Saturday, May 30, 2009

A little story about Sue

Sometimes, in my day-to-day life, I feel pretty isolated from the rest of the world. I feel out of touch. I wonder what everyone else [who isn’t home with a 4-year-old] is doing. I think of how hard it would be to suddenly find myself in an office setting again, or back in classes pursuing some end, feeling so rusty and old-fashioned and—well, mentally mushy. If it happens, I’ll deal with it. But I’m certainly not seeking it out, any of it. I know well enough when I’m out of my league.

And then I think of Sue.

I was a young upstart of a girl yet, a junior in college but an absolute twit in pretty much every way. I thought I knew everything, and also thought I should let everyone know exactly what I knew. (However, as is common, I resented those same characteristics in anyone else.) I was a secondary ed major, and as such, I found myself in several classes with a woman named Sue; she was also majoring in education, specializing in science.

Sue was no young girl. She was a single mom of 3 young kids. She had very short, choppy, home-dyed blonde hair, thick glasses, she was slightly heavy-set, she was unfashionable, she talked too fast and too much… and she was a tutor in the on-campus office where I also worked. I saw her regularly at work. I met her kids more than once (she occasionally had to drag the slightly scruffy crew to the office with her), I heard her stories about her no-account ex-husband and how he’d abandoned them… Several times, I was subjected to various stories about how she’d tried to make ends meet when he left, no money for the gas bill, heating the house (and sometimes the family’s meals) with the kerosene heater that sat in the living room, scraping together some clothes for the children to wear to school, etc.

And in classes? Yep, I saw her there too. I couldn’t escape. She’d be up front, talking to the prof well after class start time, hogging his attention. Sometimes I could tell that even the professors were a tad weary of her and her boundless enthusiasm. Because she was enthusiastic. Many of the students she tutored began sessions with a doubtful look, and emerged after several meetings with thanks, praise, and better grades. She could hardly contain her excitement at the thought of teaching, let alone hanging out in a lab all day. She was on fire. She really, really wanted to work, to learn, to teach others, to support herself and her family—she wanted to taste the firm, sweet success she’d been flirting with since getting her life on track.

At the end of my time at that office, Sue was graduating; after two years of watching her work her a** off, I held a grudging admiration and mild fondness for her. She’d done quite well, had multiple job offers from out of state. She never looked back; she pondered which job to take (aloud, to anyone who’d listen), she took a couple of road trips with the kids to try out the possible new locations, and then she snapped up a teaching position in Virginia and was happily planning to take her beloved children and start anew come August. I’m sure she did just that, although I didn’t hear the details; we didn’t keep in touch.

What I failed to fully appreciate then was that Sue was a survivor—and a mom. Now, being a mom myself, I begin to grasp the depth of the struggle that she dealt with every day. I try to imagine how hard it must have been to be strong not just for herself but for those kids while she cooked canned food over a kerosene heater, to pull herself up out of that miserable hole, to get enrolled, to find childcare when needed, to deal with a sick son or daughter when she had classes, to make ends meet. I’m pretty sure she had help in grants or such; I also believe she was taking loans in order to finish the program. Yet, she was determined, and bright, and indefatigable. She was going to make it. She was going to get herself and her family out of there and into the sun.

I wonder where she is today. I hope she is still in the sun. The kids would be mostly grown by now, and hopefully following in their mom’s (not dad’s) footsteps. I hope that if I’m ever in her shoes, I’ll be as upstanding an example of how to handle challenges and go on with head held high. I hope I’m as strong a mom for my son. I hope that my worst offense is taking too much of the professor’s time. The poor woman! I understand better now; she was just seeking approval. Encouragement. She only wanted someone to listen, to hear her thoughts, to appreciate the incredible effort she was making. To be validated. To be vindicated. I feel unseen and unheard sometimes, but I suspect my boo-hoo invisibility couldn’t hold a candle to Sue’s in her darkest days.

Here’s to you, Sue. You’re an inspiration, even now, almost 20 years later.

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