Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. The Dreaded H-Bomb: I have an honesty problem. No, I am not a compulsive liar or cheat, but there is one thing I rarely enjoy answering honestly. To reference a Slate article from the summer by L.V. Anderson, “I go to school in Boston.” Even as a college junior, I still feel uncomfortable when people ask where I go. Anderson is a proponent of being upfront and declaring my school emphatically, but in reality, that tends to not work well and often serves to alienate people or have them treat me with sudden coolness. I dislike feeling almost embarrassed about where I go, despite being incredibly proud of my hard work. How do I tell people where I study honestly but with humility?
A: For those of you who have no idea about what exactly the agony this letter writer is going through, let me translate: This person goes to HARVARD! That’s H-A-R-V-A-R-D! The biggest brand name in the world! My colleague L.V. Anderson set out to find out if the purported phenomenon of saying, “I go to school in Boston” and its corollary, “I go to school in Connecticut,” really exists. It does, and I know that’s true because I’ve encountered it. Over the years, I have heard from many Ivy League grads who say that when they are asked where they go or went to school and they reply, they often get a kind of huffy, “Well, you must be smart,” or an abashed, “Wow, you must be smart,” either of which makes further conversation awkward. But all you Ivy grads surely should be smart enough to figure this out for yourselves. Okay, I didn’t go to Harvard, but here’s my advice: When you’re asked, say, “Harvard.” It’s a fact. If the other person wants to get jealous or insecure, that’s their problem. In addition, once I finish the guaranteed best-seller I’ve been collecting string on for decades: “Harvard Morons” (it will have an appendix titled: “Yale Morons”), your answer should be less of a problem.
Q. Obligation to Tell the New Woman When It Might Put Your Own Safety at Risk?: The way my first husband looked at prepubescent girls made me uncomfortable, but aside from pornography that appeared to star underage girls, I don’t think he acted on his attraction. We had no children together. When we divorced, he made threats and stalked me for ages—until he met the woman who became his next wife. When I heard she had a young daughter, I considered telling her what I suspected, but fearing for my safety, I didn’t. Before long, the woman contacted me after he molested the child, wanting to find out if he’d done it before. She ended up declining to press charges, believing the girl would be too traumatized by talking about it in court. Now I’ve learned he’s once again engaged to a woman with daughters. If I try to talk to her, I risk rekindling his wrath. He’s a dangerous man. If I attempt to do it anonymously, I risk him thinking it was the second wife and getting the wrath aimed at her. Saying nothing feels wrong.
A: This is a terrifying and chilling story. I know the criminal justice system is far from perfect, and entering into it as a victim has its own potential traumas. But it is so much worse to keep a serial predator out of the system—free to commit more crimes without even having a criminal record to alert others. You don’t say if you contacted law enforcement when you were being stalked, but I hope you did and got an order of protection. That would mean this monster was in the system for something. I think you and the second wife should see an attorney together and discuss what you can do to protect these next likely victims while protecting yourselves. Perhaps an attorney can send a warning letter to the fiancée. And the attorney will have advice on how you two can bring your experiences to the attention of law enforcement while giving you the maximum safety. It would be worth reopening a discussion of whether charges should be brought in the case of the daughter—although I understand it might be too late now and the daughter doesn’t want to do it. But it’s not too late for these next girls, and something has to be done.
Q. Life Lesson for Kids: This year my 10-year-old son begged me to let him play for the Pop Warner football team in our area. He promised that even though he knew his life would be dominated by this sport until the end of season, he would not quit (he has a history of wanting to quit things quickly). I only allowed him to play after lengthy conversations with the team’s leadership about coach safety training, equipment quality, and assurances that player safety was the top priority. I just found out that during practice, my son has twice had helmet-to-helmet hits, experienced headaches, and the coaches put him back in to play. The first time my son told them and they still made him play; the second time they weren’t even aware of the hit because he didn’t even bother telling them. I immediately talked to the team president and the coaches, who all assured me that safety is their top priority. I do not have confidence in these coaches and I am really worried about my son’s safety, but I also worry about setting a bad example by having him quit when I don’t like how things are going. What’s the best course here?
A: Two smacks in the head would be two too many for me. But then my father had a long decline and eventual death in part, I believe, to his college football and boxing career. I do wonder about the future of football as a kids’ sport because of what you’re describing. Is there really a way to guarantee that small boys won’t suffer unnecessary head injury? I think a lot of parents are going to be voting with their feet on this in years to come. You do have a dilemma because you don’t want your son to be a quitter. But it sounds as if he’s such not a quitter about this that he doesn’t want to speak up about getting smacked in the head. If you and/or your spouse can attend practice to eyeball this for yourself, maybe you will feel more reassured. But if you’re not, you have to let your son know that you will help him find a sport he loves that keeps him safer.
Q. Re: The Dreaded H-Bomb: I live in New Haven, Connecticut. A son of one of my local friends, while a student at another Ivy League law school, liked to poke fun at the people who, when asked where they did their undergraduate work, replied “in New Haven” by saying “Oh, you went to the University of New Haven?” that usually got the correct answer. P.S. If you went to Harvard, you should be able to figure out that saying that “I went to school in Boston” is likely to provoke a follow-up question. Get over yourselves!
