Educated, now available in paperback, is an unforgettable memoir about a young woman who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University. One of the most acclaimed books of our time, it has been taught in classrooms across the country and been selected for common reading programs at over 70 colleges and universities. The following message to educators is contributed by author Tara Westover, who reflects on sharing her story with students and the stories they’ve shared in return.
Since publishing Educated, I have traveled to dozens of universities to talk to students. We talk about religion—the pain of realizing that you no longer share a faith with your parents, the joy of discovering that you can respect them regardless. We talk about how difficult it is to disappoint the people you care about. We talk about self-esteem and poverty, about who feels like they belong in a classroom and who doesn’t. We talk about feminism and changing your mind and what it’s like to be anxious about money when your friends are not.
Some of the students I meet come from circumstances that anyone would consider difficult. For some, the difficulties are not so obvious. But one thing I have learned from these conversations is that coming of age is a difficult project for everyone, regardless of gender, race, orientation, or parental income. There is a puzzle being worked out in every young life about what it means to grow up, about how a person can define themselves both in connection with their families but also in distinction from them.
I don’t have answers to all the questions that students ask me. What I offer instead is my own story, and when the discussion goes well, the stories of their classmates. The stories I tell about my bizarre and winding path are an invitation for students to accept their own strange paths. I didn’t have money or education, but that wasn’t the end of the story. I felt alone and inadequate, but that wasn’t the end of the story. I lost my faith, even my family. But that wasn’t the end of the story, either.
I offer my story in the hopes that students will broaden their tolerance for failure in others, but even more importantly, for their own failures. None of us begin our lives with everything we need, with every puzzle solved, every skill mastered. We get there by way of a long process, a long story, with plenty of bends and kinks in it, and more often than not we get there with a lot of help from other people.
This is the message I try to leave with students—that their stories are not finished. They have just sat down to write.
Watch Tara Westover speaking at the 2019 Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience:
Watch Tara Westover speaking to students and teachers at the Academy of American Studies in Long Island City, NY: