My last challenge address…. for now, at least…


About eight years ago, my college choir director gave me some advice that I will never forget.

“Hell,” he said, “is when the person that you are meets the person that you might have been.”

Now that I am standing on the other side of things, I must say—there really is something to be said for accomplishing life-long dreams.

I can’t remember when I first decided I wanted to become a teacher. Definitely before I knew what student loan debt and independent verification worksheets and cost of attendance all meant. I wonder if someone had said to me when I was 15 that in order to become a teacher, I’d need to be in college for 10 years, if I would have changed directions and chosen something else—something a little more attainable and reasonable. Who goes to college for 10 years to make less than $40,000 a year? Well…. I suppose someone who would consider hanging out with a bunch of 8 year olds all day not just fun, but life-affirming.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” Tom Hanks said one time. He was talking about baseball. “The hard is what makes it great. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

I grew up in a society where it was just assumed that you would go to college. I don’t have any friends who didn’t at least have a go at college at some point—everyone I know jumped through all the hoops of ACT/SAT testing, entrance exams, college fairs, etc. Maybe some of you had different experiences—but in my small town, everyone went to college. Really, it was the only way to get the hell out of there.

So I don’t know if I ever—ever—said out loud how scared I was that I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t apply to any of my dream schools, because I was terrified of a rejection letter. At first, I took only classes that I knew I would do well in, because the idea of failing was petrifying.

I have an issue with being afraid of things—I’m not sure why. I suppose because if I admit that I’m afraid of something, it means, on some level, that I have to admit that there is some remote possibility that I am not in control of absolutely everything that happens to me. I might have to actually relinquish control to the elements for a little bit. It’s hard. A lot of days—a lot of days—I feel like my entire world is balanced on a very fine edge— but IT’S OKAY, SEE?—because I have attached all these steel cables to it, and I’m holding them ALL TOGETHER… and I’ve dug in my heels, and I’m gritting my teeth, and EVERYTHING is going to turn out JUST SO.

But if I admit that I’m scared—that I’m really scared that I might not be quite strong enough to hold it all together—that would be like letting go. And that doesn’t NECESSARILY mean that my world would swiftly tilt…. But it might. It could.

I’m working on that.

My degree posted this week—I now have something that no one can take away from me. To say that my dream came true feels a little lofty—because it’s not like I climbed Everest or won American Idol or had Ben Folds call me and ask me to sing a duet with him sometime if maybe I feel like it—I did something that tens of thousands of other people do all the time.

But it’s true. It’s hyperbole—but it’s true. My dream came to pass. My wish has been granted. Fantasy has been realized. I graduated college. I’m a bachelor of science. Two sciences, actually.

Look, I try to do a good job of not dragging people down. I don’t write so that anyone can feel sorry for me, or, on the other hand, so that anyone can call me a whiner or a negative Nelly or what-have-you. But I do tell the truth– and the truth is that there are some women who are in my situation who might be feeling like they need to give up on whatever their dream is. In the last ten years, I have seen many, many people graduate who worked a lot less than I did. People who didn’t really want to teach, but who graduated anyway. People who didn’t care about school, put in minimal effort and slid under the radar until they could just finish and move on with their lives.

People told me I couldn’t. People wanted me to fail. People told me I didn’t deserve it. People told me that it wasn’t for me—as if education had been invented and developed for some other type of person.

I’m not much for spite, but I can tell you that there are times that I wish those people felt every grade I earned like a pebble in their shoe.

I am living proof that it can be done. There isn’t anything special about me; I don’t have super human powers or amazing abilities. I didn’t even have a whole lot of faith in myself– obviously. But I had this stubborn, mean streak running through me– this inner voice that would stamp her feet and blow out a huffy breath and glare at professors and advisors and difficult homework assignments.

I will do this, I would hear myself think, I will do this because I will.

Maybe what has been so startling to me since my degree posted is this feeling of magic and impossibility and hope. I don’t know how to stress this enough, and make it seem real, especially now that it isn’t—I never thought that I could make it. I never thought that this would happen. I never thought that I could do it. But I did. And now it’s done. And now I wonder—what else could I do?

When I saw my name on the list of graduates, I checked it probably seventeen times. And the more I saw my name—standing there, written right there, as if it belonged next to all those other names—the more I felt justified in every crazy thing I’ve had to do for the last ten years to get by.

Some people dream about climbing Mount Everest, or running marathons, or winning the lottery… all I’ve ever wanted to do in my entire life is teach.

Don’t give up. Don’t ever, ever, ever give up.


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