When I was in my first year of college, back in the 90’s, taking a course in learning the German language (it was the language of my maternal grandmother’s family who settled in the states in the 1800s), my then German professor used to make me so nervous that I would stutter when trying to speak. I was so painfully shy that I couldn’t bear to be corrected in front of a class.
“Heidi,” she told me, “Don’t ever go to Germany. You’ll never learn the language and will fail miserably.”
Two years later, while studying at the University of Michigan (I had transferred to my preferred school by then – can you blame me?), I jumped at the chance to study abroad. Guess where?!
Today, I not only speak German fluently, as acknowledged in official testing by the Goethe Institute, but I ended up staying in Germany long enough to establish an exciting career in English-teaching, journalism, theater and film – and ended up marrying a “Berliner” who, interestingly enough, had just as hard a time learning English from his English-teacher, as I did my German professor.
Funny how life has a way of sending you opportunities to prove to yourself of your own worth!
Since then, I’ve had more opportunities to prove my own worth to myself – and others – than I care to admit.
There was the Swiss woman for whom I worked, cleaning her house, feeding her children and running her errands so that she could juggle her personal life as a mother and wife with her professional life as a professor of linguistics at the University of Geneva. I had taken a job for her as a Haushaltshilfe (Household Assistant) as a side-job while studying German literature and hermeneutics at the Albert-Luedwig’s Universitaet in Freiburg, Germany.
Frau Goedtke, as she had me call her, had hosted a party and hired me to help. Well, actually, she had invited me as a guest and then put me to work (without pay). While there, one of the guests asked me about myself and I answered that was a filmmaker.
Of course, in my mind, that was what I was going to become – a filmmaker. I had already made several short films and a student documentary. It was only a matter of time before I became an established filmmaker.
“Heidi,” she accosted me, days later after the party, “Who do you think you are? Telling my guests such horrible lies about yourself! You are no filmmaker. You don’t make films! Why would you spread such deceit? You cannot call yourself a filmmaker until your films are in movie theaters!”
And then there was the colleague at the German-English-Spanish world-wide broadcast TV station who, upon learning that I wanted to go back to graduate school instead of settling down to have babies (at 27!), asked me, “Are you the type to go to graduate school?”
Then, too, not only after getting into graduate school – but an Ivy League, at that – and moving back from Berlin, Germany (where I had been for several years) to New York City, I encountered the fellow graduate student who, as the second-year lead editor of the journalistic quarterly for which I wanted to write about globalization – it was the year 2000 I was excited about writing about my experience living in the European Union and the state of how they saw this new phenomenon – spread around that I was a “Nazi Bitch” when I refused to accept that my thoughts on the topic did not count (he wanted me to be the ‘business manager’ who does not write, but helps sell the publication).
Honestly, that hurt. Hurt to the core of my soul. He was Jewish and I had just returned from Berlin which, as we all know, played a horrific role in some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind – toward the Jewish race. What he – nor anyone else did NOT know – is that I had taught English as a second language at the Jewish school in Berlin and worked tirelessly toward supporting a growing community of returning Jewish families, not only in Germany, but from as far as Russia.
Nothing tests your belief in your own values and self-worth than being unfairly tested and wrongly labelled something so that others will alienate you, or – worse, causing you to alienate yourself – thus preventing you from using your voice.
What did my fellow graduate student’s comments have in common with all of the rest? They wanted to stop me from defining my own destiny, whether that be learning a language, going back to graduate school or not accepting anything less for myself than my fellow male peers and refusing to be bullied into merely a supportive role.
Why did I not stand up for myself in any of the above situations? Why did I not fight back and set them straight?
Honestly, at the time, I was too afraid and insecure. I allowed them, in that moment, to define me. I had not yet found my voice to tell them that they were wrong.
But neither did I give up my dreams or goals. See, even when we don’t yet know how to speak with that voice, it’s still inside – sometimes buried, maybe sleeping, but it’s there. You just have to keep listening for it and not let it fall silent.
Believe it or not, I don’t harbor any hard feelings for those individuals who felt it was their duty to meet me head on with an incorrect truth – it might have been their truth, but it was not mine and no one has better license to determine the truth of my past, present and future than I do.
Today I DO speak fluent German, I AM a filmmaker, and I WILL share my thoughts and voice, because I have meaningful things to say.
Proving people wrong, over and over, again, through the years, in spite of initial self-doubt, has taught me that; and, I am certain, my journey of self-discovery in proving other’s opinions of me is far from over.
In the end, it’s what you accomplish in spite of and against the odds that makes you stronger; questions or labels are nothing more than hollow words.
An actress, director, producer and writer, Heidi welcomes you to her Blog. Learn about her latest endeavors and garner a glimpse into her recent accomplishments, both professional and personal.