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On June 6, 1989, when she walked into my office, I was struck
by her air of self-confidence. Silver strode in and chose the
most upright chair in the room, deliberately rejecting the loveseat,
and moved closer to the tape recorder on my desk. She seemed ready
to take over.
Silver was a sturdy, articulate 16 year-old who lived with her older brother, father, and mother in an urban area of Ontario. The rich oral tradition of her Caribbean heritage came through in the way she told her stories. She flaunted her bi-dialectic ability, knowing that this was insider research and I could understand what she said. When her English was deliberately laced with the Jamaican accent, it was, more often than not, to narrate, by implication and intonation, her parents' perspective.
However, as she noted almost a decade later, she was unmistakably a "teeny bopper with the 90210 thing" [a television night-time drama] "before it became popular" at the time of the first interview.
Silver and her older brother were born in Canada. Her parents had been living in that country for 22 years at the time of the first interview (1989). This was the first year of boarding school for the 11th-grader. She arrived for the exchange "like curious about what kind of questions you were gonna ask."
Portraying herself as fun-loving, Silver explains that she
likes to laugh, to make people laugh and have fun. But sobering
immediately, she reminds herself: "I can be serious when
the time is called for." Straightening up, she waits for
I ask her to describe herself as if she were talking to a blind person. Being Black is the second thing that she mentions. Being 16 is the first. In answer to my unspoken query, she informs me. "I didn't go to kindergarten. I went straight to grade one so I was younger than anybody else."
When I ask how she defines herself ethnically, Silver creates her own classification. She is, she says, Canadian West Indian. She explains, "I was Canadian first, because I was born here. I knew Canadian things first and then I knew West Indian things." Then she makes some explanatory revisions. "Actually I knew them together but the majority of my life has been in Canada. That's all I know."
Describing her upbringing, Silver talks about the fusion and conflict of two cultures: Caribbean and Canadian. "They raised me as Canadian but they still have the influences from the country that they came from. Like I couldn't go back to Jamaica and live now because I don't really know it." It is as if we hear echoes of her parents in her
voice. The concept of "back to Jamaica" for a Canadian-born child who never lived in that country is noteworthy.
Laughingly describing the typical West Indian woman, Silver paints a colorful picture. Her words are as rhythmic as they are vivid.
They always have all their children around them.
Always cooking this and that and the other thing, curry goat and all that.
And they always have their herbs to cure everybody.
Always talking about "We didn't do that back home. Or back home, we used to do this and this."
Almost always outspoken.
Almost always have an opinion.
Almost always want to share it.
And whatever they believe in, they believe in very deeply. Like it's not a surface thing. Say religion. They don't just go to church Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve and stuff like that. They go to church every week. And they're involved in church and Dorcas [community service].
Ethnic Identity Awareness
In response to my question about whether being visibly different might impede her progress, Silver responds with a categorical no. "I think that being visibly different . . . though it is . . . though it can be a handicap is not a reason why you should not get ahead."
Using her parents' history to support her statement, she continues:
Well, my parents came here. They were visibly different. They had just the skills that they had from where they came. Now my dad owns his own business. He just bought a new car and bought it cash! And bought a new house!
Developing her thesis, she alludes to the Lieutenant-Governor
of Ontario at that time:
In Canada, there are a lot of minorities who get ahead. For instance, in Canada, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. He's Black and he has the highest position in the Ontario government. And I don't think that is because he's Black that he has it or because other people being Black that they don't have it. It is a handicap and sometimes it can hamper, but I think we can get past that. Most people will say, OK, this is the best person for whatever we have to do, instead of saying is this person Black, or Hispanic, or whatever.
Eight years later Silver looks at the transcript and adds a rather cynical question. "But how many others who are different really make it?"
Speaking from personal experience, Silver describes, in rich detail, her first school experiencethe experience which made her very aware of her visible difference.
It was a predominantly White area, and they didn't know a lot of Black people. Probably never saw a Black girl before I went to school there. It was hard for me to break the ice. I wanted them to respect me. I guess, I used violent methods.
With a rueful laugh, she elaborates. Focusing on her method of dealing with one of her classmates during the first few weeks of school she tells a story, sparing neither herself, her school mate, or, by implication, the school.
And then it was time for recess. And it's like, this one guy. I can't remember his name. He called me a Blackie or something like that. And I was . . . when I was younger I had a quick, very bad temper and I didn't think of consequences before I acted. So I said, 'Whhaaaat? [high-pitched voice]. Don't you ever call me that again!' And I beat him. I was so mad at him. And I beat him. So finally my brother had to come over from the other playground. It was two playgrounds; one for the older kids and one for the younger kids. He had to come over and tell me to stop. I was beating up this one kid. I was so mad at him. I was, like, grinding his face into the pavement.
Even if the school authorities did nothing about this incident,
her elder brother did. He took her aside. She recalls his counsel.
"That's not the way you deal with people." Her protestations
that the boy had done her wrong fell on deaf ears. Nor did the
instruction end at the playground as we shall see later.
Elaborating on her ethnic development, Silver points out some benchmarks.
"There was a time when what I was espousing, what I was clinging to was, We all live in
a beautiful world'." Her attitude changed, however, when she enrolled in college in the United States.
