From Colors to College: Kindergarten Inspires College Going Dreams

I had mastered all of my colors–and then some, of course. Fuchsia and chartreuse were strangely not on the card handed to me by my teacher. As two of my favorites, this made no sense. I asked her why the omission, and she very matter-of-factly explained that she would add those to my card for the spring test.

“Oh. Good idea.” I agreed.

I had also mastered my numbers, my sounds, and already loved reading. Feeling pretty good about myself and the stickers I’d just received from my teacher, I sat down to help Jose with his sight words and was gleefully cheering his efforts to sound them out. Soon, Jose, Sheldon and I were all practicing. I would hold up the flash cards and count to three to see how they did. I even added what I thought were better words for them to learn to the backs of several of the cards.

“Miss P., I can be a teacher whenever you need, ‘kay?” I called up to her as she walked past.

“Sarah, I do want you to be a teacher. Just not yet.” She replied, smiling down at me.

“What? Why not?”

“First,” she was very quiet and clear asshe said this, leaning down and looking me straight in the eyes. The moment felt sacrosanct. “You need to get a good scholarship and go to college. I’ll help you do it, but that has to come first.”

College? I could go to college? I had seen the pretty ladies in my tv shows go to college, but I didn’t know I could go to college! And who knew teachers went to college. Well, really, who knew anything about college?

 

I went home and told my momthat I could go to college. It turned out that she already knew. She and Miss P.  had been talking about it at Parent Teacher Conferences. Wow.

I began playing with my dolls and stuffed animals at night creating what I envisioned to be college-going scenarios. Soon I was telling everyone about college. Family friends even gave me little trinkets from local colleges–the tee shirt from Clark College even had Mickey Mouse on it and looked great with my Mork and Mindy suspenders. It really did!

A few years later, I made friends with agirl whose parents had both graduated from college. I was so impressed!

College hadn’t exactly become an obsession but it was definitely something I craved information about. I asked all the adults I could if they went to college and where. I had learned that colleges had sports and drama departments and places you could live at while you went to school. It sounded perfect.

Every teacher I had thought it sounded perfect for me too. They all told me how smart I was and they praised my hard work. But it just kept getting harder.

 

Life was chaotic. We moved a lot and changed schools almost as much. I was sick all the time. I was scared too. I didn’t sleep well. And there were a lot of tears. At least, I thought, no one at school knew what my life was really like.

Eventually, no one knew what I was like either. Withdrawn, shy, exhausted, and overwhelmed, not only was I not on the honor roll, but I had no idea how I’d ever make it to college. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do anything but work. I even kept a bag packed in case I had to leave and head out on my own.

 

“Hey. You sit next to me in finance, right?” His accent was thick and his smile adorable as he tilted his head to look down at me. He was at least a foot taller than I was, but most guys were.

“Uh. Yeah.” I mumbled. “I do.”

“Cool. Wanna hang out?” I blinked.

“What? I mean, okay. Sure.” who was this guy, I wondered. “Remind me your name,” I managed.

“I’m Ji. I’m staying with a host family here. I’m actually from Korea.”

“Wow! That’s awesome,” I felt somehow connected to him in that moment. I was new to the area, new to the life style as a former inner city girl trying to acclimate to the upper class suburb I’d found myself in withmy mom’s latest marriage.

He had come to the US to go to college, but decided to do a year of high school first to work on his English a bit more. So he was older than I was as we started the year together. I was a junior in high school and he was already nineteen. But we connected.

I’d help him with his homework. He’d drive me wherever I needed to go and give me time away from my crazy house whenever I needed. By the time he started college, we’d become best friends. He was my only friend, really.

We spent every day together. He was worried about me. My mom’s drinking had gotten bad. He was certain that if it weren’t for me, my family would fall apart so he did what he could to keep me grounded.

He needed me too, though. Still insecure in his English, I edited every paper and coached him through each assignment.

“I got an A!” He exclaimed, hugging me.

“Way to go!”

“You know I couldn’t have done it without you,” he said. “I told my professor about you and even showed her some of your poetry. She said you could easily get a writing scholarship even with your grades the way they are.”

I’d barely managed a 3.0 with my honors classes and wasn’t on track to graduate after this last change of schools. But someone thought I could still get a scholarship. …

Miss P.’s words came back to me. M
aybe college was still a possibility, even a scholarship. I signed up for the SATs that weekend.

My SAT scores barely qualified me for entrance into the state schools, but barely is good enough it turns out. I didn’t get a scholarship, but Ji told me about work-study. I could pay my way through school. I knew how to work hard, after all.

But I’d have to get away. I couldn’t take care of the family and work and go to school. So I made the biggest decision I’ve ever made, to this day. I left my family. I left the state. I left Ji, with his help. It was my turn to travel and explore new worlds.

So I went away to college and I never looked back. I became a kindergarten teacher, just like Miss P. and told everyone of my students that they could go to college. And I just passed my comprehensive exams for my doctorate in Educational Leadership.

