My inspiration is my son

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005

Southeast Tides By Ted Wright

It seemed that he barely went to high school. Having moved from Sitka to Anchorage before his freshman year, he managed a McDonald's in his new neighborhood and spent as much time there as at school. His work ethic was strong, modeled after his mother's as he rose early to open the restaurant hours before his classmates awoke. The lessons he learned there were simple: You have to be responsible; you have to discipline yourself.

He ran track and did some cross-country ski racing during those years, so his time in class was limited even more. But he got by, and after the traditionally light senior year, graduated from Service High School and settled on spending a couple years at the University of Alaska Anchorage before transferring to the University of Washington.

With the possible exception of the long hours at work, this sounds like your typical adolescent journey so far, not a lot of focus in high school and an almost obligatory passage to college. I recall my own experiences after graduating from Sitka High School, wandering from Ellensburg, Wash., to Sitka and finally to Ashland Ore., looking for an appropriate major, the meaning of life, love, myself.

But for him, tragedy changed the trajectory of his coming of age at college. In the midst of his first semester at the University of Washington, he learned that his mother had breast cancer; so he returned to Anchorage and re-enrolled at UAA so that he could be by her side. Fortunately, the cancer was successfully treated and his mother got better, but the trauma affected him in ways that are impossible to measure except as time passes and subtle differences are observed.

The only pronounced change at the time was his decision to major in biology and shift to a pre-med track. He wanted to be a doctor. Looking back on it, my only thoughts were of how he would make it, since his grades were average and his transcripts so far were absent many of the most difficult series of classes needed to show medical schools that he deserved one of their slots. I never questioned him, though, and hoped that I was providing encouragement as his educational and life-course changed over the next few years.

And now it is May 2005. He is in Seattle visiting me after graduation a week ago. While I am sleeping in he has been at the corner coffee shop studying his Medical College Admissions Test preparation book. He has taken 20 or more credits of the hardest classes UAA offers each of the past two semesters, and rather than take a break, he is studying two to three hours a day while on a post-graduation visit before he starts working this summer.

Later that evening I am watching some inane television program and he is at the computer when he softly announces, "got an A in Biochemistry." He has apparently checked his grades online and has made a 4.0 this semester and ended-up with a 3.6 overall grade-point average.

I look at him and wonder how my son, that little boy who was too often bored and seemed only to want to play, who barely went to high school and skipped the advanced-placement track, could be the young man sitting across the room. At that moment I am proud, but more than that I am struck by how so much of human potential is locked away in motivation and inspiration. And I marvel at how often tragedy leads to triumph, how our struggles help us to find within ourselves something beyond what we thought we could do or who we thought we could be.

So congratulations, Ted. You are truly an inspiration.

• Ted Wright is director of the Early College Consortium for Native Youth at Antioch University Seattle and a former Alaska educator. His son, Ted C. Wright, graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage on May 1 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology.

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