For me, former talk-show host Dick Cavett summed up column writing best. “At first you think this is easy. Then it’s uh, oh, I’m running out of stuff. And then it’s I’m finished.” After four years, I still go through all three.
The problem may be compounded in that my columns are supposed to be humorous. When I start to write a “serious” piece, I hear myself saying, “You’re not really writing that, are you?” Fortunately, I limit these self “discussions” to avoid schizophrenia, or at a minimum, an ugly argument over my writing style, or lack thereof.
The “Jenny” in my title refers to my eldest niece who will receive her bachelor’s degree from CSUN in five days. On the surface, this achievement may not seem that noteworthy. I should point out that she’s been pursuing the degree part-time for 10 years.
And I should probably also point out that Jenny was born deaf and blind in one eye. So, to me at least, this is not just a bachelor’s degree. In Yiddish, this is a mitzvah. So hopefully you can understand why this week I wanted to share my pride and congratulate my niece, and in print, no less.
In May of 2008, I wrote about Jenny when she and her son, Brandon, then 13, and her step-daughter Judy, then 15, along with her husband David, came to see the new Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. (Speaking of which, I’m still not crazy about the extreme bright lights, or as someone referred it as “Tokyo Time Square.”)
Back then Jenny had just started at CSUN. Her schedule would only allow her to take two classes a semester so the finish line seemed a long way off. But it really began in 2000 at Pierce Community College.
Understandably, school was never easy for Jenny. Helen Keller often said that if she had to choose between the two limitations, of being blind or being deaf, she would choose being blind, overwhelmingly. Her experience was that deafness made everything more difficult, especially learning to read.
So it was with Jenny. But, with the inspiration of a teacher at Pierce who saw her potential, as an adult Jenny spent a year of two hours a day, three days a week, in a reading lab. It dramatically improved her reading skills and changed her life (something she openly shares with people ashamed of reading struggles).
On that day 10 years ago, I can only imagine the courage it took for Jenny to meet with her counselor at Pierce. The counselor printed up a sheet, outlining the vast number of courses Jenny would need to complete to earn her bachelor’s. Jenny confesses it was “overwhelming.”
But Jenny was comforted by the counselor’s advice that she should just focus on one semester at a time (reminding me of JFK’s quote, “Even the longest journey starts with the first step”).
Jenny is very fond of quotes. She keeps a journal of them. One of her favorites is, “Obstacles are frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” Each semester, she wrote it on her notebooks, lest she ever feel like giving up.
One unexpected obstacle occurred in 2003. Jenny was a full-time teacher’s aide and, with her husband, was helping raise two children and going to CSUN part time. Suddenly she began experiencing vertigo episodes. As it progressively got worse, eventually it was diagnosed as incurable Meniere’s disease.
Jenny had the cochlear implant operation in the hopes that the vertigo would diminish or disappear. It worked. But not until Jenny had spent two years, nearly bed-ridden. From that, she got up and returned to CSUN in pursuit of her degree. (She didn’t get her fortitude from her Uncle Jack, that’s for sure.)
In addition to the sense of accomplishment in finishing, Jenny has gained so much in just the journey. She has discovered herself as a strong person who has overcome her fears. She has learned much academically, but just as much about facing life’s challenges.
Jenny is grateful for all the support she had from so many along the way, including from her mother and father, Brenda and Dave, and her sister, Erin, a teacher soon to become a therapist. And, go figure, she adds her Uncle Jack in there as well.
Understandably, among Jenny’s heroes in life is Claude Brown who grew up illiterate on the streets. And yet he wrote the book “Manchild in the Promised Land” and got his bachelor’s degree.
The final step in Jenny’s decade-long journey will be May 25, 2011, at CSUN’s graduation ceremony. My “journey” is to get the photo of Jenny joyously throwing her cap up in the air and somehow get it on page 5 of the SMDP.
Jack can be reached at Jnsmdp@aol.com.