A few weeks ago, I was trying to explain to my BFFs (thanks, Louis and Chris) why I, a 19-year-old guy, am obsessed with Dance Moms. The reality TV show features the Abby Lee Dance Company, seven girls ages seven to 14, who compete at high-stakes dance competitions every week, under the tutelage of their verbally abusive dance teacher, Abby Lee Miller.
Some part of me inexplicably identifies with the girls. They struggle to hold back tears, comfort each other like sisters, and work hard to dance their very best while Abby criticizes their every move. I guess they embody who I am inside: a little sad, a little hopeful, just trying my best, and scared to death of being pushed to the ground and stomped on by life.
The lowest point of my time at Vassar occurred last spring when I was yelled at by a professor in his office for over half an hour. He called me arrogant, immature, and snide, among other things. To be perfectly honest, his remarks stung. He wanted to use his authority to make me feel stupid, and he succeeded. I was stuck in a wooden chair, facing him, unable to leave the room. I had no friends, no power, no strength. I was defenseless.
There’s a climactic scene at the end of the first season of Sailor Moon, a popular anime from the 90’s. Sailor Moon realizes that she is too weak to defeat the villain, Queen Beryl, by herself, so she calls out for her friends to come help her. With their powers combined together, the team is able to blast Queen Beryl back to the Negaverse. Sitting in my professor’s office, I wished that perfect crystal tears would roll down my cheeks. I wished that my friends would rush into his office and tell me not to cry.
They would know without a doubt that I hadn’t done anything to deserve this awful tirade. One would stand beside me and say it wasn’t my fault. Another one would declare that my professor was dead-wrong. Together, we would defeat the evil monster and banish him from Vassar forever. And after a few days, I would be able to forget everything he said. But, unfortunately, I’m not a character on some TV show. So that’s not what happened.
For months after the incident, I continued to hear that professor’s angry voice in my head, criticizing my every move. Suddenly, I found myself wondering if I even belonged at Vassar.
Was I really smart enough to go here? Or was I just some dumb kid who should still be in high school? I quit a number of my extra-curricular commitments and spent a lot of time alone in my room watching TV. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking back to my room in Noyes late at night, seeing some lights still on, thinking everyone was laughing at me, and wishing I had a single friend on campus.
I struggled to finish writing my final papers that term, wondering if all of my professors thought I was stupid. Even that summer, when I was studying Chinese at Qingdao University (thanks for the opportunity, Du Laoshi), I continued to hear that professor’s voice at random moments. I would be eating dinner with friends at a restaurant, laughing and having a great time, and suddenly, I would flash back to that hopeless and miserable memory. Somehow, the Vassar students on the trip still made me feel included (thanks, Qingdao 2013). Then, when I returned to Vassar, I made new friends who accepted me in spite of my flaws (thanks, Chinese 207–8). I also had professors who believed in me (thanks, Professor Safariants and Professor McGlennen) and wanted the best for me, even when my self-confidence was completely shattered. Plus, I had someone who I was able to talk to about what happened (thanks, Sabrina). When I finally went to the administration and reported what that professor did, I was surrounded by the invisible but undeniable presence of my family, my friends, and my professors.
Thanks, Vassar, for teaching me to love myself as I am and to stick up for what I know is right. I’ve discovered hidden powers that I didn’t know I had and accomplished things that, just a few short years ago, I didn’t think I had the strength to do. I’ve become more confident in my abilities, my dreams for the future, and most importantly, in who I am.
In September, I’ll be starting a Master’s in TESOL at Teachers College, Columbia. I’ll be commuting from home (thanks, Mom and Dad), but I honestly can’t wait. Why teach? I want to give back to society and help students like I’ve been helped by my mentors. My dream is a little bit idealistic, but hey, we went to Vassar. Our dreams have no limits. No matter who tries to bring us down, as long we believe in ourselves, we can accomplish anything.
I’m ending this narrative with the cliché but still powerful Bible verse, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Thanks, Jesus, for everything that happened.
—Leighton Suen is an English and Russian Studies double major and the outgoing
President of RunVassar.