Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Disappointment and Dreams

I was asked to leave my high school once my pregnancy began to show, near the end of my sophomore year.  It was in March. I asked to stay until the end of the semester but the Vice-Principal of the school, who actually liked me, explained that if the school let me stay on campus in my condition that they would be “sending the message” that they condoned my behavior. So, I went down the road to the continuation or “C” school.

The course of study at “C” school was a series of booklets representing the major disciplines in any academic curriculum with a few aimed at vocational training: English, Math, Social Studies, Home Economics, Typing and Driving, I graduated a year early; technically, I completed my credits in November of 1975, but the Principal of “C” school didn’t tell me I had completed my credits until January of 1976. He postponed telling me, he told me, because he felt I needed the structure of school for as long as I could get it.  The principals of both schools, the one I was exiled from and the “C” school, agreed that I could be a member of the class of ’76 in either school but I had to chose which one. They did this because attending “C” school was generally reserved for criminal delinquents and assorted “misfits.” It was clear to me that I was an assorted misfit.

When my pregnancy was revealed to people in positions of authority, like the school faculty and administration, like the pastor of my church, like the coach of the swim team, the first response was disappointment and a shrug of the shoulders that seemed to indicate a sense of inevitability. Did I have some kind of sign on my back that suggested that I was pre-disposed to becoming pregnant at a young age?  Did someone see the depression I wrote about in my last posting, and/or suspect that I was one of those girls who would make tragic choices? After their initial disappointment came unvarnished empathy and encouragement. Mind you, no one encouraged me to move directly on to college.  They all felt that I needed to work to support my family but, if after 18 years, I was interested and in a position to do so, then, perhaps, I could take some college courses. No one believed I was college material, so neither did I.

It was a Sociology professor at the local community college who told me I was “college material.” I could not wait for 18 years to pass, so over the years I would take a class where I could fit one in while still working full-time, usually night shifts. My professor assigned me the task of going to the nearest university to just walk around the campus to see what it felt like. I drove past that campus every night on my way to work and again on the way home in the morning. The only time I had ever set foot on the grounds was a summer many years prior when my son won admission to a summer program held on the campus. He had been in the Gifted and Talented level of school since grade three and was always doing cool things and going cool places. I was and am very proud of him. He even went to college before I did. He was in 7th grade.

Every day for two weeks I drove him to the campus in the morning and picked him up in the afternoon. Not once did I ever leave the car to just roam around while he was in class. I did muster the courage to walk onto campus with him to find his classroom. One afternoon prior to the beginning of the summer course my son would be attending, I decided that we would have pizza for dinner at a Shakeys just down the road from the university. While we sat eating pizza, I suggested driving over to the school to find his classroom.” Having, myself attended 13 different schools in 12 years, I had picked up that little trick and always checked out my new school prior to attending it so I would not look like the stupid new kid. My son agreed that this was a good idea. But, he asked, would we be allowed to go there. Putting on my best Debra Kerr imitation I said, well, there is only one way to find out.

We finished dinner and then just a cloud away from sunset, I drove onto the campus and parked in the first available spot. Because it was summer and because it was late in the day parking was not a problem, until later. Fortunately, the building we needed to find was only a small lawn away from our parked car. I remember trying the door very delicately, so as not to set off the alarm. The door opened easily and quietly. We walked through empty and echoing corridors until we found his room. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I had swallowed my own fear and provided my son with a proper model of how to encounter new situations. That feeling of security and maturity ended abruptly when I saw the door at the end of the hall open and a man walk through it.

I felt like Linda Hamilton in Terminator II, when the revised Terminator steps out of the elevator and into the hallway that Sara Connors thought would lead her to freedom and safety. The bravado drained out through the souls of my shoes. I kept moving toward the man shielding my son with my body. When we got close enough to talk without yelling I could see that the man was wearing a uniform and he identified himself as a Campus Police Officer (what kind of cop is that? Could he arrest me for trespassing?). He said, “Is that your car parked out there”? He gestured toward the parking lot with his thumb. “Yes.” I responded trying to keep the tremor out of my voice and using the fewest words possible. “You’re parked in a faculty spot, any other time and I would have written you a ticket.
“Oh,” I responded.
 “Are you new here,” he asked.
“No. I mean yes, I mean it’s for him, he is in a summer program.” Now I was pulling my son from in back of me to stand in front of me and he really didn’t like the shift in positions. The man looked at my son and said, “well, young man you are starting a little early.” To which my son replied without hesitation or concern, “We don’t start until Monday, my mom just wanted to find my room.”  Where did he learn how to do that? Starting to move away from us, the officer said, well, enjoy you’re class, and don’t get used to that parking space.” I trembled all the way to the car. Using that memory to prepare myself, I drove to the University campus, parked my car at a meter and got out.
Without the presence of my son to force bravado out of me, I found that just standing in the parking lot was scary. I surveyed my surroundings in a 360-degree slow spin. I started to imagine what might happen in these buildings and what lay behind those bushes. Taking a deep breath, I walked up the sidewalk. It looked perfectly level but felt as though I was climbing a steep incline. Every step was a conscious effort. Maybe it was humid that day but I felt the air part around me. I remembered that feeling later when I was reading Milton for a class and he used the word “ether.” I looked it up in the Dictionary of Literary Terms and it said something like, “rarified air.” The air did seem unlike any air I had ever walked through before, even on that evening years earlier when my son had walked along with me.

