This essay was originally published in Young in America: New Orleans, a collection of non-fiction, short stories and poetry about life in New Orleans by 17 high school students.
Standing in the freezer aisle of the grocery store, I made a promise to my mother. I told her I would go to college. I was only six years old, and so I did not really understand the significance of my words. While walking through the aisles, she told me that education was the way out. A college degree could change our lives. At the time, I didn't think it would be such a hard promise to keep. I also didn't understand how far away college was from kindergarten. I thought going to college would be just another activity, like the coloring we did in class before taking a nap.
For many years, I grew up in an unstable household filled with abuse and drugs. School became my escape, a safe haven. It was the one place where I was not only stress-free but accomplished. I felt in control at school. I made everyone proud with my grades and my teachers praised me, giving me the calm, motherly attention that wasn't always available at home. Every time I did right, I was rewarded, from reading all the books in the library to receiving the highest recognition for my GPA, "Ms. Mason Elementary.''
My mother also did her part to help me keep my promise. She always stressed the importance of education. I was never allowed to miss school, even if I was sick. I could not make grades lower than B's. C's meant being grounded and confined to my room for a week after school during which time I was to write I will get better grades five hundred times. My mother always made it clear that it was hard being a young parent without an education. She had to work two jobs, both low-paying, just to make ends meet. She had almost no time to relax or devote to herself. She was caught in an exhausting cycle that I witnessed each day.
My stepfather's abuse, both mental and physical, erupted constantly. Almost every night he and my mother would fight. My stepfather also used drugs, which made him lash out at everyone. Witnessing and being subject to the madness at home motivated me to excel at school. I told myself that when I grew up, I would go to college and my life would be different.
Eventually, I came to understand that my mother's lack of an education made her feel trapped and dependent on my stepfather. Because my stepfather's job paid more, he felt he had the right to control our household as he saw fit. My mother, worn down and without confidence in her ability to stand on her own, gave in. She always said if she had more money, we would leave him. She regretted not having pushed herself to go further in school. If she had a college degree, she told me, she could get a better job. She would have seen herself as someone with options. But without the confidence that comes from higher education, it was easy for him to tear her down and drag her through the mud.
Realizing my worth and my mother's worth was a lesson we had to learn the hardest way possible. We both now know that we cannot depend on someone else to make our lives worth living. I'm going to find a job that I love and that pays enough so that I can live comfortably. I plan to be confident and independent. No one will be able to use me or my mother in those ways again. Going to college is a crucial first step in learning about myself, my potential and what I can do to help take care of my family.
It's been 12 years since I promised my mother I would go to college. I'm a senior now with applications out at 14 colleges. I'm not the oldest, but I'm determined to be the example for my four brothers. No one in my family has a college degree, so it's up to me to be the voice of encouragement and experience for the next generation. I plan to be the one who sets the expectation and tells my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews that they will be attending college. Instead of being cashiers and janitors, my family will take on the new roles as business owners, doctors, and other successful professionals. Through education, we can redefine ourselves as individuals who are not seen as replaceable, low-skilled workers but as valued assets with unique and talented minds.
Reprinted with permission from the book Young in America: New Orleans, PSIpress, 2012.