Many years ago, I learned that fear can be the best teacher and motivator. At the tender age of 18, I entered the University of Chicago as a freshman. This century-old private university founded by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and nestled in the middle class neighborhood of Hyde Park, Chicago, is best known for its 79 Nobel Prize laureates, influential academic movements, such as the “Chicago School of Economics,” and hosting the world’s first sustained nuclear reaction.
If I had fit the profile of the other 500 or so incoming students of my class, I may have had feelings of joy and excitement. After all, being accepted to a university that consistently makes the nation’s top 10 list for colleges and universities is no easy feat. Moreover, joining this elite club of mostly suburban white honor students was appealing. However, for me, what should have been the most exciting time of my life turned out to be one of the most challenging and difficult times.
In fact, the first six months at the University of Chicago were dreadful.
Like many students who were living away from home for the first time, I had the normal homesick feelings, but my anxiety was compounded by my “urban” – accent and syntax. Despite the advent and explosion of rap music, which made it popular for all students – even the most privileged – to use slang and hip language, University of Chicago students were still expected to use the King’s English. Anything short of that was completely unacceptable and painted you as vulgar.
Given this backdrop, during one of my first encounters at the University, I learned that I did not fit the profile. I can vividly remember meeting Angela, a very well spoken upper classman from upstate New York. After having a rather casual conversation with her, she told me that I had the worst diction she had ever heard. She went so far as to question how I had even been accepted by the university. I was devastated. I panicked and immediately decided to stop talking – except in those cases where it was absolutely necessary. In essence, I became selectively mute.
I had worked so hard to gain admission and here I was, inadequate. Sure, I knew that my family background and upbringing were no match for the students that I would encounter, but I had been taught that hard work could level the playing field.
I also knew that growing up in a housing project in St. Louis and spending most of my time in the inner city would make me different from most of my classmates, but I had no idea that I would be singled out and even ridiculed during the first month of attendance. How could I survive in an environment where I couldn’t speak without fear of humiliation? I wouldn’t dare attempt to engage in conversation, ask for directions or assistance – or even greet another student, let alone a professor or administrator.
My fears grew fangs. Would my acceptance to the university be revoked? Would I be labeled a phony or worse, a product of affirmative action measures that were sweeping the nation in the 1980s? Should I retreat to my small, but safe community back in St. Louis? Run, hide, cower, escape, strike back, attack, defend myself, change, retreat – these emotions of my youth came bubbling up under the judgmental eye (and ear) of Angela and her ilk.
Angela’s comments came at a time when I had been feeling extremely proud of myself; proud that I was one of the persons in my family to attend a top college. And now, I was forced to confront my deepest fears. Was I really good enough? Did I deserve to be at one of the most prestigious universities in the nation? Would my beginnings dictate my future? Could an African-American girl from a poor inner-city family compete with white, wealthy students from well-educated families? Did race matter? Class? Maybe even gender?
This was my moment of truth. Fear could either cripple or diminish any chance I ever had of getting an education, ruining my life forever, or it could force me to rise to the occasion and meet yet another of life’s many challenges head on. Somehow, in this dark night of my soul, I realized I must find the courage not only to overcome my limitations, but to go beyond them; to fight back and, ultimately, to win!
My plan of action included enlisting the very person, Angela, who had ridiculed me. I figured out that since she was so annoyed and embarrassed by my speech that she would surely jump at the opportunity to help me improve. But I also knew that someone of her background would insist that I be serious about this commitment to my own growth and development. She was not going to do the “heavy lifting.”
In addition to getting Angela to commit to reviewing and correcting all of my papers and written assignments, I studied every grammar book I could get my hands on. I listened to tapes and made a conscious effort to eliminate split verbs, slang and bad grammar from my vocabulary.
I still have colorful memories of getting humanities assignments back from Angela covered in red ink. At the beginning, I would walk away with my head hung low. Over time and with hours of rewrites, Angela’s stern admonishments turned to supportive praise. As her body language and countenance began to change, I knew that hard work does have its rewards.
Although I never let down my guard, by the end of my first year of college, I was able to end my silence. Initiating conversations, answering questions and generally having the freedom to speak freely opened up a world of new opportunities to me. I took on leadership roles in student organizations and I even applied to Harvard Law School – and not only got accepted, but graduated with honors!
As for Angela, she and I developed a mutual respect for each other as a result of our unique mentor/mentee relationship. In fact, I would even say, over the course of that year, we became friends. She graduated a couple of years before I left the University. And even though we lost contact with each other, I know that she would have beamed with pride as I was awarded magna cum laude honors at my graduation.
After years as a litigator and TV commentator and talk show host, it’s hard for my colleagues and friends to believe that I ever had a fear of speaking or presenting to large groups. But I did, and it took me years after my experience with Angela to become truly at ease with this role.
Moreover, it took me years to recognize that fear is a useful tool and a motivating force for positive change. The key is not giving in to, internalizing or making fear yours. Instead, redefine fear as “feedback.” This makes it more like a challenge – perhaps the kind an athlete might face when entering a competition. This is what worked for me; I turned my fear of speaking and the rejection I felt because of how I spoke, into a career. To me, this proves that anything is possible.