32: I’ll Try Anyway

32: I’ll Try Anyway

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

I’ll Try Anyway

“I can’t” are two words that have never been in my vocabulary. I believe in me more than anything in this world.

~Wilma Rudolph

Since birth, the world has had expectations of me as a black woman. I was born into a big, bustling family that straddled the line between poverty and working class. I grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a New York City neighborhood filled with the same kind of families, many of the adults and teens working low-wage jobs and on public assistance.

Our parents, some of them immigrants, and others long-time residents of the neighborhood, strove to provide us what we needed for our schooling. They would purchase supplies for dioramas and science-fair projects, with the little money left over from groceries and other necessities. They would leave work early to attend an assembly or meet with our teachers, and they’d stay up with us all night as we wrote yet another book report.

Despite our socio-economic status and appearance, many of us on the block that I grew up on managed to become successful adults. This motley crew of Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Irish, Dominicans, and Italians, attended our zoned public school — I would attend a private boarding school for high school — and then went on to college. We work in banks, in schools, in media, music, and art, in healthcare, in politics… some of us even own our own businesses. Others have returned home to continue lifting up their families and the neighborhood.

We may have been financially poor, but we were emotionally and spiritually wealthy in our tight-knit community. We knew who we were and what we were capable of — but most of all, we had big dreams, and our families and communities helped to foment that desire. With that came a natural, easy confidence, and a vision to do big things and be great people who could eventually change the world.

My goal in life is to always learn, expand my knowledge, experience new things, and move along the continuum of human progress. I never set out to prove anything to anyone, but my life speaks for itself and I hope that what I do proves to people that you don’t know a person or their capabilities, until you know a person. No one who meets me, for example, imagines that I, a large African American woman, am an ultramarathoner, even appearing on the cover of running magazines.

Back in my school days, people didn’t expect me to be smart and well read. No one expected me to be a classically trained singer who spent her high school Saturdays studying music theory and solfège, and taking voice lessons from an internationally acclaimed teacher. In addition, no one expected me to be a good writer, and they were surprised that I had won awards for my poetry. Some couldn’t see past my skin and gender, and they would try to dissuade me from trying things they just knew I wouldn’t be able to do. But I did them anyway.

So when I went from prep school to college, I wasn’t surprised to be underestimated. “No one ever passes this test, you know,” said Maurice Porter, the self-assured senior voice major, as I tried to rush past him in the narrow hallway of Robertson, the building that housed most of the tiny, airless practice rooms at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

“Thanks. I’m going to take it anyway,” I said, “just to see what the test is all about, because everyone’s telling me not to take it. It must be really hard.” He was still blocking my way and I was annoyed. I needed to get to Bibbins 206, where I would sit for an hour and rack my brain about dead European men, whose creations I seemed to have a special affinity for.

“Well, you’re wasting your time. Why don’t you just go and practice? C’mon you’re a freshman, and you’re a voice major. Voice majors never pass the music history exemption test. Hell, they never even take it. You need to be in the practice room,” he said, shaking his head with a sympathetic smile and walking away. Continuing to warn me, he called back over his shoulder, “Only like, European violinists and pianists ever pass the test. It’s their music anyway.”

Maurice was a legend at Oberlin. Everyone listened to what he had to say, even though he was sort of a jerk. His incredible vocal talent — his melismatic gospel seemed to lend itself flawlessly to the demands of fioriture in bel canto opera — and his equally fluid keyboard skills in both styles were astonishing in such a way that one was overwhelmed simply by being in his presence. People listened to what he said and followed his advice. Even seasoned professors and professional musicians paid attention to this twenty-something.

The exemption exam tested one’s knowledge of various periods in the western classical tradition, from early-medieval and renaissance idioms to modern serialism propagated by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. We were to identify each piece of music by period, composer, genre, historical context, and instrumentation. Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss — this was the test that I had been preparing to pass for four years… Stockhausen. Stockhausen? Who the hell was Stockhausen? That part I left blank.

Fortunately, Stockhausen’s existence and contributions to contemporary classical music didn’t have the disastrous effect on my exemption that I had feared. The list that was posted that same evening outside of Bibbins 206 contained my name and the names of two other freshmen, who turned out to be Hungarian and Russian pianists.

***

What was next?

“No one ever gets out of the writing requirement at Oberlin,” said my good friend Jon Fitz, an editor at the Oberlin Review. “You shouldn’t even try. I mean, your stuff is good and everything but don’t like, waste your time.”

“Okay, um, thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes and walking away with the paper topic in hand.

You know what happened.

~Mirna Valerio

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