Author’s note: Pseudonyms are used in today’s column. Other minor facts are altered to protect the identity of former students.
Last night I had a dream that I was sitting in a diner not far from the beach. A girl with a suntan walked into the diner and sat down next to me. She had beautiful green eyes, sun-bleached hair and the face of a cover girl. We knew each other through a mutual friend who teaches in the public schools.
When I asked her how she was she said that she was having trouble finding her place in the world. She had just changed careers twice in the last month. She had no college degree, so she decided it was time to go back to school. But, for the time being, she had to raise some money. She had no savings at age 25.
Immediately after she told me that she planned to work in one of the local topless bars to save some money, she saw my stunned reaction. So she tried to overwhelm me with the numbers. “The girls make $500 a night, tax free,” she said. Then she started to add up the numbers for a whole year of dancing and otherwise living modestly. My expression didn’t change and she got frustrated. She reminded me that some topless dancers make more money than professors.
And I dreamed that I resisted the temptation to respond sarcastically by reminding her that drug dealers make more money than doctors. Instead, I told her about Carolyn.
Carolyn was from Massachusetts. She was a bright student—at least she was about ten years ago. Her father was a lawyer. It was her dream to become a lawyer, too. She took a job in a topless bar. Before long she was spending her cash on the cocaine that freely flows within the walls of that bar—the cocaine the police seem to overlook. Carolyn ended up sleeping with her boss and getting pregnant. When she had misgivings about an abortion, she was fired. She dropped out of college, and she isn’t a lawyer today. She isn’t even a stripper.
And then I told her about Meghan. She was from a small town near the Virginia border. She went to work in the topless bar as a cocktail waitress promising she would never actually become a stripper. But she did become a stripper.
I told her how I saw Meghan in the store the other day and hardly recognized her. And I recalled when she enrolled at my university and looked like she was 12 years old. Nine years later she could pass for 45. A single year in a topless bar can put a decade on a young woman’s face.
Then I told her about Angie. She was a gorgeous young girl who prided herself on her athletic ability. She, too, started out as a cocktail waitress. Then she became a stripper. After she gained a few pounds, the manager fired her. Now she works behind a make-up counter in the mall.
Angie’s friend is a graduate of the university with a good career. She keeps in touch with me from time to time. She says that somewhere between the cocaine parties and the group sex, Angie lost her self-esteem and the desire to do anything with her life. She wears a lot of make-up that hides the lines written on her face and reveals the shame written on her heart.
Finally, I told her about Scarlet. She was a stripper for years hoping to save enough money to get a doctorate. She came by my office the other day to drop off an application. Every six months or so she changes jobs. She is never happy in any of them because she never got her doctorate. She never could seem to hold on to the money. One look at her once-pretty face—a face that now looks like a worn out baseball glove—tells the tale of how she lost her money. And, on top of it all, she deeply resents every man with whom she works.
Like Scarlet, most young women who decide to strip are already equipped with low self-esteem the first night they walk into that strip bar. When they finally decide to leave, they often walk out with STDs, drug addictions, a string of unwanted pregnancies and even lower self-esteem. But they never seem to walk out with the money.
But I have a dream that some day the so-called men who frequent these establishments will realize that that they are helping fund the destruction of these young women one dollar bill at a time. And I dream that they will come to see these women as someone’s lost sister or perhaps the estranged daughter of a friend.
I have a dream that some day we will judge them by the content of their character, not the revelation of their skin.