Yes, a stranger uttered two short sentences.

My husband and I were out of work, desperate for income. Although I had brief experience as a secretary, I could find no openings. So took the first job available: I went to work in a shoe store at the mall.

It was a kind of upscale shop where we helped women try on shoes. I handled a lot of feet. Heard a lot of bunion complaints. One lady who sat down had a daughter maybe 10 years old.

While on my knees getting shoes out of boxes for them, the lady turned to her daughter and said something like “Selling shoes in a shop like this is how your Aunt Sadie put herself through college. She may be a doctor now, but she opened a lot of shoe boxes to pay for her education!”

I understood this message to be a gift to me. A gift of dignity. Permission for ambition beyond a low wage job. I wanted so badly to say “Hey that’s what I’m doing!” Instead I could only smile. I felt a little pathetic. Yet her words were gentle and encouraging. They stuck to my soul like velcro and couldn’t be shaken off.

So I picked up a catalog from the local community college. I plotted how to attend. I planned how to juggle classes around work and my children’s school hours.

Long story short, I earned a 2-year associate’s degree in paralegal studies while I worked a new job at a law office. Then commuted to attend extension courses at night to complete my bachelor’s degree. I loved learning. I moved my family to another state, earned a masters degree, then attended law school. I had a lot of help and encouragement along the way, but I worked the whole time too.

I will always remember my job in the mall, the kind customer, and her tactful inspiration. I try to be kind and buoy up others too, my way to pay it forward.

Yes, a stranger uttered two short sentences.

My husband and I were out of work, desperate for income. Although I had brief experience as a secretary, I could find no openings. So took the first job available: I went to work in a shoe store at the mall.

It was a kind of upscale shop where we helped women try on shoes. I handled a lot of feet. Heard a lot of bunion complaints. One lady who sat down had a daughter maybe 10 years old.

While on my knees getting shoes out of boxes for them, the lady turned to her daughter and said something like “Selling shoes in a shop like this is how your Aunt Sadie put herself through college. She may be a doctor now, but she opened a lot of shoe boxes to pay for her education!”

I understood this message to be a gift to me. A gift of dignity. Permission for ambition beyond a low wage job. I wanted so badly to say “Hey that’s what I’m doing!” Instead I could only smile. I felt a little pathetic. Yet her words were gentle and encouraging. They stuck to my soul like velcro and couldn’t be shaken off.

So I picked up a catalog from the local community college. I plotted how to attend. I planned how to juggle classes around work and my children’s school hours.

Long story short, I earned a 2-year associate’s degree in paralegal studies while I worked a new job at a law office. Then commuted to attend extension courses at night to complete my bachelor’s degree. I loved learning. I moved my family to another state, earned a masters degree, then attended law school. I had a lot of help and encouragement along the way, but I worked the whole time too.

I will always remember my job in the mall, the kind customer, and her tactful inspiration. I try to be kind and buoy up others too, my way to pay it forward.