At first, my belief was that to be a part of an ethnic organization was alienating other people that were of other ethnicities, and making people uncomfortable, because I would be draped in the mantle of my ethnicity. And I didn't think we should be pushing that stuff.
Conforming to the mainstream initially, Silver began to wonder
about her ethnic identity development and the meta-perceptions
of her classmates.
Then I began to realize that as much as the kids where I grew up [in Canada] may have accepted me as I was, everybody else was not going to do that. Even though the kids did accept me for who I was they didn't truly accept me. They didn't truly accept me, because I washed a lot of it out so that they wouldn't feel uncomfortable, and I wouldn't feel uncomfortable.
In passionate free verse, Silver steps up to her soapbox, elucidates on her identity development, and poses rhetorical questions to an invisible White audience.
Stepping down from her soapbox, Silver points to yet another
benchmark in her ethnic developmenther re-thinking of her
personal culpability. "I began to realize that I was guilty
of making these people comfortable with my own ethnicity."
In retrospect, she
posits that when she "washed out" her visible difference to accommodate herself and her peers, she did her ethnic group a great disservice.
Once again passion and poetry fuse in her analysis as she climbs up on to her soap- box yet another time:
Silver adds a fatigue-laden explanation to her diatribe. "I think I just got tired of explaining things to people. I'd rather just not. I'd rather just pretend it's not there than have to explain it all the time."
Mother as Teacher
Referring to her elementary school fight story, Silver discusses
its repercussions from her family's perspective. At home, her
mother admonished: "People are always going to call you Black.
Always going to call you what they want. And you should say to
them, Yes, I am. And I'm proud of it. I have something to
be proud of. I don't have to go and belittle people'."
The lesson in interpersonal communication was expanded into an even more difficult arenapublic relations. Her mother felt that Silver had to learn that she was a
representative to the world. Silver describes the lesson:
Always remember that it wasn't just you that they were seeing. It was everybody who is Black that they would ever see. And also people who were Christian and Seventh-day Adventist (because there weren't any SDAs were I live). So she said I had to remember that.
Turning to me she recalls, "And I remember that very well.
She used to give me that speech all the time. But I never listened
to her." When she re-read the transcript in 1997 Silver added
her own revisionary footnote. "I listened. I just did it
my own way."
With a remorseful chuckle Silver adds a note which leaves its conclusion to her listeners. "After that, I never got in trouble at school, but after school . . ."
In 1997, Silver includes another amendment to that story. "My father supported me by saying, If someone hits you, don't let me hear that you didn't hit back'." I wonder in my journal why she did not share that postscript back then. Perhaps a statement that her friend made recently triggered her memory. "Your father raised you like a boy." Silver's irate automatic response is noteworthy. "No, he raised me like his child."
Silver recalls another lesson her mother taught her school-age daughter.
My brother and I were running all over the house, playing. Chasing each other down the hall. My mother goes, "Stop playing, you're going to get hurt." And we're like "Yeah, yeah, yeah." And so we were running all around. And I ran. And I was chasing my brother down the hall. And the bathroom's right here [indicates with her hand], and my brother's bedroom door is right here. And he ran into the bathroom. And for the one time in his lifehe always keeps his bedroom door closedthe bedroom was open. And for some reason, my foot got caught. My toe got caught on the corner of the door. And my foot kept on going to the bathroom. And my toe stayed in the door. AAWWHH!! It hurt so bad. My foot was like dying of pain.
To my chagrin, as I noted in my journal, all attempts to smother
my chuckle failed woefully. Her action-laden story was so well-told
that I laughed outright. Fortunately, she joined me.
Her mother, when called to that childhood scene to make a medical assessment of the damaged toe, said, "There's nothing wrong with you. The skin is just bruised." Silver recalls her wheedling pleas for comfort. "Mother, I can't even walk on it. The thing is ripped away from my foot." Unmoved, her mother suggested a prescription. "Just rub it with iodine and go to bed. It'll be fine in the morning."
But as Silver recalls, the next morning her toe still throbbed. Rubbing some ice on it, her mother told her, "If you had listened to me before, then none of this would have happened. Put your boots on and hobble. We're going to church."
The daughter-as-child rhetor comes to her mother's defense and explains her apparent lack of concern.
And in my family . . . when you do something, you pay the consequences. You have to pay them to the fullest. You don't get any other special treatment. You pay the consequences. That's the way it is. And my mother. She cared for [the foot] and everything, but because I disobeyed her and I got hurt, she still didn't feel that sorry for me.
Silver describes her distress at how carefully her mother reared
her. Speaking in what she later characterizes (1997) as the "90210
dialogue," Silver recalls a time when she wished that her
mother was not as conscientious in her mothering responsibilities.
Like when I come back late from somewhere. Like I'm supposed to be back like an hour before. She's waiting atnot in the housebut like at the street lights! In front of my house! Waiting for me. And when I'm walking to the house, she's already half-way there, coming to get me. And I say, "Oh, no. OK. Time for the story." And even though I think up a good story, it doesn't work. She usually says, "Well, that doesn't matter. You're supposed to be home."
Mother to the Rescue
"Describe, if you can, a situation where your mom acted like your idea of the perfect mother." I ask Silver in 1989. After a few seconds, she starts with a scene-setting prologue describing both herself and her mother.
