I peeked out my public housing window looking for the Head Start bus. It would be pulling up soon with Crystal, my youngest child. It was her first day of school, and I was excited to hear about her day. I thought of my mother, a former school teacher, who always asked, “What did you learn in school today?” She’d get right down on her knees and speak to me at eye level.
“Toni, what do you know now that you didn’t know this morning?”
She’d lean in and really listen to what I had to say. I wished she were here now to hear my troubled thoughts and advise me on a decision I had to make. Sighing deeply, I left the window and plopped on the couch. I’d promised myself that as soon as my last child was off to school, I’d go back myself. But I didn’t have a clue how to start the process! The first person I asked was my Department of Social Services caseworker. Her sharp reply still stung.
“Look, my job is to make sure you get your check, food stamps, and Medicaid card each month. Beyond that, there’s simply no time to do anything else.”
I was startled by her answer. I thought for sure she, of all people, would be glad to help get a person off the welfare rolls, but she didn’t seem to see it that way. Well, there was a community college downtown; perhaps I could speak to someone there. Wait, would I need my high school transcripts or something? I didn’t know where to begin trying to get those! I closed my eyes and breathed a prayer.
“Lord, I don’t know what to do. If this is ever going to happen, you’re gonna have to help me.”
I said, “Amen,” and headed to the kitchen to fix the afterschool snacks. A soft “clink ka clink” sound at the door made me stop. A piece of paper had just been pushed through the mail slot and was slowly wafting, face down, to the floor. I arched my brows. In the seven years we’d lived in this apartment, nothing had ever come through that slot. I bent down and flipped the paper over. Before I could rise, my eyes were watering, and I covered my mouth in awe.
The paper was a flyer with a bold question printed at the top.
Do you want to go back to school?
My answer to my briefly muttered prayer was staring me in the face. A fresh hope ousted all the excuses I could have given myself to wait until my baby was a little older to go to school.
I might get to do this thing!
Noisy honking alerted me that the bus was outside. I reverently placed the flyer on the kitchen table before going to get Crystal. She was just getting off the bus, still looking cute, with pink ribbons trailing from her ponytail. She flew down the walkway into my arms. I hugged her with tears still in my eyes. Pulling back, she looked up with four-year-old concern.
“Whatsa matter Mama? Are you sad to be home by yourself ?”
“I won’t be by myself for long baby,” I said with a grin. I took her hand to walk back to the apartment. “Mama’s going to school!”
Three months later …
I fidgeted in line, waiting for my turn in the University library to pick up a class schedule. The study rooms were temporarily converted to registration cubicles to service the large influx of new students. I peered over the shoulder of the long-haired student in front of me. He was slowly leafing through a magazine and didn’t seem perturbed by the line, the wait, or the fact that he was about to embark upon an academic experience that already had me shaking and feeling like I wanted to puke.
For the thousandth time, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. How many years had gone by since I’d last stepped foot in a classroom? I did a slow pan of the room. Most of the people I saw were at least ten years younger.
Stop it! I cautioned myself. Comparing yourself to others is not what you need right now.
I sighed. It wasn’t like I had just decided to do this. Getting a degree was part of a plan that had started five years ago after my husband decided he no longer wanted to be married. I knew I stood a much better chance of getting work that would pay enough to support the kids, along with medical benefits if I had a degree. I just hadn’t counted on all these mixed emotions showing up!
After a frantic morning of getting the kids up, fed, dressed, and off to school before hopping on a city bus to the college campus, I was anxious to get to class to sit and let my thoughts settle. The reality of actually getting this far in my goal to go back to school still hadn’t sunk in. I was a thirty-year-old divorced woman with six children. I’d dropped out of school when I was sixteen and managed to get my GED by the time I was eighteen, but other than a few continuing education classes, I didn’t have the academic credentials or employment history that would land a decent job. It seemed going back to school was the best option I had.
The day I decided to move forward with my plan, I knew I’d have to wait until my youngest was old enough to go to school because money for daycare was out of the question. My baby was only fourteen months old then, so I had plenty of time to think about what I was going to do and get good and scared about doing it!
I manage to push the fear aside and dry my tears of disappointment over my failed marriage long enough to get the ball rolling.
