Tom’s Story – Balance and Focus
by Leila R. Ferrari
As a school principal at the residential center, Tom was well liked and supportive of students and staff alike. He had a listening ear and was ready to share a story at a moment’s notice. Tom maintained a positive stance and worked to resolve issues in the best possible way for the school as well as the residence. This story is in Tom’s own words.
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The biggest change in my lifestyle happened twenty years ago. Within a two-year period, I lost my dad to a type of bone cancer and I lost my younger brother to Hodgkin’s disease. My dad died at fifty-six and my brother at seventeen – eighteen years old. My brother was a guy who was education-bound. He was also a long-distance runner. My family worked hard. My dad worked all the time, when he wasn’t at work, he was busy working around the house, doing electrical things, carpentry things, whatever was needed. My mom was a home mom, but she worked hard. You know, a home mom works as hard as anyone working elsewhere does. People who worked, and worked hard during their lives have surrounded me.
Prior to them dying or becoming ill, I never took education seriously. I was not a college grad. I did graduate high school but had wasted many years in junior college. I’d done a number of jobs that were menial at best, retreading tires, working on fishing boats; really these jobs did not give me too bright a future. Back when, my only aspirations were that when I left a job, I would move on to a better job. Going back to school was not an issue at the time. I felt that if you did an honest day’s work, that’s what mattered. Everything I had, I acquired for myself, through work. I have a high work ethic, I always have had that.
When my family members died, it really woke me up. I started thinking that maybe it was time for me to start looking at my lifestyle. I never thought education was a place where I’d be, not having an education at that point. Not that my parents didn’t value education, it’s just that they valued freedom. They certainly would never have pushed me into anything I wasn’t interested in from the start. They figured if I wanted to go to school, I would do it in my own time. My dad was just as happy to come out and watch me play football, as he was when I brought home an “A” or a “B.”
The initial reason for my venture into this field [education] is looking back and saying to myself that my dad and brother are looking at me from afar. They know they didn’t get their chance to fulfill their lives, and if they saw how I used to be, they would say I was wasting my life. Now, I look back at them and ask myself how they would respond to me today, both for what I’ve accomplished and not yet accomplished.
Something bad can happen, but I’m one of those people who look back and find the something good that came out of a bad happening. Losing my dad and brother were bad things for not only me, but for my family. Not just me but all my four sisters went through a bit of a lifestyle change after losing those family members. The awareness made us more alive to take advantage of opportunities and moments in life, always with the knowledge that our brother and dad did not have a full opportunity that way. None of us were bitter in the sense of questions or blame regarding losing our family members. We were able to do our own things, keep our commitments going. We’re all pretty resilient as individuals.
I went back to school and was close to age thirty when I got my bachelor’s degree. I’ve been in the education field for the past fifteen years. When I hear friends talking about their kids, especially sons, having trouble, not being focused in life, I tell them what the problem was in my life. Once I looked back, I realized that my only problem was in not knowing what I wanted to do in my life. Once I knew what I wanted to do, I was able to do it quickly and in one straight line. When I talk to my friends, I tell them they’ve got to let their sons find their own way in life, even when it takes more time than the parents want it to take. Once the son gets to the point of having a concrete goal, nothing will stop him. If I can do it, anybody can do it.
In the case where some folks get through college and still don’t really know what they want, I really think it’ll come to them and they’ll get there sooner than will the person who doesn’t go to college right off. College gives you a certain confidence, and you can build from there. You might go back for other credits, an advanced degree, or some completely different focus, but generally, you will do it and be on your way. I accomplished some of my goals in half the time, but if the environment doesn’t work out exactly according to one’s plan, you may have the challenge of adjusting and making changes. This is especially true in education, probably any field, but even more so in the part of the education field that deals with at-risk kids. Sometimes, the issues and variables involved are really quite intricate. Having a few years’ experience as a resource teacher, and therefore learning education law, really came in handy in my eventual experience as a principal. The powers-that-be, the politics, whatever it is, a person has to adjust, go with the flow, or seek alternate pathways to their goals. My dad used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
In summary, I really believe that when you run into a block wall, you don’t necessarily have to go through it. You might have to learn to go around it or over it. You just keep moving. In time, you’ll look back at that block wall and say, you know, good things came out of that awfulness. In many ways, there’s nothing worse than a death in the family. When I look back, I see how bad it was but also I see that it caused me and people in my family to take stock, make choices, and move forward in ways we weren’t doing before that time. If my family members, myself included, didn’t have goals and achievements to work on throughout that time, we might have been inclined to feel sorry for ourselves, feel like a victim, blame others for our family’s predicament, and not successfully get through the situation and move on. It’s important to keep moving in life, even when things seem murky. Eventually you get through it.
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Tom’s resilience came partly from the strong, unexpected occurrence of two deaths in the family in rapid succession. The abruptness and severity of the situation in his case triggered the strength and determination that was available all along, on inside levels. He and his family members together made their way through the problems surrounding these deaths. In addition to the resilience of coping with tragedy in a productive way, Tom also made good decisions and gained confidence in his life because of all the turmoil. His return to school and then into the education field is an example of the unfolding of resilience.
About the Author
As a psychology major, educator, and later a family therapist, Leila R. Ferrari has a keen interest in how individuals face difficulties and solve problems. She obtained permission among acquaintances in the business and professional world, co-workers, administrators, and personal graduate school friends at the time, to interview and tape-record their personal stories. The topics covered overcoming obstacles, surviving and thriving beyond traumatic events, as well as solving everyday challenges. This is one of those stories.
*Names and other pertinent details in this story were changed to protect privacy.