Journalcalling #16 – An Uphill Educational Journey through a Colorado Ski Town

Journalcalling   •   August 29, 2021

John after living in ski country for one year

We sat in front of the high school principal. John was in danger of not graduating, this serious man said, raising his eyebrows at me. He hoped my son would pull his grades up so he would see him at commencement. I’m sure I lectured my oldest when he got home that day, and in the days that followed, and when the year ended, he did manage to be issued his school’s purple cap and gown.

During the processional, when the strains of Pomp & Circumstance were fading and there was still no John among the Class of 2004, my parents and I craned from the bleachers to see to the back of the line. Had he been pulled out at the last minute? Ah, there he was, loping along. I would miss seeing him race up this same field to expertly boot a soccer ball, and recalled the grimace when a ref held up a yellow card for aggressive play. My boy.

He had to go to college, I insisted. He loved to ski, so I imagined he would excel at Ski Resort Management which was offered at Lyndon State College in Vermont. It sounded okay to him, and we drove to the campus in the Green Mountains where they were offering on-site applications, interviews and decisions all in one day. He got in! Done.

When I arrived for Parent’s Weekend that fall, I banged on his door, tried to peer in the windows and banged again until I finally woke him up. We skipped the day’s events and went out for lunch, just the two of us. Classes were boring, he said, and he again shared his frustration that though he had earned a spot on the college soccer team and attended two weeks of summer practice sessions, he was told before the season started that his poor grades from high school made him ineligible to play. Instead, he would find a band of brothers to ski and smoke pot with and mostly forget about why they were there.

When he left Lyndon State after a year, he had earned only a handful of transferable credits, most notably in Handbell class. My favorite artifact is the notebook I have tucked in a drawer that he filled with journal entries his English teacher assigned. It’s filled with his thoughts on the Red Sox, his high school girlfriend, favorite bands and the challenges of completing the required number of pages.

For example: “I have an hour to do 15 pages of handwritten jibba jabber which isn’t going to happen but … I’m just gonna keep writing as fast as I can to keep the pages rolling and keep listening to good music to keep the inspiration flowing.” … “Next semester I’m going to keep up with my work.”

Driving him home from Vermont, I insisted he now enroll in at least one college class at a nearby college. “You have to get a degree,” I insisted. My badgering during the three-hour ride made him relent. I paid for a night class and he began working as a landscaper. Rainy days meant no work and he would sleep past noon. He did not pass the class, and for a little while, I stopped bugging him.

During the winters, he worked at a ski shop sharpening and waxing skis and earning passes to his favorite mountains. I was always happy to hear him up early rummaging around for his gear and pounding down the stairs to head for the slopes for the day.

I hated those months in between landscaping and ski seasons when there was no work and despite my nagging to get a year-round job, he would stay up half the night with his friends and sleep all day. It put me in a full-out panic over his future.

Sometimes John would come into my room where I was reading on my bed. Laying beside me, he would talk to me about what was bothering him — a boss or his friends or a girl. I often asked him what he wanted to do, and for what seemed like a long time, he wasn’t sure. One day, he said, “I just want to ski out West.” It didn’t strike me as a career path, but he said it so definitively, and I knew it was probably time for him to go.

We came up with a plan for him to give me $100 a week so he could achieve his goal. He didn’t miss a week, and after nine months he got a job through in the Colorado mountains — 2,000 miles away. I kept up my end of the bargain and bought him a one-way ticket to Denver.

The day came and he packed up his stuff in a huge duffle bag and we drove to Manchester NH airport. Feeling numb, I hugged him goodbye and told him to be safe. I watched him for a few minutes as he sat on the other side of the glass, dressed in his buffalo plaid flannel shirt and digging in his backpack for his earphones. Farewell, my boy.

He moved into an apartment with roommates from around the country who were a lot like him. They worked at jobs at Breckenridge Ski Resort and skied every moment they could and partied a lot. About two years later, I finally got out to see him in his element. I raced down the hotel’s outdoor stairs to see that wide grin I love and he hugged me tight in the parking lot. Tears filled my eyes at his obvious joy that I had come.

We shopped for polarized sunglasses to protect him from the snow glare, and ate at the artsy restaurants in the famous mountain town where friends hailed him. We skied together and he zipped out of the woods to suddenly slide in beside me as I made one of my wide turns. “Not bad, mom,” he said.

