Twenty one year old Salena bounds into the interview room and plops down on the sofa. Unlike some of her other Caroline Center colleagues who I have interviewed, Salena is neither shy nor nervous. She is, as the Lou Grant TV character of Mary Tyler Moore fame would say, “full of spunk.” Today, Salena wears her hair liberated and non-conformist (other days it is pulled back in a tight ponytail). She has intense eyes that they keep contact with mine and an indefatigable spirit that makes me want to cry. Instead, she makes me laugh.
“Life’s thrown me a few curveballs,” she tells me matter-of-factly with an amusing little shrug that says, “What’re you gonna do? That’s life.”
Salena grew up in a crowded house in west Baltimore, the third of 8 children. Today, she lives with her mother in a small apartment in the same part of town. Despite having regressive cancer, her mother still works full time. Salena never saw much of her father. He spent most of his life in and out of jail and currently resides in a prison somewhere in New Jersey. Still, she holds a special place in her heart for him. All this has made Salena incredibly self-reliant. After graduating from high school, she put herself through college. Or tried to, anyway. She attended Bennett College for Women in North Carolina for a year before she ran out of money and had to drop out.
“Best college in the world,” she says without a hint of bitterness.
“The world!” she adds for emphasis, just proud to have been a part of it.
One can’t help but wonder, ‘What if? What if she’d been able to afford to stay in college’? She’d be a senior now, getting ready to graduate and take on the world. But Salena doesn’t have time for such ruminations. She doesn’t have time for regrets and I’m sorry’s.
“I’m all about, ‘What’s next?’ ” Salena tells me. And so, in 2010, she joined the National Guard. She has an 8-year commitment, working in the field once a month and 2 weeks every summer. She hopes, in exchange for that long-term commitment, the military will help her with her education in the future. It seems like more than a fair exchange to me. In the meantime, Salena works as a cashier at night and attends the certified nursing assistant job-training program at Caroline Center during the day. Hers is a familiar routine: Caroline Center all day, work and study at night, sleep a little, start all over. Her dream is to work in family psychology.
“What further training will you need for that?” I ask
“Oh, you know, bachelor’s of science, master’s, PhD,” Salena answers matter-of-factly, neither delusional nor daunted. As she said, for her, it is all about what’s next. And Salena takes it one step at a time. She is grateful to have the support of her mother and all the women at Caroline Center. She also has a deep faith, which protects her against all of life’s “curveballs.”
” I just look at Jesus on the cross and think, ‘If he could do it, so can I’,” Salena states, without a hint of self-pity.
She reminds me of a line from a Ntozake Shange poem:
I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.
I look forward to finding out ‘what’s next’ for Salena. I can’t help but believe it will be something good.
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