People Like Us

The Power of Words

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People like us don’t go to college. At least that’s what Mama always told me.

Somewhere along the way, my parents became convinced of this lie. Neither of my parents wanted me to go to college, in fact, earning a high school diploma seemed optional in our home. Mama dropped out of high school in the eleventh-grade so that she could marry our father, who had dropped out of high school in the ninth-grade.

My father referred to the educated as “snotty, stuck-up S.O.B.s who think they are better than us” and did his best to keep his world free of “those kind” of people. As a result, my childhood experiences with the educated world were limited to my daily life at public school.

Fortunately for me, I absolutely loved school. School was predictable, stable and affirming. I developed a love of reading that was almost obsessive, and was even “grounded” from reading when my parents became concerned about my “escaping” into books.  I read everything I could get my hands on: textbooks, library books, even brochures in waiting rooms of various public places. I escaped for hours with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Alice in Wonderland, Ramona, and Nancy Drew mysteries, then graduated to romance novels, classic literature and inspirational fiction. I learned about “normal” family life, stable relationships, and success in the world of literature. Through reading, I discovered the possibilities that lay outside of our limited existence.  However, it wasn’t until I was a ninth-grader at a school in Wisconsin that I made the first of several life-changing discoveries.

We moved to a bustling college town in Wisconsin just before the first snow. I registered for classes in a spacious, modern office, located in the largest high school I had ever seen. I sat across the desk from Ms. Van Herring, one of the guidance counselors, who was wearing a brown tweed suit with beautiful boots that met the hem of her skirt. She was warning me, through raisin-tinted glossy lips, about the upcoming snow and the dangers of a Northern winter for those who are not prepared.

Ms. Van Herring eyed my thin jacket. “You will want to be sure to wear layers,” she said briskly. “The temperatures drop quickly here. Our first snow could accumulate to least six-inches within the first 24-hours and temperatures could drop to the single-digits.” I nodded and shivered internally just imagining the week to come.

Ms. Van Herring placed a stack of papers in front of me. “Here is our course list. I see gradblog3from your previous grades that you are a strong student. You would probably benefit from some of our honors courses, which is on the college-prep track.” I was stunned. I had never been offered advanced classes. Ms. Van Herring must have mistaken my silence for reluctance. She reviewed my academic history out loud. “You have maintained a mostly A/B average though you have been enrolled in several different schools,” she said assuredly. “Wow…one year you even attended seven different schools, yet still your grades were good. I really think you would enjoy our honors classes.” I blushed with pleasure, then my blush deepened with the discomfort of being scrutinized. I nodded. “Sure, I will try it.” I almost floated out of her office to my first class.

My time in those honors courses changed the parameters of my world. Not only did I lose myself in the interpretation of literature, but also discovered what motivation looked like. The differences in student behavior in mainstream and advanced classes were dramatic and I loved it. I had found my home.  I even carefully observed the way the girls in my new classes were dressed, and found myself shopping in thrift stores for skirts and dress pants instead of jeans and t-shirts. I reasoned that if I mimicked successful, happy people, then surely I could be successful and happy as well. However, I still could never see myself actually going to college, the thought seemed so far removed from reality.

One day, I decided to just face the issue head on. Mama was driving us back to our home in a trailer park outside of town. She drove the old truck carefully on the ice, her small, plump hands gripping the steering-wheel.

“Man, I wish I could go to college.” I began. Mama glanced at me, the beginnings of a frown crinkling her flawless skin.

“Do what?” she asked.

I tried again. “Well, I was in my honors English class and we were talking about colleges. I just wish I could go, it sounds fun.” Mama didn’t answer. “I don’t know, maybe it could never happen anyway.” I was deliberately flippant. I nervously flipped through my novel, and watched her frown completely form out of the corner of my eye.

She shook her head. “People like us don’t go to college, you need to get that out of your head,” Mama finally said.

