"Things like this don't happen to people like us," my mother blurted to a reporter in December of 1992, hours after I'd won a Rhodes scholarship. She repented mightily of those loose words when the nice reporter put them on the front page of the Minot (North Dakota) Daily News. "Minot Woman Wins Rhodes Scholarship," he wrote. Minot Woman, one of ours.
My grandmother came up with a brilliant non sequitur when I called. "That's nice," she said distractedly. "Did you hear that your cousin Julie was on Studs and her date is a weightlifter?" Nearly every woman in my family has had a baby by the age of 21, and I, perversely, was going to Oxford. This was stepping out of line as surely as if Chelsea Clinton had decided to go to a community college. We tell ourselves that American meritocracy makes all things possible for everyone; it's the logistics that get tricky, the small details of boldly going where no one like you has gone before.
It was Mom's comment that pinned me like a bug on a specimen card. Contemplate the absurdity of the scene. No long apprenticeship, no proving yourself through promotions or gigs or publications, just a catapult -- at the age of 21 -- into your 15 minutes of fame. Your brief, previously undistinguished life reels by with digital clarity: the high-school guidance counselor who called you an underachiever. The coach who cut you from the track team. Even your own mother doesn't believe this sort of thing happens to people like you.
I began to feel like a sea animal trapped in a tidal pool, exiled in a new and threatening environment, unable to get back to my own atmosphere. Although I had gone to Bryn Mawr rather than the University of North Dakota and said shockingly disloyal things about my intention to leave Minot for good, I belonged to my origins. I was still a Minot Woman. Now the Atlantic stretched wide, a physical manifestation of everything I didn't believe I could do, or should do. It was that moment of disconnected terror we all experience at the shedding of an old identity and the assumption of a new, inchoate one. We embrace the old; it's everything we've ever been. The new garments we hubristically don may well be emperor's clothes: a public humiliation that will expose us as poseurs.
At times, the disconnect between old and new is so wide it borders on the schizophrenic. The next autumn in New York, I met the American Rhodes scholars who would fly to London with me that night. Bigger than life they were: football and track stars, an aide to Al Gore, actors, a model who would shortly be one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People, scientists who had already published technical papers, a successful entrepreneur, someone who had worked with Mother Teresa. In such company, who wouldn't wait for a hand at ones elbow, the voice saying there has been some mistake? How can you take your place among this group without displaying the inconceivable arrogance of believing that you belong? And when you must stand and present yourself, do your mother's awed words come back to you, and is it paralyzing? Elbow to elbow with my new comrades in a 747, I felt pressed up against a cold glass that separated us, me on the outside, them on the inside.
The adjustment to Oxford life wasn't nearly as difficult as those first hours with the Rhodes class. Few people -- certainly not the British -- cared who we were, and we made our cultural blunders and discoveries without any intrusive supervision. When I wore a rowing jacket to a session with my supervisor and his kind features rose up in horror, I felt a warm sense of acceptance and nurturing at the idea that he would worry whether I misused my study time.
As foreigners in Oxford we were so free that the rare gesture of semi-parental expectations came as a welcome symbol of belonging. Some of us found, to our great joy, that the burden of success, carefully accumulated throughout frantically busy undergraduate careers, could be laid aside briefly in favor of vivid conversations, sunny afternoons in boats of every variety and voluptuous reading of all the books we'd never had time to open. At its best, Oxford can be a cocoon from which your better self is reborn.
The jolt, then, of returning to the United States was all the more pronounced. It didn't help that the news came in from every front (friends' calls and e-mails, publications I stumbled across, even TV once or twice) that other Rhodes of my generation were doing extraordinary things. During a long, despairing year revising my dissertation at Stanford, a sense of vertigo stalked me. I was standing next to a treadmill running at a terrifying speed, unwilling to get on and yet so mesmerized by it and its occupants that I couldn't walk away. Everyone seemed so sure of themselves, entirely unencumbered by self-doubt or any desire for a different sort of life.
Not that self-doubt is the sort of thing people talk about, especially not young rising stars whose careers rely on an image of invulnerability. Maybe some people don't feel it. But if you are human, and wake up with a hairdo like the Statue of Liberty, and have no connection to power or influence, and possess a realistic sense of your own importance in the universe, then you understand how truly distant the penthouse looks from the sidewalk below. You may even suspect that the penthouse is not worth having.
The American dream demands that we assimilate. The same dreams and the same roads to them get passed out to all of us, regardless of our histories and secret selves. This is not a plea for sympathy: The few of us who get the golden chances know how lucky we are. But in winning a scholarship, getting the perfect job, starring in a movie, taking first place in a big tournament, or even experiencing more common successes that distinguish one person from the next, we don't relinquish our connection to the people we were beforehand. If anything, a moment of success provides new clarity about how much the thing you thought you wanted really matters.
That's how it happened for me. As often happens in moments of indecision, a chance encounter made all the difference. I got the American Oxonian address list one spring morning in California and opened to the name of a Rhodes in Iowa who lists his occupation as "poet and farmer." Soon after, for no very articulate reason, my new husband and I moved back to his home state of Iowa. There had to be some common ground between Minot Woman and my new identity, and I needed to find it before I went further into the unknown. The possibility of waking up one day to discover that nothing of my previous self existed scared me more than jumping off the treadmill into the cornfields.
In the first weeks, I walked into the long grass behind my in-laws' house, stood eye to eye with a cow and sighed out the breath I'd held for months. It wasn't Minot, but it was a place where people would judge me by the way I treated people, admire my home-canned homegrown tomatoes and offer to spend their weekends scraping paint off my cupboards. In short, the real world: my world.
We've been here nearly two years. I've had several jobs, acquired a house and a Newfoundland dog, planted a garden, made friends with children and farmers and old people. Only from here, in this position of strength, can I walk sturdily away from the treadmill and think about the future free from the star-chamber effect of accumulated expectations. Academic air is too thin, it turns out: I need work that will give me real tools to touch people's lives and get my hands good and dirty.
I understand at last what my mother meant in those words she regrets. Kneeling in the dirt, planting tomatoes and sweet peas the way Grandma says to in her letters, I am making this otherworldly experience something that does happen to people like us. A woman -- a Minot Woman even -- can go to Oxford and return to the life she had before without severing the paths to either world.
In the end it wasn't the Rhodes that widened my horizons, but finding out that the Rhodes is not who I am. No moral, no lesson really, only the peaceful knowledge that ambition will not be my only compass. Failure doesn't loom as such a Technicolor horror when life's choices aren't mutually exclusive, and even the road not taken waits with wildflowers growing in the ditch.