I think Tara Westover's memoir, Educated, should be required reading.
I had seen the book's striking cover (an oversized tip of a wooden pencil) on the train and at the airport. It seemed to be gaining popularity. Everywhere I looked, there was that pencil.
On March 14, Westover was a guest on The Ellen Show, and shared her unique experience of growing up in the mountains of Idaho, cut off from mainstream society and schooling. To me, she seemed incredibly nervous during the interview. After reading the book, now I know why.
For those who aren't familiar, Educated is the true story of Westover's life so far, including a traumatizing childhood, a mentally ill father, a severely injured mother, an abusive older brother, and a life cut off from other children or any kind of formal education.
As a young girl, Westover did not go to school. She lived with her parents and siblings on a mountain, spending the days working in her father's junkyard, often sustaining major injuries. Her father would drive the family to visit grandparents, and often continued driving in extreme weather, resulting in two near fatal car accidents, one which left his wife (Westover's mother) with significant brain damage.
When one of her older brother's decides to leave the mountain and apply to college, a light bulb goes off. Could she study too? Could she take the ACT? Could she get into college?
The answer is yes.
Westover studies, scores well on the ACT, and gets accepted to Brigham Young University in Utah. She describes her first day in her campus apartment after her mother dropped her off, "I lived alone in that quiet apartment for three days. Except it wasn't quiet. Nowhere was quiet. I'd never spent more than a few hours in a city and found it impossible to defend myself from the strange noises that constantly invaded. The chirrup of crosswalk signals, the shrieking of sirens, the hissing of air brakes, even the hushed chatter of people strolling on the sidewalk - I heard every sound individually. My ears, accustomed to the silence of the peak, felt battered by them."
In addition to adjusting to life in a city, Westover also begins to understand how unusual her upbringing was. Each Sunday she goes to church with her roommates, and though she thought she'd feel at home in the Mormon church, she slowly starts to understand her parents were practicing religion in a different way. She explains, "I'd always known that my father believed in a different God. As a child, I'd been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same. They believed in modesty; we practiced it. They believed in God's power to heal; we left our injuries in God's hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared. For as long as I could remember, I'd known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known, yet for some reason, here at this university, in tis chapel, for the first time I felt the immensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between."
At BYU, Westover discovers a love of history. Though she had intended to major in music, she was drawn to the lecture halls of the history department. A sponge of information, she becomes a star pupil, and a professor suggests she'd be a great candidate for a study abroad program he leads at Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Flabbergasted, she shrugs off the idea. He persists, she gets in, and boards her first international flight.
In England, she meets Professor Jonathan Steinberg, who would go on to become an important mentor. In a moment of deep self-doubt, Steinberg reminds her, "You are not fool's gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself - even gold appears dull in some lighting - but that is the illusion. And it always was."
Westover would go on to graduate from BYU, earn an MPhil from Trinity College in Cambridge, and complete a PhD in history, also at Cambridge.
All I could think while reading this book was, "What if she had never left the mountain? What if she had never discovered her passion for writing or history? What if none of us had the chance to hear her story?" We would have been robbed of a unique voice and incredible talent.
On top of that, I can't even imagine how painful it was to relive all of these moments from childhood, the separation from her parents, the discomfort of transitioning to life outside the bubble of the mountain, and the insecurity of sitting in a classroom with students who have had 13 more years of education than you. Westover is brave in a way that is truly awe-inspiring.
If Educated wasn't on your radar, add it to your Amazon cart right now. If you have already read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts!