Leading by example is powerful. You can often do more as an inspiration for someone you love than you'll do for yourself. In this story, Leigh realized that if she wanted her son to succeed, she had to lead by example. Discover Leigh's decision that forever changed her life, and his.
By Leigh Pennington, MPH
In the 3rd grade, my son was struggling to read. He was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and was receiving extra help from his teachers at school. He worked hard but was discouraged and his self-esteem was being affected. One afternoon, my son stopped playing and came to find me to inform me of this “big decision.”
Does Anything Hurt More Than Your Child’s Pain?
I was standing at the stove making dinner when he said “Mommy, I am just not gonna be able to learn to read and I decided that’s ok.” My heart broke for him. My sweet, intelligent, boy had given up.
I struggled for the words to say to him at that moment. I kept my tears at bay long enough to give him the pep talk of his life. And I didn’t hold back on the cliches either. I told him my own story of failure and regret, having struggled all through school and failing college three times. I failed college because my ADHD was undiagnosed until I was 32. And I used myself as an example of what not to do.
What Would you Do to Be Your Child’s Inspiration?
When I finished up my little speech, he looked at me with the biggest, most hopeful smile I have ever seen. He said “Mommy, now that you know what you SHOULD do, you can go back to college too!”
I remember thinking, “Oh crap!” I had tied all his future success or failure directly to my own. If I wanted him to succeed, I had to lead by example. I pondered this predicament for a few weeks and made a decision that forever changed my life, and his.
We Can Do This… Together
My son and I made a pact. He was going learn to read, and I was going back to college. A few weeks later, I started college classes for the 4th time in my life. I was terrified. When I walked through the door, I felt like an imposter. I knew I wouldn’t pass my classes. My son would see my failure and give up. After all, I was incapable of learning, right?
For the first few semesters, I spent so much time in the math tutoring lab, I was mistaken for staff. I had to take two math courses to catch up before I could take my required math course. As the first semester ended, I realized I had earned an A in every class. I couldn’t accept I was doing so well. I told myself they must be taking it easy on me. After a year and a half at the Technical College, I decided to apply at Marshall University.
Momentum is a Powerful Force
I enrolled in the Marshall Health Science program and maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout the program. Because they averaged in my GPA from my three previous failures, I graduated with a 3.26 GPA. Walking across the graduation stage in front of thousands of people, including my father, felt like a dream. It only took me about a week to figure out I wasn’t finished.
I decided to enroll in the Master of Public Health program, also at Marshall University. During the last year of my master’s degree, I finally realized I had accomplished something, not because someone took it easy on me, not because anyone helped me, but because I was intelligent and capable enough to do it. I am proud to say I graduated at age 39 at the top of my class from my master’s program with a 4.0 GPA. It felt incredible!
Pride and Inspiration
Even more incredible is what my son has accomplished. By fifth grade, my son was reading at his grade level and his comprehension was evaluated to be at the 7th grade level. He has struggled so much but has refused to fail and is now a Freshman in High School. This year he finished with his highest GPA yet and he is already making plans for college.
The pride I felt as I graduated is nothing compared to the pride I feel seeing him succeed. He did the work and he caught up all on his own, but I know that my successes helped encourage him along the way and that is an amazing feeling. He and my daughter, who is eight, are so inspiring to me. Watching them set goals and reach them is something I will never grow tired of. They amaze me every day.
You Only Recognize Life-Changing Moments Looking Back
I think about that moment in the kitchen with my son and I am so grateful he came to me. I am so grateful I had the right words to say at the time, but mostly I am so grateful I had the courage to overcome my fear of failure to take that first step into college.
We don’t need fear to make safe choices. We can be safe by being mindful and using wisdom, gleaned from our experiences, or learned from someone else’s. Save your fear for black bears and snakes. Fear binds us to a fate not of our choosing. It robs us of our possibilities and deprives the world of everything we could contribute. Fear does not bless your life in any way, it can only take away from you. Failure can make you strong. Failure can help you learn and be a foundation for future success.