SHWETA BHATT: For the past 13 years, no other girl in my class had a mustache.
Who am I going to be without one?
CAROL CARSON: It confirms what I thought, that a girl from the projects isn't smart enough, isn't good enough to attend that kind of school.
JENNY HERZOG: That knot that's always in my chest, right here, loosened just a bit, and I felt a little less likely to explode.
THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Fish Out of Water."
♪ We all walk, stumble, or run into the unknown at some point in our lives, but it can be really hard to feel like you're on the outside looking in.
But it's in those moments when you have pushed beyond your comfort zone that you just might find yourself inspired to learn something new, to explore.
Tonight's tellers are bringing their true stories of the moments when they were trying to find their place in a world where they otherwise just didn't fit in.
♪ BHATT: My name is Shweta Bhatt, and I'm from Burlington, Massachusetts.
Right now, I'm a freelance copywriter, business strategist, storyteller.
Can you talk to me about what role storytelling played in your family and in your culture growing up?
So I'm Indian, and I come from a culture that is rich in story.
A lot of what I learned about my culture was told to me through story.
Being in a country where you don't really look like everyone else, it's hard to understand, "Well, where do I come from?"
When I asked why and where and how and what and all of the questions that come, that's what I was met with.
- With story.
So, what do you find the most challenging about storytelling?
"Can I tell this story from outside of it?"
- "Am I still in the story?
"Am I still feeling all of the emotions?
Am I able to really ground myself as I tell this story?"
So, can you tell me a bit about what tonight's theme means for you?
I always think of fish out of water as this change in our identity.
- Because who is a fish when they're no longer in water?
Will they be able to breathe?
How do they see themselves?
And for me, "fish out of water" was really that-- a moment in my life where all I knew myself to be, it changed.
- And now, who do I get to be in the world, how am I going to breathe?
Where do I swim?
♪ "This is where you need to take her."
I hear this Indian auntie telling my mom in the kitchen.
And they're whispering, so I have my ear up against the wall.
Usually when my mom is whispering, it's because she's bragging about me and doesn't want it to get to my head.
But today, today it's different.
"This is where you need to take her to get rid of her upper lip hair."
And as I hear those words, I catch my reflection in the patio door and I see my face.
A face that for the past 13 years has been told I look like my dad.
And no, I don't think it's because we both have curly hair or long limbs or cheeky smiles.
My dad, he has a mustache.
I mean, the mustache.
Like, a "Tom Selleck step aside, bar above the handlebar" kind of mustache.
And so do I.
And in a world where I'm never going to look like Lizzie McGuire or Hannah Montana or Kristie in math or Julie in art.
I look like my dad.
Kids made a lot a fun of me, and I got tired of it, and I thought I'd take this into my own hands.
So I remember, in the second grade, I waited for all the kids to go to recess.
I ran to the bathroom with a pair of scissors from my cubby.
I was going to make it all right, right there.
And I make a snip... and it looks worse.
And I get back from recess, and the kids, they're still laughing and pointing and making comments, and I realized I'm just going to be the girl with the mustache.
There's no way I'm going to get rid of it.
And so I learned how to work with it.
I never wore red lipstick at dance recitals because it would kind of accentuate it.
And all those lip glosses that I got at sleepovers?
Never wore those either.
They'd get stuck in it.
And I never wore black, either, because it would always cast a weird shade on my face.
What worked were V-necks and neutrals and wearing my hair pulled back.
For the past 13 years, no other girl in my class had a mustache.
Heck, no other guy had a mustache either.
And now, this auntie is telling my mom where to take me to get rid of it.
And I'm thinking, "Who am I going to be without one?
"Are girls gonna finally want to be my friend?
Are guys going to finally think I'm cute?"
I get in the car with my mom.
And my mom, she's beautiful.
She doesn't have a mustache, but I don't look like her.
And I don't think she really gets this.
But she's taking me to this auntie who threads.
Now, I've heard of threading once.
There was a girl in my dance class, and she talked about getting her top lip threaded.
She said it felt like knives.
And now I'm preparing for knives.
And we make our way to this auntie's house.
And even though I live in a town where there aren't that many Indians, all of the Indians from the surrounding towns, they go to this one auntie to get their upper lips threaded.
I walk upstairs, she opens the door and she smiles at me, the smile that says, "Mm, I've seen a lot of Indian girls who look like their father."
