Sunday, May 6, 2012

Girlfriend Power

My friend Rajni is on my mind this week. I met Rajni when we were both 16 years old. We have the same birthday. In my 16th year, my family lived in Dundee, Scotland for one year. I attended the Morgan Academy in what was the equivalent of my junior year of high school. This was in 1970-71 so it was before the British education system switched to “comprehensive.” Prior to the switch, schoolchildren took an exam in 6th grade that determined whether they would attend a university-bound school in grades 7-12 or a vocational school. The Morgan was for university-bound children. Children tracked to the vocational school were not prepared for university but rather for a trade. If they wanted to go to university they would have to attend a junior college for several years to complete the coursework necessary to advance to a university.

I was allowed to attend the Morgan because my father was teaching at Dundee University so I suppose the powers that be assumed I was college-bound material. Even so, for my first month at the school I was placed in sophomore-year classes because they assumed that an American child could not perform up to the level of a British child. After one month, they realized that I was way beyond sophomore year and they moved me up to junior-year level classes. My younger brother and I were the only Jews in the school. We were practically the only Jews in the whole city. My friend Rajni and her two sisters were the only East Indian students at the school and the only Hindus. Everyone else was Christian. Interesting, huh?

Back before the switch to comprehensive education, the powers that be automatically placed all Indian and Pakistani students (and there were many) in the vocational schools. Even though most of them spoke excellent English and many were very bright, they were never allowed to go up to the university-bound academy in Dundee in 1970:  rampant racism. One of Rajni’s older sisters had duked it out with the authorities and managed to get into the Morgan (the very first Indian student to attend). She was a star student and she paved the way for her younger sisters, all of whom were allowed to attend in her footsteps.

It’s not surprising that Rajni and I became instant friends. We were both presumed inferior intellectually until proven otherwise. She was my best friend for my year in Dundee. Both of us had to work twice as hard as the other students in order to prove ourselves, and prove ourselves we did. Although we have not seen one another since 1980, we stay in touch. Rajni went on to become an exceptional woman. She completed her law degree at university and practiced law for several years. I remember her once telling me that she had a fantasy of appearing in court in a sari, just to make a point about the competence of Indians. It was just a dream. She never did it. But here is what she did do:  Rajni became the very first Asian (Indians are referred to as Asian in Britain) judge, either male or female, in all of Scotland! This occurred many years ago. She has served as a judge for most of her professional career. This is an extraordinary accomplishment. But I am not at all surprised. Rajni is an extraordinary person. (She is also, by the way, married to a lawyer and has two grown sons, both college graduates accomplished in their fields.)

This past week, I sent Rajni an email to let her know that Memories from Cherry Harvest will be available in print on June 18 and that I will be sending her a copy. She replied in a brief email:  “I cannot express my joy for you as eloquently as you. You were a huge influence on me in the short time we were at school as best friends. I look forward to reading your book.” I am touched and humbled by her words. I wrote back, jokingly, “Behind every hugely successful woman is a terrific high school girlfriend.” It’s more than a joke, though. Our girlfriends, our women friends, are often the only factor that makes the difference between success and failure, between perseverance and collapse, between hope and despair. Back in 1970, before “feminism” and “women’s lib,” before the ERA was passed in Congress (though never ratified by enough states to become law), all we had going for us was each other, our sister-girls who cheered one another on and believed in each other. That’s how we made it through. I believed that Rajni could do anything she set her mind to, and she knew I believed in her, as she has believed in me all these years. I’m proud to have been a small part of her accomplishment; she is certainly a small part of mine.

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