Book by Mishna Wolff
Review by Gavin J. Farber
Academic Advisor I
Fox School of Business and Management
Mishna Wolff wasn’t the most popular girl on her neighborhood block in Rainier Valley, just outside of Seattle, Washington. In her memoir, I’m Down, she explores her childhood between the ages of 6-14. She was bullied by neighborhood kids for being “too white” and wealthy peers from her prep school for being poor. She learns during this journey that kids regardless of their race or class struggled with the same issues. One core relationship that Mishna strove for was with her father John, also known as “Wolfy” on the block, because he never showed enough her love to her. He didn’t support her academic pursuits and would have favored a track and field or basketball star.
Her nickname in her neighborhood was “whitey” (p.12) given to her by a boy named Jason. All Mishna wanted to do was to “cap” or insult Jason back for placing her in such an uncomfortable spot on the block. She was only doing what her father told her to do, go play with the kids outside and to get out of the house. She attempted to socialize with her community only to be rejected.
It was not until Mishna was twelve and discovered her love of swimming and earned a scholarship on competitive team when she truly found a passion in life. It was her coach, Dan, who became a new positive influence on her life. She realized it was a sport she was actually good at and was able to balance it out with her schoolwork. After some time, her sister, Anora, joined the team allowing the siblings to become much closer. Dan’s philosophy, which I feel academic advisors could really use with their students says, was “A winner is someone who finds the absolute limits of personal agony and surpasses them everyday” (p.199-200).
While Mishna’s mother was always a loving, present force in her life she couldn’t fight for her children at the time of her divorce from Wolfy because he wanted his daughters with him (p.22). But it was Mishna’s struggle with her abusive stepmother, Yvonne that pushed her over the edge when she was fourteen, and was accused of being racist. When Mishna compared her life with Yvonne and her father as being “…like a Dostoyevsky character” (p. 213) she knew she needed to move out. And she went to her mother’s home.
It was Dan’s philosophy on winners that really resonated with me as an academic advisor because it describes the primary goals for our students. We want to see our students succeed and surpass expectations. In my opinion, the final chapter entitled “The Lake” is a metaphor for higher education and our students’ progress. We have some students who can swim through their undergraduate experience without a problem, but we have other students who struggle and hit rough tides to remain in college. We as student development professionals need to be proactive and supportive to these students because we might be the only support they have! As advisors we coach our students to be the best they can be and if an issue comes up in their academic pursuits, we have to be on the front line ready to serve that student’s best interest. Mishna represents thousands of students who have jumped through obstacles only to prove their critics wrong.
I’m Down. (2009) Book by Mishna Wolff. Review by Gavin J. Farber. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin Press 272 pp. $13.99 (paperback) ISBN: 978-0-312-37909-4