[Hecate] is good to stand by horsemen, whom she will: and to those whose business is in the grey discomfortable sea… And the son of Cronos made her a nurse of the young who after that day saw with their eyes the light of all-seeing Dawn. So from the beginning she is a nurse of the young, and these are her honours.—Hesiod, Clay, Jenny Strauss (2003). Hesiod's Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 135. ISBN 0-521-82392-7 (per Wikipedia)
Many people’s grandmothers loom large in their lives. Some care for children where parents cannot. Others are a source of wisdom or unconditional love. My grandmother, Dawn Cobb, was the gatekeeper to the world.
She played this role not just for me and my sisters (who called her Dee; as a self-sufficient working single mother, she was not the type to feel “grandma” fit her), but for every student who passed out of the heavy wood door at the front of my high school and into the world of adulthood. For decades, she served as the college counselor at Polytechnic School, the college prep school that my sisters and I attended, and my mother and aunt before us, on scholarships secured by her working there. Dee had, in fact, been a pioneer in shaping college counseling into a professional domain.
In mythology, whose work does she do? Cerberus springs first to mind as a gatekeeper, but my grandmother did not guard Hades and keep the dead in and the living out; her job was to guide travelers into the world. I want to say Elegua, the Yoruban god of the crossroads, but he is also associated with death, and it is not fitting to attribute his work to a white woman whose life was devoted to her Episcopal church.
Hecate, then: goddess of the crossroads, travelers and gates; triple in nature, able to see many possible directions at once; pre-dating the Greek pantheon into which she was eventually adopted.
My grandmother did the work of eliminating distance, to build trust. Standardized tests, of course, have for over a century done most of the work to ensure trust in the value of a young human being across hundreds or thousands of miles. They emerged as the measure of students in the first two decades of the 1900s: around the same time as the development of standards for eggs. And meat, cotton, vegetables, grain, and the containers they were shipped in. The idea is roughly the same: when you start purchasing from faraway places, instead of from the local grocer who you know and trust not to send you rotten meat or put his thumb on the scale, you need standards to have some assurance that you’re getting what you paid for.
The grades we all received in class are also supposed to do this work, but there is local variation between states and school districts (which in the United States have long had free rein to govern themselves without federal meddling), and between schools. Maybe one teacher coddles every student, while another grades harshly on a curve. What is an A in a rural public school, attended by the children of immigrants speaking their second language and working the fields with their parents outside of school hours, when compared to the A in a private urban school attended by the children of stockbrokers and lawyers given every advantage money can buy, from tutors to piano lessons to semesters abroad?
So instead, we have all relied on tests standardized at the national level to hire and to process students into universities. Grade A eggs; Grade A students. Like the timers and thermometers set on the fryers at McDonalds: everywhere around the world the buzzer goes off at the same time, telling the employees to lift the fries from the oil, producing a snack so unproblematically uniform that you can go to any McDonalds in the world and be confident of having the exact same experience. (The employees, we hear, received a grade of D, or worse yet, escaped being graded.)
Sociological research speaks of standardization as one way to cultivate human trust. Branding and standardization go hand in hand: see Golden Arches, receive golden fries. It works well over long distances, and for corporations whose profit model depends on global scale: being able to purchase and sell large quantities of the same thing in bulk.
But that is not the business of a private college preparatory school like Poly, or an Ivy League institution or smaller private college, is it? They need cultivation of trust. People who know people. They need a handshake from someone.
My grandmother’s sorcery was writing the letter of recommendation: that three-dimensional projection of the student as a human being, not just a standard egg; the chance to appear to college acceptance officers as more than the sum of grades and tests.
Dee worked hard to make each of us comprehensible and real over long distances. College applications at a prep school feel cutthroat even if your parents, like mine, only lovingly encourage you to “do your best.” There is a feeling of existential threat in the air. A classmate of mine sobbed in music class in seventh grade when he received an A- instead of an A; his parents would beat him. There were breakdowns, suicides; lifelong emotional damage.
Each year Dee and her counterparts at our rival schools would run a one-night exercise coaching us through our own part in the craft of long-distance trust: writing our college essays. Parents and students were given a number of hypothetical portfolios from a few students, their grades, lists of extracurriculars, and college essays. We were then asked to role-play the acceptance committee, and decide which students to admit. The goal of the exercise, I think, was to calm us all the hell down and have us think what we’d do if we were in the admissions staff’s shoes, how hard those decisions would be.
All I remember from that exercise was the detail from one girl’s essay. She had overcommitted to a metaphor about baked goods to describe herself, emphasizing buttery croissants. While she was a strong student, I think our group decided to admit a student with comparable grades instead, guessing she was as overwrought as her metaphor. This was a personality judgment about an imaginary student, but I remember that essay over a distance of thirty years. I remember we didn’t trust her weird flaky presentation of her self, and we turned her down.
Dee understood her work as generating trust over the three thousand-odd miles that separated our Los Angeles-area school from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, sometimes the hundreds of miles to Stanford or the state universities. Every once in a while, to a university in Canada or Europe, across international borders.