The universe works in mysterious ways. I know Miss P. and Ji were sent to guide me. I pray, now, that I can guide others–from kindergarten to college, and beyond!

 

 

 

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Because I Can

“Why are you getting your doctorate degree” he asked. He sounded genuinely curious, not at all judgmental or accusing like some. Some assumed I had some big ambition. Others seemed to think it was about proving my worth. Some clearly felt it was a waste of time and money.  Most though just didn’t care.

“Because I can” I laughed. I heard him chuckle into the phone, across the distance. I couldn’t remember ever hearing him laugh. My father-in-law was the strong silent type, and, in more than twenty years of our interaction, we had probably only shared three actual conversations.

“There’s a mountain so you climb it, right?” He said, hinting at my recent hiking trip to southern Utah.

“Exactly!” He made it sound so simple, so natural, the most human thing possible. This man, a farmer, a dad, a leader in his community got it.

We are built to explore, to discover, to conquer–we enter this world with a bias toward action. Children spend every new day trying new things, finding out just what they can do. Why do so many of us let that go?

Admittedly there are many things I’ve wanted to do that I have been too scared or felt too busy or too responsible to try. Each challenge, each trial in my life though reminds me that life is short but life is good. And I can be amazing. We all can.

I keep a reminder in my office in a little unassuming brown frame, almost overshadowed by all the colors of my office, but it’s not there for decorative purposes. It’s there for me.

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”*

Hanging up the phone I return to my writing, I re-read my last section, and recommit to my studies. My research matters. And I will do complete it and share it with the world because I can.

What can you do? Will you do it?

 

More than Love…

On preparing remarks to open our Suicide Prevention Town Hall event this week…

As I reflect on the momentous gravity of our upcoming Suicide Prevention Town Hall, I am flooded with feelings and memories. My world has been impacted by many beautiful and sensitive souls who have struggled to find peace in this world. Some have turned to drugs, some to seclusion from others, and even some to suicide attempts. My grandfather told me once, when I was bemoaning my inability to do more for one of these precious people in my life, “all you can do is love them, Sarah. Just let therm know you are there and love them.”

Those words brought me comfort at the time. None of us can be “fixed” or made to feel as others would have us feel. We each live in our own internal worlds and in our shared external world.

I do believe now, however, more than love is needed, even more than presence. We must be aware and watchful and empowered by both love and knowledge. As I prepare my remarks I am in awe of all of the knowledge and resources out there to support me as I interact with those I love and as I work as an advocate in my school district for meeting the needs of all of our youth. This includes suicide prevention, community mental health resources, and a community who cares enough to come together to share our love, concern, and knowledge to protect and empower those in our lives.

Yes, love is not enough, but it is a start. It will take more than love to prevent suicide, to empower a community to face the difficult realities of mental illness, depression, anxiety, and our own limitations. But love is a start. That love inspires us to action and to learning tonight.

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There is a Chinese proverb that has always resonated with me: “a flower cannot blossom without sunshine, nor a garden without love.” I think of this often as an educator, a mom, and a member of this community. This is our garden. And sometime our garden needs extra attention. We have to compensate for insufficient light or sandy soil. The time and effort needed for most gardens takes more than love–it takes commitment. And each of you is here because you love someone, someone matters to you, and you are committed to making sure that they are able to live the kind of life that brings them joy. We know that there will be challenges and sorrow–and you have chosen to be here tonight because you want them to know that you will be there with them through it all, no matter what.

We are honored tonight with experts and with those who will teach us to be aware and to be empowered to act if we see signs that someone in our lives is struggling.

Although I am not one of those experts, but am here to learn as you are, I do know that what we are here for tonight is important. My life has been touched by loved ones who suffer with depression and anxiety. People close to me have attempted suicide. I have had friends and family directly impacted by suicide and loss. I am thankful that I can be here tonight to do my part to ensure I can be an ally for them now and in the future.

This is scary stuff and we are all worried we won’t do the right thing. We all know that we cannot control how someone else is feeling. We can control how we respond though. We can also control the knowledge we gain. It’s my hope that, after tonight, we will each be a little more comfortable asking for help–talking to our school counselors, the social workers in our schools and community, the case managers in our buildings, our principals, and each of those advocates who have chosen to give their time to be here. Look around. None of us is alone in this.

With that in mind, thank you for joining us. A special thanks to our experts, our volunteers, and all in our community who have made this night possible.

Hope

Her mom was the strongest woman, no, the strongest person I’ve ever known. And the two were inseparable. She wanted nothing more than to “grow up” and be  just like her mom.

Our lives are fragile though. She sat just outside her cell, telling me her story. The English teacher in me could not help but think this young girl belonged in a college prep class, not in the most secure youth incarceration facility in the state. Her vocabulary was impressive. Her phrasing, almost poetic. That elusive quality, “voice,” all writers work to hone, came naturally to her. Her story flowed easily, pouring from her in the only release she ever allowed herself. She would not cry. She would not falter. But she would tell her story.

