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Seattle University


I Understand

Written by Annie Beckmann
January 14, 2013

As Beth Brunton, left, spoke of Middle College High School at Seattle University, she said it's not always easy to convince people why a school like this is needed. When she made that remark, my mind drifted for a nano-second to my own teenage years.

I recollected all that happened after my father's career took a tumble as a big-city advertising executive a la TV's "Mad Men." At 16, drooling to get my driver's license, my father's new Thunderbird was repossessed, an event that happened to coincide with the release of the Beach Boys' hit "Fun, Fun, Fun" ('Til Her Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away). I cranked up the volume whenever the tune came on the radio like any rebellious teen might.

Then I remembered the dark months that followed when my father was out of work. His whole demeanor changed. Soon my mother discovered she had cancer. My parents separated. We moved out of the big house in the 'burbs. Then Mom, barely 49, died. Dad had what in those days was called "a nervous breakdown" and landed in the VA psych ward. The downward spiral happened so fast, it was tough to catch my breath.  

By age 17, I didn't have a home. An aunt and uncle, who lived nearly an hour's drive from my high school, insisted I live with them. After little more than a month, they realized a grieving, angry teenager was more than they could handle. They asked me to leave.

It was my last semester, I kept reminding myself, and although school was a struggle, I was a good student. Finding a place to land with a stable family until I graduated became my top priority. Not many possibilities came to mind. One big, happy Irish Catholic family stood out, though. The Collins family had a huge house a 10-minute bus ride from my high school and eight kids. What's one more, I reasoned?

I vividly recall sitting in the breakfast nook of the Collins home sipping tea and eating cupcakes with Mom Collins, hoping and praying I could convince her to take me in. Looking back on it now, I feared the worst. I did my best to stay a step or two ahead of where I was to survive. Yet at that moment, I could not envision a next option.

At my gigantic high school of 4,800 students, it was tough to concentrate in classes, wondering all the while what my fate would be. To luck into the advocacy and support of a Middle College High School would've addressed some of my life's complexities just then. That kind of environment could have galvanized an educational pathway for the college years ahead. Plus, I needed plenty of encouragement to heal and go forward.

It turned out that the Collins clan took me in warmly, nurtured me and rekindled my self-confidence. They watched me graduate from high school with honors and land a whopper of a scholarship to boot. They told me what a survivor I was and waved goodbye when I went off to college where life's adventures continued.


I was brought back to reality when I saw the empathic look on Beth Brunton's face as she expressed the challenges facing many Middle College High School students who as teenagers are still developing their resilience as they encounter life's larger adversities.

"Yes," I told her, "I do understand their struggles."

As a teen in a tailspin, I had more resources than the students Brunton described, though. I often wonder what might have happened if I hadn't.

"You're doing something quite amazing here," I said softly.

She knew I understood and at that moment we both had tears in our eyes.