Imagine how different your life would be if the world insisted on judging you forever based on who you were as a teenager or a young adult. What would it be like if after making a mistake here or a wrong choice there you were forced to conform to the fate resulting from your immaturity? For most of us it would be rather grim indeed. Few people manage to do the right things from the time that they become adolescents. Most of us have regrets and may even be a bit embarrassed by the way we once were. Luckily we are usually given second chances, even third or more, to redirect the trajectory of our lives. We learn from our mistakes, build on our experiences and become stronger and better persons over time. Sometimes though there will be people who want to shove us into a pigeonhole and refuse to see us any other way than how we were in our youth.
I was a quiet, shy, and awkward girl with the spunkiness of a slug when I was in high school. Most people saw me as a good girl, which I was. and someone devoted to learning and study. I certainly enjoyed reading and academic pursuits but I longed to be more emotionally fit. My mother was beginning to display some of the symptoms of her bipolar disorder and her occasional outbursts frightened and confused me. Somehow I had managed to convince myself that I was somewhat worthless. A collision between my increasingly distressing home life and the role that I played in public was bound to occur sooner or later.
I suppose if truth were told I jumped at my husband Mike’s proposal of a life together not just because I loved him dearly but also because I somehow sensed that I needed to flee from the storm that was gathering at home. He provided me with what was then a societal excuse for leaving the situation that was bearing down on me. Within months of my marriage I was unable to ignore my mother’s psychiatric disorders and I was in charge of her care. Luckily I had grown from the brief sojourn of independence that I had enjoyed and I had a powerful ally at my side in the person of Mike. Fate forced me to become the strong person that I never realized I might be. I was soon enough looking after my young brothers as well. A great deal of responsibility was heaped onto my shoulders at a time when most of my contemporaries were still enjoying youthful pastimes. Somehow I managed to hold up far better than most would have guessed. Continuing to attend college classes became more and more difficult and seemed to be a route for those with easier lives. I never quite knew when I would be called upon to be my mother’s keeper at a moment’s notice.
I had been the Valedictorian of my class. Most people expected great things from me. Many in my family had thought that I would become a medical doctor or a noted attorney. When I dropped out of school for a time and became pregnant with my first child I could hear the whispers about what a disappointment I was. As a society we tend to place high value on college degrees but not as much on the school of hard knocks. In the next several years I became an expert in navigating the mental health system. I balanced caring for my daughters and husband with insuring that my mother would always get the medical help that she needed. I also worked at all kinds of odd jobs all of which involved teaching children. I worked as a teacher’s aide, at a daycare center, in a pre-school, and eventually became the Director of Religious Education at my church.
I had learned how to keep my mother actively involved in a regimen of therapy and medication so that I was able to return to college and earn not one but two degrees. It would be incorrect to say that I then began my career in education because I had been working closely with children in one way or another for years by that time. I suppose that is why I appeared to be a natural born teacher on my very first “official” teaching job. I had also developed a sense of confidence that would not have been present had I not been forced by circumstance to accept responsibility for the health of my mother.
I often hear people say that young people won’t really grow up until they move to a college campus away from home and then get a job in another city. They seem to think that only those who follow a traditional pathway will be successful. Such thoughts are even more prevalent today than they were when I was young, but what I can confirm is that a more circuitous route might be even more powerful in building character, insights, and wisdom. While many of my friends were enjoying weekend football games and traveling with other students to Europe, I was earning my own keep and navigating through hospitals and clinics. I attended school conferences for my brothers in my mother’s behalf whenever she was too ill to go. I was up at night tending to my little girl who suffered from chronic ear infections when others were studying for exams. I am convinced that I became a better person than I might have had I simply gone to a university for four years without incident.
I bring up these things because I often listen to young women in particular who are frustrated by the judgmental attitudes directed at them simply because life has sent them in different directions than their peers. Sometimes by choice they have married at an early age. Other times they have made some decisions that others question. They sense that they are somehow deemed to be shameful and disappointing even though they have grown and matured and become wiser as a result of simply wading through the day to day responsibilities of early independence. While their lives may appear to be serendipitous to others they in fact have great plans for their futures but their progress by definition moves slowly and is not always apparent.
I met on Sunday with one of my favorite people, Amanda. She is such a beautiful woman that even little boys smile at her with a kind of reverence but she is so much more than her good looks. She is a woman of substance, a single mom with a three year old boy that she adores. Each morning Amanda arises early, sometimes before the sun has even shown itself in the east. She drops her son off at daycare and attends classes so that she may one day earn a college degree. After school she heads for her full time job at a law office. It is late in the evening before she and her child return home to the apartment where they live. She cooks dinner, plays with her pride and joy, bathes him, and reads to him before he falls asleep. Even though much of the time she is exhausted she spends many late hours studying. It is a daily grind that might wear down an ordinary soul but Amanda is not ordinary.
I first met Amanda when she was in my Algebra I class. She was a bright child who did well in mathematics without much extra effort. She loved to read and to learn but I sensed that something in her life was difficult. My own problems had made me quite sensitive to the needs of my students. Amanda craved attention and often seemed distracted and tired. I eventually learned that she was responsible for running her family’s household which meant taking care of everyone but herself until late into the night. I worried about her and the two of us seemed to understand without expressing it that we were kindred spirits. Things were even worse for Amanda than I even realized but at the time there was little that she could do to change the trajectory of her life. Now that she is a mature twenty three year old she has taken charge of herself and the little boy that she so loves.
Amanda is a stunning person. When I am with her I feel as though I am with someone far more seasoned than her age would indicate. Her experiences, as sad as some of them have been, have given her a polish and a sense of self that few women her age possess. She had to grow up quickly and she deserves profound respect for accomplishing so much in spite of challenges that might have broken down someone of lesser spirit. Amanda is an inspiration to me and she should be so for everyone. I hope that she will one day realize all of her dreams for if there were ever someone who has earned the right to an enchantingly beautiful life she is surely that person. I suspect that she will remain undaunted until she finds exactly what she and her son deserve.
We too often forget that there is more than one way to approach the process of becoming an adult. We stick people into a stereotype and refuse to understand them if they are different. It can be confusing to young people who don’t quite fit into a cookie cutter approach to life. If we just take a second to observe magnificent women like Amanda we realize that life can be much more interesting if only we allow the essence of each person to unfold in its own way.