generaton resilient lavonne roberts

Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in the “Generation Resilient” series. LaVonne Elaine Roberts is a writer, editor and educator. Her essays on mental illness, child welfare reform, social justice, politics and feminism have been published widely. Roberts is finishing “Life On My Own Terms,” a memoir, and interviewing authors at Her Twitter handle is @LaVonneRoberts. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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After racking up six college transcripts over 40 years, I was finally going to graduate with a master’s in creative writing. At 57, there were a lot of people I was looking forward to celebrating this accomplishment with – and many more I intended to thank for supporting me.

Then the pandemic struck.

With my official graduation canceled, it felt like I’d be making my victory lap with no cheers – just the echo of my feet crossing the finish line. Of course, if I’d had my moment to walk across the stage in front of thousands of people, it would have been embarrassing. I would have broken down crying; I just know it.

And yet I mourned the loss. More than anything, I wanted to leave my two adult children with a powerful impression of their mother, who against all odds, finally succeeded in completing her education – and, in doing so, reclaimed her story.

Money changes everything – or does it?

In 1965, when I was three, my biological father disappeared. My mother, though never officially diagnosed with a mental illness, was a recluse. As my siblings and I grew older, our lives were about surviving her abusive episodes and dreaming of escape. Traumatized, without a support network, I knew my only way out was education.

Fourteen years later, when I was just 17, my mother dropped me off at a bible college in Oklahoma with a suitcase, $100 and a note to never return home. Without a means to pay for my education, I lasted a year.

In need of safety and stability, I married a devout Southern Baptist and returned to Texas, my home state, and then college at age 20. While studying interior design, I began designing custom homes. One project quickly blossomed to more than two dozen.

Three years later, I left my marriage.

At that point, entrepreneurial success felt like the ultimate measure of self-worth, so I dropped out of college and expanded my interior design business, designing hotels and working internationally. I didn’t need a psychiatrist to tell me that there’d never be enough designer luxury goods to erase my pain, yet I kept shopping, addicted to the thrill of acquisition. And, for a while, making and spending lots of money filled the void.

A decade later, I married a man from France and helped form one of the first internet companies – XOOM. When we started out, everyone wanted to know where I had attended college. I had a spiel, “Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t complete their degrees either.” After our company went public and we cashed out, people stopped asking me that question.

But then I became a mother, and everything changed.

I wanted my children to have everything I hadn’t – stability, love and a great education. Though we were financially well off, I felt incomplete. I considered returning to college, but my vanity and buried shame of not finishing the first two times prevented me.

I thought making lots of money would make me feel better. It didn’t. So, I took another difficult step – leaving a hollow marriage in search of real meaning. I never thought not having a college degree would come up in court, let alone hurt me, but when my husband said, “She doesn’t have a college degree,” it struck a nerve. He was right, and I didn’t want to be defined by what I hadn’t accomplished.

Returning to school to write would be my way of taking control of my narrative.

‘I’m the student’

In 2016, after attending two community colleges while raising my children, I showed up at Bard College with straight As and a $48,000 scholarship. My 17-year-old daughter, who’d just started at Mount Holyoke College, came along. An admissions officer offered my daughter a tour of the campus. “I’m the student,” I said, wondering who felt more awkward.

I drove 44 miles round-trip, five days a week to Bard. Studying literature opened my eyes to a whole canon of writers challenging the status quo like James Baldwin, Rachel Louise Snyder and Tressie McMillan Cottom. When we discussed how people often chain themselves to worldly goods like money and luxury products, I had a lot to say about how those attachments produce biased judgments and distorted perceptions.

After two years, I left with a hard-earned Written Arts degree, a friendship with Cliff, Bard’s beloved security guard, as well as the support of the dean whose program funded my free writing workshops for victims of violence and marginalized populations. But I never walked across the stage because my children were studying abroad, and it seemed pointless without them there.

I went on to pursue an MFA at The New School, which gave me the confidence to develop my voice in a community as diverse in culture as writing styles. Then coronavirus interrupted my academic career, robbing me of quality time with my thesis advisor, networking events and the opportunity to pitch my memoir about overcoming my Dickensian childhood.

Reclaiming the narrative

I was determined not to let the pandemic rob me of my graduation celebration – not entirely anyway. In partnership with Virginia Valenzuela, the editor of LIT Magazine, where I’m the book review editor, we decided to host a virtual commencement celebration.

I reached out to three writers to participate: Lara Love Hardin, a former opiate addict turned New York Times bestseller; Rachel B. Neumann, an author and alumna of my program; and Kristen Roupenian, the author of The New Yorker’s viral essay “Cat Person.”

On May 15, before our virtual event began, I woke up to balloons, which spelled out “Class of 2020 Quarantined,” that my daughter and dearest friend hung across my living room. That discovery was followed by a range of congratulatory posts on my Facebook page from the Dean of Humanities from Austin Community College to a classmate I’d studied with 37 years earlier.

A relative stranger messaged me, “We met years ago when you sold me the couch I’m sitting on. As a 57-year-old woman myself, I’m in awe of your drive and determination. If you can make an impact on a stranger you met years ago for less than an hour, you can be sure that your children and their children will speak of your legacy for years to come.” I wept.

My daughter then played a video she made of friends congratulating me. My sister-in-law and six-year-old niece read a commencement speech quoting Dolly Parton. “The way I see it – if you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain.”

I cried when I heard my son, who’s studying music production in London, say, “You’ve shown us that no matter what age you are, you can still achieve happiness and pursue your dreams. That’s a message I’ll take with me forever.”

Then, when I signed on to Zoom to co-host my commencement graduation, I scrolled through the 33 classmates and professors on my screen. Perhaps sensing my anxiety, Virginia texted, “Take a deep breath, smile and celebrate your four decades of hard work!”

Later that night, wearing masks and seated six feet apart, I shared cocktails on the rooftop of a new friend’s apartment. I’d met her in a writing group I’d joined days before the pandemic. It felt like serendipity when we realized we lived a block apart in Manhattan, then fate when my best friend’s daughter moved in next door to her. In a city with more than 8 million, we’d connected life stories – from one spanning 25 years to a one just a few months old. I was reminded of how some of my greatest friendships were forged during the most uncertain times.

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    While reflecting on our virtual celebration the day after, Virginia said, “The speakers reminded me that, though it’s okay to feel sorry for the things you’ve lost, it’s more important to overcome those feelings and to change the narrative.” And, after four decades of trying to change my narrative, I finally had.

    But I’d done more. I’d taken Lara Love Hardin’s message to our virtual graduation class to heart. When she spoke, she said she didn’t want to be known for the worst thing she had done, but for the sum of her actions. And I didn’t want my narrative to be just about an abandoned or abused child. Nor did I want to be the mother without a degree. My celebration was my opportunity to openly declare that my story matters – that I matter.