California State University, Fresno
First Generation Stories

 

 

If God Gave You a Good Brain . . .

Grace Hatmaker
Lecturer, Nursing

“But she’s just a girl.” I heard my uncle Charlie laugh. His voice rose over the cloud of cigar smoke. I hid on the top landing of the steps in our Philadelphia row house.

My eyes burned from the cigar smoke . . . or was it from tears of indignation? I volunteered in the Accident Ward, so I knew I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be a nurse.

“Yeah, she’ll get married.” Uncle Tony added.

“So she’ll get married.” Dad snapped back.

“And have babies.” Uncle Ray closed. I heard the clink of my uncle’s glasses raise in agreement.

My eyes burned from the cigar smoke . . . or was it from tears of indignation? I volunteered in the Accident Ward, so I knew I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be a nurse. The nurses at the hospital warned me that the traditional three-year nursing schools were closing and advised a university education. Mother Superior agreed. “If God gave you a good brain, you should go to college,” she said.

Uncle Ray coughed. “And what’s this about Villanova? Joe, you don’t got money.”

Dad worked in the General Electric plant, tool division, and Mom was a hairdresser. I never thought we were poor. But maybe we were. Sometimes Mom got sent home from the beauty shop because there weren’t enough patrons. The women hairdressers were dismissed so the male hairdressers could have the customers. After all, they were men and had to provide for their families . . . which always ticked off Mom.

Okay, so maybe we didn’t have money. Maybe Uncle Ray was right. Mom had to work at night at the Clifton Precision factory winding copper coils until her fingers bled. Then she’d burn those cut fingers in the morning applying chemicals to the rich ladies hair. All that my Mom wanted for her girls was to get a nice clean job after high school until we got married. Most of the neighborhood girls worked at the Bell Tel telephone company or the bank until Prince Charming saved them.

Uncle Charlie spit out some tobacco. “And Villanova? Joe, you got rocks in your Polack head.”

I heard a plate break in the kitchen. Mom was getting mad. No more pretzels and mustard for the uncles.

I learned about the old nun in our high school library. The Sisters said she knew how to get money for college . . . if anyone really wanted to go. But secretarial school was very cheap . . . a nice clean job for a girl.

So I met with the nun who immediately parked me in a corner desk, piled books and papers around me and told me to start writing essay after essay about “Why I want to be a Nurse.” I took home forms that embarrassed my parents. How much money do you make? Not much. What level of education have you completed? Sixth grade, fourth grade. But they filled in the degrading blanks, trusting Sister’s words. “If God gave you a good brain . . . ”

Now I’m on the faculty at California State University, teaching Masters’ students in Nursing, a full 34 years into my profession. My parents watched and worried as I studied, became a nurse, married, had children, divorced, remarried and never stopped going to school. I’m applying for entrance into a PhD program now. My children are grown. A lifetime has passed.

My dad watches over me from heaven, his daughter, the first in the family, a girl no less, who went to college. My mother smiles and says “That’s my daughter.”

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