A: “I go to school in Boston,” seems designed to make even more dramatic the big reveal. And I wonder if University of New Haven grads slyly go through life saying, “I went to college in New Haven.”
Q. He Won’t Fit in My Suitcase: I live with my boyfriend of two years. He works a skilled job that he loves but makes very little money, has no benefits, and lives paycheck to paycheck. I make a middle-class salary. He’s not a moocher and is uncomfortable that our earnings are so different. My family is going on a big vacation next year and I’m planning to go traveling for a couple weeks afterward. I’d like to pay for my boyfriend to come. I know how much he struggles and there’s just no way he can afford it. My family loves my boyfriend, but they think this is ludicrous and that he should find a way to pay. I would feel so guilty leaving him behind and I know I’ll have more fun if he’s there. What should I do?
A: What’s ludicrous is that your family is not only weighing in on how you and your boyfriend pay for your vacation, but that you also think they have a voice in how you and he handle your finances. It would be one thing if you were supported by them, or asking them to float your boyfriend joining you—but you’re not. Your question is not about money, it’s about boundaries. Start setting them. If your family is such a bunch of nosy jerks that they would make your boyfriend feel ashamed about accompanying you, then skip the family fun and just go with him on the after-trip. Once you make clear to your family that you’ve changed your psychological PIN number and they no longer have access to such personal information, then you and your boyfriend need a heart to heart about this subject. If you two are partners for life, then you should honor that he is a hard-working man who pulls his weight, and tell him you consider your joint income just that. Say you hope he can stop being so self-conscious about the disparity in your paychecks because you know if the situation were reversed, he would happily share with you.
Q. “I Go to School in Boston”: I went to grad school at Boston University, and have been saying “I went to school in Boston” for years without realizing that this was code for Harvard! I had no idea I’d been accidentally inflating my educational background.
A: Ha! But this is a direct question. Wherever you went to school, and whatever the response (“Oh, you must be really smart.” “Where’s that?” “What’s the difference between DePauw and DePaul?”) it’s better just to spit it out the specific answer.
Q. Parent-Adult Child Relationships: My husband and I recently moved to the Midwest from the East Coast, where both of our families live. For the first time we will have to fly in order to go home for the holidays, rather than driving. Upon discussing holiday travel plans with my mother, she insisted that she would really rather not pick us up from the airport, which is an hour away from her home, and would pay for us to get a rental car in lieu of holiday gifts. Unfortunately, this is not an expense that either we or she can actually afford. My husband feels my mother is being unreasonable in refusing to pick us up. Although I am hurt, I am happy that my mother is being forthright about her feelings (which hasn’t always been the case). Is my husband right? Should we refuse to see my family unless my mother picks us up?
A: If you’re old enough to have a husband, then your mother may well be at the point in life that she’s not comfortable driving long distances, or driving at night. Or she’s just at the point in life where she says, “Nope, not going to the airport and back on a holiday weekend.” But your husband sounds like he’s stuck at the point in life in which he throws his pacifier on the floor and stomps on it if he doesn’t get his way. If none of you can afford a car rental (even if you go on a discount website and split the cost?) then you need to look at alternative ways of travel. Maybe there are ride-sharing vans at the airport. Maybe there are airport shuttles to hotels or whatever, that can get you within a half-hour of your mother’s home. Maybe there are other relatives who could pick you up and drop you off. Maybe there’s a neighbor who would like to earn some extra money by being hired to do this. Maybe you two can grow up and look into this yourselves and respect that your mother knows her driving limits and the airport is outside them.
Q. Re: H-bomb: As someone who also “went to school in Boston” and graduated more than a decade ago, I can empathize with the awkwardness the writer feels. Rest assured, the “H-bomb” loses a lot of its impact once you’re out of school and you have an identity beyond being a student. Saying “Harvard” and continuing with the conversation normally also helps mitigate a lot of the standard conversation-ending reactions.
A: Thank you for this. You are officially exempted from my Harvard Morons book.
Q. Outing People: Hello, I am a straight female who has several male gay friends. Recently one of these friends outed a common acquaintance to me. I’ve never experienced a forced outing in the past, and I’m unsure about what to do. This acquaintance has made homophobic and bigoted remarks, and I know he is a deeply troubled person. I also know that he is still “closeted,” and that neither his family nor his friends know about it. My friend discovered him in a dating website for gay males. My friend thinks it’s OK to out him because he’s a hypocrite. I get what he’s saying, but I still feel a little guilty about it. This person’s family is also friends with my family, so I might run into him at some point. Should I warn him that he’s been outed? I feel like I won’t be able to look him in the face knowing what I know.
A: You describe someone who indeed sounds troubled. But he’s an acquaintance who frankly more or less outed himself—that happens if you go online looking for male romantic and sexual partners. Your friend has told you, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot more to discuss. If the subject of this acquaintance comes up again, you can just say, “He’s a sad case and I just don’t want to talk about him.” Then keep your knowledge to yourself. And surely, you can look in the face of someone who has serious emotional problems and be polite.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week. And as many people pointed out, if you’re an undergraduate at Harvard, you go to school in Cambridge, not Boston.
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