My valentine

I want to tell you about this guy I know.

He was a quiet kid, more than a bit of a geek back in the days when geeks weren't cool, especially in Memphis. He liked D&D and Tolkien, read voraciously and watched Star Trek and Star Wars. You know the type.

Everyone told him he was dumb. He grew up strong, and he had a southern accent. He didn't come from money, and his parents didn't have degrees. People told him he didn't have anything to offer, he wasn't going to make anything of himself. Teachers told him this.

So he went into the Air Force, but that didn't take. After he got out, he got jobs lifting heavy things. He worked on loading docks for trucking companies and grocery stores. Got married, had kids, got divorced. Decades passed.

But his mind didn't let up. He read constantly, worked his way through The Simarillion three or four times, which is more than I ever managed. His imagination worked overtime while his body did the work that paid him. And eventually that roving imagination found an outlet: he wrote a book. And then another.

He set to writing as best he could in his spare time, practicing the craft as much as he could. First it was an escape, then it was a second career, albeit a frustrating one. It was raw, but it was solid work. It needed forming, shaping, honing. The only way to do it is to do it.

Eventually he chased love up to St. Louis and proposed marriage, only to be laid off. But that was a blessing in disguise, because after a few months on unemployment, he snagged a job as a night janitor at a local university. And it turned out that one of their benefits was up to nine hours' tuition for free each semester.

College? That was for geniuses or rich people, he said. I practically had to put him into a headlock just to get him to fill out the application.

He was too old. 
He never was any good at school. 
He wasn't smart enough. 

I had to fight past all the mind-blocks, pointing out that "no good at school" doesn't fly when I've actually seen the transcripts. He was fine at school, except for Latin. (Who takes four years of Latin?)

I made my own arguments: a man closing in on 50 with a bad knee and carpal tunnel in both hands couldn't do physical labor forever. Thirty-plus years of hauling things wears a body out, and if that happened, he'd need to be able to shift to a job with more sitting and less lifting. Otherwise, his knee could blow out and make him unemployable in the bargain.

That got his attention, because he was not a man who would avoid work. The few months he spent laid off were nearly unendurable for both of us, because he needed to do something for himself and for us to feel right with himself. This is the guy who wouldn't quit his job just because he won the lottery. He just might take a little longer vacation.

More importantly, I told him: college would make him a better writer. College would take that raw talent and shape it, help him write better books and succeed better as an author. And all that was true. But also unsaid: I knew it would widen his world, expose him to new ideas and different cultures, let him reach the potential I knew was there.

But that last argument, that was the hardest. Not smart enough. I wasn't fighting him; I was fighting all the unseen ghosts who told him he wasn't smart, that he wouldn't amount to anything, that all he was good for was lifting heavy things.

Being strong doesn't make you dumb, and being southern doesn't make you ignorant. I knew there was so much more to him than a guy pushing a mop or lifting a box, knew that there were depths he hadn't explored. I knew he was more than smart enough.

But he had to find that out for himself.

He got in, of course, and started small, just a couple of classes. He bought a university T-shirt and stood in the picture with the rest of the freshman - you can see him off to the right, the only one with a graying beard. Our friends called him Froshy, and I warned him about keggers and irresponsible life decisions.

What? I went to college once.

It didn't take long. He took to college like the proverbial fish to water. Of course he did well - that stalwart work ethic that drove him through all those years on the loading docks took over school assignments, homework and papers and research. Once during his first semester, he came back home after a particularly rousing classroom discussion and declared loudly up the stairs to my office, "Mother of God, I love school!"

I laughed my head off, and my heart was full, because I knew it already. I knew he would find himself there. He was the only one who was surprised.

Each day he went to classes, and each night he clocked in to the janitorial crew. By day he learned in those classrooms, and by night he cleaned them. Soon he was taking a full twelve hours, while still working full-time and continuing on the book tours with me, and somewhere in there we got married.

There aren't many people who could do what he's done. It takes dedication and hard work, sacrifice and focus. College is tough enough when you're a kid out of school, but going back as a 47-year-old man with a full-time job and a family? That's damn inspirational.

It hasn't come without challenges. There have been long nights working on research papers. There was Spanish class, and the dreaded math. But eventually the basic English literature degree expanded to a creative writing minor and double major in philosophy, of all things, so I honed up on my ancient-philosopher puns and buckled in for incomprehensible text messages about the nature of reality and obscure texts.

Then came the Dean's List, and the English Student Award, and an English honor society and union local president. He flourished in school, and shared every step of it with the family and friends online who cheered him along his path. Every "congratulations" helped shut down all those long-gone voices who said he wasn't smart enough to be worth anything.

I knew better. And I think now he does, too.

I've rarely been so proud as I was to watch Jim receive his latest honor, SIUE Outstanding Nontraditional Student of the Year. It's not a small thing. The letter said that 14 percent of the student body are nontraditional students, which means nearly 2,000 students, if my math is good. It's a growing part of the university, and he's excelling among them.

And the people giving him this latest award only know the smallest portion of what he's fought through to get where he is, all those nights cleaning floors until 2 a.m., only to go home and read Immanuel Kant before grabbing a few hours' sleep and catching a bus back to the campus for class the next day.

Of course I see my husband through rose-colored glasses. (I could also list his faults for you, if you'd like, but I think he'd prefer not. STUBBORN.)

But when I tell you that he is one of the finest individuals I have ever known, that his dedication and hard work make me feel like an utter slacker, understand that I'm as objective as I can be. If I weren't married to him, I'd still think he's one of the more inspirational people I've ever known.

Congratulations, love. Others are finally noticing what I've always known: you are brave, strong, smart, and wonderful. I have always believed in you, and I always will. Happy Valentine's Day.


  1. Congratulations Jim! I think you have a keeper than Elizabeth. :)


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