“You’re going to be great someday, “ she said. I was sitting across the desk from this blonde-haired, hazel-eyed woman. We were practically the same age, but I was aware that I looked probably 10 years younger than her. No lie. I wondered if she noticed it too. I wonder if she realized that I would never age as quickly as she did. We both had our Master’s Degrees. We both taught on a collegiate level in a bachelor of nursing program. We were both mothers, married nearly the same length of time. She was no better than me.
“Someday.” I tossed those words around inside my head. “I’m great right now though.” I was confused. What the hell did she even mean? Bitch. But I sat there, smiling, and said, “Yeah, I understand.” I didn’t understand. I knew, though, that she thought I was somehow beneath her. And for whatever reason, it didn’t bother me not one little bit. Well, maybe just a touch. Lies. It bothered me a lot.
I think back on the significance of that moment and how familiar that situation was. I’m not the best at sticking up for myself and I remember sitting there thinking I should say something. But I didn’t. I never did. Like that time this white man asked me, “How did YOU get this job?” while I stood in the hospital room with my white student. I was a nursing instructor and the man had just mistaken me for the student, and my student for the teacher. Most semesters I was the only person of color in the classes I taught and people often confused me for one of the students. They would ask me when I was graduating, and I would say, “I’ve already finished school. Twice.” The students would then say, “She’s the teacher!” They got a kick out of it. The patients and family members, doctors and nurses would all apologize and try to sell me some story about how I looked so young or whatever. Same story all the time. But this man was rude. He looked at me with a half smile on his lips that did not reach his eyes, knowing that what he’d said had cut right through me. “How did I get this job?” I looked at him, smiled with all the sweetness I could possibly muster and said, “I applied for it.” I lifted my shoulders and rolled my eyes playfully. “Imagine that.” My student giggled. But it wasn’t always so easy to let these microaggressions go. Sometimes I was tired and my frustration could be read all over my face. Being constantly mistaken for a CNA or a student when I worked so hard to get as far as I had gotten, honestly, was insulting. I mean, I had on a nametag for crying out loud. Nicole Scott, MSN RN - Instructor. I would bring my concerns to coworkers, who would say, “You just look young. Take it as a compliment.”
“Explain why they never confuse the much older Black CNA for a nurse? Or any of the white nurses for CNAs.” Nobody ever had an answer for me. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” I don’t have anything against CNAs. As a matter of fact, I learned more about nursing from the first CNA that I worked with than I did with my first nurse preceptor. As she showed me how to do a proper bed bath without soaking the entire bed, she said, “You’re doing a great job,” and to my patient, she said, “You’re lucky to have her”. I was fresh out of school and thought, “Wow, that was nice of her!” I kept that in mind when I had to deal with patients, family members, and coworkers who thought I was somehow unworthy of respect. “I’m doing a great job. They’re lucky to have me as their nurse.” I was already great, but it would take me awhile to figure this out.
A couple of years went by and I was working in the clinical education department at the hospital, teaching new graduates and seasoned nurses how to be better nurses. I watched as every idea that I came up with was stolen and claimed as someone else’s. Nobody ever seemed to believe that I was the originator of any of the innovative changes that were taking place. The campaign to change the location of the hand hygiene stations the in patients’ rooms, the designing of the simulation lab, the implementation of the nurse internship program; all ideas that I had proposed. I watched as my manager told a prominent woman in the community, a large financial donor, how she single-handedly designed the simulation lab. I rode quietly in the elevator as she talked about how she discovered the rarely used space in the hospital and petitioned for this space. The truth was, this idea was already in the making when she became the manager. I sat in on her interview. I was there before her. I eventually got tired of being overlooked. I started having palpitations. Each morning when I would get to work, I would begin coughing uncontrollably, my heart skipping beats and leaping up into my throat. One day I couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m going to see a cardiologist,” I said. I grabbed my purse, and I left.
“You have to quit your job.” The doctor stood in front of me, frowning. “I’m worried about you,” he said. So, I started looking for a new job… and wound up sitting in front of the blonde-haired hazel-eyed woman. “You’re going to be great, someday.” I replay that moment over in my head a lot. I wish I had said, “I’m already great!” but I didn’t. I just smiled sadly. I had left two jobs by then because I was underappreciated. I left because I was sick of being invisible. I left because I wasn’t able to own my greatness. I could feel myself growing restless again. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of trying to prove myself worthy of respect when I knew I shouldn’t have to. I kept wondering what I was doing wrong. What had I done to deserve this treatment? Was it lack of confidence? How could I make myself look older? Smarter? Why wasn’t I good enough already?
I had spent my whole life trying to be great. And now, with my advanced college education, loving husband, amazing children, home, car, career, and whole future ahead of me, I still had to strive for what I already knew I had. Greatness. Even though I already knew I was great, I was now aware that I hadn’t quite arrived at greatness in the eyes of others. This bothered me. After all, what did it matter how great I was if nobody even noticed? Why work this hard if nobody could appreciate the struggle? What was all this for? I sat in the teacher’s lounge with my head in my hands. “This is not what I signed up for,” I whispered. A colleague asked me if I was okay. I started to cry. She shut the door and sat with me. I told her I just needed a moment and that I was fine. I wasn’t fine though. I was fed up with being mediocre. I was tired of trying so hard to please others, and now, I wasn’t even sure I was happy with the path I had chosen. I wasn’t even sure who I was trying to please. I just sat there, heartbroken that I had worked so hard and had no idea what I wanted to do with myself.