When I was in grade 7, I was the kind of person who would forget things all the time. Like I would leave to go to school and come back three times because I forgot something. I remember one time I forgot my gym clothes at home and we had gym that afternoon. I didn't remember till lunch time so I ran downstairs and I called my mother. I go, "Can you bring my gym clothes to school for me?" She goes, "Well, I'm going to work in about an hour."
Silver pauses to explain the dilemma in which she had placed
My mother is the kind of person who, OK, if she's going to work at three o'clock, she has to leave by 2:15 at least. And she has to get ready like an hour before. So she's like saying, "I can't go anywhere. I have to go to work." And I go, "But Ma. I really need my gym clothes. I can't miss. I can't miss." And she goes, "OK."
Silver does not allow the story to end there. She builds suspense
in her unique rhetorical fashion and her audience waits with bated
And I waited. And waited. And waited. Lunch hour was over. And the bell was ringing. We were just going downstairs to go to gym. And I go, "Oh, no. She didn't come." And all of a sudden, there was a knock on the door. My mother was there! And she was dressed . . . Like she was dressed in her work clothes: she is a nurse's assistant. She had rollers in her hair, and a kerchief on her head. But she had my gym clothes!
Doing the retrospective musing typical of her, Silver elaborates on that incident. "She didn't have to. Because really in a way, I guess I should have felt the consequences because I left my gym clothes at home. But she brought them anyway." Her evaluative analysis is quintessentially16-year-old. "I thought that was pretty cool!" It was, especially since, as Silver had explained previously, her mother did not believe that women should be seen in public with curlers in their hair.
A Precious Mother-Daughter Memory
In response to my request to recount her most precious recollection
of her mother, Silver shares this story. We use it as the controlling
metaphor for illuminating the path to meaning in this study.
It was summer. In the afternoon, I think. My mom and I were at the park. I was on the swings and she was pushing me. She pushed me as high as I ever went. It felt good. I always came back to the solid touch of her upstretched palms. Sometimes they slowed me down. Sometimes they sent me higher. I think I was even wearing ribbons in my hairmy gift to her. I hated feminine, frilly things. I was happy. The warm sun was on my back. I remember her smiling.
The images in this story are thick with emotive images. A power-filled
mother who motivates. A mother who regulates with the warm touch
of her palm. A smiling mother who is always at her daughter's
back. The mother-as-teacher image re-emerges. If repetition is
indeed the mother of education (Rasi, 1997), the pattern of the
push reflects this. It is not rote repetition, however. We have
the tacit knowledge that the child will eventually learn to regulate
her own soaring. Also implicit in the narrative is the notion
that regardless of the track the daughter chooses, the mother
will always be there for her, at least metaphorically.
Later in the 1989 interview, Silver discusses the regulation theme. "Right now, I think, my mother is still trying to hold me back from growing up. I know she doesn't do it on purpose. And I know she means well by it, but it's like she doesn't want me to grow up!"
The idea of reciprocity is also woven into this on-the-swings tale. "You push me. I wear ribbons for you. We both are happy." Although Silver did not indicate this at the time, her recollection of the "upstretched palms" leaves me with a strong impression of praying hands. When Silver shows me photographs of her success symbols in 1997, her mother's Bible is one of them.
That her mother is proud and supportive of her is an enmeshed
theme in Silver's stories. She recalls the situation surrounding
her grade 8 graduation. She had to make a speech, the first of
three graduation speeches as the 1997 interview reveals. "And
I remember she came to my graduation and I had to make a speech.
And I was making the speech, and I looked at her and she was sitting
there, her little face all lighted up. And I said like Wow!
She's really into this thing'." Silver later reflects. Thinking
with my pen, I note in my journal, "Just that simple word,
little' speaks much for the love Silver had for her maternal
Her mother never completed elementary school but wants much more for her only daughter.
She wants me to have high school, college, university. Whatever it takes to get to the career I want. She doesn't want me to stop. If I ever came home and said I was not going to college, that would be the fight of the century right there. She's like, "I want you to have every opportunity. I don't want you to have to ever work hard like I did!"
The speech story triggers another memorya memory of her grade eight graduation picture. In an aside, she tells me, "I hated that picture with a passion because it made me look like a rabbit." Her mother obviously did not share that perspective. Silver relates, in poetic repetition, one of her most embarrassing moments.
Finally in despair, she accosted her mother. "I was like,
OK, mother. I know you're proud of me and everything and
I'm going to high school and that's cool. But the picture is ugly
and I don't want everybody to see it'."
Her mother would not agree. She had gone "overboard with proudness." Silver took action. "And I took the picture and I hid it."
As if to explain her devious action, Silver recalls, "Like everybody in my town saw that picture before I got my hands on it."
Personal Vision for the Future
"Imagine life 10 years from now. Describe June 6, 1999,"
I ask Silver. After a few moments, Silver's words depict her probability-based
personal vision of success. Her dream is imbued with career and
family connectedness themes, but is still rather vague.
My destination in life is to be a lawyer. I'll be working in some law firm. Some big law firm in Toronto or in the States or something like that. I'll drive my car to work. I'd probably be getting ready for some big case. It'll be close to summer, so I'll probably be starting to plan my vacation. I'd probably go to see my brother. I can't picture my life without my family. I probably would not be married at the time. Maybe later on.
By 1997, however, the dream had coalesced into something grander.
It had become more altruistic and more service-oriented.
