Since I already called my mom on Mother’s Day, I thought that I’d talk about another woman who was important in my life, a mentor, who I probably haven’t talked to in 20 years. (I know, I’m such an ungrateful bitch. )
Dr. Jane Mercer was not even in the same department as me. My dissertation was an analysis of the psychometric properties of Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Revised , Mexicano, and she was a sociologist renowned for her expertise on the impact of social and cultural factors on intelligence test scores.
Shortly after I finished the first draft of my dissertation, my advisor received some distressing news (no, it wasn’t that he was my advisor, he already knew that). He and his wife had begun dating as very young teenagers. Other than his military service during World War II, they had been together ever since. When she was diagnosed with cancer, he walked into the dean’s office and just said, simply,
… And went on sabbatical with about a four-minute notice.
Everyone completely understood. His colleagues took over committee responsibilities. As his doctoral student that was furthest along, I taught his courses, like inferential statistics.
I was his only doctoral student writing a dissertation, and someone needed to step in to supervise my research. That was Dr. Jane Mercer.
Not only did she read every draft of my dissertation, recommend articles I read and journals to submit publications, introduce me to people at conferences (not a gesture to be underestimated when one is looking for a position) but, more importantly, she provided advice on life.
Here are a few of the things I learned from Dr. Mercer just by observing her.
1. NO MATTER HOW FAR YOU HAVE GONE DOWN THE WRONG ROAD, TURN BACK! Taped over her desk, Dr. Mercer had a piece of paper with this proverb typed on it. No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back. We’re told in America that quitters never win, bloom where you’re planted, you can’t fight city hall, you’re never going to win against big corporations. Making a change in anything from your employer to your gym to the crowd you hang around with can be treated as an act of disloyalty. People stay in situations long, long after they should have left because they are ‘committed’, ‘invested’, ‘cannot leave now’. The unwillingness to turn back after going a long way down the wrong road is the second biggest barrier most people’s happiness. The biggest is fear, which leads me to …
2. Have the courage to speak the truth as you see it. Being the most brilliant researcher in the world does no good to anyone if you are afraid to publish and publicize unpopular results. In the 1970s, many people thought intelligence tests were the answer to psychology’s long history of physics envy. At last, we were a real science with actual numbers, not this whacko dream interpretation stuff but measurement – hey, IQ even has a math word – quotient, in the name. Not to mention, companies like The Psychological Corporation and Educational Testing Service were big business (still are). Jane Mercer sincerely believed intelligence tests systematically underestimated the intelligence of low-income, minority children. In the case of Diana vs the State Board of Education, a lawsuit was filed on behalf a few Mexican-American children, including a little girl who spoke Spanish as her first language, was tested in English and determined to be mentally retarded. All of the big names (and big money) lined up on the side of the State Board of Education and Jane spoke up for the side of Diana. This may not seem like much now, but back then she had to stand up to a LOT of opposition, it was not happy times. She did it anyway.
3. Yes, you CAN have a job and a family. Men do it all the time. Jane was older than me and of that generation that was told women could either have a career or children but not both. By the time I met her, her four sons were all adults. She and her husband got along fine and seemed to agree that since they were both parents of these children they could both engage in parenting them. We couch things in daunting terms “Can women have it all?” Of course no one has it ALL. I’m finishing this blog post in the Denver airport. That empty spot you see at the end of jetway is where the plane I am taking back to Los Angeles should be.
I would like to have a non-eventful flight out of Denver airport, just once. You see, none of us can have it ALL but no one asks men whether they think they can manage a career and children.
4. Being the first or only woman in an area doesn’t mean you have to go along with that happy-to-be-here crap. Yes, she was a tenured professor at the University of California, which had damn few of them, but that didn’t mean she had to accommodate in any way because of her gender. Don’t take on female doctoral students because you don’t want to be type-cast as ‘only a good advisor for women’? Screw that! If they needed an advisor and she could help, she was on board. Don’t speak out about intelligence testing because people will think you are shrill or too emotional, not a real academic? Screw that twice! As you can see, I have taken that lesson deeply to heart but with less of her limits on profanity.
Woo-hoo – plane boarding now – only 90 minutes late – gotta go. Happy Mother’s Day.