I Wasn’t Expected to Succeed

I Wasn’t Expected to Succeed

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

I Wasn’t Expected to Succeed

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just believe in yourself, do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

~David Frost

It was the seventies. I was a poor kid from a large family, and a girl to boot.

To make matters worse, I was a mediocre student. Math concepts eluded me, as did foreign language and science. I wasn’t musically inclined, either, though I did have a bit of creativity going for me. Being creative, however, labeled me a cheat in ninth grade when I got the right answers but the wrong equations in algebra class. Because I couldn’t breathe in gym class and lagged behind the rest of the group, I was labeled “slow and lazy.” No one ever suggested the right label might have been “asthmatic.” Being too shy to shower in front of the rest of the class, I was written up time and time again as disobedient.

They expected a truant student, so after a while, I complied. I was a rebel, a ne’er do well. I wasn’t up to standards. I certainly wasn’t expected to succeed.

My future plans included becoming a reporter and author, possibly an elementary teacher, but when I relayed that to my counselor, I discovered we didn’t see eye to eye. The word “college” wasn’t even mentioned during our “career directive” meeting, but words like “waitress” and “clerk” and “cleaning lady” were batted about the room like ping pong balls, all landing in my lap . . . and me without the proverbial paddle.

“I like to write,” I said timidly. “I was thinking I’d like to be a reporter or an author… maybe write books for children.”

His eyebrows rose and he nodded, considering. . . .

And then… now that my portfolio had finally been opened… he had a brainstorm. I might consider becoming a secretary! After all, I had taken all of the secretarial classes, and I was a good writer. My spelling ability was above average. My shorthand was good; my office equipment skills were up to par.

“I don’t really want… any… jobs like that,” I replied.

He looked at me then, and smiled kindly. “I’d like to send you in a direction that would be more fitting with the skills you have,” he said as he leaned back in his chair. “Of course… you’ll want to get married and raise a family.”

My heart fell. Regardless of what he was saying, what I heard was that once again I wasn’t expected to succeed. Disappointment grew in the pit of my stomach. I thanked him and told him I would think about it. But as I walked back down the hall to my classroom, my cheeks burned with humiliation.

I didn’t blame him. Based on the page in front of him, and what he had known of me as a student, he had tried to advise me to the best of his ability. What he didn’t know was that the page in front of him wasn’t me. None of my teachers knew the real me — they’d never taken the time to find out who I was. Or was it that I’d never believed in myself to begin with?

After graduation, I did exactly as my counselor suggested. As one of three secretaries in the Applied Mechanics and Engineering Science Department at the University of Michigan, I helped six professors help their students make their dreams become reality. Every day for two long years I watched other young adults make their way through college.

Within a few short years following high school, I had become a statistic.

At the age of twenty, I married my high school sweetheart and started my family. I didn’t think about my career again until I had two toddlers underfoot and a burning need to discover what my mission on this planet was supposed to be. At the time, my husband was enrolled in evening classes to further his education, so college for me was out of the question.

Because of our family situation, I knew whatever I decided to do would have to be inexpensive and attainable from the comfort of my own home. By a stroke of sheer luck, I found what I was looking for in the back of a magazine. The Institute of Children’s Literature was looking for people who wanted to write children’s books. By cutting corners, I managed to save enough money to take the course by mail.

Since I was also the Girl Scout Leader for my daughters’ troop, I double-dipped assignments and duties whenever possible. Class assignments revolved around troop activities and vice versa. After finishing each essay, I’d address one copy to the school and pop it in the mailbox, and slip a second copy beneath the door of the local newspaper. You can’t imagine how pleased I was when the articles began showing up in the paper with my byline attached.

Of course, there was no pay, but I was ecstatic!

In March, 1986, the same month I finished my classes and delivered my third child, the publisher of the newspaper and I bumped into one another as I slipped yet another story beneath his door. He hired me on the spot and within two years I was named editor.

For seventeen years, I made a living as a journalist and photographer for The Milan News and several other local papers, including The Ann Arbor News. Since then, I have been published in more newspapers, magazines, and online newsletters and print anthologies than I can count. To date, my name also appears on the cover of eight books.

Finally — the hard way — my dreams have become my reality.

I realize now that the responsibility to succeed belonged to me, not my teachers or counselors. I was the one who hadn’t expected me to succeed. I now also know it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about me or my abilities, it’s what I think that matters. All anyone ever has to do in order to succeed is “expect” to succeed. These days I expect miracles every day of my life, and every day of my life I receive them.

~Helen Kay Polaski

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