I used to tell people, I'm gonna do international law or maybe constitutional law. I changed so many times. I'm gonna do contract law, or work for celebrities. But to tell you the truth, now I'm beginning to lean towards like criminal, civil. I sat down and really thought about it. If I do international law, or whatever, all I'm going to do is spend a lot of time negotiating contracts, treaties, things like that. I don't think that's what I want to do. I don't think I would want to go and just make some Fortune 500 corporation a lot of money. I don't see myself being actualized doing that. I don't see myself being fulfilled. Where I want to be . . . I want to actually touch somebody's life and make an actual difference.
Perhaps the expression on my face indicated how impressed I was with her dream. Silver hastened to add, "But even though I say these things, I'm kinda reserving what I want to do until I actually go there and experience it."
Her Seed Story
From the archives of her childhood story repertoire, Silver shares what I later recognize as her seed story. We see themes of the activist and instances of collaboration, which Silver often weaves into many of her later stories.
She begins with a retrospective prologue. "There are many things that I've done. Like the time I went on strike and picketed my father for about half a day when I was about 6 or 7." When I asked for an explanation, Silver shared this story.
My father owned a store, and I believed I should be getting an hourly wage because I didn't want to work in the store [chuckles]. I wanted to spend my summer vacation upstairs watching TV and being lazy, of course [chuckles]. I got together with my brother and I said, "Look. We have to get paid for this if we're going to do this."
He said, "OK. Cool." So I drew up a contract. And I made my little strike sign. I couldn't quite spell it right. So I had to go to my brother to make it for me. And I picketed my father for a while.
Stepping out of her child-as-rhetor role, Silver describes
her parents' reactions. "And they thought it was cute. For
a while. And after a while my father was like, OK. This
is enough.' And my mother was like, You'd better stop now
because he'll get mad'."
Faithful to her apparently self-regulated mandate that the entire account be told, Silver concludes the story.
"Of course, I never got my wage." Theatrically she whispers, "Should have taken him to the labor board for that!"
Chuckling together, I hear her say, "In some ways, I kinda miss that part of myself." Her analysis becomes definitive. "I'm not quite as bold and brash as I used to be when I was younger. That unthinking. That committed. Because like now, I'm thinking, How does that affect everything else before I do anything? I kinda miss that me."
"Like I Know What I'm Talking About"
When I meet Silver again in June of 1997, I am immediately
struck by her scholarly language and her pragmatic way of analyzing
her world. Shortly after the interview begins, she reports on
a recurrent problem. "When I speak, I sound like I know what
I'm talking about." I concurred.
Having completed college two years earlier, Silver is now working to pay off her school bill so that her transcripts can be sent to the law schools of her choice. Describing her current status, she explains. "I am not at my goal, but I'm working toward a goal. I have goals behind me that I have accomplished." Jacquelyn Eccles (1987, 1994) would
agree. Those accomplished goals are her past successes.
Silver's 1997 definition of success is both personal and developmental.
I think the truest definition of success that you can have is to belong inside yourself. A lot of people, they go through different stages in life. First they have to separate from their family, in going to school whatever. Then they separate from their culture, the place where they live, where they are familiar with everybody. Eventually they have to be able to be by themselves and accept themselves and be fine with that. . . . I think to be successful you have to be able to belong wherever you are. Because you're in here [pointing to heart]. Once you have that, all other successes come into play.
We begin to chart her progress on the success staircase (see
Appendix I), when she pauses to intone: "You have to be able
to understand yourself and grow from yourself out before you can
do anything else."
Watching Silver use the staircase graphic to define the benchmarks of her success, I am amused as I hear her talk and watch her draw little symbols up the staircase. At the first rung, she drew a little foot, and paused to share her strike story. Several rungs up, she drew a helmet to symbolize her high-school graduation, and penned the words "Conquering Hero." She recalls,
When I was a teenager, I thought that I knew everything. That any piece of knowledge was the greatest revelation in the world. And because I had it, that meant that I was like the wisest person on the planet. And nobody could tell me anything. As I've gotten older, I realize that there is so much that I don't know. When I realized that, that made me happier because things would happen when I thought I was, you know, the wisest person on the planet and I couldn't understand why it happened. And I'd be all upset and perplexed and torn up about it. But now, I say, "You know what? I don't know that yet." Seeing this makes me happier than when I thought I had it all, and everything was going wrong.
About to climb up more rungs with her pen, Silver stops to share a life-changing high-school memory:
I remember very specifically that when I graduated from high school I was like obsessed with graduating with honors. I sat down and tried to calculate all my grades out. Like so many times. And I missed it by about 3% or something. And I was in my graduation, and I remember sitting there. I am the president of the class and I didn't graduate with honors. It really bugged me. It really bothered me. And I said, "This is not happening when I graduate again [slaps thigh]. I am not sitting in another graduation without an honor by my name" [slaps thigh].
Her green pen draws a guitar and a saxophone with the words
"I got the blues" and she shared her anticlimactic experience
after the euphoria of high school graduation. When she paused
to highlight her college graduation, she drew a caricature of
herself sitting on top of the world, with diploma in hand, mouthing
the words "Yeah."
Slapping her thigh, she counts off her list of achievements, "President of my class, yearbook editor, and departmental honors, and I graduated cum laude, etc. etc., etc."
