Sorry I’ve been away, dear readers, but I was busy preparing my speech for the Journey of Hope luncheon, which took place last Wednesday. I accepted an award for Alumna of the Year, which I first mentioned here. It was, in short, awesome.
I don’t think I ever expected to be here, even though I have been to several luncheons to accept scholarships from some of the tremendous local families who support Maryhurst’s mission. It really wasn’t until the last maybe two years that I have really begun to internalize the external changes I’ve made as a result of my journey in life. I was pretty head strong and progressive from a very young age, but it took a long time for me to accept that I was not under a microscope and that people didn’t automatically judge me based on my history. Partly that’s a poor culture thing, because the lives of the poor are so regimented and subjected to such constant authority. I was no exception.
Anyway, the luncheon was great, and I had a wonderful time seeing old faces and meeting new ones. I delivered an 8 minute speech in front of a crowd of 700, which included the mayor of our little town, Mayor Jerry Abramson. He shook my hand afterward and complimented my speech. It was quite a treat. 🙂 I thought my readers might be interested in reading the speech I gave. Read it below:
First, thank you for this extraordinary honor. Many times I have attended these luncheons and watched as a new Alumna of the Year delivered a heartfelt speech. I am humbled to be counted among such notable and amazing women.
Many of you’ve heard me speak before, so you know it’s unlikely that I’ll get through this without tears. You’ll just have to cry with me this time, because the story I’m about to tell you is a story that is lived every day in America, but is still seldom heard. I often share my story with my students, because many of them face the same obstacles I faced. I delight in sharing with them how to succeed in the world when the deck is stacked against them. I learned how to do just that at Maryhurst. Because of the support I received at Maryhurst, now as a writer, a teacher, and activist I am part of a system of support.
My journey begins when a 6 pound slip of a girl was born to a couple of working class kids. We like to think here in America that we’re all born equal and we maintain a fair measure of progress, but the truth is that from the beginning people fall behind or slip through cracks. My parent’s story begins as one of hope marching forward, but they soon fell behind.
Despite their earnestness and innocence, my childhood reads like a psychology textbook. All the statistical cues are there. I am marked to this day by extreme poverty, by my father’s alcohol abuse and violence, by incest patterns in my family, and by the fear I lived with daily as a child. My mother was my guiding light, providing me with as much stability as she could under difficult circumstances. She herself faced all the same obstacles I did, but she faced them in a world that would hardly give a woman a chance to realize her full potential.
By 13 tender years of age I had already run away from home and hitch-hiked across multiple states on multiple occasions. I write frequently about what it was like growing up on tough streets and what happens to a girl who comes of age in a working class environment. The years between 12 and 18 are critical in so many ways. For girls like I me, the support that Maryhurst provided was priceless. Without this exposure, the ability to transcend destiny would not have occurred to me.
Maryhurst provided a sense of stability to my chaotic world. Most people grow up in single-family homes, alone or with a sibling or three, so a life involving 20 girls all of similar age living under one roof is pretty foreign. I thrived under the stability of routine and security. Each day I was reminded: This is what it means to be a human being. This is how a human being makes a bed. You are worthy of being a human being. Please make your bed. For over two years lessons as simple as these, along with reminders of the worth of my relentlessly resilient spirit were drilled into me. You tell me if that was money well spent.
What I do in my class room is what I learned at Maryhurst. Most of my students did not expect to go to college. Through sheer grit and determination they come to Brown Mackie seeking to make a better way of life for themselves and their families and they know education is the way to do that. I am continually inspired by their spunk and natural curiosity. Many times I have looked out upon the classroom and seen myself just a few short years ago. I reach out to my students because people reached out to me, because I saw the value of that, and because I want to be part of making a better world.
In addition to writing and teaching, I am an activist for girls and women. I focus on education and women’s history in my activism, and the roots of this are again found in my history with Maryhurst. Knowledge is key, as I tell my readers, and it is so important to have models. I tell my readers and my students about the likes of Phyllis Wheatley, Angelina Grimke, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Coretta Scott King. These women are each separated by nearly 50 years, which is a testament to the personal fortitude required to break new ground. One person in a thousand may realize it, fewer still will be brave enough to act upon it.
The people who worked at Maryhurst when I was there, many of whom still work there, served as my models. In the urban ghetto where I came of age, the courteous treatment of people was unheard of. Kindness was a random act indeed. The staff of Maryhurst greeted me with open hearts, and offered me a tremendous amount of support. However cliché it may be to say, they believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself, and even when I didn’t believe a word they were saying. From my first encounter with Lisa Cheek, the dorm staffer who first sat me down and listened to me ramble, to Judy Lambeth, the last face I saw when I left more than 20 years ago, the people who work at Maryhurst taught me so much about how to move about with confidence. They also taught me some important fundamental lessons.
Chuck Thomas, my counselor, taught me to unflinchingly self-reflect, to constantly question what I thought I knew to be true. This ability to look at all the information and come to a rational and unemotional judgment has served me well as I’ve met many academic challenges and developed myself as a professional writer.
Not long ago I wrote about Mr. Donlon’s letters. You old-timers already know what I’m talking about, but for you folks who don’t know Mr. Donlon, he used to hand out these letters. They were always on pastel stationary, folded so a simple inscription was on top. It said: I believe in you. This inscription seemed so powerful. It was what I wished for when all my defenses and cynicism were taken way, and they were words I’d never heard. To this day in times of crisis, I hear my mind whisper: I believe in you. I dream in pastels.
Another role model I met at Maryhurst was Holly Holland, my sponsor. Holly was a role model for me even after I left Maryhurst. She taught me how to be a well-rounded woman. One thing she doesn’t know is that she and her husband, John, are responsible for the happy marriage I share with my husband today. Before I met them I had never seen an egalitarian partnership between a man and a woman. I’d never seen husbands and wives communicate so honestly and earnestly, or care for each other so tenderly. Within a year of meeting them I had a new standard for a marriage partner. It took many years to meet Jake, but he was worth the wait.
I’ll never forget arguing with Stephen Farr about the existence of God, and hearing him talk about a life of service. The phrase rings in my ears to this day, and despite many desires to keep running and take the easy way out, to subsume myself to my fate, it has remained what I have always wanted to do. He challenged me to try it out, and I have not regretted it. These days in my classroom I find the same smile he used to give me creeping onto my face when a student challenges me. I love a challenge, and I love living a life of service every day because of Mr. Farr’s modeling.
Let me wrap up with a story that I think will bring home my point about the importance of systemic support. This month, in our Professional Development class—the first course our students take—there is a woman who was at Maryhurst at the same time I was and who is also my age. She shared her story with me one night, and I learned that she had left Maryhurst early because she found out she was pregnant. She described in detail the conversation she’d had with Sr. Bernadette, and her eyes moistened at the memory. She was clearly affected by the loss, and was aware how the choices she’d been forced to make at such a young age had meant additional setbacks. She is now starting her educational process. I am one of her teachers. The only difference between us was the full support that Maryhurst provided.
All of these stories are designed to demonstrate one thing: What Maryhurst ultimately provides at just the right time is a system of support. In this time of economic uncertainty, this is especially critical. Daily I see what happens when people don’t receive these services early, before they cross the line into adulthood. I meet people who have fallen behind or through cracks, who are trying with all their might to transcend their own fate with little help from the system. I often wonder what life could have been like for them if they’d had access to a system of support earlier. My students are not so different from me. They are hungry for people to show them a different way. Without Maryhurst I would be in no place to help them. I am grateful to even have the chance.