My family’s story

The “first generation” part of my household’s college journey applies completely to my husband’s side of the family. My mother-in-law picked cotton in Mississippi Delta country from childhood on; she attended grade school but was unable to go further. She’s told me a story about finding a tattered piece of paper with a picture of a nurse printed on it — it might have been from a magazine or newspaper — in the field.


“I wished I could go to be a nurse,” Momma says. “But I couldn’t.”

Instead, she cleaned houses, washed laundry, changed bed pans, and raised 13 children mostly on her own in an era before Food Stamps existed. It’s no surprise that Momma is a huge fan of her grandchildren going to college; most of her own children did not manage to make it through.

My husband and every single one of his siblings attempted college, but as far as we know, just one brother completed a four-year degree. The rest of them have accumulated an impressive collection of Job Corps diplomas, GEDs, trade certifications and college credits unconnected to the final papers that mean a more stable life, higher earnings, and societal approval.

“Everybody tried to go to college, more than once,” my husband says, “but they didn’t finish.” Why? Babies. Families. Hardships. Work. Broken cars. Not being able to balance so many things. Legal troubles. “Every time you get started, something happens.”

I, by contrast, am the person who had a more-than-fair chance. Both my parents are college-educated. My dad earned a D.Min. degree from seminary, working factory jobs and paying tuition as he went along. Dad paid me $25 to read Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” the year I was 12. Excused from laundry duties, I wrote a 200-page novel manuscript the summer I was 14.

But instead of finishing high school in my tiny town of 800, I ran away, married early, had a baby at 16 and started and stopped college several times, never finishing. The Negro College Fund likes to warn that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I wasn’t black, but the Negro College folks could have been talking to me.

My husband gets the credit for saving me from self-destruction, so it’s ironic that by joining his family,  I took another step away from college completion. The old-timey people who objected to biracial marriage because “it will be so hard on the children” had a legitimate point. I’ve had to learn things secondhandedly, on behalf of my children, who have already weathered life experiences alien to me. When I married in 1994, I came to the alter with the naïve assumption that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had fixed the problems of discrimination. The lives of my husband and children have shown me otherwise.

The question of college put everything I’d learned throughout my marriage under the microscope. As college nears, everything important comes into sharp focus: the future, the whole person, the perils, the promises.  The scary statistics.

But the great thing about stories is that they move along with unexpected plot twists. Sometimes you get a surprise ending.

Visit this page again for Chapter 2

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