Higher up the stairs, three rungs from her present, is her law school dream. Before that, she explains, she had to learn again that "when you leave your area of comfort to go out into the real world, they don't care about what you did before. That was painful. I think I'd forgotten the lesson that I'd learned in the past."
Counting three rungs up, she penned the words, "law school." Explaining the gap between college and law school, she reminisces:
A lot of things happened that essentially blew up the plans that I had for my life. I'm in the process of getting my green card. When I was at college, the whole thing got screwed up. Mostly because my parents' records from the islands got held up a long time. Now they're just finding where they are, but I'm not a minor anymore. I have to apply for myself. As far as I understand, it won't take terribly long. But it's one area I'm pushing to make happen. A lot of financial woes will not happen again [slaps thigh]. At least not to the same extent.
Noting Silver's penchant for slapping her thigh, I ask her the reason. She pauses for an instant, and responds with a metaphor: "A jump start for my brain."
A Jump Start for My Brain
When Silver, initially against her will, moved to boarding
high school, she found that her life became a dynamic combination
of academic concern, security, acceptance, a and work experience.
In much the same way as the seniors at Mansfield had (Peshkin,
1978), Silver learned more about group dynamics, leadership, and
politics as president of her graduating class than she would have
in sociology or civic classes as the vignette below illuminates.
I remember very specifically, when we were graduating from high school. At one point in the year, everything was going completely wrong for our class plans. We had no speaker. All kinds of things were going wrong. Our exec[utive committee] were sitting in the computer lab. S, who was on the exec, said, "But Sil, all these things are going wrong." And I said, "Yeah, but you know what? Even though you and I are sitting here freaking out, and saying, What are we gonna do?', we cannot show that to the class. They need the exec to stand fortified so that they will fall in line. If they see us falling apart, then anarchy reigns. . . ." When you're a leader, you don't have the luxury to fall apart [slapping her thigh] in front of people.
Hearing her voice in the story she is telling, Silver adds,
"I probably didn't say that in those exact terms. That was
the general idea."
Silver describes the responsibilities of public identity incurred by leaders. "You can't just throw up your hands and say, ooOOHHhh!' You don't have that luxury when you're a leader to say, Just forget it." Expanding on the essentials of good leadership from her own experience, Silver slaps her thigh and continues: "A good leader is somebody who is willing to do what they ask the people that they're leading to do."
She illustrates that her rhetoric and praxis intersect with an incident at her college yearbook staff meeting. "I said, We have to meet every Sunday at 9 o'clock in the morning. That means if you want to do your little group thing, you have to do it before 12 because you have to be here at 9'."
In an aside, she tells me, "I don't like to get up early. But I would always be there. I find that a lot of times, especially in a work situation, if people elevate themselves above people that sometimes causes resentment." Slapping her thigh again, she insists: "That [kind of] power stems from fear, rather than a respect for the person."
As her parents did, Silver extols the benefit of education but delineates its limitations in poetic prose.
Her parents were in full support of her college education plans.
When she crossed the border to attend school, so did they. "My
parents moved there. They moved so that it
would be easier for our entire family to have my brother and me right there in college. The financial burdens. That's the reason why they moved [there]."
As an international student, Silver did not qualify for financial aid, but she would not be deterred. In the summers, she worked 12-hour days. During the term, she worked 30 hours each week while taking a full class load. Explaining how she got through during that time, she recalls a phrase that kept popping up in her mind. "Yeah, I'm tired. But this is for school [slapping thigh]. And that's all that really matters." Even the trauma that she went through every semester, trying to register, seemed worth it. She recalls:
I tried very hard to take responsibility although I didn't take as much as I should have. But I wanted to. And the day-to-day struggle that I went through not knowing how I was going to pay this. How I was going to pay that. The fight every semester to make sure I would have money, or talking the Financial Aid people into letting me back in school. Just that alone. The level of responsibility is probably the most significant thing [that has occurred in the last 4 or 5 years].
Responding to my question about the reason for her shouldering the brunt of the financial burden, the rhetor poet recites the motivating lines which began with her "end in mind" (Covey, 1989, p. 97).
As Silver recites those lines, I remember her earlier description
of recounting episodes of her teenage angst with her mother. "When
for some reason, this guy doesn't like you. And suddenly you dash
away all your homework. And you don't study because you're all
upset about this thing."
Silver had described her mother's wise advice, "You know what? They're not going to be there with you when you march down the aisle. You will. And all that stuff won't matter anymore." Her mother's voice clearly echoed in the distance throughout Silver's college career.
Looking back on her undergraduate experience, Silver analyzes those years in the metaphor of a bittersweet love affair. She talks about the exhilaration of working with challengesmaintaining an excellent GPA, working on the school yearbook, working with the History Honor Society. She describes how her teachers often gave her free rein to develop her skills. She reports on how she created the curriculum for her minor in women's studies. She depicts her graduation, "Accolades, affirmation falling on my head like water from the sky."
After graduation, however, things changed. "It was almost as if I got the boot," she notes. She analyzes the post-graduation disconnect with poignancy, philosophical deliberation, and her special brand of narration.
When I went to college, my whole life was there. I went to church there. I hung out there. All my friends were there. I shopped near there. If I went to the mall, I went with people from school. My social contacts, spiritual contacts, everything were in one area.