I sit down in her chair and she starts to fashion this contraption out of thread, and she shows me how to keep my upper lip pretty taut.
And she starts.
It doesn't feel that bad, and it's over pretty quick, and she hands me a mirror.
I lift up the mirror and I see my eyes, and I see my nose, and then I see a space.
A space between my nose and my top lip!
I mean, it looks like a second forehead, like a fivehead.
It looks really weird.
Did she do something wrong?
I look at my mom, "Mom, do I look weird?"
And she's just smiling.
This was supposed to make me look better, and I think I just look like a monkey.
I don't know who this person is.
But I take a deep breath, because I don't have time to figure this out right now.
Tonight is my middle school graduation, and I have to go on stage to get a medal.
I make my way to the school, and I'm on my way to my homeroom, and I hear the comments, and I hear the snickers and the pointing.
"Mm, she looks weird.
Did she shave her face?"
"No, I got it threaded."
And I know I look weird.
And I walk up on stage and all I can think of is I still don't look like Lizzie McGuire.
And I don't think I look like my dad anymore.
And the teachers, they congratulate me and wish me well in high school.
And all the other parents of all the other students graduating, they give me hugs and tell me good luck for high school.
(soft chuckle) I make my way back home, and on the kitchen table there's this cake from a grocery store with my face printed on it.
My old face.
I eat some.
I make my way up to my room, and I'm looking in the mirror.
I don't know who she is.
All I can recognize is my ponytail and the medal around my neck.
But I know what I have to do, what I want to do.
I run to my mom's bathroom.
I fiddle around with her makeup and I find it: her black eyebrow pencil.
I run back to my room and I start to draw it back on.
And I have a mustache again.
I just need to be her for one more night.
♪ HERZOG: I'm Jenny Herzog.
I'm originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Now I split my time between Boston and western Massachusetts, and I'm a jazz singer, a tap dancer, and teacher.
So what drew you to singing jazz and tap dancing?
My dad plays jazz piano, so I grew up always hearing it.
And I was trained more in musical theater and classical voice, but I was always gravitating more towards improvisation.
- I didn't like doing anything the same twice in a row.
I always liked to do something different.
So, as the years went on, I went away from everything that wasn't improvisational.
And so jazz and tap dance is what stuck.
So when you're dancing, what's going through your head?
Actually, that's one of the things I love most about tap is it gets me out of my head.
HERZOG: I spent a lot of time in my analytical mind, like, ruminating and things like that.
And when I start tapping, that stuff just sort of disappears.
- So it's sort of-- it's like an escape or an oasis for me.
So can you talk about your mission as an artist?
My mission in all the different arts that I do is to bring high-quality arts programming to people who might not otherwise have direct access.
So, that could be going into different nonprofits, organizations, communities, and basically offering something that wouldn't be there otherwise.
My mom says that when I was a kid, one of the only places she could get me to go without a fuss was tap class.
Making rhythms with my feet made sense to me in a way that not much else did.
It felt impossible to be unhappy when I was tapping.
But I was an anxious kid, and that anxiety followed me all through my 20s with insomnia, restlessness, impulsivity, mood swings, and a series of bad relationships.
Fall of 2020, I was 29, living in this big, lonely apartment in the suburbs of Boston.
A typical day went like this: wake up at 5:00 a.m. consumed by my restless leg syndrome.
Compulsively exercise for an hour, so that I'm not jumping out of my skin.
I was still going to work as the arts teacher at a therapeutic residential school working with teenage girls with histories of trauma-- so, great group of girls, but they would often ask me how I got this job, because I was so wildly underqualified, when I was going to get a bra that actually fit, um, whether I was pregnant, or sometimes they would threaten me or even throw a desk at me.
By the end of the day, I couldn't go anywhere because it was COVID lockdown.
So I went home, went to bed, woke up, did it again, day after day after day, after week, after month.
My life had become a slow drip of desperation.
My mind was always either in the past or the future, thinking, "Why did I do that?
I'm so stupid.
Am I ever going to do the things I really want to do?"
And time felt like this big sea of gray just spreading out into infinity before me.
I needed something to change, but I didn't know what.
And then a little voice in the back of my head said, (whispering): "Tap dance."
So I did a few shuffles right there in the living room.
