that all before, too. You know it, because you've lived it.
Whatever the categories, labels, stereotypes, you all learned pretty early on how important it is to fit the expectations and try not to stand out, except in the ways that are socially accepted. Most of you even convinced yourselves a long time ago, without even knowing it, that that's normal. That's what people do.
So, face it, graduates, you're only 18, but as far as being yourself, for a lot of you, the ship has sailed.
And how about you kids who truly were yourselves? Rough ride, huh? Bet you’re glad to be done with high school. Bet maybe when you heard that advice from the valedictorian to be yourself you sneered a little bit, maybe even gave the old finger under your robe.
They didn't like yourself much for the past twelve years, right weirdo? Dork? Freak? So now they’re telling you to be yourself. With feeling.
For the sake of argument, let's say everyone who says it means it.
The problem is, though, no one tells you how to do it. Easy to say, not easy to be.
For a lot of you, it'll be easier just to stuff down whatever it is that makes you “different” enough to fit in, something you've probably been doing most of your life. 
Others of you maybe were stuffing it down, but now think it’s going to be safe, in the world of grownups, to let your freak flag fly.
Then there are those of you who have been yourselves all along -- you are probably giddy with relief.
I’ve got bad news for those of you who think the time to be yourself has come, because it’s not going to get any better. The adult world doesn't want you to truly be yourself any more than many of your classmates, teachers and parents did.
Being yourself is going to be a lot of hard work.
As the poster boy for being yourself, Bob Dylan, put it, “I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”
The really lucky ones, like Bob, are talented enough, driven enough and work hard enough to make it big –  Stephen King, Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres. All the things that would make them weirdos if they were working in the cubicle next to you are brilliant because they managed to get to a place where they can be themselves.
There are also the lucky ones who are so confident being themselves that they don’t care what everyone else thinks. Because, truly, that’s the biggest impediment to being yourself, isn’t it? What keeps you from doing it? Most people care what other people think, even if they say they don’t. That’s why we look, speak and behave the way we do. Those who don't care are rare cats.
Then there are the stubborn ones or the ones who just can’t help it -- they are who they are. Most of those who are themselves fit into this category. It's the toughest way to be, because you have to learn not to care, or at least learn to fake it.
Here’s what the speaker who told you to be yourself also didn't say: A lot of people aren’t going to like it if you're yourself. 
People frequently will comment on how you’re different or helpfully point it out to you – as if you didn’t know. Sometimes it will anger people or annoy them for no good reason. They’ll think you being yourself is about them even though it has no effect on their life and that will make them mad. Your personality may become an issue at work, in a relationship, with your friends. This isn't about the Golden Rule stuff either, the stuff that makes you a good or bad person, but the "different" stuff. 
Sooner or later you will overhear someone who’s a good friend talking about how weird you are behind your back. Or the love interest who loves you just the way you are makes it clear he or she would love you better if you just stopped being yourself quite so much and started being more like he or she wanted you to be. You know, more normal.
This might make you bitter or resentful. It might make you do the crazy Twister game of trying to please a partner instead of just getting the hell out of the relationship. You may keep trying to fit into that job or career that makes you miserable instead of figuring out what you really want to do. It may even make you a little paranoid or wary of others.
So, graduates, do you still want to be yourself?
Good for you. Because here’s the other thing they don’t tell you. If you’re yourself, truly yourself, it will pay off. First of all, the mental exhaustion of trying to pound the square peg that is you into the round hole of what people want you to be will be gone. Particularly if you’re one of those people who have a hell of a time trying to figure it out. But the best thing is, you will be you. It will feel good. You’ll find it easier to figure out what you want and who you want to be with and how you want to make a living and how you want to spend your time. You’ll even start to feel sorry for the rest of them.
And your friends will really be true friends who do, indeed, love you just the way you are. And if you get one note like this in your life, it will make it all worth it:  I have learned so much from you about living life honestly and forthrightly, and damn the rest. These are lessons I have needed and benefited from so much.” (Real note from real friend. Thanks, friend.)
Yes! Be yourself! When you leave here today, vow to.
How to do it? It’s hard and simple at the same time. All it takes are two words: “Yeah? So?”
Try it. Whenever you think that if you follow your heart it won't be what everyone else will do, say "Yeah? So?" Whenever someone points out in a bemused – or hostile – way how you are different, say, “Yeah? So?” Two roads? Scared of taking the one less traveled by? Yeah? So?
It may be hard at first not to argue, or feel guilty or feel diminished or embarrassed. Or feel you have to change. But after a while it will be empowering. And there’s nothing more empowering than knowing who you are and being that person and damn the rest.
So, graduates, when someone tells you to be yourself, and they will, keep in mind what it really means.
Then go ahead and do it anyway.
And for those of you who think this is just a pile of hooey?
Yeah? So?