Michelle Zabat: Dad jokes

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 25, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018

I’ll never forget my father’s last words to me before I started college: “Michelle, every single person at this school is going to be smarter than you.”

I still remember that moment so clearly, standing on the sidewalk outside of Keeney Quad in the relentless August heat. I was in a beloved teal blouse that I have long since outgrown, he was in a navy t-shirt with “MOTOR CITY” emblazoned across the front. I blinked at him in the sunlight, unsure if he was trying to encourage or scare me. Perhaps it was both. 

Dads. You can never really tell with them.

Reading the confusion on my face, after a moment, he continued. “Everyone at this school might be smarter than you, but you know how to work just as hard as they do. You always have.” 

Though his explanation did nothing to assuage my confusion, his words caught my attention. They seemed awfully weighty as we stood together on the sun-bleached brick sidewalk of an institution I never believed I’d be able to attend.

My parents grew up far from Providence, in Manila and Mandaluyong in the Philippines. When they came to the United States, they settled in Michigan — a place where they were the only brown Filipino faces in a sea of white, generations-old Midwestern families. There, my younger brother and I grew up, raised in a family dependent on the automotive industry.

We started to grow up a little faster once the automotive industry withered in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Most of my adolescence was spent waiting with baited breath as the life my parents had built for us swayed on its shaky foundation. Throughout it all, they held firm to that classic American belief that hard work begets success, and they repeated this mantra to my brother and me time and time again. 

For so long, I believed them. I cried tears of joy when I opened my Brown acceptance letter. But my father cried too, and I remember the way that misery crept into his voice as he replied, “It doesn’t matter, Michelle. We can’t afford it.” 

I spent the next month selfishly wrapped up in my sadness and anger, my days full of tears. But unbeknownst to me, while I spent my time wallowing, my parents spent theirs figuring out how to make Brown possible for me. With Brown unwilling to reconsider the financial aid package they offered, my parents spent those few weeks marking out what necessities they could learn to reconsider as luxuries. On the last day before my response was due, as I resigned myself to turning down Brown for the sake of my family’s well-being, my father looked over at me from across our tiny kitchen. “Michelle, I will have nothing to leave to you when I die,” he said. “But while I’m alive I can try and help pay for your education.”

Somehow, some way, he made it work. And since the day I walked through the Van Wickle Gates, I wake up each morning thinking about how my parents pushed aside their own dreams so that I might have the chance to pursue mine. Each day I remind myself that my success might be the only way I am able to repay them. Their sacrifice emphasizes how much faith they’ve placed in me and in my Brown education — and to this day, that still terrifies me.  

As I began my freshman year, I told myself that finding success at Brown would somehow justify my parents’ sacrifices. But as I quickly realized, things don’t often go according to plan in college.

The differences between my little Michigan public high school and Brown’s ivory towers were startling. I felt inadequately prepared for my classes compared to my prep-school-primed peers. I felt unworthy of friendship, for I felt that I had so little to offer compared to my classmates. I felt an exacerbated sense of disconnection with my Filipino identity, and I didn’t know how to go about understanding it. Although I didn’t yet know that mental illness had a name, I learned what it was like for anxiety to wake me at 4 a.m. and tell me to wander around Providence alone, in the dark, for hours. I learned what it was like to cry on the floor of the Keeney hallway hoping that someone — anyone — would find me and save me from being alone with my thoughts. I learned what it was like to drown so deeply in an eating disorder that I would spend days thinking only of food. 

When I returned home after freshman year, I meant to keep these things locked away, unseen and unheard. Not because I wasn’t wildly, desperately in need of help that I didn’t know how to ask for, but because I was terrified that admitting these things would be akin to failing my parents. They might feel that everything they had given up and hoped for had been for naught. Perhaps they would believe our deepest fears had been right: Brown was never meant for people like us. I told myself that if I never talked about it, it would be as if it wasn’t happening. I would need to convince my parents that I was living an idyllic college dream, just as they had always envisioned for me.

I should have known that plan was doomed from the start. One glance at me was all my dad needed to know that something was wrong. He drove me to the airport at the end of that summer after freshman year, the car quiet aside from the chatter of NPR. The only words between us were the ones he left me at the ticket counter with: “Work hard, but more importantly, be happy. That’s all that really counts.”

Then, the lesson I realized he’d been teaching me my whole life: “We love you.”

Somehow, slowly, thankfully, I remembered that his words were true. This reminder made all the difference for me. Success — whatever that might mean — comes and goes, but happiness is non-negotiable. Over the last few years, I’ve learned how to talk about the things that weigh heavy on my mind, to trust myself and my abilities despite my modest roots and to believe in my worth as a student and a friend. I learned that laughter and love work miracles, and I realized that both these and others were lessons I’d already learned as a little girl. 

Four years later, I am grateful to be able to say: Dad, I’m happy. I am so, so happy. College has been harder than I ever imagined it would be, and I have had to survive things that I never dreamed I would need to endure. But there is so much light and love to be had in this world, and I am thankful that you’ve spent the last few decades of your life teaching me how to seek it.

Graduation holds so much unknown, and it guarantees change. I have no idea what those changes might be. Perhaps I’ll encounter forces that I cannot fight, or situations that I cannot control. Maybe everyone I encounter after walking out of the Van Wickle Gates will still be smarter than me. But what I know now, and what I wish I would have known standing on Benevolent Street all those years ago, is that no matter what, I’ll be okay. I am so lucky to be loved by both family and dear friends, and that is enough.  

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