29-year-old Shawntae is unassuming. She sits off to the side in the crowded Caroline Center classroom. Quietly. By herself. The rest of the women are chatty and jokey, a thinly veiled attempt to hide their nervous excitement and hopeful expectation. Today is the day they find out if they passed the Pharmacy Technician final exam. Passing will mean the difference between continuing on to a working internship at a local pharmacy before graduation or flunking out of the program. So yes, most of them are slightly nervous. Except for Shawntae who sits there quietly. By herself. Finally, the instructor arrives with the exams in hand. He immediately tells the women what he knows they are dying to hear:
“Congratulations! You all passed! ” A collective sigh of relief and a big whooping cheer is let loose in the classroom.
Before the instructor can go any further, all the women in the classroom point to Shawntae.
“How you know it’s me?” Shawntae protests, shaking her head.
“WE KNOW!” her classmates exclaim.
“…Shawntae!” the instructor confirms. Shawntae takes it in stride, displaying neither false modesty nor showy glee. It’s not something she spent any time thinking about or hoping for. It just is.
“How do you think the other women knew you were the high scorer?” I ask when I interview Shawntae later.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs. ” I guess ’cause, well, since day one I’ve always had the highest score on every test. So, you know…”
“Yeah. That could be a dead giveaway,” I smile. “Did you think you had it in you?”
“I’m not going to say I didn’t think I could do it,” Shawntae explains, “But I thought it would be pretty hard. And it was. I especially had a hard time just finding time to study. But…I did. So, you know…”
Shawntae doesn’t seem so much to manage her expectations as to squelch them. She’s had a lot of practice. Over the years she learned to expect nothing but disappointment from her drug-addicted father, who was eventually forced from their home after attacking a then 19-year-old Shawntae. As for her mother, well Shawntae loved her mother and felt she could depend on her. But seeing the kind of pain and abuse she too had suffered at the hands of her father and how much responsibility she now shouldered alone, Shawntae just didn’t want to ask too much of her mother. So, by choice, she lowered those expectations. Neither did Shawntae expect much from the schools she attended. Though she graduated from both high school (a failing urban school, now closed) and community college, she did so with very little guidance and no direction. And although she is now engaged, for the longest time she could expect nothing but heartache – and worse – from the other men in her life. On more than one occasion Shanwntae suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of men she knew and didn’t know. Still, Shawntae carried on, not with great expectations, certainly, but still with some sense of hope. And modest dreams.
“I always wanted to work in a pharmacy,” Shawntae confided. “It’s just something I thought I’d be good at.” And so she enrolled in a well-known medical assistance training program. She paid them good money to train her and get her a job. But even they disappointed Shawntae.
“I wanted a career, but all they wanted was my money. They were supposed to help me find work. They didn’t help me with anything. Once they had my money, I couldn’t get a hold of them.”
The concept of constantly being disappointed by those in whom she had put her trust was about the only thing Shawntae had come to expect out of life. This was just the way it was. She could be a crusader and rage against the system or she could keep going. Try the next thing. Hope…but not expect.
Enter Caroline Center.
“They have made all the difference,” Shawntae explains. ” I’m the quiet type. I’m more of a listener, but now I know I have a voice. And I’m not afraid to speak my mind when it’s necessary. Sr. Kennedy taught me that.” There was something else Caroline Center taught Shawntae.
“They taught me to expect the best from myself. That I had it in me. That I could do it.”
“And you did! How does it feel to be number one in your class?”
“It feels good,” Shawntae admitted. But there was even something more that bolstered Shawntae’s faith.
“They help you after graduation! I know I will still have an advocate when I leave here and go out into the working world. They will help me get a job and they’ll help me with other things, too. They give so much and they charge me nothing. They’re like family.” Shawntae’s experience at Caroline Center has opened her eyes to all sorts of possibilities. She now dreams bigger and hopes for more. And dares to expect that at least some of it will be realized. It is something she is eager to pass along to her 6-year-old son.
“I want him to be able to come to me. To be able to express himself. To tell me what he wants and needs and worries about.” To this day, despite everything, Shawntae loves both her parents unconditionally, and knows in her heart that her mother did her best. Still, things were’t always easy for Shawntae growing up. ” I was afraid to go to my parents. I never got the right response, if any. It’s important for my son to know he can always come to me.” That is the most important thing to Shawntae.
And Shawntae also has dreams for herself.
“I want to be a pharmacist. Not just a pharm-tech. I think I can do it.”
Caroline Center thinks so too. If I were Shawntae…I’d expect nothing less.
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