The other day I was chatting with one of Mitch’s aunts about school. I was telling her about a particularly difficult children’s lit class (Right? This guy was such a tough grader that he seriously hurt my feelings) in which I had just turned in a final and wasn’t sure how it would go.
“But,” I said, waving my wine glass, “I mean… I suppose that nothing can really keep me from graduating at this point.”
I’ve been thinking about that phrase ever since I said it. It isn’t entirely true, I guess. But I’d have to really, really mess up student teaching. I’ve never even heard of someone not graduating at this point in the game.
Back in April, I had a meeting where I had to meet with one of the big-timers at my school, and she wanted to know what had brought me to teaching. I have a hard time with that question, even though people ask me that all the time. To me it would be like saying, “So… why do you love your mom?” Or, “Tell me, just what is so great about your favorite color?” I’ve wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. I don’t ever remember– really– ever wanting to be anything else.
So I kind of told her that, and did my best not to sound too Anne of Green Gables-y. And then I found myself talking about going to college– about going to class that first day. I bought my textbooks just before class, and when I sat down to my first college course the name of the book was “Fundamentals of Music and Musicianship”… and I remember very clearly trying to cover the grin that spread across my 18-year-old face and thinking: I get to read this whole book. I get to learn everything that is in. this. book.
And then I changed majors, after a very bad second semester. I don’t regret the change– whatsoever– but it did put a big damper on my progress. And then the gal at registrar messed up, and I got registered for the wrong classes and burned through an entire semester before I realized there’d been a mistake. And that brings me up to 200– the year I lost my scholarships, followed by losing all funding, followed by taking nine, or six, or three credits– here and there, wherever I could– for another few years.
Then in 2007, I decided to try something different, and I swallowed my pride and went to a community college to get an associates degree in early childhood education. I say ‘swallowed my pride’ because the stigma about going to community colleges is huge. But I have to tell you– I had such an amazing experience going to community college. Invariably, the students there are serious. I met so many kids who were first generation students, kids who promised with gritted teeth that they would be the ones who broke the cycle of poverty in their family. I sat next to so many middle-aged divorcees who had never gone to school, and then when their husband left them what else could they do? So here they were, taking their first math class in 15 years. I met immigrants, refugees from war torn countries and survivors of natural disasters, doing what they could to re-assemble their lives. I met women who’d had babies in junior high, and now they were doing everything they could to take care of their children. Only a handful of these people were academically gifted. Most of them had to work very, very hard. It made me so ashamed of every time I had slept through class, or skipped altogether, or turned in a paper that wasn’t my best work, or lied to a professor to get more time on an assignment.
At first, I had to work harder, just to keep up with them. Hard work came very easily to them, and they regarded education as a privilege. To them, college was not the recognized next step after high school. In fact, many of them hadn’t even finished high school. College was something that they had dreamed about. Having an education was something that they thought was for someone else. And now I was one of them.
So I worked harder. I didn’t want to be a good student, I wanted to be brilliant. I had never before in my life wanted someone’s approval before, not like this. I had come with a lot less baggage, and not nearly the challenges that some of them were facing. I wanted them to be proud of me.
Somewhere in there, I began to recognize the education system as a beautiful part of the community, as a fragile, delicate system. When I talked to the people around me, I started to see connections. I could see where the system had failed them, and also where it had succeeded. When I thought back to the students I’d met at the university, I could see the failures there as well…. even though they didn’t always look like failures.
And then I graduated. One day I opened the door to my mailman, who said there was an envelope that wouldn’t fit and said ‘do not bend.’ I opened it up, and there was my diploma. I had just found out only a few days before that I was pregnant.
And you guys all know what the last two years has been like– late nights, sleepless weeks…. postpartum depression, learning to be a mom, finding a way to make a balance between work, school, and loving this little girl who was just too wonderful to be believed. School was different this time for two reasons: I’d learned to work, and become ambitious. For two, I was now just like those women in my classes, working and working and working so that at the end of it they would have something valuable to give to their babies. As the economy got worse, and we saw valuable people losing their jobs left and right, Mitch and I felt this urgency. My education became of the highest priority.
Motherhood became consuming. I kept thinking, “I can’t do school right now, I need to quit.” And then a second later, I would realize, “How can I quit? She needs me to finish.” I became desperate.
And I pushed through. I brought my laptop with me to the hospital so that I could keep taking quizzes and turning in assignments during labor. I put off taking pain pills so that I would be clear headed for exams. I didn’t sleep for months because the only time I could work was when she was sleeping. I devoured information and pictured it being written on imaginary index cards, filed away inside my brain for later reference.
I pictured my days like stepping stones. Every day, I got to take another step. And now I can look back, and just barely see what it was like before I had Maren. And back and back and back, and I am four years old, going to the library with my Mom and being jealous and impatient that some of the books are too hard for me.
I must tell you that right now nothing seems too hard for me. I am 14 weeks away– 14 weeks with no classes, no studying, no tests, and no finals– to achieving a dream. A dream. How many people get to say that?
I said all of this to the lady at the college– only more awkward and abridged, because I don’t talk like I write– and she said,
“Wow. I want you to take a moment and think about everything you’ve been through. Just take a moment to digest it and think about this– because this is it. THIS is what you’ve been waiting for. This is what all your work has gone towards.”
This is real life, folks. This is happening.
I look back on all those stepping stones, and I want to take them all and press them into one big block. I want to plant that block in the earth. I’m going to use it as the foundation for the beautiful life that I’m going to build, wherein my children never ever let anyone tell them that they aren’t worthy of something that they really want. I want to always live with it close to me. I want everyone that I meet to see it and comment on it, and ask me what it is that makes me so happy and strong, so that I can point to it and say, “Oh this? I worked on this for half my life, worked harder than I thought I would have to, and worked harder then I thought I could. This is all I ever wanted. This is what it looks like when you keep going when people tell you to stop, and keep dreaming when people tell you its stupid, and keep working when you can’t see through your tears. This is my most valuable possession. THIS is what I made for my babies.”