“My name is Antoinette and I’m a 40 year-old college student.” “Hi Antoinette!”
That’s how I expected it to feel, returning to school after a 20 year gap. But that’s not at all what really happened.
Twenty-one years ago I was working full-time, supporting myself and just trying to survive. I was in a hurry to escape my abusive home and that left me no time for school. I got a job as soon as I could and moved out on my own. Twenty years ago, I met my husband, partner, full-time cheerleader and father of my son (all the same person by the way).
"Six years ago I realized that I was a very unhappy person. I used my creativity to my advantage and was able to contribute financially, but I didn’t have a career."
Sixteen years ago our son was diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder. It had always been important to me to be there for him full time, but with this label, that goal become even more critical. He became my whole world. Any aspirations of a career that I had (or any personal fulfillment) came second to his every need. In fact, it came third. I was going to give my son every advantage that I could, even if it included sacrificing my own ambitions.
Six years ago I realized that I was a very unhappy person. I used my creativity to my advantage and was able to contribute financially, but I didn’t have a career. I felt a little empty and realized just how much I let my own identity slip and hinge instead on my son’s happiness. If you yourself aren’t happy, fulfilled, healthy and successful, how can you teach your children to be? How can you continue to give everything to everyone when you are running on empty? I knew I had to make a change and more importantly, that there was no such thing in my life as a “good time.”
While working a small part-time job that I hated, I enrolled in an evening American Sign Language class at my local community college. I always wanted to learn sign language and I wanted to see what it was like to be back in school. I assumed I would be “the oldest” or worse “the fattest” person in my class. I was wrong on both accounts. I also reminded myself that I was taking the class just for fun, because I expected 100% to fail. At the end of the semester, I had earned an A in the class. That one little letter gave me such a rush of confidence and accomplishment, the likes of which I had never felt before. It was something I had done, worked so hard for and it was just for me! That next semester I took two classes.
It took me six years, but I earned my AA degree in Psychology and graduated with highest honors and a 3.85GPA (stupid Statistics class!). I never thought of myself as particularly smart, or able to succeed in school - but A after A showed me that I just had never been given a chance (or given myself a chance).
"A after A showed me that I just had never been given a chance (or given myself a chance)."
Last fall I transferred to UC Davis and I’m now starting my senior year. I’ve won many scholarships and awards and am honestly kicking butt. I’m also STILL not the oldest (or the fattest) in any of my classes. I’ll be applying to graduate school this November and am going for a PsyD degree (that’s a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology).Five years from now you can call me, “Dr. O’Neill.”
This wonderful gift that I’ve given myself also turned out to be a gift for my son. It was good for him to not have all of my time devoted to his needs. With me more occupied he was better able to grow and learn new skills for himself. Like me, he grew in ways I never dreamed. He graduated high school the same year I graduated with my AA Degree. It was like a dream to see BOTH of our hard work and accomplishments celebrated so closely like that.
I hope that by taking care of myself, my future, my needs I have taught my son that this is your one beautiful, crazy life. It’s the only one you get (or so I believe), so you need to make every second of it memorable. Be happy, be healthy, be strong and nothing is out of your reach. I hope he knows that he can do anything and be anything and not to let anyone tell him otherwise. I hope he looks to me and sees how hard work can make anything possible. Persistence is everything and there’s no step too small. I’m very proud of the young man he has become, but I’m also very proud of the 40 year-old woman I’ve turned into. Be rad, be wild, be real and go get your dream!