Pausing to make a retrospective evaluation, she decides, "It
was too much, I think. I was too connected." Picking up the
story, she tells me, in poignant detail, about her post-graduation
It was painful. . . . Every thing that I was really all about was connected to the school in some way. My whole life [had] revolved around that school. I was too connected. I was still living around the school. I was supposed to be gone. But I wasn't gone. I was hanging on. Things would happen. The atmosphere that I wasn't a part of, even though in some respects I tried to be a part of. It wasn't me anymore. It wasn't me. And I had to pull myself away from that. It was the biggest step. It was painful.
Talking about her college years, she recalls the evolution of what she calls her femi-Nazi stage.
I do realize that I tried to be very different, consciously different, from other females. I thought that was very important because I thought the way other females acted was very stupid. I was never like into clothes, make-up. "Oh, this guy," giggle-giggle and run away. That was never me. I was the girl to hang out with the guys; hang out with the girls. Be friends with everybody.
Evaluating that phase retrospectively, Silver is blunt. "I
went to one extreme to be completely different from them. I try
to come back round to accept some facets of my femininity and
be honest about them now."
The difference is still obvious in an exchange with one of her married girlfriends when Silver declares her reluctance to cook and serve food for her father. "I'm not serving anybody. Do I look like a slave?" She breaks into an Anglicized version of the Jamaican patois her father often uses. "Mi fada know where 'im food de. Is right dere!"
A heated exchange between the two, which she narrated in playlet form, ensued.
Friend: It's not even like you're a girl!
Silver: What am I? Some hybrid? Amalgamation of male and female? Some hybrid creature?
Friend: I don't know what you are.
Looking back on the scene, Silver admits that "a couple
of years ago that would have really bothered me. But now I guess
I've spent more time actualizing both sides of myself than I think
many people do."
With another retrospective glance, Silver adds another evaluative note about her upbringing. "I was the ultimate tomboy. I held that role for a long time. I don't like people condescending to me because I'm female. My father used to say that everything that my brother had to do, I had to do."
At my request, Silver looks into the metaphorical mirror. She pauses to evaluate the question. "What a deeply faceted question!" and describes what she sees.
I probably symbolize the amalgamation of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, all those things either grew up around the time that I was born or, you know, continued during that time. I'm generation X and in a lot of ways I represent all those things because I'm educated. I'm a minority. I have a job now and I will have a career.
As her words flow over her, Silver pauses and switches to the
disclaiming mode. "In reality, I'm just me. I'm just Sil,
trying to get along. Trying to do what I need to do. I have my
li'l opinion; got my li'l hurts. In reality, in a nutshell, I'm
Silver's sense of responsibility shapes her activism, regardless of the visible difference that she knows others see. "I can't let that fear of my difference, of people looking at me as different stop me from righting an injustice when I see it."
The stories of her high-school and college years are riddled
with the theme of hyper-responsibility. In almost every one of
the 38 pages of the 1997 verbatim transcript the word responsibility'
appears at least once. She sees herself "beholden to her
responsibilities as a Black woman." When I ask her to explain,
she pauses to give me the context of her sense of responsibility.
I think as a Black female in the church, in my career, what have you, there is a certain responsibility to represent and also help other people reach the goals. I have to be responsible. To be aware of what is going on [slowly and thoughtfully]. Not to allow my fear of being different to cloud things that I see are wrong. Responsibility along those lines.
During college she came to a stance-setting realization. "The
rest of the world sees me as Black. Sometimes I have to act in
a certain way to represent the culture that I am." Her words
echo those of her mother in the postscript to that childhood fight
Currently taking time off from higher education to work as a marketing assistant at a computer firm, Silver has intentionally opted to shed the mantle of responsibility. She describes this change:
Just recently I went through a period in my life where I just decided I was doing nothing. Nobody asked me for anything. But slowly but surely, I guess, I get drawn into it because I have a sense of responsibility that things need to be done. And once I'm there and people see that obviously I have the talent to do things, they begin to depend on me more and more.
The metaphoric underpinning "drawn into" of this
monologue is diametrically opposed to the self-regulations themes
that abound in her story. I ask her about the conflict. She confesses.
"I've been trying to understand the actual dynamic that makes
it happen. I don't understand it. The thought has not yet occurred
Building a Support System
Silver talks retrospectively of her lifestory as a chronicle of highs and lowshighs where she has reached the pinnacle of her success, and the lows that invariably follow. Turning the staircase graphic to a horizontal position, she remembers:
I've gone through successive periods in my life where I've been, like, on top of it. The big person on campus. And then I've been like nobody. And every time I went from a high to a low, the low was worse. The best illustration is when I graduated from high school and went to university. Nobody knew who I was by
reputation. Nobody just accepted what I said or did because I was me. I had to prove myself all over again. I was a little fish in a big pond. And that was very hard for me.
For Silver her grade12 graduation was a watershedan introit to greater success. She was the president of her high school's elite, the graduates. She faced another challenge when she moved to college. As her stories tell it, her cognitions subsequently went into high gear.
I had to build [a support system] all over again. The building was very hard. The first year of university was very hard. I felt like I didn't have a place. I have been used to a role. But I didn't have that role readily available to me. . . . I was depressed a lot. The truth is, I wanted to be more in the spotlight than I was. I came from being in the spotlight, and then just nothing. Just there. One of the masses. One of the throng.
