It all started with a facebook status announcing the death of an instructor at The Fine Arts Center.
Although I was not a choral student, several of my classmates were, and as small as the Fine Arts Center was, it was hard not to interface with other students and faculty at some point.
The Fine Arts Center….
Suddenly, almost 15 years worth of memories began to rush back.
Not only did I know about this place, I was once a student there myself.
My high school Art teacher saw some potential in me and encouraged me to apply. He helped me to assemble a portfolio and I filled out my application. I was given an interview. Note worthy instructors reviewed my work.
I was accepted into the program.
I studied under the best in the Upstate: metal, enamel, oil, acrylic, charcoal…
My classmates were prodigies.
Almost with the same sort of “hunch”, another teacher, this time, an English teacher, saw potential in me and asked me had I considered going to college.
The short answer to her question was “No”.
College wasn’t even on my radar. My biggest dream at the time was to be a cosmetologist.
I thought I wanted to do hair.
It seemed like a reasonable enough goal and I was more than willing to give it a try.
But she wouldn’t let up.
Finally, she sweetened the deal and told me that she would personally write my letter of recommendation to the colleges of my choice and encourage other faculty members to do so for me.
I applied to colleges I’d never even heard of before: Elon, William and Mary, Columbia, Agnes Scott.
By the end of my senior year, I was accepted to two colleges, Columbia and Agnes Scott, receiving awards from both.
I was even given a letter of congratulations by the then State Senator.
Who’s Who Among America’s High School Students.
American Legion Award.
And I’d forgotten about all of it.
The sad part about it is that I forgot all of those accomplishments as they happened.
I was startled as the memories suddenly came flooding back to me while reading the facebook status.
I realize now that the impact of those achievements was cushioned by a heavy layer of low self esteem and an environment that could not and would not celebrate me.
I forgot that part of my life, almost completely.
What’s the point of throwing a celebration party if you’re the only one there?
So I stopped celebrating.
After going as far as I could at Agnes Scott on my own with little guidance and even less support, I ran out of money and returned home to South Carolina. And that’s when I turned on the auto pilot.
The next 12 years of my life would be filled with almost an aimless existence, still reeling from disappointment for the college career I couldn’t finish and the goals I’d never achieved.
I can’t even tell you what my goal for college was.
I was there. I attended classes. I’d decided on English as my major.
But I had no idea what to do with such a major.
I declared it because it was just something to do and of all my courses, English was my strongest.
I didn’t have any direction.
Two teachers in high school saw enormous promise in me.
But I couldn’t see it in myself.
I didn’t know how to take the ball that was given to me and run with it.
For a while, I just sort of stared at it, held it and admired it. Then after a while, I tucked it away and forgot it was there.
When I realized what I had, I took it out and saw that the ball I was given was a little flat, no bounce.
At 33 years old, I can’t help but be reflective. It’s unfortunate that it took the death of a very influential instructor and musician to jog my memory, but that’s precisely what happened. As I read his facebook wall, I saw the countless lives he impacted with his passion for music and love for bright and talented students. I saw the heartfelt grief. I also saw an amazing legacy that will stand the test of time.
I pulled the gold and black onyx ring out of my jewelry box.
Few know I even own it.
Even less know what it truly represents.
The gold ring with the rectangle shaped onyx stone is a class ring from Agnes Scott College that spans generations. You will find women who graduated in the 1930’s and 40’s with this same ring on their finger. Each woman receives this ring in a ceremony her sophomore year. As hard as it is for me to believe that I achieved this honor of standing with thousands of women, young and old, the evidence is on my finger today.
No one came to my ceremony. I’m thankful I was able to plead and beg my parents enough to give me the money to purchase the ring. Maybe it was the tone of my voice. My mother heard me. She understood. I’m appreciative that she was able to help persuade my dad to buy it for me. But I stood to receive it alone. I can still remember the sound of the pipe organ as it roared in grandeur to salute our achievement. I remember walking down the side walk, back to my dorm, ring on my finger.
