Why Fran Cherishes Challenge
The Value of Stretch
His bare chest bulged with muscles only obtained through weight lifting. His jeans gently followed the contours of his thighs. His feet tracked perfectly as he threw the football to his partner. He cringed as the overthrown ball floated beyond his partner's reach into the dorm's bushes.
He grabbed the next throw from his partner but fumbled it, ever so slightly, at the last second. Just a quick break from studying after the first week of classes, Fran thought.
But then she heard him cuss at the football. In anger, he heaved it to the other fellow, who dove to his right to catch it and missed it by two feet. The ball bounced haphazardly onto the ground.
Fran wondered how many young fellows harbor unrealistic expectations about the ease with which the basic skills of football are mastered. Perhaps the aftermath of too many Sunday afternoon football games? Through one of the first floor rooms in the dorm facing her, she could see a black and white TV screen scanning the grid of a football field.
It was an unusually warm Sunday in September, but the expectation of crisper days ahead floated through the muggy, propelling an occasional oak leaf, still green and succulent but tinged with blotches of yellow and brown.
Classes at the University of Wisconsin - Madison campus had just started for the 1994 fall term, and the bicycle path along the Lake Shore dorms was unusually busy. Fran decided to take a break from her walk and sat down to rest at a picnic table outside Ogden Hall beneath the stately oaks of what was once known as the "short-course" dorms.
The cluster of oaks dotted the expansive lawn leading down to Lake Mendota's shoreline, across from the dorms. Fran tried to imagine how many students, each building expectations for his or her life, had enjoyed this cathedral's shelter from summer sun and winter wind.
Three men suddenly came around the corner of the dorm, walking with purpose in a cadence that only members of the same family seem to sometimes have. The trio were grandfather, father, son, she surmised, as she looked at their faces -- each with a square, prominent jaw.
What kind of dreams did the grandfather and father have for the young man, who took the lead into the front door of the dorm? What pressure did he feel to trace their footsteps, to carry on a family legacy, to establish a mark of his own?
It was here, in 1972, that Fran had wiggled her way down to the edge of Lake Mendota's water to watch the waves stroke the shore's oak roots and worn rocks and to look down into the brackish water to perhaps uncover a deeper meaning for her life.
But, at that time, her dream was simple and undifferentiated: independence and equity – independent from what traditionally was “women’s work” and equity in pay and recognition. Gloria Steinham was her mentor.
Common though they were, those dreams had propelled her through the difficult times and had partially come true for her. But, yes, there were heartaches that she could have never anticipated as a college senior about to graduate with no prospects of a job.
"If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome." Anne Bradstreet, Thirty-three Meditations
A single oak leaf, one of the first to turn completely yellow and yield to its inborn fate, sliced through the still, thick air and landed on the top of her picnic table.
Fran wiped it off the table. It fell onto the grass, a complement to the lawn's late summer green but still oddly out of place.
In some ways, being different had been a blessing for Fran. She knew the satisfaction of unexpected accomplishment. The third child of immigrants from Guatemala, she remembers, at age five, her first glimpse of the Milwaukee skyline – when cold and snowy Wisconsin became her new home.
Both of her parents had the U.S. equivalent of about a seventh grade education. But they knew custom furniture making and tapped two generations of expertise in that field to establish a sound business in the Milwaukee area – to the point that Fran and two siblings could attend college.
Succeeding in what others would consider basic and uneventful in their own lives had given Fran a sense of accomplishment others may hope for but never really achieve.
Perhaps it's because their expectations have fewer recognizable boundaries and, as a result, disappoint instead of satisfy when they are fulfilled. Or, maybe their dreams are redundant -- a replication of what others have done, and, as a result, the pursuit of those dreams fizzles into boredom.
It probably depends, she reasons, on how far a person, in reaching for an outcome, needs to stretch. As she looks back on her life, she realizes she needed some surprises, some help (such as affirmative action) and some amazement -- and the right amount of stretch.
Fran recalls surprises like the time her all-male counterparts in her research lab started questioning whether she was a drag on their salaries because she was a woman who, of course, was paid less than men.
And then there was the trick she had learned to employ early on in her career as a diabetes researcher: avoid any mention of your first name altogether. Instead of Fran, she would call herself “FP” instead of “Fran Pamperus.” It was surprising how that boosted her call-back percentage when she had to leave a message on voicemail.
Now at 73, Fran feels she shouldn't have to recite her accomplishments to others anymore. She’s been there, done that.
But, on the other hand, she doesn’t want the quest to prove herself, approve of herself or even improve herself to end just yet. After all, that is what pushes her to new levels of achievement – even though, as a woman now into elderhood, she recognizes that physically she may have reached her peak years ago. She doesn’t want to lose expectation’s edge, the challenge she’s felt throughout her life.
Fran’s takeaway tip from her story: Cherish and harness the value of stretch.
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