I wanted to start this story by stating that I didn’t have any interest in attending Stanford University in the first place, but that can’t be true. Why else would I have been there, surrounded by fellow students in a room much too small for the number of us who showed up to… to what? Impress? Ask questions of? Suss out? the guy Stanford sent to woo us into attending his esteemed educational institution.
This particular representative wore a suffocating air of self-importance along with his beard and tweed sport coat, and I quickly determined that I had made a poor decision by attending the meeting. “It wouldn’t be fair to compare our weather to that of other universities,” he humble-bragged at one point, ”but we do get approximately 300 days of sunshine a year.” I remember wondering: does it make it better or worse that he’s aware of how ridiculous he sounds?
But I perked right up when he asked, “Does anyone know what’s next door to the Monterey Bay Aquarium?”
I had recently been inside the building next door, lovely from the outside with its ancient wooden siding, the inside packed with dusty jars and odd specimens. The man who once used this lab was nothing short of a hero in my budding-scientist eyes. I’d read John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez for California Natural History, which chronicles Steinbeck’s adventures with the larger-than-life character; the first seventy pages of the book is a moving eulogy to a man who clearly made an impression on everyone who knew him.
In other words, I knew the answer to this one.
“Ed Ricketts’ lab!” I blurted, relieved that the conversation might finally going in a direction that interested me.
I fail to remember what response Mr. Self Important was looking for. He probably didn’t expect one at all, so comfortable was he in his mansplainer’s role, though that term wouldn’t be coined for another fourteen years. But I will never forget what he proceeded to say to me, or the derisive tone with which he dismissed me, my hero, and any desire I may ever have had to associate with Stanford University:
“Ed Ricketts was a fictional character.”
Nor can I forget the flush of indignation that followed, or the intensely visceral desire I had to correct his error, less to highlight his ignorance, but rather to defend my honor, not to mention that of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck, marine biologists, and hell, any woman, anywhere with something to say.
In the end, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t go to Stanford, or any university in the United States, for that matter. Perhaps for the same reasons that prompted the college counselor to call my mother to express “concerns” about me that last year of high school, I dropped out of university (not the high school, an actual university) a few years in. I went back. I graduated. Later, I got an MBA. I authored a book. I speak for a living. I still love Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts and marine biology. And I’m still terrible at keeping my mouth shut when I’m pretty sure I’m right.