I didn’t have a high school class ring.
But I now had a college ring.
How cool was I?
Somehow, I managed to keep up with the ring through moving from my dorm, then from my aunt’s home, then back to South Carolina, and several times within my home state. Somehow, I managed to preserve this piece of my history. Last year, I took it out again, had it cleaned and sized and wore it to my first ever Alumnae Weekend.
No, I didn’t graduate with a degree.
But I graduated with much more.
My return to campus last year felt like I was coming full circle. As my former classmates mixed and mingled, chatting and participating in various activities set up for alums, I took the time to wander off by myself.
I walked the sidewalk I’d walked 15 years before as a young, and clueless teenager, not even sure how she ended up where she was. I had the grades. I had the awards. I had the letters of recommendation. But inside, I didn’t have the gift of knowing that I was good enough just as I was. I didn’t believe any of the awards that told me I was great. I didn’t hear any of the compliments that told me my work was special and significant.
I couldn’t hear, and I couldn’t see.
|The McCain Library, Agnes Scott College|
As I walked the campus grounds, as a mother of two, arms loaded with triumphs and a few tragedies, some successes and quite a few failures…
I admired the azaleas. I took off my shoes and walked on the grassy quad, something I’m not sure I’d ever done as a teenager. I walked into the bookstore and made a few purchases. I observed the new student body, casually loafing, some in jeans and pajama bottoms as I and my former classmates used to do. I talked with first year students. I marveled at their amazing sense of focus and direction. They had dreams. They had a plan. They had a vision for their lives. They had the ball and they weren’t dropping it. I smiled as I left them. I realized that they would see many things in their lives, many joys, sorrows and disappointments. But I prayed that they’d never lose their ability to fight for what they believed in and when no one else would, to believe in themselves. As I walked away from the future, I understood what it feels like to be an alum for the first time, to see people walking the same path you once walked, and soon faced with the same choices and distractions you were once faced with.
That day I made peace with my past and I let my dream of returning to the campus as a student die.
Agnes Scott taught me everything I needed to know for the time I was there. The experience was a foreshadowing of the life that was to come and this was the prophecy: “You’ll work very hard. There will be many mistakes and also, many achievements. This opportunity is yours to own. Some days will be hard and you’ll wonder how you’ll make it. But all around you, there will be beauty. There will be majestic monuments to human achievement all around you. There will be grassy places for your feet to rest. You’ll see flowers bloom and for all the hard work, the pain and the sacrifice, there will be a beautiful classroom to learn all of your lessons in”.
But greater still is the lesson I learned from the ring itself.
I made it to my sophomore year. I earned the ring.
There were and still are many women who do not earn their degree from Agnes Scott College and there are those who don’t earn a degree at all. But this school recognizes the achievement of beginning. You started here. You made it this far. You earned the ring. No matter where I go in the United States or around the world, if I see this same ring on any woman’s finger, black or white, rich or poor, young or old… you know where she started. We all started at the same place. We’re a part of an elite sisterhood that only takes a ring to confirm. For the first time, I’d experienced a celebration for a good beginning and 15 years later, I’m ready to continue that tradition in my own life.
So yea, I forgot about 15 years of my life. I’m not spending a lot of time trying to remember it either.
If anything, I want to spend the next 15 trying to top it. No, everything I’ve started hasn’t always ended well. But it’s time I started celebrating the triumph that is beginning.
If God can do all of that for a young teenage girl who didn’t even know what she had or how to even begin to be grateful for it, imagine what he can do for a woman who now counts her blessings and names them one by one?
I’m looking forward to my future.
It’s never to late to figure out where you want to be in life and to start again.
Yes, life is hard with baggage…kids, car notes, mortgages, break up’s…
But alums from the school of hard knocks used to tell me on Sunday morning when I was a little girl: “Jesus is a burden bearer and a heavy load sharer”.
It’s never, ever too late to be who He made you to be and who you know you can be.