(tapping) But my downstairs neighbor called up to complain and I couldn't dance there, so... and I couldn't go to the studio because it was COVID, so...
I was determined, and I sat down at my computer, wrote on Facebook, "If I put some wooden boards outside, will anyone come and dance with me?"
Saturday morning, I drive to Home Depot, buy ten two-by-two pieces of plywood, load them into my white Prius, and make my way to the Cambridge Public Library lawn, where I unload them six feet apart in a circle, under a big willow tree.
And then I wait.
What am I doing?
No one's going to show up.
I look like a total fool.
But then my best friend came, and my cousin, and that random guy from three years ago, and a few other people.
So, I put on my shoes, got on my board, turned on Ella Fitzgerald, and started leading a warm-up.
(tapping) Nothing epic happened during that class.
I think some passersby stopped to do a few steps.
Another person took a video.
But what I do remember is, by the end of the hour, that knot that's always in my chest, right here, loosened just a bit and I felt a little less likely to explode.
Then an older man who had been sitting on a bench nearby came over to me, and he said he'd been having a rough day.
He went to the library to get a book, and when he heard Ella Fitzgerald's voice in the air with the sound of taps, it had cheered him up.
Then he told me he was a retired journalist and asked if he could write a story about it.
I was like, "Are you serious?
"Write a story about this?
So then, every Saturday from then on, I woke up with the familiar sense of dread.
But I made my way to the Cambridge Public Library lawn to offer free tap classes to anyone-- all backgrounds, all ages, all skill levels-- and I called it Tap for Joy.
Word began to spread, and after class people would come up to me and say, "This is the first face-to-face contact I've had with another person in days."
"I haven't left my apartment in ages."
"This is the most fun I've had in weeks."
So we kept dancing.
Even when it snowed, we put the boards out on top of the snow.
But then it got too cold, so we had to go inside for the winter.
Then I got a call.
It was that guy, the journalist, and he said, "You're never going to believe this.
The piece got accepted in The Boston Globe."
I was like, "What?
Are you serious?"
So I drove to the gas station, bought the paper, opened it up, and there was my face with the title "Teaching Joy."
The irony was not lost on me, because I was depressed.
That winter, I quit my job, my boyfriend and I broke up, I got a grant to expand Tap for Joy to a school, after-school program, senior center, and public housing site.
I received bags and bags of donated tap shoes.
A student bought me an amp with a wireless headset so I didn't have to scream, and I even got an email from NPR who wanted to cover Tap for Joy.
This past Saturday, there I am.
This time I've got 40 boards in a circle.
I lace up my shoes, get on the board, and begin to dance.
My mind, which is usually in the past or the future-- (snaps) comes to the present.
I begin to punctuate time with my feet, my voice, and my body.
And time is no longer an endless blanket of gray.
I look to my left and see a grandmother and granddaughter dancing side by side.
To my right, the two-year-old toddler who skips nap time to come and dance, next to a group of elementary school students who I met when I went to their school.
Retired folks, college students, the man in the wheelchair who comes every week to watch, and everyone in between.
We're all moving together to the same pulse.
The sun's coming through the trees.
The air is brisk.
I catch someone's eyes and smile, and I dance.
(tapping) (tapping continues) ♪ CARSON: My name is Carol Carson.
I live in the West Roxbury section of Boston.
I'm a native Bostonian, and I retired two years ago as the executive director of the Office of State Ethics in Connecticut.
Congratulations on your retirement.
So how did you make your way into personal storytelling, telling a story on, on a stage in this way?
I've always been a storyteller.
- (chuckles) I'm the oldest of six children, so I taught my younger siblings how to read, and I just always told stories.
When I became aware of true stories told live, um, it fascinated me... - Mm.
- And I was ready to sign up.
And what have you found is your favorite part of storytelling?
I love seeing the audience react with emotion, when... whether they're laughing, or they're audibly gasping, or, or there's tears in their eyes, you know, to make people feel real feelings about real things is... OKOKON: Mm.
- ...is pretty amazing.
♪ It's nighttime in early 1988.
I'm in the living room with my husband, having a conversation.
I'm folding some of the endless laundry that goes along with having three school-age children.
When I'm queen of the world, I'm inventing a new way to do laundry that doesn't involve me touching it hundreds of times a week.
I hate laundry.
But that's not what I'm talking to my husband about.
