I was always a hopeful being. As a lass, I had big dreams and visions for myself enjoying a satisfying and well paid career. I always knew I would go to college even before I knew what responsibilities came attached with such a feat. As an African American, where both parents are from the south, having a college education is as important as following Jesus!
¨Go to college, get a degree and get a good job¨, was a mantra for black families in the north and the south. Being raised by a single mother without the support of my biological father added to the intensity of the warning not to find yourself without a degree. My mom didn't get her bachelor's degree, but she did get an associates degree and became a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). When I was 17 and she was 42, she went back to school, night school, to work on certification to become a registered nurse (RN) which meant better salary and respected professional certification. I watched my mom start and stop with school. She had to take prerequisites like English which she felt rusty and struggled with writing again after having been so long in high school writing papers so she quit for a season. Then she would go back, and then quit. Finally, she continued until she completed her program. She weathered the state board testing and became an RN at last!! I was so proud of her and she was my role model.
By this time, I was preparing to go to college myself. I got accepted to UC Irvine, and San Francisco State University both with full ride scholarships! This was 1979. I decided to go to San Francisco State because I already was established working in a great part time job as a police aide with the Berkeley Police Department. Upon entering San Francisco State University (SFSU), my major was theatre arts. My mom said, ¨you better get a major that gets you a job you can fall back on!¨ In other words, find a more bankable profession. I changed my major three times: from theatre arts, to communications, to broadcasting to journalism.
I was going to SFSU with my two best girlfriends from middle school, Lorna and Lisa. We jokingly called ourselves, ¨The Three L´s because all of our names began with the letter l--my name, Leah, Lorna and Lisa. It sounded like a famous singing group like the Supremes and for a minute, you could find us practicing singing on the back stoop of my 4--plex apartment building. We knew we were destined for greatness. We also were HUGE Jackson Five fans and sometimes called ourselves ¨Miguel´s L´s¨ because we loved us some Michael Jackson!
In fact, the three of us were enamored with the entertainment industry. We followed the careers of Diana Ross, Cher, the Jackson Five, Earth Wind and Fire, Billy Dee Williams, David Cassidy, and Chris Knight (Brady Bunch) to name a few. Every week, we´d head off to Waltz Drug Store to preview and purchase the latest teen and afro centric magazines: Right On, Tiger Beat, 16, Ebony and Jet. I think we were living vicariously through the stars we admired. We wanted their life and a college degree would help us get there because deep inside, we knew we were not Diana Ross!
I was so excited about college. Lorna and I were roommates in the fanciest of dorms--Verducci Hall. Lisa stayed at home and commuted to school. Like I said, I had a full ride scholarship. My dorm, meals, tuition and books were completely covered. My mom was proud and so was I. I continued to work part time with the police department and took a full load of classes at SFSU. I remember complaining to my mom that Lorna and I were in the dud dorm because the ¨party¨ dorm that was a much older building had all the cool kids and I was stuck being around the boring people. My mom told me that I was where I needed to be because I was surrounded by the serious students.
I remember meeting a student in one of my classes and found out she was much older than me and feeling sorry for her because she had to return to school being so old. She was 25.
Discontentment settled in for all three of us and we began to imagine life in southern California, near the Jacksons and the entertainment industry so we collectively decided to chuck college and move to Los Angeles. This did not set well with our parents, especially mine! I can still see her face when I made the announcement, ¨I´ve decided to quit college and I´ḿ moving to L.A.¨ She was devastated. My mother had everyone from her work colleagues to our pastor come and speak ¨sense” in me but to no avail, my mind was made up. I was an only child so it had been just me and my mom since I was seven so this really rattled her world and mine. We did not speak for what seemed like months but in actuality, it was probably about a few weeks, no more than a month from the time of my declaration to actually moving.
Life in Los Angeles was not a bed of roses. The three of us had difficulty finding jobs, and just paying our bills. We ended up with low paying jobs and it took all three of us together to be one person financially handling all the necessary bills. Lisa bailed after about a year of that and it was just Lorna and me. In that time, we decided that life would be hard if we didn't go back to school so off to community college we went. At this time, itś the 1980s and tuition was free.
