Mid-Life Crisis: A Literacy Narrative

Mid-life Crisis

            As an older-than-average college student, people often wonder why I am in college at this stage in my life. Jokingly, I blame the 3-strikes program. Three bad marriages and here I am. Raised on a dairy farm outside a no stop-light town, college wasn’t a big priority, especially for girls. Girls were encouraged to get married and start a family over education and a career. In high school we had a career day where we took aptitude tests to determine what career path fit our skills, goals, and personalities. The careers available to women: beautician, secretary, stewardess, nurse, teacher, or stay-at-home mom. I planned to marry well, not have children, and travel. 

            I got pregnant when I was a junior in high school. My parents and I went in to talk to the school counselor before the semester started and inform him of my condition. We also wanted to see if I could still cheer for football since the previous year I had been voted captain of the squad. I also made the squad for boys’ basketball but by then I would be showing. To this, the school counselor, Mr. Ericksrud, stammered he “needed to check into it.” My mom popped up out of her seat and replied “Well, what about the boy that did this? Is he going to still be allowed to participate in sports?” I’m not sure if Mr. Ericksrud was convinced by my mom or Title IX but I was allowed to cheer “as long as I wasn’t showing.” Mom picked up her purse muttering “obviously” as she walked out of the door, followed by me and my dad.

            Even though I was pregnant my parents insisted that I finish high school. Mom volunteered to watch the baby while I attended school. They knew that I would have a better chance to support myself and my child with a high school education. My mom graduated high school but my dad didn’t. In order for my mom to attend high school she had to move into town, living with a family and working for them in exchange for room and board. When in high school she dreamed of one day becoming a journalist, but gave up her career ambitions when she married. Dad was educated in a one-room school house and graduated from the 8th grade. He didn’t get the opportunity to go to high school, as the oldest son he was expected to work on the farm. In spite of the lack of formal schooling Dad, who is retired now, was a successful farmer and served as an advisor on the co-op and township board.

As my baby grew, keeping up with school got more difficult dealing with morning sickness, weight gain, and the need for more sleep. I had two teachers that were very supportive, Mrs. Tigges, who taught home economics, and Mrs. Dorholt who taught English. Mrs. Dorholt was pregnant too, waddling together down the halls we discussed our pregnancies, nutrition, and the book we were both reading, What to Expect When Your Expecting.

            I named my daughter Nicolle but I call her Coley Bean. Born during Easter break, I was in school on Wednesday and had her Thursday. Growing up I read her a lot of the same books my mom read to me, Mother Goose, the Three Little Kittens plus lots of Dr. Seuss. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish… My step-sons from my second marriage, Aaron, Ben, and Max, loved Dr. Seuss too. And every night at bedtime we read Good Night Moon. The tradition continued with my step-children from my third marriage, Chelsey,Brandon, and Cierra. Even Chelsey curled up with us sometimes, although, she pretended that she wasn’t listening, as she was 13 and thought she was too grown up for bedtime stories.

            The stories helped Brandon’s reading. I would read a page and he would read the next. Sometimes Cierra, age 4, would remember the story and she would read it to us. Yet, Brandon’s reading level wasn’t up to second grade standards. Everyday after school Brandon did his homework while I made supper. His frustration was extreme. I tried to be encouraging telling him “you can do this” and “you’re getting better everyday!” I kept telling him that one day everything is just going to click and when you look at a word you’re just going to know what it is.

Since Brandon struggled with reading he also struggled with writing and basic spelling. Every Monday they had a spelling test on 10 words, and those same words would be tested on Friday. If a student got them all right on Monday they didn’t have to take the test on Friday. Brandonnever got them all right. But after studying through out the week Brandon was elated to bring home his very first, all-10-right spelling test; a turning point for Brandon.  I hung the test on the ‘frig. Then one Friday, he came home — shoulders hunched, head down, feet dragging. He got two wrong on his spelling test. I hung the test up. Brandon asked “Why are you hanging that up? I got 2 wrong.” I answered “You got 8-right!” His reading gradually improved too. Little by little he gained confidence. I am an avid reader and one day Brandonnoticed the book I was reading. He grinned and asked “What are you reading? Is that book about sex?!” I leaned in, winked, and whispered, “Brandon — you’re reading” and snatched away my copy of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City.