I'm telling him about my meeting with the transfer counselor at the community college I'm attending to figure out how to transfer to state college when I earn my associate's degree in June.
The transfer counselor nominated me for a scholarship, immediately, at Boston University, and she encouraged me to apply to Wellesley College, which offered a program for women who hadn't attended college right out of high school.
I'm not convinced; those schools aren't right for me.
I won't fit in.
I graduated at the very bottom of my class in high school.
I grew up in a Boston housing project, the oldest of six children with alcoholic parents.
I met my husband in the projects.
His life was about the same.
We saw each other as the way out.
College wasn't a priority in the projects, survival was.
And now, married with children, we wanted more.
So, I'd started community college as part of our plan.
My husband was managing shops that fixed cars.
We decided we'd buy our own shop.
He'd deal with the front end, I'd deal with the back end-- the taxes, the payroll, the accounting.
We'd be a team, and we'd be successful.
Now I'm telling him that the plan's going to change.
Maybe I'll go to Wellesley, maybe I'll go to Boston University.
"If I'm applying for those schools, I might as well apply to Harvard," I tell him.
I mean it as a joke, but secretly I'm thinking, "Maybe I am good enough, maybe I will get in."
I'm waiting for him to tell me "That's crazy."
But he doesn't.
He says, "Go for it."
So I do.
I apply to all three schools-- and state college.
I need to be safe.
Harvard was the only school that required me to submit my S.A.T.
scores, even though I was in my 30s, had kids and a mortgage.
Harvard wanted to know what books I was reading, what magazines I read.
I'm pretty sure they wanted to hear that I was reading War and Peace and subscribe to The Economist, but I was honest.
Danielle Steele and Reader's Digest were more my speed.
Harvard made me jump through a lot of hoops, and then they invited me for an interview.
I was so excited and so nervous.
I'm sitting in a very nice office waiting for the woman from Harvard to come in and interview me.
I have on a beautiful black linen dress with a bright colorful scarf, and I'm starting to relax.
As I look around, I see framed children's artwork on the walls.
I think to myself, "This is going to be a good interview.
"I'm interviewing with a woman.
"She's probably about my age and she has young children, it's going to be great."
The woman comes in and slowly goes through my application.
I'm going to school, I'm working, I'm doing volunteer work, I have three kids.
I have a lot going on.
"Tell me," she says, "How do you do it all?"
"Actually," I say, "I have a new plan.
"I'm going to wait until my cellar fills up with laundry, and I'm gonna move."
She looks at me, she looks down at my black dress, she looks back up at me, and she says, "Oh, that explains the black dress."
"No," I say, "that was a joke."
"Laundry," I think, as I drive out of Cambridge, "Laundry is the reason I won't get into Harvard."
It takes weeks for the thin envelope with the Harvard logo to arrive, confirming that Harvard isn't the school for me.
And it confirms what I thought, that a girl from the projects isn't going to get into an elite school-- isn't smart enough, isn't good enough to attend that kind of school.
I'm more sure than ever that state college is the right school for me.
But, I follow through, and I attend a "meet the students" event at Wellesley.
And at Wellesley, I meet women like me, women who want to get a good education even if they have jobs and children and laundry filling their cellars.
And I get in.
I can't believe I am the kind of person that could go to a school like that.
My transfer counselor was right.
And I decide to go to Wellesley, even though I'm going to be paying for it for the rest of my life.
It's my first semester, the end of September, and I'm overwhelmed.
I'm taking four courses at Wellesley, and it's amazing, but I'm struggling with the workload, and I'm struggling with trying to get my kids where they need to be and get all the things done that need to keep us going as a family.
So I ask for help.
I tell my husband, "One thing.
"You need to take on one thing, I can't do it all."
And he agrees.
He tells me from now on he'll do the laundry.
I ended up getting a 4.0 average that first semester at Wellesley.
I was smart enough, and I did fit in.
I graduated from Wellesley magna cum laude.
I got a graduate degree.
All my kids finished college.
And every morning since that first semester at Wellesley, I wake up and the laundry is done.
♪ Whenever I tell a story, I make my children listen to it, and usually they just roll their eyes at me.
But I always ask them, "What did you think?"
And for this story, I asked my son, "What did you think?"
And he said, "I really liked this story.
"It seems like it's a story about a woman who's "struggling to go to college when she has kids, "but really, it's a love story."
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