By: T. J. Rutherford
The end of graduate school is so near, and for the first time, I am contemplating what it will be like when it’s all over. I’ve ordered my cap and gown for the big day: May 8, 2010, at 10 a.m. I am graduating with highest honors–in the top 10 percent of the university.
I need to explain what this means to me. I am not trying to garner any praise or sympathy; I only seek to explain why graduating at the top of my class is such a big deal for me.
Growing up, my parents struggled—with addiction, including drugs and alcoholism, as well as with each other. They did the best they could, and the five children they brought into the world were often left to fend for themselves. My siblings and I fell into the classic roles of the alcoholic family. I was the family hero, and the lost child—depending on what day it was. My late brother—the scapegoat—died homeless, addicted, and alone. My baby sister was the lost child on a full-time basis. She died addicted, in subsidized housing, and alone. My oldest siblings are successful adults who survived, in part, because they were born early, when our parents were young and not quite such a mess, yet.
I was the second youngest (number 4 in the birth order) between my two deceased siblings. I was smart, thoughtful, and filled with empathy. I remember even as a very young girl, wanting to know what made people tick—what made them happy and sad. I wanted to know what was going wrong as well as what was going right in their lives. Today, I understand that I was trying to make sense of my crazy world, but back then I had no clue what drove me to be so inquisitive.
In school, I read every book I could get my hands on. I once won the class reading award in elementary school, and I was so surprised because no one ever told me about it, and I was not trying to win. I just loved to read. I never had any guidance. My homework was never checked, and my parents were unaware of what I needed to do, what I was learning, or how I was doing. They were caught up in their own lives, and we were sort of incidental. I’m not saying we were unloved. I believe my parents loved us. They just weren’t as interested in being parents as they were in paying for the house, the kids, and the bills. They were making a living, and we were making it more difficult for them to do that.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a suitcase full of good memories from my childhood. It’s right there next to the many cedar chests that are filled with the not-so-great ones. I have healed most of that stuff, and I don’t want to belabor the past. The biggest regret for me was that my parents could not be there for me. I was a bit of an over-achiever, and I was involved in theater and sports and journalism and speech. I was the kid whose parents never came. I was the sad sack on the stage looking out into the crowd, hoping, wishing, that maybe, just maybe this time they had come to see, to hear, to watch me.
Perhaps more than lamenting that type of neglect, I regret that they were not there to guide me along in life. To look at what I was doing, to check my homework, to make sure I was heading down the right, or at least not the wrong, path. I also believe that every step I have taken was the the one I needed to take. By the time I reached college, I was pretty independent. I was truly on my own then, and you might just say I enjoyed that freedom a little too much at times. As a result of that, I didn’t get the best grades in college. I was very involved on campus with the student newspaper, and I also chaired the speaker’s series where we featured people on campus such as Dan Rather, Gloria Steinem, and Leo Buscaglia, to name a few.
But I never really had the study skills that I needed to earn top grades. I was just smart enough to pull most of it off. The rest was a struggle, and I earned some low grades. I never understood that to get good grades, you had to do the work. I never learned that. I guessed at a lot of stuff in life and, you know, you just can’t guess at calculus and advanced business geography (whatever that was).
Fast forward to Spring 2008. I was applying for graduate school at age 48. I was told I had to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). I was nervous, to put it mildly. However, I was older, and a bit wiser, and I knew that I had to study to pass that thing. So, for the first time in my life, I taught myself how to study. I bought index cards and the GRE for Dummies workbook (I highly recommend it, by the way). I studied day and night for months, and I passed! I knew right then and there that I could do this: I could go to graduate school. This has been quite a trip for me. Writing has never been a problem for me, so that was a blessing when it came to papers. It was the exams that were my biggest challenge. And, if I studied, I did very well. I will admit, I studied for every exam I took in graduate school. I may not have studied long or hard enough, but I always studied, and that is a huge change from my early training (or lack thereof).
So, to graduate at the top of the school, and at the top of the class, is a really big deal for me. I fear I may come off as a braggart, and what I know is that is the last thing I am. I could have easily taken the road that my sister and brother chose. I even walked that road for a while. But I believe that there was always another choice, a different choice, for me.
I also know that others, including my future clients, have choices, too. I know that the experiences I have had, as well as the choices I have made, have given me the strength I need to work with others, and my hope is that I will be guided, just as I always have been, by a Source much greater than I will ever be, to carefully and mindfully take the hand of another and help them to help themselves.
T. J. Rutherford is in her final semester of graduate school, where she is earning a master’s degree in social work. She left her job as Assistant Editor and Web Manager at a city magazine in August 2009 to become a full-time student. She shares her life with her husband and an eleven-year-old rescue dog. Read more about her day-to-day grad school experiences at THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER’s blog at http://blog.socialworker.com.
This article is from the Spring 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2010 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.