I QUIT Harvard seven years ago after completing my freshman year to become a fashion model I did so to escape the entire mental process. The monumental intellectual confidence which I'd towed into the Yard at the beginning of Freshman Week had flaked chipped and then crumbled to dust during the following months Rejection from a freshman seminar encounters with disdainful professors mindboggling conversations with Presidential scholars along with the first C-plus of my life had the combined effect of linking thinking and misery together in my mind
Through the discipline of studies, the experimentation of relation ships and the ardency of radical feminism I had been searching for an "answer" --a sense of purpose and direction which would make it possible to wake up each morning feeling strong and optimistic in stead of inadequate and terrified. But immersing myself in academics love and ideology had not led me to the grail My Korean parents waxed Confucian whenever I cried on the phone to them. imploring me to look "within" for the answer. But for some reason whether it was because I had spent too many years watching Johnny Carson, or because of my pigpen in Weld, I saw only a void when I looked within Ralph Waldo Emerson, had he shown up when I really needed him, would have set me straight by saying. "Do not craze yourself with thinking. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well mixed people who can enjoy what they find without question. We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them. But exasperated from trying too hard I packed a suitcase and took my troubled mind to Europe instead.
As a struggling model in Paris I experienced the futility of trying to apply New England rules of good behavior to the wrong environment. All of the by then ingrained qualities which had made me a teacher's pet in prep school discipline organization punctuality--were spurious currency in a community fueled by spontaneity in which models wandered into shootings late and relied on after-hours socializing to advance professionally Rejection as a model cut more deeply than rejection as a student because it was myself my face my figure my smile being rebuffed sometimes tactfully, often abruptly on a daily basis I eked out a living for several months feeling insignificant and doomed Without a backlog of experience to reassure me that my smile had not vanished for good. I learned exactly how difficult it can be for a young person to accept failure philosophically
The Parisians themselves helped to twist my fruitless venture into a routine exercise in humiliation by placing me at the mercy of either their effusive kindness or black hearted contempt. One garrulous shopkeeper held me captive with a rapid-fire series of cheerful comments and questions, most of which flew past my comprehension. A neighboring grocer whacked my hand and swept me out of the store when I squeezed a tomato. The fact that I was unable to find simple and moderate good-naturedness among the Parisians left me jangled and teary-eyed at the end of each day.
My own inflexibility simply pushed matters to the extreme. I isolated myself even more by refusing to practice my high school French on sympathetic Parisian ears. And I completely ignored the reality of the Paris modeling scene by maintaining a barrier between my work and private life, thereby infuriating my agent. My negativity was reflected in a recurring vision of neutron bombs landing on the city preserving its art while vaporizing its citizens.
Still, the experience managed to provide one eye-opener. A French magazine flew me to Lebanon to shoot a fashion layout. A kindly, graying interpreter named Lulla welcomed us in Beirut at our hotel, one of the intact few. The nearby Holiday Inn, in contrast, had been gutted, sandbagged and turned into a multi-level parking garage for combat vehicles. Lulla lived by herself in a spacious but dilapidated apartment in the center of the city. When I asked her about the small holes that riddled her blinds, she explained matter of factly that snipers were still active at night even though the civil war had formally ceased the previous year. She continued to sleep in the hallway for fear of bullets, and the 10 days she spent with our group at the hotel was her first opportunity in several months to eat full meals and to take showers. The Lebanese people in general were astonishingly magnanimous, even mirthful, amid the postwar rubble; but Lulla was tired and alone. En route to the airport on our last day, our bus wound through Palestinian refugee camps and verdant fields pierced by the sounds of artillery practice. I listened unblinkingly as the old woman urged me to center my life around a devoted husband and family so that I didn't end up forsaken like herself. The predictability of her advice was irritating. But her sorrowful goodbye and the haggard, living example she provided tempered my extremist aversion to the idea of marriage and a family. Lulla's predicament enlightened me to the fact that, for all the polemical feminist literature I'd digested since I was 12, my harsh beliefs had essentially taken shape within the safe and cozy confines of a happy middle-class suburban household. It struck me, many years later actually, that radicalism is a privilege which most people haven't the right to abuse.
