She began her life as an adult working in a hospital as a member of the cleaning crew. Day after day she arrived early and worked twelve hour shifts mopping floors, scrubbing toilets, sweeping hallways. She was proud of her contribution to the health of the thousands of people who came to the medical center in the hopes of becoming well again. She put extra effort into making the environment spotless and safe but as she watched the nurses interacting with the patients she found herself wanting to be more like them.
She had not been a particularly outstanding student in high school. For many reasons learning had not been a priority so college had seemed to be out of reach, but now she thought about becoming a nurse more and more often. She found a program that was flexible enough to allow her to keep her job and take courses step by step.
It was difficult laboring for long hours and then spending her free time attending lectures, reading and studying but she was as determined and dedicated as she had been with her modest job. Bit by bit she moved closer and closer to earning a degree until one day she had completed all of the coursework and the rotations through different aspects of nursing. She had passed the state licensing exam and she was a registered nurse, hired for a position in the same hospital where she had once cleaned.
She loved her work. She had quietly watched the nurses that she most admired. She had learned as much from them as she had from her books. She found great joy in working with the patients. It felt as though she was a natural, someone destined to be a nurse for all time. She worked those twelve hour shifts with passion.
Her supervisors told her that she was a rock star. They recommended her for advancement but she knew that she needed more education. Her desire to learn became insatiable and so she once again spent her days and nights and weekends juggling work with studying to become a nurse practitioner. It was challenging and exhausting but she had long ago learned that her grit would serve her well. She knew how to sacrifice to become the person that she really wanted to be. Once again she persisted and earned the coveted degrees and certifications that she needed. Now in that same hospital where she once scrubbed toilets she is a revered nurse practitioner, still an essential worker, still on the front line of healthcare, still passionate about her work, still a hero.
She is proud of her entire body of work. She knows the importance of having a clean and sterile environment inside a hospital. The workers who provide that service are unsung heroes dealing with germs and waste that potentially carry disease if not eliminated properly. She understands the importance of having nurses on continuous call to immediately administer to the needs of patients. She now has a body of medical knowledge that some first year residents do not yet have. She has worked hard to get to where she now is. She would tell people of any circumstances or ages never to simply give up and settle for anything less than the best of their dreams. She would also remind us to honor anyone who is part of the chain of responsibilities that make us well. Any job done well and with love is of great value.
There is a competitiveness in schools today that often discourages young people. They are ranked and tested in ways that sometimes undervalue their true worth. They are led to believe that they are unworthy of elite universities or difficult majors. In fact they are sometimes told that they just do not have what it takes. Such systems don’t have a measurement for grit, determination, persistence, hard work. An SAT score or class standing does not always tell the true tale of an individual’s character. There is so much more to becoming a successful adult than just appearing to be smart. Life is not a race.
The woman in my story is real. She overcame barriers that would have discouraged most people. She might have been a cleaning lady for the rest of her days if she had only listened to the naysayers who did not believe in her. Instead there was a voice in her head that told her that if she just worked a bit harder she would overcome the challenges that seemed to be blocking her pathway forward. She understood that her only competition was with herself. She patiently and quietly made progress without comparing herself to anyone else.
In an effort to be data driven rather than anecdotal our school systems use testing and numbers to theoretically be fair. What should have been a method for creating individualized and self paced learning opportunities instead became a game of determining the worth of every teacher and student. The problem is that the numbers often lie to us and sometimes in the process they also change the trajectory of potential. It is something that we need to change. We should instead be looking for that person who never gives up, the one who keeps fighting against the tide, the one with a special talent that can’t be measured. If we did that we would find many more people like the cleaning woman turned nurse practitioner.
She is now an officer in the battle against Covid-19. She dons her battle gear each day and leads her battalion to save lives. As she does she has full understanding that somewhere among the lower ranks is an earnest person like herself with the potential to be a hero. Hers is a story that we need to share with our children. She is the kind of person we all should hope to be.