As I made my way along the path imagining all sorts of things, I noticed that someone was walking toward me. I steeled myself for the rejection, or rather the ejection that would inevitably occur. I thought to myself, well if it is the Campus Police again, at least I had not parked in a faculty spot and I had put money in the meter. The youngish man was slim with very curly, long, dark brown hair. He wore long cut off shorts and some kind of sandals I had never seen before (Birkenstock). Surely he was not campus police, but, I thought, surely he would recognize me as an outsider and, in really large words, ask me to get the hell off of his campus. I kept my head held high but my eyes lowered and I slowed to a stop as we got nearer to one another. He breezed right past me and said, “Hey.” That was it. I stood there for another full minute to catch my breath and to wonder at the shoddy security this place had. How could they not know that I did not belong here?

I made it to what seemed to be the center of the campus and stood on the edge of it and took in the sites. A library, lots of very large buildings, beautiful trees and lawns that just begged to be lain upon. Because it was just becoming dark, the lights were not yet on but the next time I visited the campus I stayed long enough to see them magically appear. I loved this place. I wanted to live there. I wanted to know those buildings inside and out. I wanted them to love me back. That was the true beginning of my college education. I stopped taking a course here and there and started to work in earnest with a counselor at the community college to take the courses that would allow me to finish a two-year degree in Liberal Arts and then transfer those credits to that very magical university where I majored in English. I stayed there and did actually live on campus with my son while I earned a Masters degree and a Ph.D. in English.

I had gotten married when my son was three years old and my husband turned out to be a great father, even after our divorce. It was when I decided to stay in college after I earned my Bachelor’s degree that I divorced my husband and my son started high school. I was in no position to move anywhere but the sanctuary of My University. We lived in “married student housing” because, technically, I was married until the divorce was finalized. The housing was duplexes made from renovated, military barracks that were made from cement and painted a lead-based dull yellow-gray. The doorway to the kitchen was too small for the refrigerator to fit through so it stayed in the living room right next to the Television. This always reminded me of our first little house; the storage shack made into a one-room house that was so small I could lie on my bed/sofa and reach back with one arm up over my head to open the refrigerator door.

The duplex on the campus was only slightly larger. My son and I each had our own small bedroom and it took me eight steps to get from the sofa to the refrigerator, telephone or television. I got part-time work as a research assistant, then as a teaching assistant then as a freelance editor.

I was a proper student in the eyes of those who did not know me. I am blessed with genes that age slowly and no one knew that I was ten years older than most of the other students. Those who knew me thought I was either brave or crazy but they admired me nonetheless. No one ever knew what I knew to be true. I was an imposter. This was not my doing. I was possessed. I was led by a power greater than myself to not only attended classes but to graduate.

The first graduation ceremony, for my Associate of Arts degree, made plain the truth of my inadequacy when I opened up the certificate holder I had just been “awarded” only to find a piece of paper inside that read “Congratulations. You should receive your official diploma in the mail in 5-8 weeks.” My name was NOT on the note. I knew it. I knew they had found me out and had handed me an empty holder for the diploma I would never receive. It was really true, I was a teenage welfare mother who was not smart enough to avoid an untimely pregnancy, and, therefore, not smart enough to earn a college degree. It wasn’t until the person sitting next to me actually voiced what I was thinking, She said, “Damn, they could have just told me I wasn’t gonna make it through.” She had the same note in her holder. I looked over the shoulders of a few others and saw that they, too, had received the nasty little note. There are no words for the joy I felt when my diploma finally did arrive in the mail – with my name on it.

I have learned since that there is a psychological phenomenon called “Imposters’ syndrome” and that all kinds of people get it. It manifests itself in the belief that at any given moment someone will holler, “surprise, you really did not accomplish that” or “there is no way you accomplished that, you must be lying.”
Imposters’ Syndrome plagued me for years. It caused me to make nightly visits to my office on campus to make sure that my name was still on the door (during graduate school and well into my first job). I firmly believed that after I left campus for the day someone would remove my name from the nameplate on the door and replace it with the name of the person who really belonged there.

As a rule, I do not share my story with students. However, it never fails that every single semester at least one of my female students becomes pregnant. Privately, I share my story with them. I encourage these young women not to allow their pregnancy to stop them from pursuing their dreams.  I now understand that sharing my story makes me a power of example. I live the reality that becoming a young mother, living on welfare and off of relatives need not be a permanent condition. I have been fortunate enough to have some of the young women I have spoken with stop by my office, which I now know is all mine, to introduce me to their children, to thank me for the encouragement, and to tell me how they had continued their educations, some in bits and pieces and some who refused to accept the traditional role of shame and embarrassment actually continued right on through their four-year degree program. I am always pleased to see them and I am always impressed by their stories.

I am pleased that I can serve as an example to young mothers who will in the future be able to serve as examples to other young mothers because there always has been and always will be young, unmarried, unsupported and scared mothers who need to know that it is possible to dream large dreams and achieve them. This is a much healthier outlook for these young women but, more importantly, it allows them to be examples to their own children. Their children, as my child has done, could grow up to believe that they are all college material, that they are all leaders, thinkers and doers. There is no pregnancy prevention program that can achieve that.