FRAZZLED AND FED UP after six months in Paris, I finally decided to return to the States. I made the decision one sunny afternoon, treated a friend to an enormous last supper on the Left Bank that evening, and showed up at DeGaulle airport the next morning, 50 francs short of plane fare. I wired home for money.
As I agonized at home in Rhode Island over the grand alternatives of returning to a mediocre school experience or courting failure as a model in one more city, my grandparents phoned. For the 20th time since I'd left Harvard, they deluged me with dire predictions of what kind of future lay in store for a college dropout--no job, no money, no place in society, no friends, and, of course, no respect from Korean relatives. I was galvanized School was definitely out of the question I moved to New York immediately.
Manhattan was the perfect antidote to Paris--lucrative and enjoyable from the very first week. And in further contrast to laissez-faire France, the chew em up, spit em out nature of the fashion business in New York demanded discipline organization and punctuality from a model. More significantly, however, after my hapless period in Paris I had resolved to stop sabotaging myself with sullenness and instead to practice stretching out a smile no matter how I felt inside A silly idea perhaps, but looking back, I believe it had a catalytic effect on the people around me which in turn made it easier to feel somewhat positive and flexible for the first time in my life.
Whereas Paris had been a Core course in failure, New York gave me a glimpse at the outer limits of ambition and success. Most of the energy which I encountered was youthful and venturesome. But as one might expect, some of the striving was sustained by less appealing qualities. An extreme case was a vulgar Citizen Kane whose quiet dinner party I attended one summer evening I was greeted at the entrance to his Park Avenue estate by an armed bodyguard placed there for protection against a vindictive ex-wife. The host led the several of us on a tour of his urban Shangri-La, which included original chefs d'oeuvre and a movie theater. He caressed his showcase items, among them a photograph of a Chicago building he owned, as he lovingly recounted the steps leading to their acquisition, and their costs. Some of the rooms, most notably a child's den, were dark and half-furnished. By the time dinner was served, my feet ached, the sycophants had shifted into high gear and the evening had acquired a deafeningly hollow ring leaving me with the impression that certain kinds of success make failure look downright edifying by contrast.
Some of the individuals whom I met through work in New York and Los Angeles soap actors, centerfold models, "jiggly" actresses, makeup artists and hairdressers altered my thinking more positively. Although many of them conformed to unflattering stereotypes, up close a surprising number conveyed an intelligence and integrity which were otherwise undetectable. What made their virtues even more impressive was the lack of ostentation with which so many of them handled their careers, despite the intense public interest and scrutiny they aroused. Behind the lightweight images were often levelheaded hard workers who convinced me over the years just how unreliable appearance is as a clue to underlying character.
Yet however much my own attitude towards models and actresses had been enlightened. I still had to contend with the assumption on the part of people I met and men I dated outside the business, that stupidity was a prerequisite for a modeling career. At one point, though I had to ask myself if I really had the right to feel indignant about being treated dumb model because there was a growing ring of truth to it I had left high school at 16, a voracious reader. Now, at 23, I hadn't read through a book in years. The realization that a transitory stage had turned into a way of life brought on a panic and depression which my grandparent could never have induced and which kept me indoors for several weeks, with little incentive even to wash or eat I had once read somewhere that each newly acquired piece of knowledge etches a fresh wrinkle onto one's brain. With horror, I visualized my cerebrum as smooth as a baby's bottom I had obviously been fooling myself, to believe that I could escape from thinking without effacing my self-respect in the process Once my fit of self-contempt subsided, I took steps to register as a sophomore.
AFTER HAVING SPENT six years away from the classroom, the first weakness I noticed in formal education was the way it trains young minds to see the world through the processes of categorization and idealization. Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear submarine and a prominent critic of the American educational system, visited our sophomore tutorial last year and emphasized the fact that history texts make past events look like the products of superhumans and rigid ideals, when in reality most were the result of a fluid mixture of chance and compromise made by people much like ourselves. He hammered into us the need to distinguish between books and life when trying to learn about the world.
