The teacher, an unassuming white man, walked in, took the roll, and immediately jumped into "instruction" by telling us to open our books to the first chapter. Although I’d had my book for a week, I’d never opened it. I was afraid to. I didn’t know why, or what I was afraid of. I just knew that I was scared. So the first night of class was the first time I’d opened the book. I was stunned at what I saw. The first chapter literally started with "1 + 1."
One plus one? Twenty-seven years old and I’m starting at one plus one? My embarrassment hit an all-time high. I wanted to run; I wanted to scream; I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. I couldn’t because I kept hearing my damn family in my head:
This is a positive. Now we know where to start you.
You can only go up from there.
The best place to start is the beginning!
So I fought the urge to run and stayed put. Though, I’m not going to lie, it was very difficult to do so. As I looked around the room, I couldn’t help but notice that I was surrounded by kids much younger than me—most were straight out of high school. And it seemed as though they had a lot more free time than I did; I had responsibilities they didn’t have, like work, groceries, rent. I started to think that maybe I had too many responsibilities to go to school. Momma Chaney squashed that idea instantly by reminding me that it was only fear that created that notion and pointed out that many people work and go to school. So I continued. And so did the problems.
I had a problem with humility. Out of habit, I automatically sat at the back of the class (cool kids always sat in the back). The problem was that I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, so I always had questions. But I rarely asked them because of the derision I saw in the faces of the other students and the snickers I heard. Obviously, they thought my questions were stupid and the last thing I wanted to be was stupid. When I shared this dilemma with V, she suggested I sit in the very first row.
"That way, you won’t hear the snickers in the back and you won’t be able to see the faces."
Me, "Ms. Cool," in the first row? I’d never, ever, sat in the front of the class, let alone the first row. I tried to think of alternatives, but it was apparent that I had no other choice. So the next class, I found myself sitting in the front, and feeling very, very out of place. Nevertheless, to my surprise, it worked. Since I was in the front, I was able to raise my hand as often as I wanted and ask as many questions as I wanted, all the while oblivious to whatever reaction was taking place behind me.
And, you still "cool"! I teased myself.
From that day forward, I always sat in the first row.
I had to learn how to study. The first problem was that I couldn’t sit still. I’d study for a few moments and then all of a sudden have to get up and do something. For example, I hated cleaning. But whenever I was supposed to be studying, I’d get the compulsion to clean—anything—the bathroom, living room, even the sidewalk out in front of my apartment.
Next, even if I could sit still, I couldn’t concentrate. My mind raced rapidly with a variety of thoughts, most of which were stupid, unimportant, or irrelevant. I mean, I thought of everything, like how many students were enrolled at the community college. I wondered what Ken, Daddy, Jr., and even the president were doing at the moment. I wondered how television worked. I thought about how an interior decorator decided on colors and styles. I wondered, when babies started learning how to walk, if they didn’t know that they couldn’t walk.
On top of that, I couldn’t seem to remember anything. Something we’d learn in class that night would be forgotten by the next day. I found it funny that for years I’d heard that drugs f---ed up the mind, that weed—supposedly the "harmless drug"—destroyed brain cells that never grew back. I never paid any of those warnings any attention—until now—now that I needed brain cells. Ironically, I realized that I was living proof of what drugs and alcohol did to the mind. Mine seemed to be gone.
As usual, all hope was not gone. First, I prayed that God would help me concentrate and help me remember. He did. Then V gave me some suggestions. She told me to set aside a set time to study and then to do so in short intervals. I started out by studying for five minutes (that’s about as long as I could go before my mind changed directions) and then taking a ten-minute break. Study for five, break for ten. Of course, this made doing homework take forever, but at least I was doing it. Slowly, I increased the study time and reduced the break time. Within a month, I’d advanced to studying for ten and breaking for five. After two months, I could study for almost a half hour without a break.
There’s something to be said about baby steps.
Oprah Winfrey also helped me get to studying. I loved Oprah and was always watching her talk show when I was supposed to be doing my schoolwork. One day, V called to see how the studying was going. I admitted that I wasn’t doing it, but was checking out Oprah instead. V’s response would carry me through the rest of my educational career.
"Oprah got her money," she snapped. "You trying to get YOURS! Now, turn off that f---in' TV and get to studying!"
After that, whenever I wanted to watch Oprah or any other TV show instead of study, I’d remind myself, Oprah and them got their money. You tryin’ to get yours! Without hesitation, I’d turn off the TV and pick up a book.
Ken was also a big help. He would often let me take additional time at lunch so I could study. And on exam days, he’d let me leave work early to get in a little extra studying. But no amount of help from V, Oprah, or anyone else could have gotten me through school because the bottom line was that it was up to me. So I gave it everything I had. Sometimes, I would be so exhausted from work and studying, I’d fall asleep, face-first, in my food. Soon, I’d practiced studying enough so that I could do it for hours at a time without needing a break. And, although my memory never completely returned, it did slowly improve.
I found out that amazing things happen when one studies. All those years I thought I was stupid; I thought I hated math. But, as I began to study, I quickly realized I wasn’t stupid after all. My hard work and persistence paid off. I aced that beginning math course. I couldn’t believe it. An A! I stared disbelievingly at the report card for at least ten minutes. It was only one class and it was only one A. Still, I’d earned it, fair and square. Feeling good about myself, I immediately signed up for another class, though just one. I still didn’t feel comfortable taking more.
My first thought was, Thank you, God.
My second was, Hot damn! I’m on a roll!
From that point on, I attended classes regularly and faithfully. That first A instilled a sense of dedication in me I hadn’t had before. I decided that I was going to stay on the road to education no matter what. Several "no matter whats" came up. It cost me some friendships. Several sober girlfriends complained that I studied too much or didn’t have time to hang with them. Without hesitation, I cut them loose. I missed numerous parties and barbecues. I was dead set in my determination that no one, and I meant no one, would ever again prevent me from being good to me, or doing good for me. So I stuck with it.
Although the community college was a two-year program, it took me five and a half years to graduate. Some semesters I took one or two classes; other terms I attended full-time. The number of classes I took depended on my available funds and, since I was still working full-time, on the availability of evening courses. I didn’t realize it had taken that long because I wasn’t keeping track of the time. I didn’t care how long it took to finish, as long as I did. So my rule of thumb was to keep my eye on the long-term goal—law school—but focus on the present goal—completing community college.
When it did finally come time for me to get my degree, five and a half years after taking that "1+1" class, I glided across the stage. As I glided toward the dean whose arm was stretched out toward me, his hand holding a piece of white paper rolled up into a tube with a bright red string tied around it, I heard my family wildly cheering in the crowd. As I grabbed the tube and shook his hand, I realized it was worth every barbecue I’d ever missed, worth every party I’d missed, worth every friend I’d lost, and even worth every Oprah show I’d missed.
On top of that, the chick who’d started at "1+1" graduated with honors. I had no special gifts, skills, or talents—whatsoever. What I did, anyone could do. All it took was a little bit of faith and a whole lotta hard work, perseverance, and dedication—now if only I could keep it up.