Frimet Goldberger and her children at her graduation from Sarah Lawrence College
Three weeks ago, I learned that Barbara Walters gets her gumption from my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College.
The legendary female doyen of American media made a surprise appearance to rousing applause before Fareed Zakaria’s keynote address.
In her two-minute speech, Walters quoted Joseph Campbell, her professor at Sarah Lawrence College all those decades ago, who exhorted his students to follow their “bliss.” “If you’re like me [at graduation],” she said, “and you have no idea what your bliss is, get a job. I promise you that bliss will come.” Then she mentioned her famous interview with Vladimir Putin in 2001 in which she asked, rather boldly, if Putin ever killed anyone during his tenure at the KGB.
He said: “No, that was not my department.”
Later, her colleagues and friends asked her how she had the gumption to ask that question. “It’s easy. I went to a college where I was not afraid to ask questions,” she said. “And this is that college. And that is my contribution to world peace. So I thank Sarah Lawrence for it. I have been asking questions ever since my graduation and this is one more chance today, to wish all of you a wonderful, fulfilling life and to say thank you to this college I love.”
I, too, learned to ask questions and to speak up at Sarah Lawrence. I am not Barbara Walters by any stretch, but I do share her sentimental affection for our (that feels great to say) alma mater.
When I arrived to Sarah Lawrence College as a transfer student in the spring of 2012, I was no novice to higher education. My two years at Rockland Community College were transformative in their own right; but my four semesters at this quintessential liberal college that prides itself on questioning everything, from authority to sexuality, and boasts a pedagogy and student/faculty relationship unlike any other, changed me — as a formerly Hasidic woman — in a profound way.
Growing up, my personality as a people-pleaser guided me toward the comfort of conformity. But as a female, my opinions and questions, however profound or pious, did not matter a great deal. Questions were discouraged and opinions were better kept to oneself. We confused passivity for respect, conflated piety with meekness, and embraced, what we believed to be our inherent impressionability.
I did not refrain from challenging authority because of fear; but rather because I was taught it wasn’t my place. To be fair, boys were expected to be malleable, too. But they, whose Torah learning involved the questioning and parsing of things, were accustomed to some critical thinking, questioning and pontificating.
When I started community college in 2009, I was the odd one out — even among the highly impressionable recent high school graduates. I came with a deeply bruised self-esteem and a fear of opening my mouth to speak lest I fumble for words and end up sounding like the inarticulate woman I wholeheartedly believed I was.
After I a while — after my professors and fellow classmates seemed to be interested in hearing from me — I cracked open my shell.
At Sarah Lawrence College, where not having an opinion on everything from feminism to conservatism to the ever-pervasive underwater basket weaving is considered an egregious sin punishable by rejection from the open-minded and diverse clubs, I learned to really question things. I learned that my opinions, however inarticulate and unrefined I imagined them to be, could be a respected and an integral part of the class conversation. It’s no wonder that class participation at Sarah Lawrence is a considerable percentage of the final evaluation (grades are a dirty word at SLC).
One professor, whose courses I loved so much that I took three of them, would sarcastically call me “highly impressionable” — a reflection of how often I questioned and challenged his and others’ opinions.
Now that I have graduated and left Sarah Lawrence College, I am still the queen of self-deprecation. I still fumble for more articulate words in English, which is my second language, and I still believe I am the least articulate woman in any crowd of intelligent people. But at least now I know that my opinions — when I am able to articulate them — truly matter.