The day finally arrived when all six kids were getting on a school bus and waving goodbye. It was my turn to go to school.
A man with large black-framed glasses, nodded for me to step forward. He begin giving a spiel I'm sure he could have said in sleep. His voice droned on while I craned my neck to find the schedule with my name on it. The voice finally stopped and he shuffled through the collage of papers and pulled one out to offer me. I nearly snatched it out of his hands. He looked at me with a tired smile. “Here’s a map of the campus." I looked at the postage-stamp-sized piece of paper and squinted. This was a map? I looked back at him with raised brows. He gave me a lopsided grin. “Good luck with finding your classes.” He gestured to the next person in line.
I guess I was on my own.
How hard could it be? I took a deep breath and started down a path I prayed would get me to my first class.
Twenty frustrating minutes later of twists and turns, I wound up right back where I started. I felt the familiar chill of fear sneaking up. I glanced at my watch. Was I going to be late for class on my first day? On the heels of that thought came another one, I can’t be late if I don’t show up! I miserably turned in the direction of the bus stop. I knew where that was! My eyes begin to mist as I hurried, with blurred vision, to catch the next bus home.
I was so intent on running away from what felt like a shameful defeat; I didn't see the guy until I collided with his broad chest. My purse slipped to the ground, and I quickly bent to pick it up to hide my tears and my embarrassment. This poor dude, I just about ran over, probably knew where he was going. What was my problem?!
“Toni?” A familiar voice was saying my name.
I lifted my head and stared. What were the odds that the one person I’d bump into on that large campus would be someone I knew?
“Darwin!” I nearly squeezed the breath out of him.
“Cousin! I didn’t know you went to this school!” He exclaimed.
“Well, today is my first day, but how do they expect you to find anything on this crazy thing?!” I flung the map at him.
He grinned, “No worries Cuz! I’ll show you where it is. My class is in the next building.” He sobered a bit. “Cuz, are you alright? Have you been crying?”
I swiped at my eyes and self-consciously smoothed my hair. “I’m fine.” I laughed. Relieved and amazed that the heavens saw fit to send my cousin down that path, on that day, at that time.
Coincidence? I don't think so!
Darwin draped a friendly arm around my shoulders. “Let’s get you to class girl. This your first day of school, and we can’t have you being late!”
The next four years…
I wish I could say that was my first and last challenge, but in the next four years, there were many more! Some of them made me square my shoulders with determination to press on despite the difficulties. But others made me want to quit, like the day Crystal broke her leg at the afterschool program, or when a professor called me a name, I never even thought about calling a female dog.
On the days that stress seemed to be winning the battle, I’d slip off to a secluded little area on campus and talk to a lone azalea bush. That azalea bush and I had numerous encounters during those
years of matriculation!
Most of the time, I reminded myself why I was doing what I was doing.
I wanted a new life for my kids and me. I wanted a car; I wanted to move into a nice neighborhood. I wanted better opportunities for us. The breeze stirring through the leaves of that bush seemed to spur me on. “You can do it. Don’t give up!”
A month away from graduation, I discovered that each graduate would only get two tickets for family or friends to come to the ceremony. That wasn’t going to work!
On my roughest days, the one thing that fueled my mojo was the visual of seeing all my kids on the front row, cheering and wildly clapping for their Mama as I marched across that stage to get my diploma. Two tickets?! Something had to give.
I shared my story with a few folks, and within days I had people offering their tickets. They were content to get their diploma in the mail. As a result of this generosity, I not only had enough tickets for my kids, but my sister, her three kids, my sister in law and my soon-to-be fiancé would all be able to celebrate this milestone victory with me.
A week before graduation, I had two appointments I needed to keep. The first was an interview with the board of education for a job as an Employability Skills and Learning Development Counselor at a high school.
The second was with that azalea bush!
Maybe it was silly, but I had to let it know that all those whispered monologues had not been in vain. I stood beside it in a silent camaraderie we’d forged through months of meeting. Especially during times when I was literally a thought away from calling it quits.
I looked at that bush and smiled.
It was late spring, and the azalea blooms had long withered and dropped off, but just as the roots of that bush remained solidly planted, I too, stood flat-footed and sure of my next season as well.
I knew the best was yet to come!