“Barbara, your assignment is to write a 250-word essay entitled What Freedom Means to Me, my English teacher said. “I’m submitting your work to a local writing contest.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, not questioning why she selected that subject or why none of my classmates were given the same assignment.
She told me nothing about the rules or the real purpose of the contest, or her reason for choosing me. My writing in class garnered decent grades and some of my writing appeared in the school newspaper. However, I had never entered a contest. An essay on freedom didn’t interest me in the least.
Freedom, what freedom? I never felt the freedom to do what I wanted to do. In my last year in a junior high school, I was told I’d be going to a business high school. Not my choice. I wanted to go to the college prep high school even though I knew my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college. I had high aspirations. Without college, I knew my career options were limited. My mother thought the business high school would be good preparation for a decent office job rather than one of the many factory positions available at that time. I envisioned an unhappy, unsatisfying, boring future.
Freedom, what freedom? I attended school when you couldn’t choose your subject matter or teachers. Most of my teachers were okay, but my social studies teacher was an uninspiring, older woman who never discussed the subject. Every day, she simply told us to copy the twenty questions written on the chalkboard, find the answers in the textbook, and write those answers on the lined paper she gave us.
When that school year was over, I hoped that my next social studies teacher would be better. When I was assigned to her again, I sat in class with tears in my eyes. More of the same, I thought.
Freedom. What freedom? We ate what my mother prepared for dinner or cooked what she told us to cook the way she wanted it done. She even selected all my clothes with little or no input from me.
Freedom. What freedom? I told my mother about a relative’s excessive use of alcohol and I was chastised harshly for talking negatively about the family. When I chose not to socialize with a friend because she had been mean to me, I was again chastised. I shut down emotionally and learned to keep my observations and feelings to myself to avoid her displeasure.
Freedom. What freedom? Without a second thought, I quickly wrote what I thought she wanted in the essay. When the students in the English classes were assembled in the library that next week, my English teacher pulled me to the side.
“Barbara, you didn’t put much effort into your essay,” she said. “Here,” she said handing a second-place certificate to me. She then walked to the front of the library to join the other English teachers and some visitors.
One person, a contest judge I assumed, called a girl to the front and congratulated her on winning first place. I looked at my disappointed teacher and thought, this contest wasn’t about what freedom means to me. It’s about a teacher’s bragging rights of having the winner in her class.
Freedom. What freedom? To write what interests me, to study any subject that interests me, to cook what and how I want to, and to wear whatever I wish are freedoms I don’t take for granted.