She’s older. Her skin is weathered, but her eyes are still sharp. She says that for most of her life she thought she was trash.
“Growing up, I never thought much of myself,” she said. “Guess when your daddy says you ain’t nothing, you believe it.”
Her parents were poor. Her father was bad to drink. Her mother was bitter. Life was no cakewalk.
She had her first boyfriend as a sophomore. He was a real winner. He degraded her, called her names. She got pregnant as a junior. He disappeared. She dropped out.
By nineteen, she was pregnant again by another man who treated her even worse—who also left her.
But her life didn’t stay as sad as it sounds. No sir. In fact, that’s why I’m writing this.
During her mid-twenties, fate smiled on her. She got married to a good man who thought she hung the moon. He had two kids; she had two kids. They shoved their families together and manufactured happiness by the bucketful.
He laid concrete. She worked in a restaurant.
They were barely making enough to survive, but money’s not everything. Some things are more important. Like happiness, family, and whether you like your own reflection.
“But I was tired of feeling beneath everyone else,” she said. “I had no confidence, and I had no idea how to make things better.”
One day after work, she got her answer. She was picking up her children from the Methodist church’s after-school program.
In the parking lot, she met a woman who was like her. Same callused hands. Same smoking habit. They hit it off. They talked about things, about their kids, their husbands, about everything.
The woman said she was graduating college that same week.
“It’s taken me ten years to graduate,” the woman admitted. “Had to take classes little by little. You know how hard it is being a mom.”
College. The casual conversation with a perfect stranger worked itself into her mind. She thought long and hard. She lost sleep.
It was her husband who finally pushed her boat from shore.
One night, he told her he was taking her on a date. He hired a babysitter. She got dressed up. So did he. They ate early dinner at a nice place. Then, he drove across town to a community college.
He parked. He shut off the car.
“What’re we doing here?” she asked.
He grinned. “We’re gonna show the world how smart you are,” he said. “That’s what.”
They enrolled in a General Education Development preparation course together. Three nights per week, they learned grammar, multiplication tables, and important historical dates.
And in the evenings, after the kids went to bed, they quizzed each other. They shared a textbook. They burned through Marlboros, made handwritten notecards, and fell asleep with homework in their laps.
She passed her test on her first try. He did too.
She was in college that same year. Her husband worked two jobs just to pay for it. She took as many classes as she could. She discovered she was a crackerjack at math.
And I wish I could tell you more of her story, but we were interrupted when her husband came home from work.
He wore work clothes, painted with dust and mortar.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” he said.
“No, it’s okay,” she said, standing up, stretching. “We’re finished here. Besides, I’ve gotta grade a lot of papers tonight.”
Of course she does.
Because she’s a teacher.