Defying the Odds

Neither of my parents went to college. In fact, my mother never attended one day of high school. None of my aunts or uncles or even not one cousin enrolled in college. It just wasn’t something that was done in my family.

I was fourteen when I began dreaming of going to college. Because of a lack of family history, I really had no idea what college was about. For me, it was a means of escape. If I could go to college, I could legally move out of the house without first being married. And I had no intentions of marrying as a teen.

My academic career was less than glorious. Kindergarten was not mandatory back then, but my parents sent me to a private school because of fears that I was backwards. They were right. Unlike my classmates, I did not know my colors or shapes, knew nothing about the alphabet and was weak in numbers.

I worked hard, though, because I wanted to please my teachers. I graduated and went to first grade, still a bit behind, but with enough skill to get into the Catholic elementary school.

I struggled, to say the least. By fourth grade I was still not a good reader. I was embarrassed to be the weakest student in my class, and so, when my reading group was called to the front, I hid at my desk. Stupid, yes. Logical, though, when considering the embarrassment factor.

At home, determined to improve my skills, I erased all the answers on my worksheets, lined up my dolls and made them do the work. I repeated this process over and over until I could get the correct answers every time.

I truly believed that working with my dolls is what turned me into a scholar. It was not the help of a teacher, for I cannot remember a single time when someone helped me. I also know that it was not due to anything my parents did as the only time they checked my work was to see if I was earning As. If not, then a spanking ensued.

I stayed in one Catholic school or another until seventh grade. I continued to be one of the weakest students, but thankfully, others were in worse shape than me. The one thing that I was really good at was penmanship. I loved the whorls of cursive. The flow of one letter blending into the next was a thing of beauty.

Once math started making sense, I excelled there as well. Numbers could be trusted to always mean what they represented.

Unlike letters, which changed sound on a whim. I did not know the difference between a long vowel and a short, could not explain why some words rhymed with cow and others, spelled similarly, did not. How would and wood sounded the same and that there were many versions of there, you’re and too.

I transferred to a public school for eighth grade and promptly fell in love with my teacher. He was the first male teacher I’d ever had. I would have done anything to please him. In fact, when he assigned a research report on a college, when I found a Bennington College (his last name), I chose it as the subject of my paper.

Once in high school, everything fell into place. My hard work paid off. I was no longer the bottom of the barrel, but sat comfortably at the top. I was repeatedly on the honor roll and earned certificates right and left. I excelled in Latin and math and got by in English and Science, even though in both of those subjects, I often felt I was reading in a different language than all the other students.

Toward the end of my freshman year, my parents made plans to move to California. I researched colleges there and was pleased to discover the existence of community colleges which were practically free. It meant that I would be able to go to college!

This was a dream come true. No more worries about being married off to a Neanderthal neighbor. I could focus on a dream that meant more to me than any other dream I’d held before.

In California, I found high school work incredibly easy. My grades were the highest I’d ever had and I excelled in Spanish, Math and PE. English was still a struggle, but with hard work Science and History were subjects I mastered.

I told myself that I had the skills to go to college, and believed it.

In my senior year I applied to a variety of colleges, including one in Ohio near where my grandmother lived. I was accepted in every one. All I needed was financial assistance, which came in the way of a full scholarship to any college in the state of California.

When the news of my scholarship reached my high school, my counselor called me to her office. She pulled up my records, then proceeded to tell me that I’d never succeed in college, that I should consider getting a job and getting married.

When I left her office I was seething. I swore that I would prove her wrong. I told myself that at the end of my first semester of college, I would bring her my grades and show her that I had the skills to succeed.

And I did.

Her response was one of surprised shock. She apologized for assuming that I would fail, and then praised me for my hard work.

To me, earning her praise was the first of many highlights in my academic career. No one had believed in me, but I did. I told myself I could do it, and I did.

 

A Halloween Memory

The only part of Halloween that I ever liked was the endless pursuit of free candy. From the time my brother and I were in middle school, we would roam miles from home knocking on doors on streets that we barely knew. It took us hours, and at times our pillow cases would become so heavy that we’d go home, empty them out, then head out again.

I hated wearing costumes. I disliked having my sight blocked by masks, I detested makeup, and despised trying to come up with something to wear that resembled a costume. My most frequent costume was that of a hobo as all I had to do was put on overalls.

When I was thirteen my middle school decided that it would celebrate Halloween and that all students were expected to dress in costume. I panicked when I heard the announcement. It was bad enough to walk about my neighborhood under cover of darkness. This would mean parading about campus under fluorescent lighting!

I worried about this for days. I was a painfully shy girl who never raised a hand to ask or answer a question in class, and now I was going to have to expose myself to potential ridicule if I chose to dress in an unpopular or outmoded outfit.

When time ran out, the only thing I could come up with was my mother’s WAC (Women’s Army Corp) uniform from World War II.

What seemed like a good idea when I got dressed in the morning, quickly became a terrifying experience once I arrived at school.

My teacher, thrilled to see the old uniform, made me stand in front of the class and share my mother’s story.

To make matters worse, much to my dismay, she sent me up and down the hall, dropping into every single classroom to share. At times I barely got out a few words as this required me to speak before students I did not know.

It was such a horrible experience that I did not go out trick-or-treating that night and for several years after.

Advice Column

Dear Martha:

My eight-year-old son got sent home early from school. Supposedly he pulled a girl’s ponytail so hard it made her cry. I don’t believe it. My son’s a kind-hearted kid.

He says the girl waves her hair in his face. That it touches his desk and gets in his way. All he was doing was moving it.

I’m angry that she didn’t get punished. It’s not fair. What can I do?

Angry Mother

 

Dear Angry Mother:

Imagine your son old enough to drive. He’s traveling close enough to the woman’s car in front of him that he can read all the stickers on her bumper. Suddenly she stops, without giving, what he thinks, is proper warning, so he smashes into her car, hurting her and damaging the car. Whose fault is that?

Instead of being angry at the girl in your son’s class and seeking to place blame elsewhere, teach your son to maintain a respectful distance, even when the hair is touching his desk.

He needs to learn alternative actions to hurting someone. For example, could he have said something to the teacher or asked to switch seats? Instead he pulled her hair which only got him in trouble.

Excusing an individual’s behavior, even at such a young age, can lead to a lifetime of excuses.

Martha