When I was eight I decided that I wanted to go to Harvard. It was the mid-eighties, and not only were Harvard sweatshirts with the rolled cuffs the “in” thing to wear, but in my limited scope of the world I knew that it was an impressive school. I felt that if I went there people would say, “Wow, she went to Harvard! That’s amazing!” and I wanted people to think I was amazing more than anything. I wore that sweatshirt until it fell apart. I told anyone who would listen. It was what success looked like to me.
Not long after my decision to get into Harvard, I decided that I wanted to go to law school. Criminal law interested me the most but I couldn’t stand violence, so I decided on corporate law instead. A lawyer that graduated Harvard law. That sounded like success to me.
I never wanted kids. I spent my childhood taking care of other people’s kids. They were the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be consumed with my successful career. A single, childless, successful Harvard law graduate.
I never made it into Harvard. I actually never even tried.
I never made it to law school.
Instead, I became lost in what I really wanted to do with my life when all my goals began to fall apart. I tried to sell Mary Kay. I transferred to the tech school and started a medical transcription degree. I had a knack for medical terms and what they meant. When I became bored of that, I tried selling real estate. I worked at Walmart. I waitressed. I tried to start a photography business. I worked for a place called Deal Chicken. I quit when they tried to make me dress in a chicken costume and stand on the corner clucking. All of that felt wrong, and because of feeling wrong, that all felt like failure.
Then, I began to have children of my own and loved them more than I thought it was possible to love other humans. That felt like success.
They led me to desire a degree in education. I graduated when I was 27. It looked like success to me.
I went on to my graduate degrees with four littles and working full-time. A successful, working mother, grad student and teacher.
I was going to stay in the classroom forever because I loved it.
I didn’t. I left for a technology integration position. Then a technology director role. Then completely out of being employed by a district and speaking and consulting full-time. As I sit here on a flight to Philly for work, I know this isn’t my last position change. I will move on to something else that I’m not expecting. And yet, all of those places felt like success.
My life isn’t anywhere near when I thought it would be. There have been so many times that I’ve felt success or I’ve felt less than anyone around me. So many times where I’ve cried because I’ve had to let go of dreams and goals that I was holding onto way too tightly that in the end weren’t meant for me. I’ve had to make tough decisions to move on and trust that my instincts were correct even when the plunge meant something like leaving a job without another one lined up. I’ve had to mourn the loss of experiences I’d never have. I’ve had to feel lost in order to find myself. Repeatedly.
Now, being much older than eight, I define success as if I would do the same thing all over again. My path hasn’t been a straight shot like others have had, but I would consider it a success anyway because I wouldn’t change a thing. Would I have been a good lawyer? Possibly. But that journey wasn’t meant to be mine.
I think about this often especially in the context of working with school districts when they are defining what a successful graduate looks like. While I understand the need for us as humans to categorize and label everything, I often ask myself who are we to define success for someone else? Five years out had my high school ever checked on me, they would have found that I was waitressing part-time and raising two kids. According to some of the college-bound focused descriptions of the “ideal graduate”, I would have come out on the negative side of the statistics. A college drop-out. No post-secondary education. Ironically, now I am often the facilitator of these discussions at the district level. Now, 24 years later, I would be considered a success. 24 years later, looking back, I would have considered myself a success even five years out. Even though I was still trying to make my way and find who I was, I was doing it happily and learning as I went. Even though that time of my life was difficult and it’s now over, I’d do it again. Success.
We can define the ideal graduate. It’s a good idea to know what characteristics we would love our students to graduate with so we can support them in their future success the best way we know how. Resilience. Tenacity. Agency. Self-advocacy. However, we also need to realize that sometimes these characteristics don’t show themselves in college graduates or how society views success. They might instead be found in the journey to get to wherever they belong, even if it’s not the one we would have chosen for them.