Back To School at Age 35

Guest post by Lorna Larsen, whom I met at the 2015 Washington State Two-Year College Mathematics Conference. After years as a painter, Lorna returned to school and this fall takes over as the Math Learning Center Tutor Supervisor at Shoreline Community College. Her children often attended class with her and are now both interested in education, one working with developmentally disabled adults.

Spring of 2002 was the beginning of the season that would make or break me as a painting contractor. I’d decided two years earlier to put my experience to work for me, and in some ways it was paying off. I was finally starting to charge what I was worth. But both the kids were still small, and I was constantly torn between their needs and my company’s. The mountain of taxes, bids, payroll, invoices and all the other things that go with small business ownership was becoming an avalanche.Painting was what I knew, and it felt like the only way I was ever going to make a decent life for myself and my children. Even now, I am a practical person: I accept what’s proven to me. At that time if someone had told me I needed an angel I’d have laughed. Up until then I had no evidence that angels even existed, but it took only one encounter to change my mind.

It was sunny, clear and warm, the kind of day at the beginning of the season that smells like money to painters. The first few hours of the morning had been spent on phone calls, gathering tools, getting youngsters off to daycare and workers off to jobs. I left the house late and realized I had absolutely nothing to eat. So I stopped at QFC, and when I got out of the store with an armful of sandwiches and a mouthful of barbeque burrito, someone was waiting by the car.

“I used to be a painter too.” She told me in a rather sweet, high voice. It seemed an odd way to start a conversation. Maybe she’d noticed my smeared clothes or the car full of tools. I don’t recall what she was wearing, but she had dark hair like mine and was at least as tall as I am. She kept talking to me as I opened the car and put my lunch inside. I’m sure I replied to her; I’m a gregarious person and never let a chance to talk get by me, but I only remember the things she said to me.

“When I was thirty five I went back to school. That was four years ago. I just graduated with a Bachelor’s in Nutrition from Bastyr.”

I was thirty five.

She talked more about how glad she was to have a degree, how wonderful it was to learn about nutrition, how she wasn’t going to have to paint any more. She gave me her name and her phone number.

QFC is in the same parking lot with the Burger King that used to be Herfy’s. Hearing her story there was powerful. Back in ’82 Herfy’s had been my first job, back when I was an honors student at Nathan Hale High School. None of the shiny dreams everyone else had for me had survived. Anything less than an A was a failure in my dad’s eyes, and he pulled me out of high school in my senior year. I finally graduated two years late and just drifted away from community college and landed in the trades.To this day that parking lot reminds me of high school and being fifteen years old.

Her voice spoke to that girl who believed everything was possible. Somehow she made me see that time is all one piece. The parking lot was the same, the world was the same, I was the same. Nothing was left behind. All those possibilities remained. We talked about painting and Bastyr, not Nathan Hale and Herfy’s Burgers, but everything she said woke me up more. Unfortunately we couldn’t stand there forever, even though the morning was fine and the conversation was compelling. She went her way and I drove off eating the rest of my burrito.

The next week I signed up for an algebra class at Edmonds Community college. Within a year I was taking twelve credits per quarter.

The path that she set me on wasn’t an easy one, but it was the right one. Raising children as a full time student isn’t any simpler than raising children as a business owner. In the years that followed, all the stubbornness that allowed me to succeed as a female painter channeled into overcoming a different set of obstacles. Apparently angels don’t solve problems for us; they show us the ones with the most fulfilling solutions. At least that’s what mine did.

We spoke only one other time. She knows I went back to school and that I’m glad I did it. I lost her number, so I have no way of knowing if she remembers me, or if she realizes she’s an angel and that the story she shared with me literally transformed my life, but I’d bet she does. She knew what she was doing when she waited there by my car. That’s an angel’s job.





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