Colleges needed to be able to rely on Dee to trust that the students she sent them were hard workers who would succeed on their campuses. More than once, my mother (working sometimes as my grandmother’s assistant) watched as Dee faced down the headmaster and head of high school. A student would have committed some transgression, like cheating, and the three of them would need to decide whether and how to communicate this to the college they were applying to. The two men in charge would encourage Dee to downplay it. It was a totally ordinary childhood transgression, they said. He’ll grow out of it. Anyway, he’s sorry.
Adamantly, Dee refused. And what if the college were to find out he cheated? she replied. How would that make the school look? Would anyone ever trust me again when I vouched for a student?
More rarely, Dee’s work to build trust only went across the street—the distance to Caltech, which had at one point been part of the same institution as our elementary and high school. Not too many students wanted to graduate only to go across the street. Caltech was very familiar, so it wasn’t hard to build trust there; as students we attended events and did gym classes on campus, and our math curriculum was based on a textbook our teachers wrote with Caltech professors. Many parents who worked at Caltech sent their children to Poly.
Privately, Dee was a little dismissive of the students who were hesitant to go far away, who returned home often to be with their friends and families. She seemed to view them as unwilling to grow up. It’s important to get perspective, Dee exhorted me. This is a good time to do it.
I chose western Massachusetts and Hampshire College, to some extent not pushing my comfort zone. My parents had gone there for school too. Dee was scandalized. Not because of the distance or my lack of bravery, but because her trust in the school had been torpedoed by a previous student who went there, dropped out, joined a cult, and begged his parents to send him tens of thousands of dollars a year in support. Dee tried to browbeat me into going elsewhere by saying Hampshire was the one school where she would not give me financial support. There was a sense that she would lose the trust of her colleagues if her own granddaughter attended a college with no tests and no grades.
I defied her wishes, and for years quietly felt I had to prove myself to her. But I did go away. I got the sense she was proud of that.
Once I worked up the courage to ask her why she disapproved of my going to Hampshire, I got another story. I didn’t think you’d meet anyone there who was unlike you, in the way you thought, she said.
She was wrong on that front. During those years I met and spent time with people from working-class and poor backgrounds for the first time. I worked in the city of Holyoke, where I had students who would take slices of pizza home from our afterschool classes, because they didn’t know what their next meal would be. I took classes at the University of Massachusetts with the poet Martín Espada, learned about what the Young Lords and the Black Panthers actually did; finally realized, despite years of futile browbeating about multicultural education at Poly, that burritos were not also Puerto Rican food, that Professor Espada had no reason to have eaten jicama before, and that Leonard Bernstein had also failed these distinctions, because not only was the tune “America” from West Side Story a Mexican one, the words were unlikely to be spoken by any Puerto Rican because Puerto Rico is a part of the United States of America, too.
The door was open. I moved to New York City after college, and began to look to places even further away. As I did, it became harder and harder to return home to Pasadena.
* * *
Dee herself had gone to Wisconsin for college, leaving the Chicago suburb where she grew up. She and my grandfather moved to California after the war.
Dee’s youngest sister married and moved to Denver.
Their middle sister had perhaps the most glamorous life, moving solo to New York City before she married, then returning to Chicago herself. Dee and her sisters did not see each other often.
Her father’s people had come from France to Canada to upstate New York to Chicago, and her mother’s from Ireland.
My father’s people moved him to Michigan when he was a baby, but had come to New York and New England from Germany and the Netherlands, England and Scotland.
My sisters and I grew up on property with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the house behind us, my grandma and grandpa next door. Dee, of course, was at our school, working in an office adjacent to my mother’s, where we would do our homework after school. Or if it was Dad’s week, we might go across the street and do our homework in the classrooms or computer labs of Caltech, where our father, grandfather, and eventually our stepmother worked.
Increasingly, that proximity looks to me like a minor miracle.
I have tried to make that kind of closeness happen myself, and I cannot.
One of my sisters lives in Michigan, with parts of Dad’s family; the other in our hometown in California.
Our mother has established herself in Arizona.
Many of my school friends have returned to the LA area, but some are elsewhere on the West Coast.
A large percentage of people I care about, and the people who trust me to do good work, are in the Bay Area, and of course another group in New York.
I’m probably most hireable in DC, these days, and there are people I care about there, too.
When there is a bombing in Kenya, kidnapping in Nigeria, earthquake in India, floods in Germany, crackdowns in Hong Kong, violent protests in Australia… after years in New York and working on international issues, there are now friends I worry about in all of those places.
When I express that I’m torn about where I should live, people tell me Write down the pros and cons of the places you’re thinking about. But I’ve done that. I made a map of the United States. I populated it with people I love, cities where I might afford to buy a home and raise a child; where there is work that I could be eligible for; places that are walkable, with good public transit; where there is any kind of diversity at all. And then there’s the question of healthcare; as someone self-employed who is burdened with paying for their own health insurance, I have long wanted to abandon the US-shaped hole I studied as a young child and seek amnesty in the undefined territory to the north.
This globalization puzzle is impossible. I can’t solve it.