Irritated, I sighed and shrugged. The possibility seemed so far away, that I decided it was not worth an argument at that very moment. I didn’t dismiss the idea; I simply tucked the idea away.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I still didn’t know what the future held. One day in early fall, I was in my bedroom in our home in a small community in Texas, when I heard the muffled sounds of a familiar voice—it was my high school principal. My stomach fell. I was mortified that someone I respected so much was standing in our ramshackle home. I was also mystified—what on earth was he doing at my house?

I shoved my homework aside and leapt from my cross-legged position on the yellow bedspread, then pressed my ear against the peeling bedroom door.

“I just know he’s making a mistake he will regret,” Mr. Hashem was saying. “He is so close to the end. If he doesn’t want to go to college he could go to a trade school.” I could hear the deep murmur of my father’s voice, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He must have been on the other side of the room. I snatched up the empty water glass from my dresser and pressed the mouth against the door, then my ear against the bottom of the glass. It was a trick I learned from my mother through the years. Ah yes, that helped.

“…and he is eighteen, I guess the choice is his to make,” my father said with finality. I could hear the recliner squeak as my father leaned back.

Mama chimed in. “He has always struggled, you know he has dyslexia and has trouble reading. I don’t blame him for wanting to quit, he will find a job somewhere. People like us just don’t go to college,” Mama said matter-of-factly. “Want some coffee?”

“No thank you,” Mr. Hashem declined politely.

It was then I knew the purpose of Mr. Hashem’s visit. I knew my brother wanted to drop out of school, though it was fall of our senior year. He should have graduated the year before, but was behind since he had to repeat the third grade. I heard him refusing to go to school a few days before, and knew the decision had been made. Mr. Hashem, however, had no idea.

“There are so many opportunities out there, if only you wouldn’t give up.” Mr. Hashem sighed, clearly frustrated. I could hear him make his way across the cracked, gray linoleum in our living room, and heard the groan of Mama’s chair as she rose to walk Mr. Hashem out.

The sounds of Mr. Hashem’s footsteps suddenly stopped. “You know, that girl of yours back there, the one hiding in her room?” I nearly dropped my glass. Mr. Hashem’s words were loud and clear. “She is going to make something of herself someday. She is going to graduate from high school and go on to college because she is bright and willing to work for it. She is the kind of person who goes to college, and her brother could be too if he really wanted to do it.”

There was silence both in the living room and in my bedroom. Heat rushed to my face, and I could almost hear my heart beating. I momentarily stopped breathing.

“Well, thanks for coming by. We appreciate it,” Mama said, after the awkward pause.  I heard the screen door slam shut, then silence.

I put the glass back on my dresser, and sat down slowly on my bed. There was such power in Mr. Hashem’s words. The fact that a respected adult saw potential in ordinary, fundamentally shy and poverty-stricken Karen Wilhite left me in awe. It was as if the mist that shrouded my vision cleared, and knew what I wanted to do, I knew my dreams were possible. I resolved at that moment that I would not let Mr. Hashem down and I would not give up on my dreams.

It would be exactly six-years later before I took my first college class, just after the birth of my second child. I carved out time as a wife, mother and part-time substitute teacher to take a couple of college courses each semester. Over the next ten years I earned my Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and English, a Master of Science in Psychology and Counseling, and then returned for a year to earn additional hours toward certification as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). Was it easy? No way, so much happened during those years. But my family and friends were my greatest cheerleaders, and they continued to speak life into my dream on the days I wanted to collapse under the weight of it all. It was a glorious experience, each time I walked across that stage with my degree, a dream realized.  I guess people like us really DO go to college.

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4 thoughts on “The Power of Words

  1. Mechelle Wilson on said:

    Karen, your story is really inspirational. I assumed that you stepped right into it.

  2. A powerful and inspirational truth. I, too, understand your life and your struggles. Much the same as mine, growing up in a small rural town. You were lucky that someone recognized your strengths. Your background and your determination have allowed you become a wonderful experienced teacher and allowed you to do the same for other children from the same circumstances. You will definitely leave your mark on this earth. You are such a delightful person.

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