The danger of formal education eclipsing real life was personified for me during my first year back by a trio of graduate students whom I shall refer to as the Three Blind Mice
The First Mouse, a student in the Russian Studies department and a fervent socialist, seemed capable of discussing only leftist politics, and displayed a conspicuous lack of curiosity about thinking and lifestyles different from her own. She lived and breathed socialism, yet when I suggested that she put her extensive political knowledge to practical use by working in government, she decried such work as "opportunistic" and stated emphatically her intent to remain in academics. When I asked her what appeal an ivory tower life held for her, she replied, "I want to be paid to think "It seemed to me a highly aristocratic (and opportunistic) notion for a socialist to have.
The Second Mouse, a psychology student, had learned to categorize all aspects of human behavior and was qualified to counsel. But many of her judgements struck me as superficial and off-the-mark. While listening to one outlandish analysis after another of mutual friends and acquaintainces, whose innocuous behavior she ascribed to twisted motives and deep-hidden Freudian urges. I kept in mind the fact that she herself had remained with an abusive husband for eight years. On top of it all, at 30 years of age, she was a veritable social cripple, self-conscious to the point of timidity, yet explosively angry whenever she did manage to summon up her feelings.
The Third Mouse, a government tutor, reminded me of a skilled doctor with cold hands. Unable to impart his higher knowledge in an even mildly appealing way, he prefaced his answers to students questions with the statement. "Well, I think it's rather obvious." After a few intensely awkward discussions in which I tried and failed to get him to explain certain aspects of American government out of the distant realm of theory, I came to the conclusion that he probably hadn't yet done so himself.
The Three Blind Mice confirmed my suspicion that the ideologies and theories learned in college are of imperceptible value in dealing with people; and that formal education fails to prepare students to adjust to day to day life. Rather, it becomes a programmatic attempt to help young people understand human actions after the fact. The classroom situation imposes certain restrictions (limited range of readings, limited time, one teacher's point of view) on the learning experience that are necessary to prevent chaos. In the end it is simply too safe and standardized an environment to teach a person about living.
I FIND the incongruity between ideology and real life especially disheartening whenever it distorts feminist thinking. As a model I was occasionally subjected to the criticisms and disdain of women who called themselves feminists. Once, while modeling on a talk show, I introduced myself during a filming break to one of the show's guests, a prominent feminist writer whose latest book I'd perused and brought along to be autographed. She glared at the furs and jewelry and heavy makeup I was wearing, asked my name as she took the book and, with pursed lips, scrawled, "To Maggie--in sisterhood," handing it back to me without so much as a glance or a thank you. Largely as a result of this disappointing encounter, I reasoned that there are two types of women who call themselves feminists: the ecumenical type, who believes in freedom of expression and the right of each woman to find dignity and fulfillment in whichever path she chooses; and the more prevalent knee-jerk feminist who is quick to condemn any woman who looks and lives differently from herself, and who is unwilling to make an effort to recognize the person behind the makeup and hairdo. This type of feminist has a close-minded and superficial approach which can border at times on censorship or, even worse, cattiness. She wants to see options for women opened up in one direction (business, law, medicine) but closed down in another (modeling, for example).
Ironically, during his visit Admiral Rickover provoked precisely the superficial ideological response he was urging us to discard. His flirtatious, George Burns manner offended a couple of female students who later griped that he saw women as only pretty faces. Had these two students bothered to look beyond his chauvinism, instead of merely reacting to it, they might have noticed that he was accompanied by a female attorney. This fact, given that the man was born in 1900 and was a ripe 20 before American women even acquired the vote, made him a somewhat progressive member of the pre-Virginia Slims generation. But, like the Three Blind Mice, close-minded and superficial feminists neither see nor understand the real human beings who surround them daily.
My best friend Liz, a model whom I met during my first month in New York, once said something which put everything into perspective for me from that moment on: "You go to the grave alone." A cliche, certainly. But said in the right way, at the right time, and by the right person, this meat-and-potatoes statement has since served as my best companion during times when I've been obsessed with the opinions of others or afraid to take a chance at something for fear of failure. This most useful insight of my life, which was also the most obvious, came from a 20-year-old girl who rarely read, whose chain-smoking and social habits irritated me to exasperation, and whose malapropisms made Norm Crosby sound like Voltaire. And it came to me at a time when I was as far from the classroom as one can get.
Han, a Crimson editor is now a junior concentrating in American History and is affiliated with Dudley House