I can’t tell you how many times I uttered this statement. I also can’t tell you how many times I heard one of my colleagues echo the same sentiments. In this climate where educators are under the microscope and new proposals are frequently being made to “fix” the system, it’s hard to be mindful of why we do the work we do. But for myself and most of my colleagues there is always that reason, or two, and for me her name is Octavia.
After graduation, armed with a dual major in legal studies and psychology I entered into the workforce. To say that options were bleak at that time (particularly given my background), would be quite an understatement. With a stroke of luck and the alignment of the stars, I was offered a position as a mentor with a non-profit agency. As my background did not particularly prepare me for job in education, I truly did not know what to expect. The position I was hired for was grant funded and therefore the longevity was unknown. As with any grant positions, there were many unknowns. My position was considered to be that of a coach/mentor working with students in urban high school settings who were considered to be in a particularly low socio-economic group. In my day to day work, I focused on skill-building particularly on increasing reading and math abilities which teamed with mentoring and homework help would hopefully translate into higher grades, thus strengthening the odds for graduation.
I worked at all of the high schools in the city in addition to an alternative school, as well as instructing students in summer programs. While I worked with hundreds of students, each with different personalities and needs, Octavia always stood out. As I reflect on the first time we met, which now feels one hundred years away from today, I can still see her smiling face. Always warm, always inviting, always enticing you to strike up a conversation and spend some time in her presence. Not that I didn’t enjoy working with other students, just that my relationship with her was so authentic and so appreciated; which I believe was felt from both sides.
Octavia worked hard, persevered and remained determined those years I worked with her. Eventually and to no one’s surprise graduated. I knew even if we didn’t remain in contact she would go on to do big things, continue to work hard and make a name for herself. Reflecting back on it now, I believe by fostering a relationship with her and watching her move through the world and do amazing things, I was inspired to keep going, eventually leading me into the world of education where I could continue to work with kids and hopefully meet a few more “Octavias” along the way.
Several years later, lost in thought, my iPhone chirped, letting me know I had a new “friend request.” Of course your mind begins working quickly, ugh is it an ex-boyfriend, the neighbor down the street or perhaps the dreaded request from an old high school friend, you know, the one you see in Wegmans which causes you to quicken your pace and run to the cat food aisle, even though you don’t own a cat. Quickly pulling up my screen, I saw a picture of Octavia. A few years older, same striking smile, dressed in another cap and gown. Quickly accepting her request, I began jabbing away at the keys furiously, asking her questions about how she has been and what she has been up to.
Reading her response back I learn that she’s doing well and she too has gone into education. Those feelings, typically reserved for your own children, come rushing back, swelling with pride. And being Octavia, of course that wasn’t all. Since that time, she decided to go back to school to study Social Work. Perseverance, hard work and determination has paid off in spades for Octavia, who not only holds her Bachelor’s degree, but her Master’s as well.
As I was gearing up for this month’s blog and reflecting on my own past experience I wondered what she thought about her journey, from her perspective. She talked about the struggle growing up in a single parent home and challenges due to her socio-economic status. To move out of poverty, she noted that she needed to not only graduate high school but obtain her bachelor’s degree as well. While her parents both graduated high school, no one in her family went on to graduate from college, particularly from a Master’s level program.
College wasn’t always easy though and she recalled considering dropping out her freshman year. The demands of the coursework, particularly in regards to writing were overwhelming. Octavia explained that her first two years of schooling were spent in the writing center developing basic skills as she entered not even being able to compose a basic two page paper. However, it was her mom’s sound advice that suggested that she make a list of “goals and expectations for life and the path it takes to get there,” and that is exactly what she did. In the end she said that she realized that she didn’t want to live in poverty for the rest of her life, and was determined to do whatever it would take to get out. That motivation and determination impacted her so greatly that she made sure that her path would be one of success. In sharing her story she really summed up all of the parts by stating that she was willing to do anything to make a better life for herself, noting “even if I have to obtain two degrees, that is what I would do and that’s what I did.”
As I sit and edit and tie up loose things in this month’s blog, I’m getting goose bumps thinking about how far she’s come and most importantly how much further she will go. For her there is no question of if, it is more of a matter of how far she will go and where her education and perseverance will take her. I also think of the students who will one day be positively affected by Octavia and how much influence she will have on their lives. My biggest hope for her however is that even during some of those darker days she remembers why she does her job and remains a constant in the ever changing time of education.