It was difficult working full time and going to school at night. I was taking six units because I can still hear my mother's words of wisdom: ¨keep going to school even if you just take one or two classes¨. I did this for several years. I finally got enough credits to transfer to a state university to finish my bachelors degree. I left home at 18 and now I'm approaching 25. Now look who is the old lady student?! I was working evenings at a medical lab and taking a full load during the day. I did this for three years and then met my future husband. We married in 1990. I was 28. I had stopped going to CSUN after getting married and settled into married life. To avoid repaying my debts, I took six units at the community college, with the goal of journalism at the end. Taking classes and working full time was difficult. I was tired at the end of my work day. My pay wasn't great and studying seemed like a chore. I was the older adult student who studied for the test. I learned how to take tests from reading books and listening to others. I found a way to maintain good grades while working.
Three years later, June 22, I gave birth to my first child, a beautiful daughter, named Bethany and three years and one day later, June 23, my son, Jonathan was born. Being a mom was my priority so school took a back seat yet again for a few a while. I deferred my student loan payments as long as I could and decided to take the six units my mom always encouraged me to take. I did this for many years until finally, at age 39, I found myself still in the Los Angeles Community College system at yet another school, Mission College. I had been to almost every community college in that system but it was at Mission that I found my mission, or it found me.
Still a mother of young children, I was trying to find the right job that worked for a working mother and then I met an angel. A fellow student who was preparing to change jobs from general education assistant to a special education assistant. She asked me if I wanted her job? I took the required tests, passed and was hired as a teacher's assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). I was excited. I did that for one month and during the summer took the test to become a special education assistant. I passed, got hired in a preschool special education classroom and I loved it! For the first time since my emerging adulthood, I found what could possibly be a beautiful and rewarding career! Adding college to marriage and motherhood was even more challenging and I was constantly conflicted. ¨Am I giving my kids and husband enough time?¨ Taking care of me was a last thought and not even on the mental table of consideration. Balancing work, marriage and mothering with night school seemed like a heavy and tedious task. I hated it but kept the mantra going...¨keep taking at least six units.¨
My major changed from journalism to early childhood education (ECE) as I had taken so many ECE units working in a preschool program. I wrestled back and forth whether or not to finish what I started...journalism. I enjoyed writing since childhood and thought that I would find a career as a writer. Education won the battle and I enrolled in Pacific Oaks College. What an eye opening and refreshing experience. The college focused on social justice and was created as a result of the children's school which was built by the Quakers to serve children from working class families. I ended up being part of a cohort of 12 women and though the college was based in beautiful Pasadena California, I had my program right on the campus of Mission Community College! What a break, right?!
This is now the 2012/2013 school year and I am 52 years old! All of my classes were taught by inspirational and successful women. My text books were mostly paperbacks and written by some of my professors. There were no tests! I read, reflected and wrote papers. It didn't seem like school but it felt more like a spa retreat where I could conversate with women and our learning environment was typically in a circle which kept the room on an equal playing field. Teachers and students as comrades and colleagues. I received my bachelors degree in 2014 at 53. Thirty five years to get my bachelors degree but I persisted and did it! After my degree, I enrolled in a university intern program back at CSUN but this time, I was in education and not journalism. I became a teacher with my own class and set of responsibilities and taking graduate level classes while working towards my credential. I felt accomplished, relieved and terrified! I was now the one responsible for students, creating and implementing curriculum, consulting with parents, taking data collection, analyzing my student's progress and supervising paraprofessionals which is where I began this journey in the education field. I did this for four years. I had really great years with a wonderful staff working with me and my last school year was treacherous!
I had health challenges, spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis in both knees so running about with preschoolers with special needs was taking its toll on me. My children were adults and pursuing their purpose and I was still in school while trying to guide emerging adults as I once was back in 1979. I understood the disappointment my mom felt when I told her I was not going to continue with school as both of my kids did not want to go to college and both had career goals in performing arts! Oh boy, karma is a bitch! My husband and I totally support our kids even though we encourage them not to toss college out of the equation. It's hard being a parent. I get it now.
I ended up leaving the intern program before competition and I felt a wave of varying emotions: relief, anger, resentment, embarrassment and fear. I wondered what I would do now? Will I ever go back? Now I will have to start paying back those loans! Fortunately, I found a loan forgiveness program that will soften the blow of my accumulated debt of $79K worth of student loans over a 35 year period of going to school on and off.
The essence of who I became is much richer, with more substance. Would I re-do or trade my life and my path? Never!