67. Choosing for Myself

67. Choosing for Myself

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Choosing for Myself

Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us.

~Stephen Covey

“You’re not college material.” That’s what my eighth grade guidance counselor said to me forty-three years ago and I haven’t forgotten those four words.

Prior to middle school graduation, it’s a requirement to meet with a guidance counselor. In my case, I met with Mrs. Bradleigh to map out my future. Isn’t it crazy to think that a practical stranger has so much influence over your choices in life? At thirteen, in a less than fifteen-minute meeting, I was put on a path of taking “business” courses because I was told, “You’re not college material.”

The courses were chosen for me. I didn’t question. My mom didn’t argue. So it was ordained. When I began high school I would be taking courses that prepared me to be a secretary. But I had been “playing teacher” since I was in kindergarten. My teacher, whom I adored, had given me a large chalkboard that I dragged home on the last day of school. She gave me yellowed penmanship books, her bell, a pass to the lavatory, tattered jump ropes, and a bunny puzzle (with a missing ear). She beamed. “These are for you for when you’re a teacher one day.”

Two educators—two totally different mindsets. My kindergarten teacher worded things in a way that made me feel like I could accomplish anything. My guidance counselor labeled me based on standardized tests and average grades.

Four years passed quickly. Prior to high school graduation, my friends visited colleges. I completed my résumé. I began my first secretarial job, working for the government, two days after graduation. For the next few years, I had several interesting jobs as a secretary. I gave it my best shot, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about. I might not have been college material, but I certainly wasn’t going to do something that I didn’t love. It was a powerful realization when I decided that I was accountable for my choices—no one else.

I enrolled part-time at a community college and pursued an associate’s degree in science to become a registered dietetic technician. It didn’t bother me that I had to backtrack, taking courses most young adults took in high school. I had a three-year goal (since I attended part-time and worked full-time). I graduated two and a half years later with a 4.0 grade point average and a love for my job. Although I wasn’t a “school” teacher, I was still teaching patients about nutrition. It was rewarding, and I felt a great deal of confidence, satisfaction, and purpose.

The only downfall of being a dietetic technician was that I had to work weekends and most holidays. As my youngest approached school, my husband said, “Go back to college for teaching. It’s what you’ve always wanted.” I looked at him like he had lost his marbles.

“I’m not college material.”

“Says who?”

“Says Mrs. Bradleigh.” She was still on the tip of my tongue seventeen years later. However, this time I decided to move past her words and take ownership of my life. Five years later I became a second grade teacher.

Mrs. Bradleigh was right. I wasn’t college material at thirteen, but she never got to the root of the problem. I lived in Camden, New Jersey as a young child when radical changes were occurring. School was disrupted due to riots. I had six different third grade teachers and don’t think I had a math assignment the entire year. My grandfather, who lived with us, passed away and my two brothers were drafted into the Vietnam War—all within a year. The next year, we moved from Camden to the suburbs. The other students were a good two years ahead of me academically.

I didn’t have a strong academic foundation from third to fifth grade, but I had great work habits and enjoyed school and learning. If Mrs. Bradleigh had initiated a conversation, I think the pieces of the puzzle would have been put together in my teens instead of my thirties. Mrs. Bradleigh should have asked more questions, but my parents and I also chose to remain silent that day. We were equally to blame.

I’ve forgiven Mrs. Bradleigh’s word choice—those four words—because those words make me think long and hard when I have conferences with my students and parents. I carefully choose words. If someone is struggling, I do my best to come up with a solution, but I do this as a team—student, parent, teacher. Does the child need glasses? Does the child have difficulty processing information and need visual clues? Are there personal matters at home making learning difficult? Does the child feel bullied? Is the child a poor test taker? Grandparents still pass away, wars continue to rage, and it’s even harder to keep schools safe. My students’ lives aren’t much different than my life at their age.

My life experiences have shaped me into the advocate I am today. I think of the people and situations I would have missed out on if I didn’t take the detour—the winding roads of career choices.

When I began to forgive, my world got a whole lot wider. My voice became stronger and my experiences became richer. Ultimately, we are responsible for who we are and the contributions we make to others in life.

~Nancy Norton

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