Back-to-School Series: An Interview with Jonterri Gadson.

As part of an ongoing Beyond Baby Mamas discussion about single parents of color and continuing education, we’ll be publishing essays and interviews from some of our cherished community members who’ve started, returned, or finished various levels of education while maintaining full or joint custody of their children.
Jonterri, left, pictured with son and mother at MFA graduation
Jonterri, left, pictured with son and mother at MFA graduation
First up is the incomparable Jonterri Gadson. Jonterri is Debra’s Daughter. A Cave Canem Fellow and a recent graduate of University of Virginia’s Poetry MFA, she is the author of the chapbook Pepper Girl (YesYes Books, 2012). She currently serves as the Herbert W. Martin Post-Graduate Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Read her of perseverance, achievement, and mother-son bonding below.

Beyond Baby Mamas: How old were you and how old was your son when you returned to school?

I was 29 and my son was 7 when I went back to finish the last 1.5 years of my BA and then I was 31 and my son was 9 when I entered an MFA program.

BBM: How large was your circle of support? Was it comprised primarily of family or friends? While studying, did you live close to or far from home?

I lived across the country from my family or anyone I knew. My family lives in Idaho and I did my bachelor’s degree in Miami and my MFA in Virginia. For the last portion of my Bachelor’s degree, my son lived with my family in Idaho and I visited every 2-3 months and over the summer. Then we headed to grad school together. I was able to make friends in both places that were a bit of a support system.

BBM: Were your undergraduate and graduate institutions supportive of you as a mother, as well as a scholar? If so, in what ways?

At my undergraduate institution, I never told anyone I was a mother because I was worried that they wouldn’t consider me for opportunities that they might consider younger, childless students for. I had understanding professors at my graduate institution, and when I started teaching I was able to teach during the hours my son was in school while most others had to teach at night, so that was nice.

BBM: Were there any resources that were particularly lacking at either level of study, for single parents and families?

At the undergraduate institution they didn’t offer family housing at the time.

BBM: What might a typical day’s duties have looked like for you while you were a student, morning to night?

Oh, goodness. lol In grad school, I got my son up for school at 6:30 am to meet the bus at 7:14 am (I can’t believe I still remember that time). Then I got myself ready to teach an Intro to Poetry workshop at 9 am. I worked at the law school part-time for awhile during grad school as well. I’d make it home to meet my son’s school bus by 3 pm. Then take my son to the sitter so I could make it to workshop from about 4-7 pm. Then I’d pick my son up from the sitter, head home, and read him whatever I was studying (Harlem Renaissance Literature, Poetic Forms, or a poetry collection) as a bedtime story. After he finally got to sleep, I would write until about 1 am. Then sleep and do it all again.

BBM: Wow! Any time management advice for other single parents hoping to return to college?

My first waking moments on good days were spent staring at the ceiling for at least 10 minutes. Plan some sort of zone-out time so you don’t end up burning out.

BBM: Are the challenges for being a professor while single parenting comparable to the challenges of being a student while single parenting? Do you feel like you’ve “mastered” the juggling act?

I absolutely have not mastered the juggling act and crazy situations happen that remind me of that every couple of months. I remind myself often that I am still learning how to handle it all so I won’t take my mistakes so hard.

As a professor, the time I spend prepping for the courses I teach is similar to the time I spent studying and writing during grad school. It helps to make sure my son is aware of how important my prep time/writing time is, in order for me to be a balanced individual who isn’t a source of stress in the house. It was actually his idea for me to read him my schoolwork at bedtime… two birds, one stone. Since it’s just he and I, we are heavily affected by each other’s moods, so he seems to get it when I remind him. He used to change the lyrics to a Drake song and say, “If Jonterri goes through it then we all go through it” lol. He gets it.


BBM: Does your son seem more interested in college/academic life because of his proximity to it in early childhood?Yes. I had hoped for that and that’s how it turned out. He just thinks graduating high school and going to college is what you do.BBM: What was your hardest day as a student-parent, either in undergrad or graduate school? 

My son has special needs so my hardest days were the times when I couldn’t attend class in graduate school because he was struggling. How much help he needed wasn’t really as evident until I started grad school so that was tough to deal with while getting adjusted to a new city/state and a graduate program. I felt so much pressure to be in class my first year and I didn’t want to be viewed as a slacker, but that did not outweigh how much I really wanted my son to thrive. The choice was obvious, but I felt so much guilt over even wishing I didn’t have to miss class.

BBM: What was your most rewarding experience as a student-parent?

Having my son and my mom with me when I graduated with my MFA. They both sacrificed so much to make that happen for me, so to have them both there when it was all official made me overjoyed. He couldn’t wait to wear my cap and gown when I was through with it.

BBM salutes Jonterri Gadson: professor, poet, incredible mother.

If you would like to share your own story for our Beyond Baby Mamas: Back to School Series, email us at beyondbabymamas [at] gmail dot com.

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