Rhinos, Dots and Purple Crayons: Crunched between Perception and Reality
Last spring I received an invitation from a colleague to speak at a campus wide event for women at my university. The office of student affairs had been organizing these monthly events under the title “THRIVE” as a way to engage and encourage female members of the staff from across campus. I read the email invitation and sighed at the request: to share my secrets for thriving. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not not thriving, but I don’t always feel like I am, or have been, the best example of a flourishing woman. It seemed disingenuous to speak to others about my “secrets” for success when I wasn’t sure I had any.
But of course, I respect my friend and colleague – and the women of my campus – so I decided to accept. I then spent the next four weeks stewing about how I was going to pull this off. I knew I couldn’t just tell part of a story and shed light only on those aspects of my life and career that others have seen as shining, thriving examples. But on the other hand, I was rather nervous about shedding light on the less inspirational examples.
Since beginning the proFmagazine project, I have become more and more comfortable with being vulnerable – with sharing my personal narrative and uncovering the experiences that have been difficult and were previously unknown by others. I have shared, for example, my struggles with infertility and experience with repeat miscarriages. I have shared the rather embarrassing story of how I began my academic career largely because of a college boyfriend that looked like a Bolshevik. And I have shared my personal pain after the loss of a student and my process of healing in the heat. But walking into that room back in April to share my story for “THRIVE” was an even tougher thing to do. This was the time when perception would meet truth, and I would inevitably feel the crunch.
I decided to focus my talk on this juxtaposition between surface impressions – of a successful academic and college dean – and my personal reality, including my background. I even dressed down for the occasion, wearing casual clothes (my favorite jeans and sneakers) and beginning the discussion by stating that I was there as a woman, friend, and colleague, rather than an academic and dean. I was there as a professional woman, yes – but one that didn’t necessarily have all (or even many of) the answers.
In order to show that appearances may not always reflect real experiences, I spoke about my childhood in a solid, working class neighborhood in East Tulsa. I was an original “latchkey kid” with parents that divorced when I was six years old. As I displayed a classic family photo from 1972 – all smiles and shag haircuts – I had to admit that I didn’t really remember those days at all. I remembered more of the tears – my mother’s mascara-stained face and my father’s angry stomps. I showed photos from fourth grade (age nine), when I started smoking cigarettes and drinking tequila and vodka. I explained how I made it through school on guts and grit, but didn’t have anyone encourage me to go to college. After high school graduation, I managed to enroll at community college, and I transferred to an in-state university after I fell in love with higher education, but I ended up with a PhD largely because I just didn’t know enough. I kept going to school out of sheer curiosity and the unwillingness to quit. On a roll, I also revealed more recent personal failures in my talk, such as two marriages and two divorces.
After sharing all the dirty details, I concluded that I could chalk up any amount of “thriving” I have managed to three things – rhinos, dots and purple crayons.
Let me explain. Perhaps one of the best gifts my mom gave me was a book entitled Rhinoceros Success: The Secret to Charging Full Speed Toward Every Opportunity. I was a freshman in college, and the quick read gave me an immediate mindset about charging, like a rhino, at all opportunities that came before me. From that moment I was bound and determined. After a rather unsavory youth, I could and would charge at my education, at my profession, at my life. I would not just sit back and wait for things to happen to me – and I would no longer worry about the circumstances of the past. I would not, as the book warned, stand in a field and chew my cud while rhinos all around me took charge. It may not have always been easy, but that image of a rhino has kept me going for more than 30 years.
By the time I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and was ready to begin graduate studies, I had determined that four things motivated me – thinking, doing, feeling and believing. I was convinced that a life of the mind and thinking critically about any and all things was necessary for a life well-lived. But, thinking wasn’t enough – doing something about the things I thought about was also important. And in order to think critically and act accordingly, I needed to feel deeply. Passion, in other words, was a must. Finally, I had to believe in myself. I must believe that these things matter – that my thoughts, actions and passion can make a difference.
To represent these four important parts of my life, I devised a daily reminder by signing my name followed by four dots. Suzette…. would forever be a reminder of the four pillars of my rhino life – and I have signed my name that way for nearly three decades.
Finally, we come to purple crayons, which entered my life soon after my daughter was born in 1996. I then found my second favorite book, Harold and the Purple Crayon. This short tale follows Harold as he draws his life – into and out of trouble – all with his purple crayon. His life was literally at his fingertips, and like the charging rhino, I loved the image of being able to draw the details of my own life. I now keep this book and a mug full of purple crayons on my desk to share the tale with others, and to hand them a purple crayon as a reminder of how they too can draw their own destiny.
So, after a rather unimpressive childhood, a challenging adolescence and a good number of adult mistakes, I have kept my mind focused on a rhino, four dots and a purple crayon. Strangely, these are my “secrets” to thriving, which for much of my life might have been more like surviving, persisting, overcoming and reinventing.
My talk for THRIVE only strengthened my ever persistent desire to support, motivate, and empower those around me – particularly women in higher education that may find themselves in a similar space between reality and perception. The vulnerability that comes with telling your story and shining light on the good, the bad and the ugly pays off when you hear from others that have also struggled – indicating that your honesty has encouraged them to open up as well. This collision between truth and appearance, and the sharing of our personal narratives, can, therefore, be the kind of crunch that actually feels good.