A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


      I don't think Shoni tried to be intimidating.  She just was.

      The guys at my high school 32 years ago were intimidated because she was tall, graceful and gorgeous.  The girls were intimidated because she wasn't JUST tall, graceful and gorgeous.  She was also talented -- a cheerleader with true athletic gifts -- and she was friendly and personable.  I didn't know anyone who didn't like Shoni.

      Except those who were . . . you know . . . intimidated by her.

      The one place where Shoni was less than intimidating was in the classroom.  Not that she was an air head or anything.  You only had to talk to her to know that the light was definitely on in her attic.  But she wasn't exactly an academic all-star, either.  And that was OK.  I mean, she had so much going for her, nobody was going to worry about her if she wasn't Stephen Hawking scholastically.  Most of us figured she'd marry some handsome, rich football player and lead cheers happily ever after.

      So when I bumped into Shoni the other day, I was expecting . . . well, I don't know what I was expecting.  She still looked great, but in a comfortable, Earth Mother sort of way.  She still was enthusiastic, but enthusiastically dignified.  She still was energetic and friendly, but also disciplined and controlled.  None of which was especially surprising.  What did throw me off a little was when she told me that she isn't just Shoni anymore.  As of the end of the current academic year she is Dr. Shoni, Ph.D.

      "I didn't know they gave doctorates in cheerleading," I said when she shared her exciting news with me.  In retrospect, that was a thoughtless, demeaning, stereotypical thing to say, and she would have been completely justified in being offended and giving me a piece of her highly educated mind.  But she just laughed charmingly -- probably because, as a brand new professional psychologist, she has studied all kinds of neuroses and understands that I can't help being an idiot.

      So I abandoned feeble attempts at humor.  "I don't know how to ask this, Shoni, but  . . . "

      "But what's a nice little cheerleader like me doing with a Ph.D.?” she interjected good-naturedly.  "I know -- I ask myself that question all the time."

      "And how do you answer yourself?" I asked, feeling appropriately Freudian.

      "Well,” she said, “the only answer I can come up with is another question: why not?"

      "Why not what?" I asked.

      "Why not get a doctorate?" she said.  "That's what my husband asked me.  He knows I've always been interested in psychology, and I felt like I could help people through counseling.  But I'd been out of school for years, and even when I was in school I wasn't . . . well, you know."

      Yeah, I knew.

      "It wasn't that I was dumb," she continued.  "I just didn't see the point of being smart.  But when Brad asked why I shouldn't go to college and get the training I would need to become a therapist, I couldn't come up with a single valid reason.  By asking `why not,' Brad told me he believed in me, and somehow that helped me to believe in myself.  So I did it."

      Sounds simple.  Of course, it wasn't.  Since she didn't start out with even a bachelor's degree, the process required years of effort and sacrifice by their entire family.  But the familiar sparkle in her eyes told me it was worth it.  And to think that this extraordinary accomplishment began with two simple but terribly profound words from someone who loves and believes in her: "Why not?"

      Now, that's intimidating.

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— © Joseph Walker

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