Tip your professor

I had a mentor before I even understood what a mentor was. I had a mentor before I even realized I was being mentored. What I did know was there was someone who saw something in me I could no longer see, if I ever had. She dreamed bigger dreams for me than I dreamed for myself. And her unwavering confidence in identifying me as a person with promise eventually made me a believer too.

I was 26 years old when I decided to go back to school. In truth I had decided a few other times over the years. The first time I made it through the registration process before quitting. The second time I made it through the first half of a semester before quitting. In both cases it was for a single class.

This time it would be different I promised myself. I had just returned from a month in Europe and Scandinavia where I’d met up with my best friend so we could travel. She was a Danish student I’d met during her gap year when we were both nannies in Boston. My employers gave me the time off and with $1,000 of borrowed funds and a Eurail pass, she and I met in Copenhagen before heading off to camp in Germany, Spain, and France where I’d discover just how ignorant I was.

“I’m going to go back to school when I get home,” I’d told her. “There’s too much I don’t know.”

And I actually did.

This time I signed up for four classes which met during a confusing combination of days and evenings so that I could continue to work full time and pay my rent. Pell grants, federal loans, and familial gifts paid for tuition and books.

We officially met the second week of classes during Introduction to Sociology. I was sitting in the front row as I typically did, but this time reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison when class began. She looked at me a lot during her lecture and then motioned for me to stay when class concluded.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Uh… what do you mean?” I answered.

“What are you doing here?” she repeated.

“Um… taking classes?”

“Why?” she asked.

“To learn?”

“What’s your plan?” she asked.

“I don’t know. To get enough credits to transfer to a four year school?”

She nodded. “I see something in your eyes. Something different.”

“Okay…” I said.

“I’d like to help you,” she offered. And for some reason I accepted on the spot.

While my brother had little patience for tradition, he did follow a traditional path to higher education. Here, I model the fruit of his labor.

I quit high school when I was a 16 year old sophomore. I had actually stopped going to school the year before when I was a 15 year old sophomore, but through a connection of my father, the clock was reset and I got a do-over in another district that September (one in which we did not live). I lasted two weeks. It would take my parents until October to catch on.

They were not pleased.

It was assumed that my life was essentially over before it had even really begun and nobody believed this more than I did.

That I was in the middle of a major depressive period when I pulled the plug should come as no surprise. Self-sabotage had become my hobby when I failed at suicide and realized I had no immediate plans to try it again, but still needed the suffering.

I don’t remember how I got through the GED process, but I did it almost immediately. Clearly there had still been a spark of hopefulness in there somewhere, but the years of retail, restaurant, and other jobs that followed would eventually smother it. I was just living.

Until I saw more. And wanted more.

I called my dad to tell him I’d signed up for classes.

“You’ve done that before,” he said.

With my professor’s help I made it through a full semester.

I called my dad to tell him I had finished a semester.

With my professor’s help I made it through another semester.

I called my dad to tell him I’d finished another semester and was thinking of finishing college.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

With my professor’s help I finished another semester and was admitted to the honor society. And then I finished another semester. She suggested I look into women’s colleges because they had programs for older students and wrote me letters of recommendation.

I called my dad to tell him I was applying to Smith and Wellesley.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

And so I applied to Smith and Wellesley. And got in.

I called my dad to tell him.

My professor suggested I look at Harvard.

I called my dad to tell him I was applying to Harvard.

I called my brother to tell him I was applying to Harvard because he’d always wanted to go to Harvard.

“So you’ve been secretly smart all these years?” he asked. “If you get in after all the shit you’ve pulled I’m going to kill myself.”

And so I applied to Harvard. And got a really nice letter back explaining that while they believed students weren’t defined by where they went to college and could achieve great things anywhere, I wouldn’t be doing it there.

“Eh. It was worth a shot,” said my mentor. “Their loss.”

“You didn’t have a chance in hell,” said my brother.

I started Wellesley in 1998 at age 28, fully convinced there had been an error that would be discovered at some point. Weeks went by with me convinced I didn’t belong.

My dad arrived bright and early that first parent’s weekend so he could eat breakfast in the dorm before heading over to the campus bookstore to get get a sticker for his car and a sweatshirt for me.

“I can’t believe it,” he said.

“Me neither,” I answered.

Shortly after turning in my first sociology paper on deviance, which focused on Leopold and Loeb, my professor pulled me aside.

“That was really interesting,” she said. “And well written. Tell me about yourself.”

This time I recognized what was happening. My next mentor – and second Sociology professor – would help and encourage me throughout my two years at Wellesley and write me letters of recommendation as graduation approached and I applied to PhD programs at Berkeley, Stanford, and UC Davis. None of their rejection letters approaching the level of Harvard’s.

“Their loss,” she said.

I was 30 when I graduated from college in 2001. The first and only time I’ve graduated from any thing. Attending the ceremony were my parents and my community college mentor.

“I knew you could do it,” she said. “Congratulations.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since that day and we haven’t seen each other since. But last week, after she’d gone through some correspondence and come across an email I sent several years ago thanking her for all she’d done for me while I’d been her student, she sent me an email.

“Is your brain still buzzing?” she wrote. “I hope so and is social justice still a theme?”

I wrote her back and told her about my life and my constantly buzzing brain.

Yesterday she finally replied,

“My experience teaching Community College Students was the most fulling of my several jobs in my career. There is such a wealth of backgrounds and talent in the CC student pool. It is wonderful to know that I was able to have a positive impact on some of my students. 

Your buzzing brain is wonderful – keep at it.”

Journalist, freelance writer, blogger, and amateur photographer.

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