Magin LaSov Gregg is an assistant English professor at Frederick Community College.
While my mother waited for a lifesaving organ transplant, she went to community college. She pursued both an associate of arts degree and a career certification. As a single parent suffering the long-term effects of juvenile diabetes, she had to abandon a nursing career she loved. She needed to find a new career to support two daughters on the verge of adolescence.
Sometimes, I went to school with her. I’d sit in the hallway outside her classroom and do my homework. I’d hear my mother ask questions and respond to those of her professor. I’d hear her peers praise her ideas. As her voice grew stronger, I heard the return of the confidence she’d lost in an abusive marriage. She no longer shied away from expressing her opinions.
At home, we’d do our homework together, our books spread out on her queen-size bed. I loved seeing my mother’s loose-leaf binders and the notes she took in class, especially the pages where she doodled my and my sister’s names in giant bubble letters along the margins. On many nights, the sound of her typewriter lulled me to sleep.
There were also bad days when my mother felt so sick she couldn’t get out of bed. But she’d tell my sister and me that we could not give up on our goals, even when we suffered setbacks. If we felt like staying home from school, she’d send us anyway.
“You’ll feel better once you get there,” my mother liked to say. She was usually correct.
Despite tremendous odds, she kept going, too. She graduated from community college on June 5, 1994. That same day, a Baltimore man died after being beaten. His mother made the decision to donate his organs, and my mother received his kidney and pancreas on June 6. Her surgery and newly completed education transformed her in every sense of the word. I bore the fruits of that transformation by graduating in the top 10 percent of my high school class and earning a spot at my first-choice college.
I spent my girlhood fearing my mother’s death. Her return to health when I was a teenager freed me to focus on my own goals. But my mother would not see me achieve them. She died from an insulin reaction in 2002, three months after her body rejected her donor organs. I received my bachelor’s degree a year later — on Mother’s Day 2003. While I no longer had the physical presence of my mother to guide me, I had her legacy. Her perseverance. I kept going.
I completed my education thanks to scholarships, grants and student loans. As an undergraduate, I paid my rent and bills by working part-time jobs. I now have two advanced degrees and no educational debt. And as a community college professor, I have meaningful work that fulfills and challenges me, and each year it provides opportunity to countless deserving people.
I used to think I would give it all back in exchange for my mother’s life.Now I see that things are not so simple. I learned that my mother’s life, and not her death, could animate me. I came to see my career as the monument I built to her. I honor her legacy by teaching my students the skills they need to achieve academic and career success, and by instilling in them the belief that they are worthy of these achievements.
I tell my students: There will be days when you feel like staying home. Come to class anyway. You’ll feel better once you get here. You can do this.
My students are often like me: hardworking, juggling work and family, trying to pay the rent and striving to make their families proud. They are also often like my mother, battling chronic illness, overcoming the wounds of domestic violence and navigating the stress of single parenthood. They dream of owning homes, finding meaningful careers and paying forward what was given to them.
Among these students are those who face hardships of hunger and homelessness. These are the ones who keep me up at night. These are the students who daily fight their way from the margins of society to its center and whose walk toward graduation is tenuous.
I tell this story today in part because community college has been in the news since President Obama announced his plan to make it free for all students. “No one with drive and ambition should be left out,” the president said, and I agree wholeheartedly. Too many students are denied opportunity because of financial need in a nation where college could be accessible to all hardworking people. They deserve to see their lives transformed by education and to transform the world in turn.
Just like I do. Just like my mother did. Just like our nation at its best has always done.