A small, nearby, private college offered a Master’s degree in Communication Disorders. I had never considered moving beyond a Bachelors degree in my field, until I learned that a Masters would be required for permanent certification. So I started, one course at a time, paid for on a payment plan from that tiny paycheck. More student loan debt felt incomprehensible as I chipped away at what I already owed. The classes were smaller, more personal, dove into greater detail in specific areas. I loved learning the explicit information and was less distracted by the lifestyle that had accompanied my undergraduate work. I became absorbed in each class, made time for homework, reports and projects between working full time, and taking care of bills, an apartment, a finicky car, and the long haired black cat I had adopted. Challenges seemed to cocoon the growing creativity and confidence required to sprout adult wings.
I changed the oil in my car myself. It not only saved money, but made me feel empowered. My father taught me how to drain the used oil and replace it. But he never mentioned the other things that needed checking – like transmission fluid. My car died from my ignorance. I rode my bike from my apartment to my job, to evening classes, and then back home again, for several weeks. Clinical practicum, located at a hospital in the next city over, loomed on the horizon as a required part of my training. The hospital was not within bikable distance. I needed a car. I blamed my transmission failure on its automatic status and decided I needed to learn to drive a car with a standard transmission. A standard Toyota Corolla Sport was listed for sale nearby. A friend took me to see it and the price was right. The owner dropped the car at my doorstep and there I was, with a car I had no idea how to drive. What was I thinking? I tried, and failed, to move the vehicle more than five feet without stalling, over and over again. I was willing to pay a driving school to teach me how to drive it, but none of them were able to help. A friend and I jerked and stalled around the nearby park for hours, to no avail. I had no idea what to do, clinic started in a couple of days and I had no way to get there. Finally, days before I needed to admit my inability to complete this important step towards my degree, my friend found a brother of another friend that could drive a standard, and was willing to teach me. Back in the park, he explained how to ease off the clutch while applying the gas, and after a few tries I felt the intricate dance between stillness and motion. I could move forward, and even shift gears, with minimal bucking and stalling. There have been few lessons in life more critical to literally moving forward than this one.
The city where my clinical practicum was located was known for its hilly streets. Little did I know that hills were an entirely different story. Each day as I approached a traffic light at the top of a hill it turned red. Inevitably there was a huge city bus only inches behind me. The engine revved as I put on the gas but hesitated on the clutch, then stalled as the light turned green. Traffic – including that bus on my tail – lined up behind me. If I was lucky I finally made it through the green light with horns blaring behind me. If not, the horns blared and we all stood still. The challenge of the practicum faded in relation to the stress encountered getting there and back. Over the weeks I became a bit more adept at shifting and starting on hills, but this is one of those memories that never softens with time.
I stayed for one happy year at the daycare job, then left for a professional position that offered a bigger paycheck – but moved me away from young children. I traveled from school to school within several districts, some over an hour away, as an itinerant therapist. I worked with older students with disabilities and strengthened my skills, but can’t say I enjoyed the travel, or the in and out design of the job that prevented significant connections with other staff. The pay increase allowed me take two courses a semester to finish my Masters degree. I moved closer to work, which placed me further away from school. The light of day often slipped into the dark of the evening as I sat behind the steering wheel, driving in opposite directions from my apartment. Social activities rarely squeezed between work, school, homework and sleep. I completed the ten month school year, then found a temporary summer job to help pay off student loans. It was a maternity leave position as a speech therapist in a preschool program for special needs students, located in a small agency close to home. The work style was team oriented and there were other young women my age employed there. The preschool children stole my heart immediately. I loved working there. When the opportunity to turn the temporary position into a permanent one arose I took it immediately, despite a lower, but still sufficient, paycheck.
Work became my new love. I felt respected, competent, and in control of my own destiny. I also felt a deep understanding for those who had difficulty voicing their needs. The love that flowed easily towards the children opened my heart again – this time without the threat of losing my independence. I was driven to be the best I could be, to help others with the skills I had learned, and to gather new ideas and information from those around me. I was fortunate to form close relationships with many of the other young women, who would become lifelong friends. I also met older woman that became important mentors, not just in work, but in life. It was a time of tremendous professional and personal growth.