Mrs. Crabtree and the Bridge to Success
All those years ago, as I rested my head to sleep in the backseat of a freezing cold car, I could never have imagined that I would be sitting where I am today. All those years ago- my four year old tummy throbbing from the ache of hunger and my tiny mind struggling to understand why my daddy kept putting bruises on my mommy’s face-I couldn’t even envision this life.
But here it is.
In this life, I sit in my 3,000 square foot historic home and stare at the six adorable Christmas stockings hanging from my carefully constructed brick fireplace. Each stocking represents someone I protect from experiencing the life I once had—someone that I keep safe enough that they know where to hang their stockings each and every year. One of those stockings is mine.
How did I get here, I wonder? How does a little girl who starts out living in a car parked smack dab in the middle of violence and destitution, end up safely tucked away inside a warm home that she created with an amazing man who never puts bruises on her face.
How? Did? I? Get? Here?
It’s not just the dire facts of my early existence that make this a wonder. Probably even more so, it’s the way these facts limited my vision to see any different kind of future.
Little girls like me, who are struggling to survive an abusive reality, have a hard time finding any bridge out of that world. Our lack of foresight imprisons us as much as our scantily clad opportunities.
Self-defeating thoughts swirl around our heads, telling us that we can never cross over into that world. That world is for those people who are born within it- that world of pretty things is for pretty people with nice mommies and daddies.
When I was 7, someone came along and showed me otherwise. She left her happier place to join me in my barren land. She determined to show me that the good life is meant for each and every one of us.
She took my hand and pointed me towards the bridge that could lead me into her world.
The foothold of this bridge was clearly marked with the word “EDUCATION.”
Mrs. Crabtree (no kidding, that was her name) led me to take my first step onto that bridge. She was my “2nd attempt at 1st grade” teacher. And she was determined that I would pass on this second attempt.
I will never forget the days I spent in the clutches of Mrs. Crabtree and hearing her hiss that threatening promise, “You can and will learn to read, young lady.” She went on to tell me how that could be so. “If I have to keep you here every day after school, then that’s what I’ll do. But you will not leave my classroom without knowing how to read.”
I remember staring at this woman blankly and thinking, “What. Is. Her. Problem.”
I couldn’t figure out why she thought this was a big deal. Didn’t she know that I was too busy at home to have time for this silliness of her world? Didn’t she know that school was nothing more than a moment of respite for me? Wasn’t she aware that when I went home, I would spend my night cleaning up my mother’s blood and changing my baby brothers’ dirty diapers? Didn’t she know I had more important things on my plate than this ridiculous school stuff?
She threatened to call my mom and tell her how poorly I was performing. I told her to go ahead and try that.
So she dialed the phone. I could hear Mamma in the background sounding like a lunatic and balking at her expectations. She got off the phone looking flustered and confused. I smirked, knowing that I had put her in her place. Surely now she would back off.
But oddly, she didn’t. She seemed more determined than ever.
I hated her for that. I resented every day that she kept me after school, knowing that my mother and brothers needed me to take care of them at home. I hated the stupid books she placed in front of me and the stupid way she told me to keep trying.
Why was this all so important to her? I just couldn’t make sense of it. None of this mattered in my world.
And then it all clicked those last few months of my second 1st grade.
“And they la i ved hap pi ly ev er af ter,” I fumbled over the words.
I turned the page and realized I had finished the book. My eyes fluttered up to hers, and I saw Mrs. Crabtree’s sporting a beaming smile. A strange feeling washed over me.
For the first time ever, I experienced a sense of power.
Before I knew it, I found myself smiling back. I suddenly felt capable and strong. And I wanted more of that feeling. So for the remainder of my academic career, I did my best to show up to school every single day.
Little did Mrs. Crabtree know, but she had just changed the course of generations to come.
The ensuing years of my life would be a whirlwind. Mid second grade I would enter foster care. For seven years, I would bounce through seven different homes. For seven years, I would be deprived of power in every way, except one.
Nobody was ever able to take away what Mrs. Crabtree had shown me. She had revealed to me the power of my mind and my power to continue growing it.
I clung to that power like my life depended on it. Because it did.
I spent those years pouring over books. Within their pages, I came to learn everything I needed to know about how to be successful on the other side. I came to see the possibilities of my future, and I began sprinting towards them.
I determined that I would someday create a beautiful world of which I was queen.
So that is what I did.
On my graduation day, I stood proudly in front of my peers. I was no longer a little girl making straight Fs and struggling to survive. I was now a young woman carrying the title of Valedictorian and so much hope for a brighter future.
I knew that I had to keep taking steps to turn that hope into a reality, so I went on to college.
Four years later, I left college sporting yellow chords (summa cum laude), a BA in Psychology/Social Work & Sociology/Criminal Justice, and a whole new understanding of the world. It was through college that it all began to come together. I left with a better understanding of where I had come from and the vast potential of where that could lead.
My past no longer meant I was destined to a life of pain. My past was a great school of knowledge, in and of itself, and my education taught me how to use that knowledge to lead others out of the pain.
And that, my friends, is exactly what I now am able to do. Simply because I chose to believe in and invest in myself, I wake up every morning equipped with the skills needed to leave a positive mark on the world.
I wake up every morning to the love of family and end every night in front of my warm and cozy fireplace.
Liz is a Social Worker, Foster Alum, Adoptee, Foster and Adoptive Parent, Writer and Public Speaker. Her degree specializations are Psychology, Sociology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice. She worked as a foster/adoptive parent trainer for the state of IL for four years. Currently, serves on the board of Children’s Home and Aid and the Restore Network and also runs a blog called Foster Noise/Adopt Peace. She uses this blog to elevate the voices of the real life heroes and survivors of the foster care system.