When I graduated high school, I dismissed the idea of college. I wasn’t lazy and I didn’t want to take a year off to travel Europe. The idea of college was immediately dismissed because I was too stupid for college. I was too poor for college.
My mother didn’t graduate high school and she managed to raise three children on her own, while holding down multiple jobs. College was a luxury for smart or rich people and I was neither. I needed a job, to make money, to pay bills. There really was no other option for me.
Shortly after I turned 19, a recruiter sold me on the idea of the Army Reserves. I would be able to serve my country, one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, and be able to remain close to my family. For eight years, I served my country, one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer. I was honorably discharged, thanked for my service, and I continued to exist. My civilian life consisted of meaningless jobs and relationships.
The day I became a mother was the happiest and most terrifying moment of my life. That day, my life became someone else’s life. Every single day I had lived, to that point, did not matter. The only thing that mattered, from that moment on, was my tiny human. I made a promise to myself, and my child, that everything I did from that point on, would be for him and him only. I lived for him.
Then I married a man. I had another tiny human. I made the same promise to him, as I had his brother. I moved into a subdivision, in a brick house, and I drove a mommy SUV. I was making good on my promises and living for my boys. I formed a mommy group and volunteered in the community.
There are a million reasons why divorce happens, none of which matter, and only the facts remain. The fact is I failed. I failed at my marriage, which caused me to fail my boys and break the promise I made to them. My life, that felt so perfect, was gone.
I had a home with wheels. My mommy SUV was on its last leg and there were three drug raids in my neighborhood within the first year of living there. As devastating as this was for me, I did not have time to lament over my lost life for long, because a new problem quickly presented itself.
I had a high school diploma and a resume littered with odd jobs and a five-year gap of nothing. Employers saw me as a risk, either because my resume was horrid or because I posed a risk of rampant absenteeism because I was a single mother of two young children.
I worked odd jobs and littered my resume even more. I got a dose of how amazingly difficult it is to succeed in a world that paid single parents just enough to afford day care, food, clothing, and shelter. It didn’t take a mathematician to realize the cycle could never be broken. Every time I found myself a few hundred dollars ahead, something or someone broke and I was back in debt. Finally, I gathered every shred of dignity I had and burned it in a proverbial trash can.
I could say some cosmic revelation or divine intervention happened, but really, it does not matter how it happened. What matters is that it happened. Someone cared enough to show me there was another, better way. In one afternoon, Pell grants and financial aid and certificates were explained to me.
Programs existed that would drastically improve my quality of life, if only I enrolled in college. The same programs would help me pay for college and daycare, and even help me find a job. The woman, the someone who cared, explained the whole process to me as if it was some simple task. There was nothing to it, she said.
She didn’t realize there was something to it. The woman didn’t know I was stupid. I couldn’t help but notice she didn’t realize this from the beginning. Why did she waste her spiel about programs and college on someone who, obviously, would never be able to maintain the grades the programs required? Those thoughts, however, didn’t matter. I could not tell her I had no other choice but to try.
Before, when I thought I was stupid, I never questioned why I thought I was stupid. Then, when I realized I wasn’t stupid, and I questioned why, the answer was so unbelievably obvious. Years of self-deprecation, mental and physical abuse, and constant teenage bullying were the culprit. That fact was painfully clear, when I finally allowed myself to ask why.
One small number was all it took to cause me to question the validity of my intelligence: 4.0. For two semesters, that tiny number kept me afloat. Even when that tiny number fell to a 3.8, still, it meant more to me than anyone knew. Even though I was taking easy classes and the general requirements, it still meant there was a strong possibility I may be able to, at least, get a degree.
Then, the validation came in another form: an invitation. Labeled like any other piece of mail, as if it wasn’t one of the most important documents I would ever receive, was an invitation to become a member of an honor society.
I usually never cry in front of people, and rarely ever cry at all. That day, however, I cried tears I never knew needed to be cried. I was not stupid. Really not stupid. More importantly, there was a possibility I could actually get an associate’s degree.
I celebrated later that day, with my boys. We had pizza on the living room floor and drank juice boxes and my boys were proud of me. My youngest son, barely 5 years old, said proudly, “my momma is the smartest momma ever!”Then, my oldest son, only 7 years old said, “I can’t wait to go to college, because I am going to be in the same club as you, momma!”
I did not break my promise to my boys. At only 5 and 7 years old, they knew, without a doubt, they were smart and they would go to college. Suddenly, the educational journey I was on changed and it was not about me anymore. This journey was about setting an example for my boys and showing them what could be.
I decided, right there on my living room floor, I was not going to try to get a certificate or a degree, just to gain employment. I was going to do whatever I wanted, because it was not just about a paycheck anymore. I was used to my simple life. My boys didn’t need me to make a lot of money to buy them a lot of things.
They needed me to be happy so I could show them how to be happy. They needed me to succeed to show them how to succeed. They needed me to show them what seems impossible is possible.