Silver shares a proverb which helps her handle the vicissitudes of life: "I forget who said this, but somebody said, Everybody has highs and lows in their life and . . . the way that you really know you've learned from the highs in your life is how you react to the lows in your life'."
Accolades and Past Successes
As Silver tells her stories, we see a woman with a rich history
of past successes. Her retrospective musing captures the essence
of them in a few words. She explicates: "When I graduated
I was like the queen of my school basicallynot to brag or
anything. I had it pretty good."
After college, memories of her past successes seethed in her brain. She describes a conversation she had with herself that brought her up short. "I'm not even talking about new things. I'm re-living old things." Her self-analysis shifted into gear as she altered that acclaiming mode and gave herself this piece of advice: "That's when, you know, you gotta move. Get to another level. Start something new."
This type of "schizophrenic thing, talking to myself about this and that" is not uncommon to Silver. She recalls a particular stretch of road between campus and her house where she would evaluate each day. "That li'l stretch of road saw a lot of it. It sounds schizophrenicbipolar I guess. I was the therapist and the patient was me."
Although deep down Silver is aware of her accomplishments, they never seem good enough for her standards of excellence. Thinking back on her work as yearbook editor, she notes, "The yearbook wasn't the best yearbook that they ever had. I'm rather proud of the cover but, as I wrote in my editor's page, This is not going to be the best yearbook you've ever had'."
I asked her why she felt the need to downplay her accomplishments. Her response was factual. "There were a lot of things that I could have done better. It was like I made mistakes in it. I'm not downplaying it. I was proud of the work but it could have been better in a lot of ways. If I had been a bit more diligent . . ."
When she talked about graduating cum laude, she regrets the oversight which caused her not to graduate magna cum laude. "I could have graduated magna cum laude, if I had S/Ued that class my second year. If I had only S/Ued it, my GPA might have jumped to 3.8. But no, I forgot to hand in the paper." She recalls her distress when she woke up in the middle of the night and realized that she had missed the deadline and would have to take the class for a letter grade.
The epilogue of that success story is a matter-of-fact answer to my earlier question about her disclaiming mode. "I think whenever I do something, I always think I could do it better."
The only success with which Silver is completely satisfied is her college graduation speech. "My speech at graduation. It really was that good [laughs]. It really was. I was quite proud of that speech. I called it The Passion; the Peace and the Providence'."
Indeed, several members of her audience, besides her doting relatives, have corroborated her evaluation. Some even suggested that her speech outshone that of the commencement speaker, a professor from Harvard. The title alone does much to synthesize the chronicles of her life, particularly her recent school days.
Her Own Space
Flipping through a series of her photographs, Silver pauses.
This is a park across from my home. This park saved my life when I moved back [after graduating from college]. It is a haven for me. A solace, actually. This park is important. It's a place where I feel open and safe. It's a beautiful park. Another reason why I took this picture. This is my bus stop.
She waxes lyrical. "This place takes me everywhere that
I need to go. A key to my universe. This is the road that leads
to everywhere now. Everywhere that I go. If I happen to be going
east, this bus takes me there." The imagery abounds as her
description continues. "It's the jumping off point to the
rest of the world. Even the airport."
She talks about this space as the site for her muse. "I started writing a book in this park. Good ideas used to come to me in this park. I just haven't hammered out a good story line yet."
Everything Happens for a Reason
Reflecting on her 24 years, Silver mouths her mantra: "Everything happens for a reason." As she tells her stories, she often pauses to weave in some conversations that she has had with her God in the low times'. Her prayers are as contemporary as they are personal. She recalls how she dealt with some personal trauma.
There was a stretch of road between campus and home that I would walk every day. Mostly at night. I would sit down and think. I think I was struggling with what was making me so unhappy all the time. And I prayed. And I talked to God about this. I'm like, "God, what is up? What is going on?" And finally it was revealed to me.
I have to do a lot of soul searching. Calling on God. On deity. I think the realization that there's a plan that's bigger than what I do. I used to say, "Well, could you kinda let me in on the next plan. It would be kinda nice."
As her spiritual side emerges while she chronicles her struggle,
she breaks into explanatory monologue. "I'd be talking to
God . . ." She lets me in on her private dialogue with Him.
"It would be nice if you just give me a little hint. I'm
not asking for the whole thing. Just tomorrow, or next week. That
would be good."
Finally, as Silver recalls it, she realized that she had to "lose my grip on wanting to control everything that happened to me, and wanting everything to happen at a specific time." With the acuity that is typical of hindsight, she realizes the wisdom embedded in her mantra.
Everything happens for a specific reason. I will be 28 when I finish law school which is totally off the plan that I wanted. But if I went to law school right after college, I would not have appreciated it as much. I wouldn't have been as focused. As hungry to be there. That's probably the thing that keeps me focused. If there is one canon that will go down in history, if there is just one, [it is] everything happens for a reason that we may not see now, but in the fullness of time you will see that's the way it is supposed to happen.
The Building Metaphors
Silver talks her life in terms of the process of building.
Looking back on her high- school years and the Black-White difference-blindness
that she had previously espoused, Silver speaks wistfully of the
friendships she had developed.
To a point I made friends, they respected me. But it didn't grow. It didn't change. We all built our little walls and it made everybody comfortable. We didn't want to break any barriers or make anybody feel uncomfortable. It would have needed to be broken for the truth to come out, I think.
