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When I was 16, I made a stupid mistake. I quit high school in my junior year. Why? I don’t know.

Maybe it was because my best girlfriend had dropped out and I missed her. Maybe it was because I was not socially popular at the all-girls school. Maybe I wanted to play grown-up and get a job and make money. 

Maybe I was interested in meeting boys. 

My parents were hardworking European immigrants whose only expectations for me were marriage. Girls in my social class at that time were not expected to go to college. It wasn’t because I wasn’t a good student. I was. My teachers all tried to talk me out of it and warned me that I would regret it. But I was stubborn. And later I did regret it.

I did marry at 20 and had two children. By the time my older daughter was 13 and my younger daughter reached 7and was safely in school, I had an overwhelming passion to make up for my foolish decision. I was determined that whatever it took I was going to make myself eligible for college. 

I was 35. My friends thought I was out of my mind. Do you realize that when, and if, you graduate you will be 40? Well, it would be better to be 40 with a degree than without it.

I started on my path. I found out what the requirements were to be accepted at Hunter College, which was within walking distance of where I lived. Hunter College is a branch of The City University of New York. Back then it was tuition-free except for books and registration. There was an entrance exam to be passed. The high school requirements were very specific. Four years of English, three years of history, two years of algebra, three years of a foreign language, two years of science (one of biological science and another of physical science.) That meant that I had to acquire one year of English, one of history, one of intermediate algebra, one of French and one of chemistry.

I was fortunate that there was a private night school right on the corner. I enrolled. It had been 20 years since I had been in school. Intermediate algebra? I bought a book at the college book store even before I enrolled in night school and started on page one and did each lesson conscientiously until I finished the book. I passed the intermediate algebra class with an A. English and history were no problem. I passed the regents exams with flying colors.

I took French III, and 20 years after French II and lots of studying my French verbs, I did well. My French teacher was a rotund gentleman with a white beard who was in his 80s. He had been a college professor of languages before retiring. He was lonely and took this job just to have something to do. The trouble was that he was in love with me. He would greet me at the door and kiss my hand and say, “Madame!” During tests he would drop notes on my desk giving me answers (not that I needed them).

But chemistry was another matter. It was rough going for me and finally I dropped it. I thought I would have to take it again. But when I received my report card at the end of the semester I saw that I had passed chemistry with a B. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I suspect that my French admirer had something to do with it. 

I said nothing and submitted my grades to Hunter College and sent in my application. I then took the entrance exam and did well. I was accepted. 

I went on to my four years of college full time. I arranged my schedule so that I was always home when my children returned from school. I stayed up nights finishing papers and studied when and wherever I could. It was a great and wonderful adventure.

When I was in my senior year, my 18-year-old daughter enrolled in the same college as a freshman. We often passed each other in the hall. I assured her that it was OK if she was too embarrassed to speak to me. She said that she was proud to have me for a mother. I graduated on my 40th birthday.

I taught preschool for a time and then moved to Arizona. I enrolled in Arizona State University and earned my master’s degree. I worked for the Phoenix Union High School District as a high school teacher for 10 years and as a guidance counselor for eight years.

My years of study paid off. It changed my life. I will always be glad that I gave birth to my dream. I’ve always so valued my education, perhaps more so because I got it through my own efforts and determination when I was mature enough to appreciate it. 

I thank luck for arranging to have just the perfect location for the perfect school to be able to make up the high school credits I lacked, for having Hunter College so nearby and free, for a certain dear French teacher who mysteriously got me a passing grade in chemistry, and for my husband who supported me and encouraged me in every way.

Georgiana Palmer

Georgiana Palmer worked for much of her career as a special education teacher and high school guidance counselor.

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