Oak Park Arms resident Cyrille Pokras told her story of growing up female in the 1950s to Elmhurst College students Andrew Nunez and Kristy Mikos. Here are some excerpts from that memoir.
In the early 1950s, there were only two ways a girls could leave her parents: either get married or go to college. The majority of girls were married off, much to their parents' delight. Unfortunately for my parents, I wasn't your average, ordinary girl.
Writing became my passion, but my parents thought it was frivolous. Mom and Dad weren't the only ones who didn't really care. Few of my friends understood or even acknowledged my increasing attraction toward writing. My parents thought that I should just get a job (preferably as a typist) and stop working once a man wanted to marry me.
With high school swiftly coming to an end, I appeared to have two options: go to college or get married. Well, I wasn't dating anyone at the time, so the marriage escape route didn't look too possible in the near future. All that was left to me was college. I really didn't think college was an option, but I asked my mom about it anyway. She said she would pay for me to go only if I studied home economics. So I started to look for money for college on my own. I started reading about scholarships and applied for many. Since my parents didn't support my interest in writing and my friends didn't share my passion, I didn't tell anyone when I found out about a writing contest.
The contest was held by Scholastic magazine and the prize was a $1000 scholarship to Boston University. I sent away for information about the contest, even though it was being held in Boston and I lived in Providence. I don't remember how I got to Boston, but I must have hopped a bus on my own; I was a very independent teenager. Once I got there, I walked into the building where the contest was being held and there were about 30 students milling around a large room. I could feel an energy racing in me that I hadn't felt before. My brain, eyes and hands were ready to construct the best feature piece these people had ever seen. As I entered the room with the other contestants, it felt as if the nerves of my body had ceased to exist. Never before had I felt so confident about myself or my abilities. I may have been a shy and timid young girl before, but I was ready to break through and enter a new part of my life filled with opportunities.
Our assignment was to interview two students from Africa's Gold Coast and write a feature story about them. After the African students were brought in, a short question-and-answer session started. When I heard the questions the other students were asking, I felt intimidated. They seemed to know more than I did. Finally, though, I plucked up the courage to ask a question of my own: I asked the students what they liked and didn't like about the United States. They explained that they couldn't understand how we could call our country a democracy where everyone is supposed to be equal when we have segregation and they aren't even allowed into the "white" churches. Now that I had my angle, I felt even more confident when it came time to write the story.
After our guests left, we were allowed one hour to put together our pieces. In an instant, our time was up. But there was plenty of time before the decision was made to walk around and speculate about how we had done. Many of the other people in the contest were talking with each other about how they thought they did, trying to show how smart they were. I, on the other hand, wanted no part of that. I just kept to myself, quietly confident. Finally, I would be recognized for something I did well.
Even with my confidence, I was surprised when they announced that I had won. Words cannot even begin to express how excited and happy I was as they took my picture for the paper. I felt a new source of confidence, acceptance, pride and most importantly, happiness. Even with all the turmoil surrounding my life, I was at least going to be able to enjoy this proud moment. Winning this award validated me in a way no grade ever would.
My family and friends didn't find out I had won the contest (or even entered it) until they saw it in the paper. My picture was in several papers and my parents were very proud. Some of my friends told me that their parents had cut out the picture, put it on the fridge and asked them why they couldn't be more like me. I didn't think the smile would ever come off my face.
After the success I had at the feature writing contest, I finally separated from others and gained some true independence. I would get my opportunity to go to college and become something special, instead of just doing what other people told me to do. I had turned the corner at a blazing speed and hoped there would be big things ahead for me. The top of the mountain was going to be hard to reach, but as long as I could see it, there would be no stopping me.