One night, he took me on a mother-son date in the Snowcat he had learned to drive across the ranges. His job was to deliver supplies to the ski lodges, but on this night, the only cargo was me. I couldn’t stop smiling. The machine’s headlights tunneled into the trees as we climbed the mountain paths and roamed across the moon-like surface. Secure in the warm cab, John confidently steered us forward.

During our Maine to Colorado phone calls, we continued to discuss possible careers. He took an EMT class and passed the exam on the second try, but the low-paying ski patrol jobs in a high cost-of-living vacation town drove him back to the Snowcat. He continued with seasonal employment, landscaping during the hot summers and loading food and beverages during ski season.

Slowly, his thinking began to shift. He returned home for the shoulder surgery he needed after crashing headlong off the ski jumps too many times. While here, he talked with a friend’s mother, who was an RN, about becoming a paramedic. She poo pooed it. “You’ll never be able to support a family on a medic’s salary,” she said. “Go to nursing school.” He suddenly thought this was a good idea. He was going to get a degree?

Back to the Rockies he went, and during a call, he told me about a new girl he had met that he liked a lot — a Colorado native and a snowboarder who had a spirit and ambition he admired. He brought her home one summer and we immediately loved her lively embrace of life and the laughter she brought to our family.

John soon said goodbye to his ski town where he had lived for five years and moved out of Summit County to live with Tagen in her apartment further south. Two years later, they would marry in a sunny outdoor ceremony where the western winds blew the centerpieces across the tables.

He had begun to follow that wise nurse’s advice and landed his first year-round gig as a Certified Nurse Assistant in a nursing home. The elderly patients adored their tall, handsome helper who made them chuckle. John also began taking classes at a community college hoping he could eventually apply to an accelerated BSN program that required 60 credits to get in.

Back in Maine, I was doing a jig. Go, go, go John!

It was a long slog. Working full-time as a CNA and going to school, it took him three years to complete those prereqs. He had to repeat one or two as he honed his paltry study skills. With Tagen, I now had help encouraging him to persevere. We became expert pep talkers, and John often swore he was living with a too-close facsimile of his mother.

Finally, the happy day came when he had amassed the 60 credits needed to apply. He had gone from his dismal first year of college to this! My boy. In went his application and crash went the dream. He did not get accepted, but was put on an alternate list. We waited, believing he would get in from that list as another candidate he knew had. He didn’t.

He continued to work as a CNA and got a job in the ICU unit at Denver’s largest hospital. The next year, he applied to the nursing program again. By now, he and Tagen had a baby daughter, and though his wife had a full-time career in sales, their finances were strained, and he hated that he could not contribute more.

Again, he did not get accepted and was put on the dreaded alternate list. He learned there were only 24 seats for the hundreds of candidates who applied. Well, he was close, right? “No, mom.” When he inquired with an admissions officer, he was told his college grades at Lyndon were hurting him. Ten years had passed since he had been there, but there they were — pulling him down.

He didn’t mention that he was honored as Tech of the Year at the hospital. I found out when his wife shared that he had been nominated for a second year. Couldn’t someone pull some strings for nursing school? Another year passed. He retook a class to further bring up his GPA and applied to the program a third time.

This time, he didn’t call to tell me, and my daughter-in-law confided that he had cried when he got the news. I started to doubt he would ever get in, and it hurt. He began looking at other easier-to-obtain medical certifications, but before giving in he visited the admissions counselor a last time. “I’m not going away,” he told her. A few weeks later, an email arrived. My prince of nonchalance called and said, “Oh, yeah, I got in…” I jumped two feet off the floor.

A soon-to-be RN, exhausted

The 24-month nursing program at Regis University was pretty grueling. It was designed so candidates would hold down jobs in the medical field while they attended classes, and there were no semester breaks. Now in his early-30s and a husband and father, John worked overnights as a CNA in the hospital’s overflowing and chaotic Covid unit, where he was often required to work extra shifts. During the day, he attended his courses bleary-eyed and completed clinical rotations on weekends.

He vented a lot about his exorbitant tuition, some of the professors he deemed inept and the course material that seemed irrelevant to the live practice he saw everyday. When I visited, I watched him stay up all night to write papers and negotiate with his teachers for more time. But he would call with surprising test scores in the 90s. Somehow, he seemed to be doing it.

His Capstone Project was in the Emergency Room — his favorite department — where he had to complete 15 unpaid 12-hour shifts under the supervision of an RN. His final rant: He had to pay the college to work these unpaid shifts!

He crossed the finish line. Denver Health has offered him a job as a full-time nurse in the ICU. In the next few weeks, he will take the exam that will officially make him an RN.

He has grit, my boy.