Another View #122 Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
Nov. 24, 2014
College, completion, encouragement – and Mom
Before the year ends, facing my first Thanksgiving with Mom no longer here, a few words of thanks.
For dinner on Thanksgiving Day, I sat on her right—at one end of the dinner table—with brother Hank across from me on her left, our sisters at the other end near Dad. She reached out her right hand, I took it in my left, and Dad said a Thanksgiving prayer. Which often included a compliment to the cook, i.e. Mom … and a sweet, sentimental word or two about her. After our collective “Amen,” we’d glance her way. Sure enough, she was teary-eyed—and smiling.
No hand to hold anymore. And yet I treasure a lifetime of Mom reaching out to hold my hand. In ways I know are rare. For which I never thanked her enough. “Thank you thank you” were the words that came so easily from my heart, when she could still hear us and approached her death last May.
Getting that college degree
Retention rate – or persistence rate?
At UC-D’s School of Public Affairs session on Higher Education Access & Success for Underrepresented Students in Colorado (9/29/14), Dr. Nate Easley, Executive Director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, asked if we shouldn’t stress the persistence to get that degree—even if not at the college where we matriculate.
I have been fortunate to participate with the Colorado chapters of both College Track and College Summit the past few years, two programs supporting high school students—many of them the first in their family to head off to college. A central goal is not only to see that 18-year-old get accepted and matriculate, but graduate. Especially from a four-year program.
Which brings me back to Mom. Since it took me eight years.
The student and educator in me knows a young person needs encouragement. A person who says: I’m with you, I know you can do it, don’t quit, keep working. I hope I have given some of that encouragement to the young people I have worked with during my life.
Some—a few I have known the past few years tutoring College Track’s high school students in Aurora (several of whom I thank on these pages—see below)—seem to have a clarity of purpose—at age 16 or
Luis - junior
Thank you. As a freshman two years ago you struck me as either bored or indifferent. A College Track tutor sent me a note: “He’s a smart kind but lacks a lot of motivation and confidence so celebrating small victories will be huge for him.” I wrote about you in AV#101 (using another name), questioning why a student as capable as you had spent that first year in a low-level English class, where your class, as I wrote, “was not asked to read one book together throughout the year.”
But something began to click by sophomore year. Now a junior—in AP Language—you continue to demonstrate a terrific mind and an exceptional willingness to wrestle with the topics you are asked to write about. It is a real pleasure to go over a paper with you; you set a high standard for yourself, and it is a thrill to hear your English teacher this year has praised your good work. Thank you for showing such curiosity, such a thirst to learn. And, I must add—because you have shared with me what you find foolish, or wrong, about the education system—thank you for not becoming so cynical that you won’t try your best.
17—that I lost at one point during college. Several of these juniors and seniors at Rangeview High have teachers, parents, and the wonderful College Track staff encouraging them and cheering for them, and yet they give me the sense that they will do well with or without us. They have an air about them that says: I’m grateful for the help, but actually, one way or another, I am going to get there. I will accomplish my goals. Nothing will stop me.
Perhaps I didn’t have that backbone, that focus, that drive. Or—as I lost my religious faith halfway through college, when I had thought I would enter the ministry—perhaps more was going on that sent me reeling for a few years, unsure what to believe. “No direction home,” as Bob Dylan put it.
Leading to many years in and out of two colleges. Washing dishes, pounding nails, feeding cows and chickens—in three different countries. Living out of the VW van one summer. Reading and writing, but wandering … often determined NOT to go back to complete my degree. I couldn’t see why.
Before our service for Mom this past summer I re-read her many many letters to me. Her unfailing support—given in person, often in phone calls, but again and again in her letters—makes me eager to thank her once more, here. And for a larger reason: to stress how much some of us need this kind of bucking up. As our College Track seniors from Rangeview head off to college next fall (see Lena, below), as the College Summit seniors I worked with last summer do the same (see page 3), a few will likely need an adult or two who stands by them, through thick and thin, to buck them up too.
Excerpts from Mom’s letters
1968-69 (sophomore year):
“Hope the courses are getting caught up and that everything’s going well.”
Nov. 11, 1968
“Come home if you can before Turkey Day but only if you can do it without giving up work that’s essential. Mustn’t let the studies slip, Pete, even if the whole thing may sometimes seem a bit futile – remember you are building that base from which you can do more & more.”
Lena - senior
Thank you. As a freshman three years ago I was asked to work one-on-one with you. You were in an extra English class to help you catch up, I guess, and/or because of the dyslexia. I could see that reading itself wasn’t your way. But you were so bright and eager, and you had already learned to listen to many books on tape, and thank you—sort of!—for retelling the plots of several Catherine Coulter novels you had nearly memorized. That amazing memory of yours soon had you quoting lines from Romeo and Juliet that we read together. Your mind worked so fast and your ramblings—excuse me, your monologues which went on at length!—were so entertaining and vivid; it grew clear to us that your potential made that low-level English class a poor fit. I watched so much determination and commitment to the program when you were a sophomore and junior that I was not surprised to find you taking classes at CU-Boulder last summer. But what a thrill to learn this fall that CU had accepted you for next year! As did Regis University! Thank you for your spunk and your independent spirit; thank you for your smile, your sense of humor—and your ever changing hair styles and color! Thank you for your desire to GO PLACES (especially England), thank you for believing in yourself when there were doubters who could have stood in your way …. And thanks to your mom, and grandma—picking you up at 7 p.m.—
for being there for you (reading this, perhaps you can see why I mention it). Don’t forget to thank them too!
