After twenty-eight years of teaching high school, I decided to take early retirement. Playing golf or bingo was not part of my post-retirement plans. My wife Erica and I were going to take a long vacation abroad, and then I would find a part-time job, and Erica would continue her work with a local charity organization. But the unexpected happened; my wife passed away soon after my retirement. We had no children.
For me, a widower in his early 50's, the best therapy was to work, sitting alone in a empty house was not a very good idea. Soon, I found a part-time clerical job, evening shift, thirty hours a week. As things turned out, I really made a very good decision. The job kept me busy, the work environment was fine, and I was among other people; a group of likable co-workers.
The most likable person in the place was Brenda, a nineteen year-old college student. During breaks, I noticed her right away because she was so sociable, and she could carry a conversation with anyone, young and old. She was someone who apparently never heard of the concept of a ''generation gap."
During a break, when I was having coffee and a generous slice of cheesecake, she came to my table, sat with me, and introduced herself. She said, "I love cheesecake, my favorite besides flan." I said, "I'm willing to share." She said, "Okay, let me sample it." That's how we began to talk on a regular basis during breaks. I wondered why she did that; she could have mixed more with people her own age. The only explanation I could come up with was that she saw or she sensed my loneliness. She wasn't going to allow that; it was an anomaly to her.
Next time, I told her I was a former teacher, and she was very interested in my experiences as an educator. I told her I had enjoyed my profession, but high school had a way of aging people prematurely. She laughed and she said, "I made an early exit myself, I was seventeen when I graduated from high school."
"Impressive. What was your secret?"
"No secret. I paid attention, did my homework, did not miss classes, review my notes before a test, and I did not obsess about getting all A's. A's and B's were OK."
"You cultivated good study habits; but Brenda, high school is more than that."
"I know. I chose not to get involved in extra-curricular activities. I had friends, but I wasn't concerned about popularity, and I didn't belong to any cliques. I didn't feel the need for all of that."
We went back to work, but our conversations continued in the following weeks.
Brenda told me she was a Criminal Justice major at San Antonio College, a two-year institution.
"Are you the first one to go to college in your family?" I asked her.
"No, my elder brother was the first one. He attended college for one year, but only took courses that interested him, Accounting, Math, and Computers. Then he joined the Air Force. He is the first one to be away from our family. Not too far away though; he is stationed in New Mexico. He promised himself he would earn a degree when he gets out of the service. He visits often, us and his girlfriend."
"So, you are going to be the first one to graduate from college in your family."
"It looks that way, yes."
The end of the Spring Semester was approaching when Brenda told me, "Mark, I so happy, in the summer I will be doing an internship with the Sheriff Department. I have completed all the courses in my major that I need to transfer a 4-year institution, but I'm short two electives to get the A. A. degree. What do you think? Is it important to actually graduate? Does it really matter?"
"Well, keeping in mind that it is my opinion, I have a short answer and a long one. Which one do you want to hear?"
"I would like to hear both, but give me the short one first."
"Yeah, we only have time for the short answer right now. Tomorrow I'll give the long answer."
"Sounds good to me."
"Would you be able to do your internship and take those two courses in the summer?"
"It could be arranged, yes, I could do it."
"I think you should take those two courses, and you should get your Associate of Arts degree. Your diploma will represent two years of your life; il will be a reminder of your good work and efforts. Now, let's get back to work."
Brenda smiled, and said "Thank you, Mark, so tomorrow I'll get the long answer, right?" I said yes.
The next day, on the way to the cafeteria, Brenda told me to save a table for us, and that she would take care of the coffee and some snacks. I obediently headed for our favorite table. Brenda arrived with a tray containing two coffees (French Dark Roast), and two pieces of cheesecake, with strawberries on top. Like an efficient food server, she placed all the items on the table, and set aside the tray. Then, she primly sat like a good little girl ready to be instructed. She made me laugh, like I had not laughed in a long time. Without any preamble, I started my long answer to her questions.
"I graduated from Foothill College, a two-year institution. That meant a lot to me, but that was not the case for many of my classmates. The college is near Stanford University, and in the Bay Area, you have Berkeley and Santa Clara, among several others. Some students took all the transfer courses they needed, but didn't bother to apply for graduation. Others spent one year at Foothill, and if and when they got admitted to Berkeley or Stanford, they would be gone. I suspect that many of those folks would never admit having attended Foothill, or put that in their resumes.
"There was a prevailing bias against attending a junior college, as they were called back then. A belief that those attending one of these colleges was for people who couldn't make the grade. Biases still exist. Nowadays there is a push for everybody to get a college education, with students getting useless bachelor's degrees, with useless majors. Have you noticed that they are not even talking about attending a community college?
"So, I went to Foothill, and then San Francisco State, and I did fine, and I didn't get into a massive debt. I guess that's why I like what you are doing, Brenda. You are following the same path that I did, and you will do fine also."
"Thank you, Mark. This helps me a lot. Before I forget, I told my parents about you, and our conversations. They would like to meet you. We are having a family barbecue this coming Saturday. You are invited."
"I am not in a position to refuse an invitation like that. Count me in."
Saturday came, and I arrived at the barbecue at the designated time, on the dot. I learned what Brenda really meant by 'family barbecue." Three generations living in the same household, and numerous relatives living in the same neighborhood. This was a family of humble origins. Brenda's grandparents had been agricultural workers. Her father was a landscaper and gardener. They were all so pleased to meet me. Ana, Brenda's mother, told me that she and her husband were very happy that I had provided guidance to their daughter. All they wanted for Brenda, and the rest of their children, was for them to get a better education than they did. Ana and Pablo, her husband, had no specific suggestions or demands; after all, they were not exactly experts in the matter, they said.
The food was excellent and the company was great. I like to play pool, and lo and behold, they had a pool table! I also like soccer, and they had a television channel dedicated just for that sport. Needless to say, I had a great time. They told me to come back to visit anytime, and I took them up on it, rather frequently, I would say.
I realized that when I met Brenda it was like the meeting of two different worlds. Those two worlds did not collide, but coalesced. I came from a world of nuclear families, and Brenda came from a world of extended families. In her world there was togetherness, inclusion of the older generations, no "empty nests," and no such thing as "going away to college." At least in my case, the independence that results from the nuclear family setup only led to isolation and loneliness.
On Monday, Brenda told me, "Wow, you know what? You fit right in with my family. It looks like you like my family more than you like me." There was no jealousy in her statement; she was smiling, she was happy for me.
I responded, " I like your family as much as I like you, Brenda. I like your family for the way they raised you, and because they have been so kind and friendly to me. I'm so thankful for the day I met you."
"I feel the same way. Stick with us, Mark."
"I most certainly will."
I attended, along with her family, Brenda's graduation. Her future was full of possibilities, law enforcement, public service, social work, law school, and so on. Whichever path she took, she would do very well. I was so proud of her. She was, and still is, the daughter I never had.