In My Own Words. . .

SWThroughout the past year my family suffered a loss that caused me to begin to shy away from the work I have been doing for a decade with out-of-school youth and it has been the strength and courage of those who believe in this mission that have kept me going – for that I am eternally grateful.  My refuge is writing, and I ushered in 2013 with an essay entitled “The Ladder.”  It is not anything fancy, it is however a bit personal.  That is how I learned to write and teach – from the gut – and this is no exception.  I guess I felt it was time to talk about, other than my own challenging youth, what keeps this dream going and my faith in youth alive. . .

The Ladder – S.L. Watson

 After the passing of my step-father last February and the difficult year that seemed to be the cherry on top of a series of losses, health issues, and stress of many years – I have finally learned something. My mother and I were discussing why I have not elected to get off of the difficult path that I have chosen as a dream, a job and a life’s work. Mom told me that my father had attempted to take the GED when they were first married and did not pass. I had never heard of this attempt or understood that his heartbreak and frustration stopped him from trying again. Neither my father nor step-father graduated high school – a fact I knew but never connected to the work of recovering out-of-school youth. For some reason I did not realize that somewhere inside me were the spirits of these two beautiful, tough, hard-working men molded this vision and a mother who never gives up on love nurtured it. 

My father was raised in the Down Neck / Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey.  He served in the Army, raised many children that were not his own, and spent his life working the tough jobs of truck driving, bus driving, and janitor. He rebuilt Harley Davidsons into dream bikes with shiny chrome and detail work, called me from Dublin as he played the Spoons in an Irish Pub, sent me a motorcycle jacket the week before I graduated college (leaving me thinking I was getting a bike) and then in his ever-witty way – gave me a card that said “You graduated college, buy your own bike.” He laughed louder than anyone in a crowd, always got us into the front row of concerts, was fearless in his determination to be a part of our lives from states away and never, ever took “no” for an answer when it came to my or my sister’s needs (and probably our silly materialistic wants).

He loved his brothers and sisters in a way that could be scary if someone hurt them, was the king of the “Batty Move” (i.e. – being able to move any family member from unhealthy situations in under 45 minutes), knew sordid souls that some may consider unsavory but would have laid down their life for him. Daddy ended up being the reason my special needs cousin got to go on a movie date in her lifetime (I am certain his “ chaperone” duties resulted in him sleeping in the back row snoring loudly as he always did in movies). He built bookshelves with my students, went to ridiculous lengths to get from New Jersey to Virginia if I was cheerleading or my sister had a marching band show, bailed friends and family out, organized motorcycle runs for special needs children and carried the flag in Rolling Thunder. He was a man…a man who loved, lived and laughed out loud and powerfully, and whose big blue eyes cried when each of his girls received their college diplomas. He was the person who could tell you, in full detail – even with Alzheimer’s, what my mother was wearing the day he pulled up on his Harley and saw her riding an Appaloosa at a barn in New Jersey; he made me understand the words of George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” He was tough love – and that is the same man who missed the GED by 20 points and was so hurt he couldn’t go back. He was NOT a drop-out. He was a man without a diploma.

My step-father grew up on a Mennonite farm in Virginia. Like many Mennonite children, he left school after Eighth Grade. He chose instead of working the farm or helping in the family plumbing business to begin driving a truck almost as soon as he received his license. He drove that truck over 5 million safe miles until the accident that took his life last year. He was a hunter, a gun collector, a gospel pianist who couldn’t read a bit of music but could bring a whole church to their feet – and although he was too shy to accept the position when he was asked to join a gospel band, sometimes he would come home from a week in his rig and make those keys dance. He spoke in soft tones, mostly kept to himself and his boyhood friends, yet when angry could string together cuss words with his thick mountain drawl in the most effective ways. He liked Moonshine and Jack Daniels, had the CB handle “Arrowhead” and yet would hit the ground in seconds to roll around playing with puppies.

We bonded over skeet shooting and fishing, Willie Nelson and our pension for mischievous pranks. In all of his toughness he raised us without ever trying to take the place of my father, and had so much patience that he actually let us tie him to the railroad tracks with bows in his hair. When I was in my own “high-risk youth” days, he once sat outside with a shotgun in the middle of winter all night because I was being threatened.  He always made brownies for my mom and left her a note on her pillow every time he left in the truck for nearly 30 years. He was a man…a man who loved, lived and laughed quietly and powerfully. Even in his utter exhaustion from working so much, he could get up for church on Sunday and serve as a Deacon alongside my mother, take us on Sunday nature adventures that he must have spent the whole week planning, and lay a kiss on my mother that made them look like teenagers in love. He could drive non-stop all day just to make a high school football game when I was cheering, teach me how to shoot a rattlesnake and cry every single time I came home to visit from Buffalo. He is a man who never could read well enough to take the GED but could get me or my friends from any point in the country to any other point in the country, with tips on where to stop for good food and cheap gas, all by memory. He was NOT a drop-out, he was a man without a diploma.