“I just don’t want any other girl to go through what I’ve gone through,” she explained.

She could not know that I felt a kinship with her, a connection between our stories. But I survived relatively unscathed from my experiences. Despite the love of her mother and faith in her god, a middle class upbringing, and scholarship eligibility–she had faired far worse than I had.

How strange, I thought. All I had was my own mother’s love, and my own determination. Of course, I never turned to drugs.  Of course,I lived in a different state, a different time–before zero tolerance, even before meth.

So, before me was a beautiful, petite blonde from a kind of privilege many only dream of. And her world had crashed in around her.

“My mom thought it was just self-medicating,” she choked down a bitter laugh. “But that wasn’t it at all. I’d been using everything from caffeine pills to diet pills to keep my grades up for years. Those just didn’t cut it anymore–sometime around freshmen year, I guess. I started mixing drugs and texting the kids who reportedly dealt so I could supplement my uppers.”

She looked down at her warped nails on her dainty hands. No polish was allowed “inside.” She hadn’t earned that right yet. She had only arrived a month ago and had done little to endear herself to the other girls, let alone the staff.

“It turned out meth was just what I was looking for. And you have no idea, none, how amazing it feels when you’re on it, so don’t judge. I miss that feeling more than anything–except my mom.”

“So what happened?”

“He moved in and my whole world changed. At first he was good to us, like when they were dating. But soon, I couldn’t sleep with all the yelling, cursing, and all the crap he’d throw around downstairs while I tried to study or sleep.” She took a deep breath, almost a sigh. “So, I looked for something to help me sleep. I tried everything. I did everything. I guess I was already an addict, but that was the “tipping point,” my therapist says. … I don’t regret it though, because, by the time he came for me, I knew how to numb myself. That was self-medicating.”

“How did that affect school?” I asked. She had been in my first grade class years before. I was her principal now and knew I had to meet with her when I saw her name on the intake list. She had been all smiles and potential at six. At sixteen, after years of addiction, abuse, and living on the streets, she weighed about what she had when we last saw each other and she looked barely alive, even after nearly a month clean.

“I started missing first period. Then, my grades tanked in everything but English…. I was sent to DT twice for showing up high and flipping out on my teacher–and the SRO. DT wasn’t bad, but there was no catching up after missing so much school So, I stopped going. I also stopped going home. I wasn’t safe with him and my mom knew it. She just didn’t know how to get out–until she saw me here, that is. That seemed to do the trick. Hah!” She let out a forced laugh, a terrifying sound really. “See how helpful I am?”

“Anyway, one thing led to another. You can’t assault an officer more than once or be hauled out of a drug house, without making a name for yourself with the courts. My judge ran out of options, she said, since I kept running from any semi-secure placement. So, here I am.”

“… And you said you don’t want anyone else to have to go through this. What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m sure someone knew I was using before I started getting in trouble. I’m sure someone, like a counselor or one of those school social workers, could have recommended treatment for me–or better yet, asked if I felt safe at home. You know, the first time I failed a class, I got detention at school instead of a talk with my counselor. I don’t get that. I also can’t understand why no one noticed him, what an overbearing creep he was or how he looked at us–or how I changed after he started using me to satisfy his sick needs.” She paused.

I knew only too well this part of her story. And the truth is I had been there myself. No one noticed in my case either. No one wanted to see the damage done to the brilliant beautiful little girl with so much potential. They wanted only a success story.

Then she looked at me with those eyes that always smiled up at me with such hope and such joy when she was younger. The blue in her eyes had faded considerably. The look was fleeting and quickly clouded over with disappointment. In that moment, I knew she felt betrayed.

“You said we’d always have someone looking out for us at school, Mrs. R. And we have all those people, so many people,  but I ended up here. And I’m not the only one. Do you know that some of the kids were recommended placement here by their principals? I thought they wanted us in school, learning.”

“Well, you’ll finish your diploma here. I’ll even help you start college. We have concurrent enrollment now, you know.”

“That’s great. Now I can be separated from everyone and no one needs to feel guilty.” Those words gave me something to think about.

I’m still thinking, three years later. She did graduate, early, and started university course work. She and her mom are moving to the southern end of the state as soon as she gets out–so they can start fresh. They will both go the university. It is a success story, I suppose. But I still feel guilty. We let her down as a system, and she’s not the only one.

I am working on my doctorate and studying juvenile justice issues. I get discouraged often. But I remember that look she gave me–the one from her childhood, the one I saw before she admitted she felt betrayed (though not in so many words), and the one she had on her face when she looked up at before before giving her speech at graduation. I remember her hope.

And I feel hope. Maybe, in sharing her story and the story of others like her, of others fighting for and supporting all the youth like her, maybe we can make a change. I hope.