It’s Never Too Late to Build on Your Past to Shape the Present
Both sets of my great grandparents were born into slavery, which makes me just the third generation born free. That’s not that far back.
I come from a lineage of strong, independent men and women. I am the great-granddaughter of the first black homesteader in Aurora, Nebraska. My great grandfather, David Patrick, was “spirited away” from slavery by a sympathetic colonel and brought to Nebraska in 1873, where he went on to distinguish himself by serving as a school board member, served on the district jury, was a respected member of the populist party, and communed regularly with the president on matters of state.
I am the granddaughter of a woman who was not only the first member of her family born into freedom but was also the first to go to college. My grandmother became a teacher, one of the few occupations available to her, and was so devoted to teaching that she delayed marriage until the age of 34, by which time she was then viewed as an “old maid”.
I am the daughter of a woman who, in addition to helping my father run a family funeral home, sought to improve access to education for all by serving as a school board vice president and also fought for social justice as a community activist. As a child, my mother took me with her to NAACP meetings and sit-ins, sometimes leading to arguments between my parents. My father worried she might get us kids killed by bringing us to those protests, but my mother, insisting that we needed to know what was going on in the world, held firm.
Each generation did its part to clear the path for me to live a life of my choosing, the course of which was clear to me from an early age.
When I was in the first grade, I came home from school one day and announced to my mother and grandmother that I was going to be a teacher. My grandmother was delighted to hear that her young granddaughter wanted to follow in her footsteps.
“Why do you want to be a teacher, Judy?” my grandmother asked me.
I had my answer ready. “Because teachers get deviled eggs,” I stated matter-of-factly. The teachers always seemed to get better food than the students, and that seemed like reason enough for me at the time.
It was clearly not the answer my grandmother was expecting, nor was it the firmest foundation upon which to build a career path, but I stuck to it, going on to major in education in college with the intention of teaching special education. Of course, by that time my commitment to a career in education had much less to do with the food in the teacher’s lounge and far more to do with the vital role of the educator in the community, the importance of which I had grown up witnessing up close through my mother’s activism.
I moved to Denver as a newlywed and found work with OIC, a training program working in poor communities, teaching participants job skills and interview techniques. Later, I joined NE Denver Youth Services, working with at-risk youth. I enjoyed the work, but still hoped to get into a classroom. Following a series of demoralizing, dead-end interviews, one serendipitous meeting got my foot in the right door. I was hired to teach in the elementary school on the spot.
I loved teaching and wanted to expand my opportunities in the classroom but my plans to pursue a master’s degree got put on the back burner with the birth of my son and subsequent divorce. Instead of returning to school, I took on extra work during the summers to provide for myself and my young son.
Years passed. I remarried, something I never thought I would do, and I suddenly found the time was right to revisit my dreams. At the age of 44, I began working towards a master’s in counseling, a degree which eventually led to a position as counselor at Emily Griffith, an alternative school for kids who have fallen out of the traditional educational system. It was a role that merged my background in education with my work with at-risk youth, bringing together the disparate segments of my professional life into a single, mission-driven focus.
Along the way, I had to take detours when life altered what I had planned. I encountered and had to overcome racism with disappointing frequency. Through it all, I realized that it is never too late to build on your past to shape the present you want, which in my case was to make a difference through education. At age 52, I became a licensed Educational Administrator.
The kids I taught as second graders are now in their 50s. Two own their own hair salons. Another, from Emily Griffith, is completing her medical residency. Many have had to overcome tremendous hardship to get to where they are today. Not so long ago, I sat with a former student as she graduated from her substance abuse program. She is now a college graduate, entrepreneur, and published author. I am proud of them all.
When I was a counselor, I used to talk to my students about The Dash Poem by poet Linda Ellis. In the poem, Ellis describes life as what happens in between the years of birth and death: the dash. How, I would ask my students, did they want to spend their dash? Did they want to waste it, to let it drift by, or did they want to find something to do that really mattered?
I know how I would answer that question. I have built on the foundation of my forebears—their independence, their thirst for knowledge, their activism—to lift up others in my community through education and service. That is my dash.
It is never too late to build on your past to shape the present.