As a 17-year-old, I was the pride of my family when I left for my first year of college. No one in my family had a college degree…I would be the first. After three years of poor grades and fabulous parties, I left school without a degree and $10,000 in student loans to pay off. Even at the age of 20, I comprehended the opportunity I had squandered and committed myself to living on my own, eating spaghetti every night and sharing apartments with multiple roomates so that I would not have to go home and face my parents.
In in effort to stave off the self-hatred that my failure had created, I became the best secretary, veterinary tech, waitress, party planner, computer phone support technician and friend that I could. I was learning useful skills along the way and gaining respect from employers and colleagues. Even my father seemed proud of me up until his death when I was 23. I began to justify my failure in higher education by embracing life experience. But I never forgot how I had disappointed myself.
Life went on…I married, I moved, I created new jobs for myself. A strange thing happened along the way, though. The wiser I became in life skills, the more I missed the education I did not have. I examined my values and realized that the list was short: kindness, tolerance, integrity. When I searched for the best source of these traits, I kept coming back to the same conclusion…education. I knew it was time to tackle my demon. At the age of 33, pregnant with my first child, I went back to college. It took me 6 years, through the birth of three children and many part-time jobs, but I finally achieved my goal of a bachelor’s degree 3 months shy of my 40th birthday. And I didn’t just “get it done”. I graduated summa cum laude, with nothing less that an “A” and the respect I had not been able to give myself throughout my adult life. And, yes, I am the first in my family to get a college degree. (I bet Dad is smiling down on me.)
Here is the real success. I have three children who have watched me struggle, juggle, cry and flourish through the process. They began school while I was taking night classes. We sat at the kitchen counter and did our homework together. “Mommy is the smartest person I know.” They value education in a way more meaningful than lectures about studying and promises of a good job ever could. I am beginning graduate school in ESL Education next week, so that I can share what I have learned about kindness, tolerance, and integrity with more children than just my own.
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