65: The Gold Beads

65: The Gold Beads

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

The Gold Beads

Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.

~Oprah Winfrey

I never expected in my worst nightmare to end up divorced with four children and no job. Because of reduced enrollment, I’d been let go from my job as a long-term substitute teacher at the worst possible time, with daughters in high school and college. The rent was late, and no matter how much I juggled the bills, I couldn’t pay them. My electricity was getting shut off, and my children needed food.

Then a friend told me about the Women’s Opportunity Center headquartered at the local YMCA, an organization that served displaced homemakers. She thought they would be able to help me.

It took me days to make that call.

When I first walked into the center, I was overwhelmed by the leader’s kindness and compassion. The center provided food for families and business suits for job interviews. They provided computer training. They even helped with résumés.

Best of all, they introduced me to my mentor. Her name was Bonnie, and she had been struggling too, raising a son and a daughter after her divorce. She had returned to college and won scholarships to help achieve her dream of becoming a teacher. We soon became best friends. Bonnie was an inspiration, and she made me believe that I could also become a success. She encouraged me to return to college and apply for scholarships. Her motto was “Dreams 2 Reality.”

At first, I hesitated. My confidence was so low, I couldn’t imagine going back to college. I’d tried it over twenty years before and failed. Back then, all I cared about was spending time with my boyfriend and writing songs. I was more interested in getting married than getting an education. My grades suffered, and I dropped out in my early twenties. Soon I married my boyfriend and had four children. I became a full-time homemaker, and my dreams of college faded into the past.

Then I heard that the Women’s Opportunity Center offered a motivational workshop. Since it was free, I decided to attend, because I needed all the help I could get.

I hid in the back of the room, feeling small and insignificant, listening to the instructor. I looked around at all the other women in the room. They looked so sad and defeated by life, exactly how I had been feeling for the past few weeks since I’d been laid off from my job. I was one of many displaced homemakers, searching for a way out of a life of poverty and mediocrity. Some of these women had even worse problems than mine — they had been abused, too. We all needed help.

“You have power to take control of your life,” the instructor said. “You don’t have to remain a victim.” She encouraged us to take action to change our lives for the better.

I participated in the discussion afterward, and when I answered a question correctly, she strolled to the back of the room and laid a strand of plastic gold beads in my hand. They were cheap and gaudy, but they meant the world to me. They were a symbol of my way out.

After our session, I called Bonnie. “I’ve decided to apply for a loan and go back to college.” It was a call that would change my life forever.

In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that months later I would be standing in front of a crowd in Trenton accepting the NJ Displaced Homemaker Scholarship. It was so exciting to be standing up there making an acceptance speech in front of news reporters. Bonnie was there beside me, accepting awards of her own.

On the first day of college, I showed up early for class. I sat next to a pretty blond girl.

She’s probably the same age as my son, I thought. I was the oldest person in the room, and I wanted to shrink down in my chair and disappear. All the students were joking with each other, and I just sat there with nothing to say. I wondered what crazy notion had made me think I could possibly fit in.

Then my classmate smiled at me. “Would you like half of my pretzel?” I accepted it gratefully. Then, finally, someone my age walked into the room. It was the teacher.

I had no idea what I was doing. It had been years since I had been in a college classroom. Back then, I overslept, missed classes and couldn’t focus. This time, things were different. I was determined to pass and get my degree. I studied diligently and bonded with my young classmates, who were star students. I sat up in the front of the class and participated.

Whenever I doubted myself, I would see those gold beads hanging in my room and smile. Bonnie had so much faith in me. My children were counting on me. It was time to stop being a victim of my circumstances, become empowered, and reach for my dreams.

Being an older student had its advantages. My favorite teacher often teased me when I knew things the other students didn’t because they weren’t born in the same era as us. I looked forward to coming to class and hadn’t had so much fun in years. When our grades were posted, my jaw dropped in disbelief. I had A’s in almost every class. My hard work had paid off.

If I could have focused in my twenties, my entire life would have been different. Yet I couldn’t dwell on my past mistakes. There was no time like the present to change my life.

During my time as a middle-aged student at college, I wrote for the college newspaper and received many awards. On the day of graduation, I peered out into the crowd and saw my mother, Connie, beaming with pride, next to my smiling children. It was an amazing feeling to realize that I had overcome so much and become a college graduate.

That was only the beginning. Years later, I would achieve my lifetime goal of becoming a published writer. I hoped that my children now saw me as a positive woman who had overcome great challenges and was no longer a victim. Soon, my children graduated college too.

I had a lot of people to thank who helped me along the way. I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of my mentor and friend Bonnie, and the Women’s Opportunity Center. But, most of all, I’d like to thank my workshop instructor, who still encourages women to take charge of their lives and make positive changes. I want her to know that I still have those beads, a symbol of empowerment, and will always treasure them.

~L.A. Strucke

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