California State University, Fresno
First Generation Stories

 

 

Dreams Can Come True

Maxine McDonald
Executive Director, Student Success Services

“You can’t go to school today,” we were told. “The rains are coming and we’ve got to get the cotton in.” On those days, three-quarters of the children would be in the fields instead of in school. Fieldwork was grueling. The sun bore into you. Your fingers would bleed from being pricked by the open cotton boll husks, and your back ached from the constant stooping. I hated the work, and I hated missing school.

"Sometimes I felt guilty, that the $3 a day I brought in wasn’t contributing enough to the family. On the plantations in the deep South in the 1960s, everyone was so poor that we all had to work"

Most adults in the fields worked two rows at a time, and many could pick 200 pounds of cotton a day. Unlike California, where cotton grows low to the ground, it grows tall in the South. As a young child, I ran ahead of the adults, put a little cotton in my sack, then crawled under the high stalks and lay on my bag daydreaming or sleeping. Eventually I got caught. That’s when my grandmother found out why I could only pick 25 pounds a day.

Sometimes I felt guilty, that the $3 a day I brought in wasn’t contributing enough to the family. On the plantations in the deep South in the 1960s, everyone was so poor that we all had to work. Children were often hungry. My grandmother, with whom I lived, always offered help to others, taking them in and sharing whatever we had. When children came over to play, she fed them. I sometimes wondered why we were having dinner at two in the afternoon when I wasn’t hungry, but it was a way my grandmother helped out the other children while allowing them to keep their pride. She knew they were hungry but they never had to ask for food.

Plantation life for Blacks was such a closed world. The lines between Blacks and Whites were clear. The White plantation owner, his wife and children and extended family lived in the big house like you see in the movies and their Black workers lived around them in shotgun houses—three rooms arranged in a straight line for a laborer or sharecropper and his family, no matter what its size. The central store served as a gathering place. The men crowded into the back room, smoking, drinking and gambling, but women weren’t allowed. A girl would get a beating if her curiosity overcame her and she tried to peek in.

Ours was a community. People watched out for each other. If I didn’t get off the bus at the time I was supposed to, someone would come to the school looking for me to find out what was going on. But the cycles of poverty, alcoholism, and broken families repeated themselves through the generations. If single mothers had several children by different fathers, the daughters did the same. If fathers were alcoholic and drank up the family’s meager money, the sons did the same. Whether laboring in the fields, the store or the plantation owner’s house, Blacks worked constantly yet there was little or no possibility of moving up socially or economically. Few people ever questioned any of it.

It was through books that I could travel out and know there was a world beyond ours. I enjoyed reading and I found that excelling in school often got me out of fieldwork. Getting good grades gave me the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities like sports, drama productions, school government, and math and science competitions. I enjoyed the activity and the competition, but these were benefits my sibling and friends didn’t have. It was at the end of one of those tedious, bone-tiring days in the fields, after years of watching the hopelessness of people around me, I realized I wanted more out of life. Going to college, I believed, was the way to get it.

In my junior year of high school, I began thinking seriously about college but I knew it might only be a dream. When I told my grandmother that I wanted to go, she was supportive, but she said what I so obviously knew. We had no money. An academic scholarship was my only hope. But scholarships weren’t readily available for a student from a rural high school with fifty graduating seniors. I had no guidance or knowledge about how to search for a scholarship or how to apply. I guess I just hoped, somehow, a scholarship would fall from the sky when I graduated from high school.

The morning after graduation, I woke up in a cold sweat and didn’t want to get out of bed. This is it, I thought. No scholarship. No college. I’m doomed to being a field hand forever. This is the end. It was a crossroad, the kind of moment that makes you curl up inside yourself and get lost or strike out and take control, do something about it.

In desperation, I called my former English teacher and mentor, Mrs. Lavonne Milner. Mrs. Milner had taken an interest in me when I transferred into her high school and had difficulty making friends. Everybody already had their established cliques and I thought nobody liked me. I would cry on her shoulder, and she would push me to get involved, especially in theater. “You just have to keep working at it,” she told me. “Just go do it. Eventually you’ll make friends.” She was right. She left our school before I graduated, but by then I was part of the fabric and viewed as a leader.

I’d kept in touch with Mrs. Milner occasionally, sometimes babysitting her children. That morning after graduation, when my life was ending, I cried and cried, telling her how devastated I was and that I’d do anything to go to college. She was teaching at a community college and got me a scholarship for the summer. She paid for my books and I worked as a student assistant. I did well and earned a partial scholarship to attend the community college for two years.

I was so excited by the new information and ideas I was learning. When I found out that the earth turned and tilted, causing the seasons, I rushed home to tell my grandmother. She thought I was crazy. “What are you talking about!” she said. “The earth’s not moving and God gives us the seasons.” But she loved hearing stories and enjoyed it when I read aloud to her.

Along with my college education, Mrs. Milner began teaching me how to “be a lady,” the kind of etiquette growing up poor doesn’t teach you, like how to use the utensils in a full table setting instead of using a spoon or a single fork for everything, the way everyone I knew did. How to walk, how to sit, how to attract a boy you were interested in without just sending him a letter and telling him so and maybe getting yourself in trouble. I didn’t know how to get into a car gracefully. I thought you just stepped in head first. But skirts were rather short in those days, so if the boy had opened the car door for you, getting in the way I did would show him all your business.

My life was changing and it was exciting and challenging. After community college, I earned a full academic scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where I graduated with a degree in Sociology.

A single moment in time, a place, or a situation we experience can change the direction of our lives. For me, setting goals and constantly working toward them made a difference. The value of hard work was instilled in me by my family. My grandmother often said “Do your best and do it right!” With a stare and a voice that left no doubt about her seriousness, she would warn, “Don’t be afraid of hard work because no one is going to give you anything!” My dreams came true because of working hard, believing in myself and taking full advantage of opportunities around me.

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