The day my parents drove my twin sister and I downstate for our first year of college, my parents were sad and happy for us at the same time. Their happiness, however, wasn’t primarily caused by the fact that we were the first out of our siblings (we were two of five children in the family) to attend college.
It was because our electricity had been shut off, and they were happy that we would be going somewhere where we wouldn’t have to sit in the dark every night.
They drove us downstate (a four hour drive one-way) in an old, faded red Pontiac that had a tendency to overheat. I didn’t realize until years afterwards that getting the gas money for that eight-hour trip was probably overextending our already overextended budget.
When I was in high school, my family was poor. We weren’t impoverished; just poor. Six people living on the top floor of a house that had been converted into a three-bedroom apartment. Parents working their tails off to feed us, clothe us, pay our school fees, shuttle us to our activities, and deal with our over-the-top teenage drama. They set good examples for us most definitely–teaching us that if we were ever to get the fancy jobs and lives we wanted, we were going to have to work our tails off, too. But we would have to work at school, getting the grades needed to get the scholarships and grants that would get us through school. Those scholarships and grants would have to get us there, my parents told us. There was no way they could pay for our tuition.
And work we did. I took the AP classes, the honors classes, pulled too many all-nighters studying for tests and writing essays and making projects. My twin and I were lucky enough to have an excellent school counselor who, even when she had a caseload of hundreds of students, knew our family enough to call me down to the guidance office during my senior year to shove a FAFSA form into my hand, look me straight in the eye and say very firmly, “Fill this out. You deserve to go.” And I did go. To a small private college where my tuition was paid completely with grants and scholarships for the first three years. My hard work paid off.
The work ethic that was burned in me during that period of my life has stayed with me. It has been both a blessing and a curse, however. The blessing part is obvious; the curse is that I tend to assume everyone else around me has the same work ethic I do or that they should work just as hard as I do at whatever it is we’re doing. As a consequence I push people around me hard at times, whether it be my direct colleagues, the staff at my school district, or my long-suffering husband.
I’m resolved to be more aware of when I’m pushing people too hard. It’s a life-long habit that I need to put in better balance. But I’m also resolved never to stop pushing. Because when the pressure stops, it gets easier…but we also tend to stop getting better.