The day that my mother graduated with her master’s degree, I wasn’t impressed. I was in my twenties and still had the arrogance of youth. I inwardly scoffed at the school she graduated from, Cal State University at Los Angeles, because I had graduated from the ivy halls of UCLA. I scoffed at her major, which was Home Economics, because I had graduated in English literature, reading opaque tomes like Sartor Resartis and Canterbury Tales.
But what youth doesn’t always understand is struggle.
In 1942, my mother wasn’t the best student at Garfield High School in East L.A., but she wasn’t the worst, either. Maybe some of her academic difficulties had to do with the fact that her parents were so poor that she was often hungry. Sometimes, when she and her brother were walking home from school past the Japanese graveyard, she would eat food that mourners had set out for the dead.
At an appointment with her guidance counselor, my mother was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I want to be a nurse,” she said. “I want to help people.”
The laugh that followed immediately thereupon was that special kind reserved for those who foolishly want to rise above their station.
“Mexicans don’t become nurses,” she said derisively.
It was 1942 and attitudes like that were standard issue. I have a dream was still 20 years underwater. It was still standard for home sellers to restrict contracts to whites only.
That night, my mother cried herself to sleep. A week later, she dropped out of school. Her mother didn’t care, because she had dropped out of school in the third grade to pick fruit in the fields and now worked at a job that her friends envied, of rolling sausages at Wilson, a meat-packing plant in Vernon. She suggested her daughter get a similar job and join the real world sooner rather than later.
The job she ended up at was at a Dixie Cup factory. Paper cups came down the conveyer belt. She would stack them twelve high and stuff them into a plastic bag. Then she would stack another twelve and stuff them into another plastic bag. She would do that all day for nine hours. It was mind-numbing work and she hated it. And while she worked, her arms exhausting, her feet swelling from standing so long, an anger rose within her towards that counselor who had so discouraged her from being a nurse.
At age 21, Mom met a returning GI with a nice body, and within three months, they were married. As they began planning their future, the subject of college came up.
“What’s college?” my mother asked.
Nobody she knew had ever gone to college. But soon, it became clear to her that education was the key to unlocking the world she wanted. So she returned to night school to get her high school diploma. And while she studied, every so often, the memory of that discouraging high school counselor came back to her, spurring her on.
“I’ll show her,” she would think, and that thought would help her to study harder.
Along the way, my mother got pregnant a couple times and had a couple children. But she didn’t let her responsibilities entirely block her goals. She wanted to accomplish things. She now had dreams beyond what her mother had ever dreamed for herself. And every so often, the memory of that discouraging high school counselor came back to her.
“I’ll show her.”
When my sister and I were adolescents, my mother finally earned her bachelor’s degree. But she didn’t stop there. She had even greater ambitions. She entered a graduate program, studying nutrition, consumer education, and clothing design. She struggled most mightily with Chemistry, even took it twice, but finally earned a passing grade. And every so often, she would think about that high school counselor.
“I’ll show her.”
It was a bright, sunny day in June when my mother, now a 45-year-old woman, stood in cap and gown in the CSULA college stadium and received her diploma. I have the picture somewhere. I’ll try to find it and post it. For now, I will describe it. She was smiling widely and fighting back tears. I was a bit clueless, because college had been so easy for me. I didn’t have to take a job to pay tuition. English literature came easily to me. I earned mostly A’s. In fact, I didn’t even attend my own college graduation.
“It’s just meaningless ritual,” I told my parents.
But looking back, I realize now that my mother’s education was a gut-wrenching process. She fought for it. She bled for it.
In the years that followed, my mother went back to her old neighborhood in East L.A. and took a job as a professor at East Los Angeles Community College. When she was being interviewed for the job, someone on the committee asked her why she thought she was qualified to teach students at this college.
“If I’m not qualified, nobody is,” she said. “I was a little Mexican girl on these streets. I was just like one of these Mexican-American girls who walk around on this campus. These are my people.”
My mother lectured in classrooms to young women who reminded her so very much of herself, even more of herself than her own son, in many ways. Even though she didn’t become a nurse, my mother showed that high school counselor that she could accomplish something significant in her life, even though she was Mexican, and even bested that counselor at her own job. And eventually, I realized what it meant for someone to earn something, really earn it.
To see a presentation of this story to a corporate audience, see this YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLVydBk0BLY
Update: My mother read your lovely comments today and was deeply touched.
Thank you for making an 83-year-old woman happy.