To my way of thinking, the building process, as Silver describes
it, is more easily visualized with Lego pieces; pieces that can
just as easily be broken apart as joined together; pieces that
have to fit together to make linkages and create structures. Whenever
Silver talks about personal defects that she had allowed to develop
within her self, she uses that metaphor. "All the years that
I had spent building up this paragon in my mind, I had to spend
as many years tearing it back down again."
The building theme emerges when she talks about reconstructing her support system at college. "I had that support system at [high] school. I had to build one. I had to build one all over again when I went to university. The building was very hard."
A retrospective analysis of her life story through charting her successes on the
staircase graphic evokes the metaphor.
I graduated from high school a lot better than I started, I was more a lackadaisical student when I started, but I ended better. That was something that I accomplished. Then I went to university, and had to build all over again. I had to rebuild myself into a new. . . I was more an actualized person.
Moving up the staircase graphic, she describes her sense of placelessness when she went to college. "And I was just there. One of the masses, the throng. And I think that every time that I build to this pinnacle, I have to come down."
Analysis of Her Stories
Themes of self-regulation and self-efficacy undergird Silver's
story. She tells her story in much the same way as she plans her
lifewith a time frame, context, focus and foresight, and
an eye to perfection. Her ways of telling reflect the swing motion
that she alluded to when describing a childhood memory. She excels
in the use of repetitiona frequent mode in her elocution
pattern. Changing a single word, in the repeated phrase, she manages
to sound much like the classic Bible-thumping Baptist preacher
of past eras or a budding poet laureate. Describing her current
relationship with her mother, she intones, "We speak to each
other like adults but . . ."
Then in poetic fashion, she pushes her point home, varying the tempo with her voice echoing the motion of the swing. As I transcribe her words, I can almost feel "the warm solid touch of her [mother's] upstretched hands."
Knowledge of her past successes empower Silver to greater achievement.
She uses her "little success stories" to gain insight
for improvement. "I sat down and thought about it" is
a recurring introduction to her narrative. Her thinking, the jump
starts for her
progress, form the trajectory of her success, the highs she recalls with fondness.
Much of Silver's accomplishments are achieved with foresight and deliberation. Recalling the graduation experience in high school when she was president of her class with no honors behind her name, she vowed that it would not happen again. It did not, as her college story reveals. In her dialogue she notes the single actS/U-ing a classthat would have improved her cumulative grade point average so that she could have graduated magna cum laude.
Silver uses dialogue well. Her varied tones leave the listener in no doubt as the speakers change in her polylogic stories. To conclude her strike story, she relies on her bi-dialectic skill and uses Jamaican intonation to portray her father's voice.
All through the dialogue, Silver weaves in many allusions to her father. She notes that while she can recall no role model in her life, he came the closest to crafting her pattern of behavior.
Silver often undergirds her dialogue with humor. She uses it
as a cushion for her storied falls. The humor takes much of the
pain away. My journal during the 1989 interview process records
my dilemma. "Her sense of humor is woven throughout the dialogue,
and I could not refrain from laughing even if my degree depended
Eight years later that is still true. Hardly 30 seconds into the 1997 interview, we chortle together as Silver goes into a derogatory description of the way she talked 8 years ago. "I remember saying specifically to somebody the other day, I'm glad I'm not a teenager anymore because [of the way] teeny boppers speak'. I read this and . . . Oh, Oh. I have to eat my words." We chuckle together at her obvious distress. Her humor has built a bridge between us.
It is not solely the story line that creates humor in Silver's narrative. It is more often the coupling of the account with her use of her vocal instrument. Listening to her on tape, with the memory of the interview still fresh, I note in my journal, "I feel as if I'm
being sucked into the art of hearing data, in the way she wants it heard. I cannot but submit."
Her humor has long-term effects, as I noted shortly after the last interview when I was thinking with my pen in 1997.
As I transcribed, I found myself gigglingechoing my laughter I hear on the tape. It was not a belly laugh nor a polite titter. It was instead a delighted chuckle that perhaps alerted Silver to the fact that this was folklore in a very modern sense, and I was loving every minute of it.
Much of her discussion about her mother is told with an explanatory
footnote, a recurrent theme in her storying. When she storied
her impression of her mother's restrictive adolescent-rearing
style discussed earlier, she adds in her unique quasi-repetitive
style. "I know she doesn't do it on purpose, and I know she
means well by it, but it's like she doesn't want me to grow up."
Her damaged-toe story concludes with an explanatory validation
of her mother's seemingly heartless behavior. "In my family
when you do something, you pay the consequences."
The metaphoric underpinnings of her stories are as profound as they are frequent. The swing metaphor re-emerges as Silver recounts how often and how fortuitously she is pushed. She references her parents, the action of the college faculty, and her own efforts in her journey to her next pinnacle, law school. We are left in no doubt however, that she is the architect of her future.
Ironically or because most of her dialogue is poetic, it was difficult to capture the essence of the progress of this successful woman in free verse. When I finally mailed this poem to Silver so that she could verify its authenticity, it was two months before she sent her E-mailed revision, acknowledging its fit with the modesty typical of her. "I am floored by all of this. I wish I was as powerful as the poem makes me seem. To myself, I am just a regular Joelean!!!" She also noted her delight in the cadence in which it was written. Her revisions of the poem appear in italics.