When I walked onto the campus of DePaul University in the fall of 2003, I was scared. I felt prepared academically. Socially, I could hold my own. But, culturally I had no idea what I was getting into. I was what they call “first generation,” the first in my family line to attend a four-year university. I thought that nothing in my background had prepared me for the experience.
It would be nine years before I walked across the stage at Northeastern Illinois University. And had it not been for the lessons I learned in my childhood, I wouldn’t have made it.
Learning From Family
We were a clan of seven.
Dad was an Air Force vet who battled drug addiction. He was first generation in his own right. My grandmother had relocated to Chicago from Mississippi shortly after Dad was born. He worked at the post office as a “custodial engineer” (elevated language for a janitor), a graduate of the University of Hard Knocks.
Mom worked to help make ends meet. I always got the sense that she wanted to give us more in the way of hugs and kisses and fun-filled quality time. But, the urgent usually dominated the important. Time and energy had to go toward giving us the basics: food to eat, clothes to wear and a roof over our heads. A Master’s in Everything from the University of Life Itself.
And then there were the five of us. Four boys. One girl. Me, smack dab in the middle. Neither Mom nor Dad had a college degree. Early on, none of us knew enough to even want one.
Even in the various struggling, West Side neighborhoods that we called home, it was clear to us that we faced some real challenges. It only takes a few school trips with a brown paper bag in place of your lunchbox to realize that money is scarce. It only takes one time carrying a plastic bag from the local discount grocer in place of your brown paper bag to know that it is really scarce.
In my family, we learned things that served all five of us very well as we pursued education.
We learned the value of hard work.
These lessons in work ethic were not part of culture and climate strategy developed to help at risk youth reach their potential. It was imparted ever so slowly, as we watched my dad work the night shift. Every evening he’d grab his lunch bowl, dawn that dingy, blue USPS uniform and make his way out the door.
Hard work was etched into my psyche by my mom who always prepped that lunch bowl. And one for herself. And washed clothes for a family of seven and made dinner for us and checked our homework and counseled our little feelings and disciplined us. And then went to work. When I was a kid I didn’t even know that moms got sick. I did know that a mom’s life was tireless and hard and almost no fun.
We learned focus.
When you are poor and you have a family to raise, there isn’t much room for distraction. If you take your eye off the ball for even a moment, very bad things can happen. These days, I understand that it’s good to take a vacation from time to time. But my mom never had the luxury to take her mind off things like bills and asthma attacks, gang influences around the neighborhood and what the heck was going on at school. What did she do to relax? Honestly you’d have to ask her. I never saw it.
We also learned faith.
This wasn’t the result of professionally designed and even more professionally placed signs proclaiming clichéd statements like “If you believe it, you can achieve it.” Mom and Dad always took us to church. Ours was a small fellowship. The congregation was comprised of a lot of people and many of them lived lives very similar to ours. That once-a-week stop by the Holy Ghost fill-up station was conspicuously important to our survival. And ultimately to our college success.
The impact was simple, but profound. That arm-lifting, voice-raising, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, dancing, running, laughing, weeping meeting put the strength in my parents to endure. Almost every week there was something that might have caused them to quit, to leave or even to die. But by the sheer force of their faith in Jesus, they marched on.
In the 9 years between my first day at DePaul and my graduation day from NEIU, I lost my dad to lung cancer, started my career, got married and fathered my first child. But like my parents, I marched on. Standing in my cap and gown, I knew that I was standing on their shoulders. And not just me, all five of us: a certified electrician, a licensed nurse practitioner, an MBA, a soon-to-be Ph.D. sociologist and me. Each with his or her own story of challenge and difficultly. Each, in our own right, victorious because of what we learned coming up.
Hard work. Focus. Faith.
Now Butler kids know that college is the floor, not the ceiling.