My mother loved both of these men and saw beyond what may have been nerve wracking partner choices for my Colgate and St. Johns Law educated grandfather and Virginia Intermont educated grandmother. She saw that both my father and my step-father had hearts bigger than their bodies, love deeper than any valley and unwavering determination to see their children succeed. I have watched her turn into a tiger when I have been hurt and understand where I get the “pit-bull mama” mentality that has helped me be a guide and protector to so many young people. Although she is so sweet and beautiful, sings in the church choir and takes care of animals, I also remember clearly during one of my scary and difficult situations as a teen – her reaching over a fancy attorney’s desk and saying – “If anything happens to my daughter, I will hunt you.” I am blessed. As I watch her find herself in this world with their angels on her shoulder I too see that I am her – and that her heart beats inside of my chest, her blood runs through my veins. I see her strength as she finds her way on her own, without a husband or children in tow for the first time since she was 17, and I know why I don’t give up on our youth. It’s not part of my soul, and the three parents that raised me made sure of it. 

I have had plenty of other “parents” too – including some that didn’t have to deal with my difficulties as a young person but have still led me into adulthood. These “parents” are the mentors who have molded me personally, academically and professionally and usually are women 25-30 years older than me who “get” that younger people need mentors. Susan Mendel, my mentor now, opened the door for me to understand the true impact of this work, translate the thoughts and lessons I naturally created into a curriculum to teach others so it can carry on and reach more young people searching for reconnection. She has been essential during my transition into professionalism and adulthood. She has watched me learn the hard lessons of business, politics and life.  She is my “Buffalo Mother,” and who I’d like to be if I ever grow up.

My other mentor, Rita (Professor Emeritus – Radford University) passed away on my birthday in 2006. She was a Shakespearean scholar, a literal coal miner’s daughter, and a writer with a distinct southern voice. During my college years she was not only my mentor but my best friend, and I put away more coffee and cigarettes, more poetry and theory, more tears and laughter with her than at any other point of my life. In the “Dr. Rita Sizemore Riddle” collection at Radford there are five “Hardees Notebooks,” and I can remember meeting her there at 6 AM when I finished my first story, the smell of sausage gravy and biscuits lingering in the air, and her saying “Child you look damn near starved.” She and her husband David had already been there for a an hour talking to folks and drinking coffee as they did every morning when they pulled up in their beat up maroon car with the license plate “Dr. Mama.”

On this journey of educating out-of-school youth for the last decade, I have often questioned my own strength. I have had numerous fights with myself over whether or not I am tough enough to continue to do what is right by young people and help them have access to education when they have been shut out. I have doubted my own success. I have allowed financial fears to tread on me. I have at moments paralyzed myself with low self-esteem – and there is simply no room for it anymore. I have been given sign after sign that I am headed in the right direction, and it is time to trust those signs. As Rita said, “Child you just remember your strength. Remember that when you showed up, buried in a dark hole, I threw you a ladder – that ladder was writing and reality. Remember that it was you who climbed that ladder and you who had to have the strength to survive. Remember who you are and anything is possible.”

I have a job to do – WE have a job to do –  and that is to provide a sustainable place where young people who are disenfranchised, or have given up, or feel alone and facing the world without a diploma can feel the safety that I have felt with my parents and mentors. A place where they can accept that not having a diploma does not make them any less of a man or woman – as my Dads both knew – but with it life can be a little easier and they are worth it. Most importantly, a place where they can learn that mentors are waiting to be a part of their lives, to help guide them and remind them to keep going in the face of adversity. I have been given my life experience, this opportunity and specific skill set for a reason. I have been given the keys to our cornerstone building and any fears about walking this difficult path have been laid to rest. I must, with the determination of my fathers, the strength of my mother and the faith of my mentors move forward with diligence, discipline and focus. After all, I was thrown a ladder once, and our youth deserve the same. After a decade of learning with them, seeing over 700 graduate and somehow having become my own version of Dr. Mama. . .I know our youth are ready to climb their own.