At 48 years old, I was earnestly trying to put myself through school—keyword “trying.” My initial gung-ho spirit was suddenly cut short during my third semester when my English professor returned one of my writing assignments. The piece was smeared in red ink and included a note at the very end reading, “You should not be pursuing your undergraduate degree until you learn how to read and write.”
I sat, sobbing, in my room as I read and reread the comments and examined my hard work in utter disbelief. The old fears that I had hoped to extinguish years ago came back to haunt me again. An all-too-familiar voice resumed its daunting post within my heart, battling my conscience over whether or not I was good enough and smart enough for this challenge. In the blink of a very teary eye, I decided to drop out of school and avoid further embarrassment. Little did I know that there was a different plan for my life, and that became clear when the most wonderful people were sent to my aid…
Just a few days after the shattering reprimand from my English teacher, my daughter and I were dining at a local deli when we came across a couple in their late 80s. Our conversations crossed, and they introduced themselves as retired writing specialists. Noticing my original paper, revision notes strewn across the table, and my apparent look of quiet desperation, the gentleman (a former professor) sat down to offer his expertise.
Little did I know that there was a different plan for my life, and that became clear when the most wonderful people were sent to my aid…
One thing led to another, and a couple hours later we were still sitting there—and I was soaking up his words of wisdom. With a quick look at his wife, Jean, he asked if I might have more time to continue our collaborative work at his home.
From that day forward, Clarence Sickle tutored me every Saturday for two, full semesters. Jean’s equal hospitality and encouragement helped me complete my undergraduate work (with honors!). I later went on to receive my master’s with honors as well. Had it not been for the support and kindness of Clarence and Jean Sickles, I would have foolishly squandered my talents and closed so many doors of opportunity.
I can easily, and fondly recall many occasions when I sat, studying, with the Sickles. I would often thank them for their generosity, only to hear them reply: “No, Phyllis, thank you… for allowing us to share [this] with you.” Not much to my surprise, Clarence, now 92, and Jean, now 88, are still on top of the world. They are living out their dreams in a retirement community that they built themselves in 1953.
Through them, I finally saw that success is built—not in the engineering of a building or in the walls of a classroom, but in knowing that you were put on this earth for a purpose. Once we discover the gifts we possess within ourselves, we are to pass them along for the betterment of those around us. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
In this world of many, loud wrongs and often-quieted rights, we must see beyond challenges such as being a single parent, a 48-year-old student, or a rebelling adolescent. From young to old, the timeless and familiar cycle of life yields us the perfect opportunity to support one another, unconditionally.
Don’t miss Turning 40, Surviving, Some Days Even Thriving!, and Jacqueline Cochran, From Beautician to WWII Pilot.