Looking back I realize now that my experience with Brandon played into my decision to become a teacher. But much earlier, right after high school, I needed to quickly get a career to support myself and my daughter so I went to Wadena Technical College for secretarial. My first job was for a company that wrote text books on training the physically handicapped. My duties included answering the phones, shipping out textbooks, and typesetting from their manuscripts on a word processor. Their word processor was state of the art for the time. It was huge and the only function, word processing.

My first husband was a Marine, so we traveled a lot and I took a variety of jobs. While living in Yuma, AZ I worked as a typesetter at Sandy’s Shopper, a free publication of little fluff- pieces and local ads. The typesetter printed out on a roll of photographic paper. Unlike word processing there was no way to make corrections without retyping the word, then manually cutting and pasting the text while assembling the paper. Compared to the big ole’ word processer at my previous job manually removing errors was difficult and time consuming.

After we divorced, my daughter Coley and I returned to Minnesota where I got a job working as a telephone answering service operator at the East Otter Tail Telephone Company. I advanced to customer service with Tekstar, the cable portion of the company. After deregulation, they renamed under the umbrella of Arvig Communication Systems (ACS). During the 15 years I worked atACSI wrote a lot: letters, memos, service orders, and employee profiles for the company newsletter. When voice mail was added as an option, every employee from the janitor to the President was required to learn how to use it in order to educate our customers. As part of the customer service department, I helped with training. Later I moved to the repair department keeping plant records on the computer system with paper back-up.

All of these past experiences in my life have brought me to where I am now. Happily divorced and looking for a change in my life I decided to quit my job and go to college. This is my mid-life crisis. When I first started I didn’t even have a major in mind. My dad thought I was making a huge mistake “spending money on college at your age” and suggested, “Fix yourself up, find a new man, and get married again.” I’m thinking “Again?! Ahhhh NO!”

My second year at NDSU my advisor suggested I take an intro to teaching class. Truthfully, I had thought about teaching but I had avoided it. Not because of the low pay, but I was associating teaching with those old stereotypically female careers and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into another “woman as nurturer” role. I had already been a mom, and a step-mom. I had worked as a secretary for over 20 years. Weren’t there more opportunities for women in this day and age? I took the class. I thought back to my life experiences and I realized I had been a teacher all my life. I taught my daughter, my step-children, customers, and my co-workers. When I declared my intended major in English education I knew I was home. Now it’s my last year at NDSU before I student teach and I’m anxious to get back to the “real world”. The career I have chosen is the perfect fit for me. No longer do I feel there are little choices available to women –or anyone for that matter.

The United States educational system is experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis of its own right now with calls for education reform and the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. Graduating seniors need to be college and career ready. The fast pace of changing technology and the costs associated with keeping up with it are yet another concern. Students need to be proficient in new forms of literacy involving computer and internet use. Technology will continue to change and we all must continue to adapt to it. The changes I have seen since I attended high school are amazing and advances in technology and new literacy are important skills that students need for the future.

Technology has changed so much. I wrote this on my laptop while thinking back to the first word processor I trained on at tech school; it was larger than the desk I’m working at. The computer system we took messages on for the answering service date and time stamped each message as we typed the caller’s message in, to be read back to the customer when they checked-in. I remember being so excited when they finally added word wrap, something most of us take for granted. While a customer service representative we typed service orders on an electric typewriter that had auto-correct but unfortunately it couldn’t correct the 2 carbon copies underneath. When I was in the repair department ACS went “paperless,” although we kept a paper back-up of everything. Just in case.

Other things continue to change as well. My daughter moved back in with me and is expecting a baby this spring. That’s right; I’m going to be a grandma. I’m going to read to my grandchild. We are going to snuggle up together and read Mother Goose, Good Night Moon, Dr. Seuss, and the Three Little Kittens. I think my mid-life crisis is over.

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