As everyone who has raised kids to this age knows, there are ups and downs along the way.
During the downs there are many times when you wish you could reach inside your kid’s head and pull the levers and turn the knobs to put them on the path you can see so clearly but they seem blind to. Since you can’t reach into their heads and pull those levers and turn those knobs, your kids almost always continue down the path they are convinced is the right one, often to find it leads into murky water or, occasionally, directly off a cliff.
Amber, now in her mid-twenties, did the full-on off-the-cliff swan dive in her teens. As she relates it now, she “was on a very bad path” and now considers herself “lucky to be alive.” During that time I didn’t have any contact with her and had absolutely no idea where she was, what she was doing or where she was headed. Based on what little I know now, I was probably fortunate to be so ignorant of her circumstances at the time.
One day while Steph and I were motorcycling through Japan, completely out of the blue I received an email from Amber. It was the first I’d heard from her in years. A few months later I saw her again. It was a great reunion.
She didn’t tell me much about how she’d spent the prior years and I didn’t ask. I was just glad to have her back in our lives.
One of the lasting downsides to her lost years was an incomplete education. It kept her at a disadvantage in the job market and severely limited her career choices and potential. After gaining some retail management experience, she found her passion working with emotionally disabled teens, most of them autistic or Asperger syndrome kids, and almost all of them from disadvantaged circumstances.
But, even though she’d found her passion and was very good at it, she was still limited by having no college degree. Plus, she’s a single mom, so she couldn’t just abandon responsibilities to pursue an education. She was stuck, with no perceived avenues to advance herself, her life, her education or her career prospects.
Then, by pure chance, a friend mentioned an education program designed for single mothers at a local school. The program included financial aid, housing, child care, flexible schedules and, best of all, a bachelor’s degree. However, there were a very limited number of slots available and the deadline for applications was approaching quickly. Amber jumped at the chance and spent the next few weeks working the process of phone calls, applications and interviews.
Just a few weeks ago, Amber was grinding it out in a job with few upside prospects, light years from her dream of teaching emotionally disabled, inner-city teens. Today, she’s a student at St. Catherine University, a private, all-women’s institution of about 4,700 students located on 110 idyllic wooded acres in the heart of St. Paul, Minnesota, the same metro area where Amber grew up.
Last week we were in town, so Amber gave us a tour of the St. Catherine’s campus. As we walked the beautiful grounds and passed out onto the grand entrance drive in front of Derham Hall, Amber stopped us and pointed down the hill to the main gates. She told us of the many times in past years she had driven by the campus and wondered what it was like for the students she saw walking through the gates and up the hill that lay before us. She told us of how distant and apart the campus seemed then, like a fairy tale dream world that only other people—people who were different from her—could ever be a part of.
Amber then told us that just a few weeks prior to our visit, the first time she parked along that very entrance drive, hung her student parking pass on her car’s mirror and stepped out onto the campus as a student, as one of those other people—those people who were different—it all seemed so surreal she just couldn’t believe it was happening, that she was really there, was really one of them.
But she really was there; she really was one of them.
After telling us this story, Amber needed to attend an evening class so we split up in the late afternoon. That day happened to be the end-of-term celebration fair in the campus quad; Steph and I took Amber’s daughter, our granddaughter, over to enjoy the celebration.
As we waited at the fair for our granddaughter’s face painting, the band played a cover version of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.
As I listened to the chorus, my mind filled with visions of Amber driving by the campus along Cleveland Avenue, peering through her car’s streaked windows at the students walking through the gates and up the drive to the St. Catherine’s campus, shining on the hill like a fairy tale dream world, a world far away from her then gritty reality.
Our granddaughter looked up and smiled, proudly displaying her face painting–a magic princess.
The princess’ magic wand sparkled.
The band sang, “Don’t… Stop… Believin’…”
Amber is grateful for how far she’s come since the dark days of her teens when she disappeared into the mean streets of the very neighborhoods she is working to return to as a teacher. If it is possible to quantify such things, I estimate she’s about one millionth as grateful as her dad.