Winter ’68-’69: I had received incompletes from the fall semester and so had papers long overdue:
“… good luck on the writing during the next couple of weeks – & hope the next term will be almost as challenging as the last one.”
I re-read that a couple of times. Yes, she actually DID want me to be challenged!
In 1945 my father left high school early to join the war; my mom was earning her degree in art history at Vassar—in three years!—class of ’46. She was the one who saw the point—even when I could not.
“Think of your worries a lot & hope so much you can straighten the whole difficulty out & feel less confused. Just remember how important it is to get the foundation built before the house can go up!”
Philip Roth’s novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (published 1969), was part of the buzz that year. I doubt Mom read it, but she knew enough of its contents to toss this in at the end of one letter.
“Hope it all goes well for you, Peter – take each day at a time if you can & don’t worry about the day before or look to the future with too much concern- then it’ll be a little easier.
Love ya, honeybun – Mrs Portnoy”
March 1970 – I had (sort of) completed fall semester and made plans to study in a religious community in Switzerland for the spring term. But—for the third straight term—I received incompletes and had papers to write in order to earn a grade. My parents made me postpone my departure until I had turned in all my overdue essays for those fall classes. Mom’s first letter to me over there:
“Am so happy for you too that you left after all the work was done – it was the right thing & you seemed like a new man that day when you left. What a lift to have everything fini!!”
I began to share doubts about my faith in letters home from Switzerland. Mom replied:
“Feel this letter hasn’t really said anything – but hope you know thoughts go deeper than words – and sometimes it’s not easy to express everything that’s in the heart. Just know I’m praying that all will be just great for you, Pete … & I’m sure God is with you and helping you. Don’t let your doubts assail – God will prevail! All our love – Mum”
I came home, earned a 0 (yes, zero) for that semester abroad, and did not return to Trinity College.
Alina, Amado, Amy, Anallely, and Bella - seniors at Sheridan High and Abraham Lincoln High
Thank you for the chance to spend a weekend with you at the College Summit program at the University of Northern Colorado last June as you produced a draft of your college essay. Thanks for your trust, opening up to each other—and to this old guy, a stranger—about challenges you have faced. Thank you for the honesty in your voice—in our conversations, and in your writing—enabling you to reveal to college admissions officers a sense your strengths and your character. I still see the images you created in your drafts: the commitment involved in being on that volleyball team; that moment sophomore year you began “to make decisions for myself, and not because others expected me to”; the confidence gained after that nerve-wracking experience in the state cheerleading competition; the impact you had on that scared boy in summer camp—who, in turn, gave you a lesson in courage; and the remarkable description of a day in your life that made me sad—no teenager should have to carry such a burden, I thought—and yet an account revealing such love and resilience that it left me so proud to know you …. Thank you. You gave me—as the rest of the 42 DPS seniors gave all 10 writing coaches that weekend—a glimpse into your world, and it made all of us your cheerleaders. We keep thinking of you, and we are pulling for you now. After that letter of acceptance arrives this winter or spring, may the journey begin!
Fall, 1971 – Mom writes of one of my sisters, finding it “difficult to help” a good friend of hers going through a rough time. Mom went on:
“I think we all know that–people outside one’s own self just can’t quite get under one’s skin to know and thoroughly empathize. Feel that is true with ____ (her mom, struggling with mental health issues)—& also has been with you too–much as the desire to help is 100%!”
Empathy. There it is. She did all she could to put herself in my shoes, and—as much as I could be a mystery to my parents—(ever seen a young man ever really open up to Mom and Dad?), she let me know I was loved and that my parents had not lost faith in me.
I am not proud of the young man who is on the other end of this correspondence. I must have done a pathetic amount of complaining in my letters and phone calls. (Perhaps the most frequent line in her letters from those days: “I hope you’ll be feeling better soon…”).
But I am proud of—and deeply grateful to—my mom and dad for their patience, their ability to let me stumble on—less worried that I get a degree, than that I first get my feet on the ground. They never insisted that I go back to college until it made sense for me. Once I had a purpose.
One more letter of encouragement – from a grandmother
After three years away from college I returned, telling my family I could see myself teaching, which brought a beautiful (and nearly the last) letter from my dad’s mom–who passed away that winter:
“What good news your mother gave me this morning! Congratulations and may the days ahead at Trinity be happy ones. Everything seems to point to a teacher in the family and you will make a good one … I am happy for all your family, too, Pete. What a good Thanksgiving Day you will all celebrate. Pretend I am with you and in my heart I will be.”
At 23, we have little idea of the number of relatives paying attention to our trips and falls, hoping at some point we will figure out our path and get going. Their cheerleading matters too.
I am glad Granny did not have to witness the next two years—as I dropped out again, another college…. But the point is – the support was always there. Undeserved, but necessary. There is no way I would have reached the finish line—four years after my classmates!—without it.
In short, few of us make it alone.
To the 48 seniors in College Tack, and the many seniors College Summit is serving in Denver, we send our best wishes as you seek acceptance at the college of your choice. May the fall of 2015 find you beginning a truly successful four-year college experience!
And should there be bumps on the road, and if it should take more than four years to get that degree, may you have a parent, a friend, or an angel to encourage you to hang in there and go forward!
If you are truly lucky, like me—once more, THANK YOU MOM!—you will have all three.
Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 / firstname.lastname@example.org