Focusing on the Simplest Positives Can Get You through Anything
I am the oldest of three children and often feel like a mother to my brother and sister, even to this day. My mom and dad had a very physically and emotionally abusive relationship, with life-threatening and hospital-inducing fights for as far back as I can remember. There was always some combination of bruises, broken bones, tears, screams, secrets, and fear at home. As little kids, we would hide under the bed, behind the couch, or stay outside during these fights when we could. Sometimes we weren’t lucky enough to find a hiding place. Being the oldest child of abusive parents, I grew up extremely quickly, sheltering the youngest sibling, my sister, as much as possible. Unfortunately, my brother was beaten by both my mom and dad, while I suffered emotional abuse.
I found refuge in books. On weekends, you could find me sitting in a grassy, sunny backyard reading classic novels and poetry. On the Internet, I found a Harvard reading list and checked out those books from the library. If I ever had extra money from doing chores for neighbors or babysitting, I would buy books from bookstores. Even as a little kid, I loved Charlotte Bronte, Ernest Hemingway, and Emily Dickinson. I am so grateful for those times when I had access to books, small escapes from pandemonium.
By age nine, I had changed schools every single grade – constantly starting over in a confusing and overwhelming environment. The summer of my ninth year, my dad committed suicide, and my mom remarried two weeks later. We moved from Georgia to California, where I entered fifth grade. Starting then, I became largely responsible for raising my brother and sister in the midst of malfunction and adversity. My mom was no longer reliably present in our lives, so I learned the daily tasks of how to prepare meals, find transportation to school, and help my brother and sister with tutoring and homework.
A very tortured kid, I had a difficult time making friends, had a poor memory, was always in bad health, and was suffering from a major depressive episode without anyone to talk to. Fortunately, my new fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Richards, took an interest in me and changed my life. I became extremely active in school and maintained straight As without any help at home, all the way through middle school.
But the work became more difficult in high school, and although I wanted to go to college, I had no guidance or support. My mom quit school after the eighth grade. She had also fallen into alcoholism and drug addiction, divorcing her third husband and making extremely poor decisions in dating. There were too many new men around, too much chaos.
“My biggest obstacle in high school was learning how and when to get help.”
When I left the classroom at the end of the day and on weekends, I had few tools for success and thought the smallest challenges were impossible. I often did not have computer access, transportation, or even a safe place to sleep. I thought everyone had problems like mine, and my biggest obstacle was learning who to ask and how to get help. Desperate to earn the grades I had been used to, I confided in my tenth grade humanities teacher, Mr. Coulsby. He guided me to sources and people who could support me in getting the things I needed, and I began to develop and grow.
I graduated from high school with honors and earned a Bachelor’s degree at University of California, San Diego, yet I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living. I’d worked so hard, and it took me longer than the prescribed four years to get my BA since I always had to hold down a job in addition to my studies. Internships, field trips, listening to speakers from various professions; nothing seemed to help me figure out what career I wanted to pursue.
Then I received an undergraduate scholarship from the national McNair Scholars Program for low-income, first generation college students. The scholarship enabled me to work as a research assistant in a developmental neuroscience lab with a stipend to perform my own research. I think this was the first time I found something I loved and knew exactly what to work towards. I love studying the brain and how its experience changes as it interacts with the environment.
Currently, I am working as a K-12 substitute teacher, and I just got accepted to the master’s program for psychology at California State University, San Marcos where I’ll be studying social cognition in children. Since it took me slightly longer to discover my academic and professional interests, I’ll be a little older than the average master’s student, but my personal drive has been my faithful constant. I often have to remind myself not to compare my progress with “normal” peers, trying to remember that everyone is different and faces their own challenges.
“I encourage anyone working towards a goal to focus on the simplest positives, and use your strengths (old, new, small, and large) as momentum.”
After I get my master’s degree in 2 years, I plan to continue my studies in developmental neuroscience to earn a PhD. My goal is to get a faculty position at a major research institution. This would give me the freedom to research topics that are important to me, such as the effects of risk and resilience on child development. I also look forward to mentoring students who come from tumultuous circumstances, because I felt so alone when I was young. Helping even one person feel less isolated would make a world of difference to me.
As far as my personal life with family, friends, and relationships, I find myself with a different perspective than the average person. It takes me extra time to trust people, which is completely okay, and I have a small group of friends. People usually remark on my independence. I have done my best to simplify my life, allowing in only positive, good people and situations whenever possible.
It would be dishonest not to mention the support, grace, and generosity my fiancé has given me these past three years. Just as misguidance has affected me in negative ways, Dan’s influence has allowed me to grow into an open, honest and confident woman – something I never knew was possible! In learning to surround myself with like-minded, goal-driven people, I met my best friend, the greatest person in the world, and I’m grateful for his support.
My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Richards, and my 10th grade Humanities teacher, Mr. Coulsby, truly saved my life. I have never been able to thank them properly, so I plan to respect their legacy by being a role model for struggling kids and students whom I encounter. They encouraged me to continue through life with the curiosity of a child and the wisdom that only comes from early tragedy. They taught me that I was not alone and I was worthy, which were very important lessons for me as a young person.
While I went through the hardest times in my life, I hadn’t understood my strength. I always concentrated on my shortcomings and weaknesses. Now that I am older, my role model is myself – as a child! I finally understand the power of a resilient young person, which has been the inspiration for my research focus in psychological development. I encourage anyone working towards a goal to focus on the simplest positives, and use your strengths (old, new, small, and large) as momentum.