Learning As She Goes

Thirty-seven-year-old mother of four Jessica Pearsall enters the freshman class at Loyola College this week, but her education is by no means just beginning.

September 05, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Jessica Pearsall has a mental picture of her first day in school — from finding an early morning parking space for her Ford mini-van to slipping behind a desk in the back of the classroom.

She’s mapped out her route to campus, planned what she will wear, her school supplies were purchased three weeks in advance. If students were graded on preparation, Jessica would have her first A.

On Tuesday at 9: 25 a.m. this 37-year-old mother of four becomes a Loyola College freshman. More than another fall semester’s start, an adventure will be launched — a journey not just for one part-time undergraduate from Ellicott City but for an entire family dedicated to helping her every step of the way.

“As long as I don’t hit anybody with the van or ask any stupid questions or call attention to myself, I think I’ll do fine,” she says. “Fortunately, I have an edge. I’ve had plenty of practice parallel parking the van from pre-school.”

Pearsall can joke. She learned long ago that you can’t take life too seriously. She’s a lean, talkative 5-foot-4-inch dynamo with a New Jersey accent as thick as her dark, curly hair.

Cheerful and enthusiastic, she’s the kind of person who gives hugs to neighborhood kids, who organizes an evening soccer match with the neighbors, who writes newsletters, shuttles kids to the library, and puts family above all things.

In short, she may be the antithesis of the 18-year-old college freshman. Certainly, she’s a far cry from who she was in her late teens and early 20s growing up as the only child in a New Jersey working class family: purposeless and insecure, a mediocre high school student and later, a community college drop-out working a series of menial jobs.

“I hated school,” she recalls. “I didn’t care what grades I got. My SAT scores were horrendous. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just wasn’t interested.”

The former Jessica Ritchey got married at 21 to a man with a ponytail and a Harley. They had two daughters, Amanda and Amber Wojciechowski, but divorced six years later, leaving the girls in their mother’s care.

Motherhood proved a revelation — she enjoyed it and was good at it. Business school and a job in the AT&T typing pool gave her new purpose. She discovered she had an acumen for office work, rising steadily up the AT&T ranks.

She met Todd Pearsall in an adjoining cubicle. Handsome, quiet, patient, he worked with computers (she calls him her computer geek), and was studying for an MBA from Rutgers. They fell for each other, moved to Maryland and wed on the porch of a French restaurant.

Their first son was born March 15, 1996 at 2: 16 a.m. The birth announcement read: “He has ten fingers and ten toes … however, he also has an extra chromosome commonly know as Down syndrome.”

The couple felt their life had been shattered. “I thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to me,” she says. Within a matter of weeks, she realized that wasn’t the case. “And I’m just now beginning to forgive myself for that [first] reaction.”

Not only did Alex prove to be a joy, a playful, loving child, but an inspiration as well. Pearsall learned all she could about her son’s condition, quickly filling two filing cabinets in her home and almost single-handedly resurrecting a countywide support group for the parents of Down syndrome children.

She enrolled Alex in a nationally recognized speech therapy clinic. She learned basic sign language to help him communicate. So did her husband and daughters. Teaching Alex is a family affair — from vocal exercises, and practice sessions before a mirror to singing during family car rides and trying new sounds.

When asked what it’s like to raise a Down syndrome child, she often points to an essay by writer Emily Perl Kingsley that compares the birth of a disabled child to planning a “fabulous vacation” to Italy and landing in Holland instead.

“It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy,” Kingsley writes. “But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around … and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills … and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.”

And it was in Alex’s speech class two years ago that it slowly dawned on Jessica that she needed to go back to college. Sitting behind a one-way mirror, watching Loyola College graduate students work with Alex, she realized she wanted to do the same thing — to help Alex and children like him.

Typical of Down syndrome children, Alex understands a lot more than he can communicate. Strangers underestimate his intelligence and that frustrates Jessica. “Once people treat him like he doesn’t know what’s going on, he acts that way,” she says.

While Jessica understood the vocal exercises Alex’s therapists taught them both, she knew she didn’t have the education to fully grasp their purpose. It was as if she had been trained to be a surgeon without ever taking a course in anatomy.

“I’d never been comfortable not having a degree,” she says. “But this was a jump-start. I love children and I wanted to help Alex.”

Six months after Alex was born, she left her job to become a stay-at-home mom and take classes part-time at Howard Community College — a first step toward her goal of studying speech pathology at Loyola.

As a student, she proved to be a whiz, earning A’s in every class at Howard. Her daughters helped her study, quizzing her from key facts scribbled on 3-by-5 cards. A typical question: “Mom, what do you call the fiction fostered by adolescent egocentrism that one is immune to common dangers such as sex, drug abuse and high-speed driving?” (Answer: The Invincibility Fable.)

AT&T paid for the classes — a lingering benefit from her employment — and she liked spending more time with her children. Last summer, she gave birth to a second son, Austin. Despite a scare from the meningitis he contracted shortly after birth, he proved to be a healthy child.

Over the winter, Pearsall decided to apply to Loyola, but was scared she wouldn’t be accepted; her high school grades and SAT scores were so poor. Her fears were confirmed in April: “The admissions committee has reviewed your application,” the dean of admissions wrote, “and has asked to see your grades for the Spring Term.”

Fortunately, she produced A’s again. “May I extend to you a cordial welcome to Loyola,” Dean William J. Bossemeyer wrote in May.

When she read the letter out loud while driving the van, her eldest daughter wept with joy. “It was something she wanted to do,” Amanda, 13, says of her mom. “It wasn’t easy and she succeeded.”

Amber, 11, is just as proud. “Not many kids have parents going back to school,” she says.

But going to Loyola will mean sacrifices. While AT&T will pay for her two classes this fall, she will be on her own after that. Her expenses for a typical semester: about $4,000 including baby-sitting fees.

For a household budget that was once based on two incomes, that has been a blow. There are few scholarships for students Jessica’s age. She hopes a fledgling home-based business — putting family pictures on an Internet Web site — will help. “When [Jessica’s] this excited about something, it brings you along,” says her husband. “Everybody wants to do what they can.”

For the girls, that’s meant spending no more than $40 on a new pair of sneakers and getting by on used school supplies. “Mom, the notebook says Amber on it,” Amanda complains.

Last week, Amanda began eighth grade, Amber sixth, both at Elkridge Landing Middle School. Their interest in their mother’s schooling — the price she paid for poor high school grades and the zeal she has for studying today — seems to have had an effect.

In danger of failing some seventh-grade classes, Amanda bounced back this spring with better-than-respectable grades. Amber, a talented but not always hard-working student, is talking about studying alongside her mother.

“We’re all working on the same level and then there’s Pa [Todd], the genius,” says Amanda.

Pearsall expects a long journey ahead. Loyola doesn’t offer evening or weekend courses. There are only about 120 non-traditional (starting college at age 21 or above) students of 3,200 undergraduates.

Taking courses part-time could mean a bachelor’s degree is a half-decade away, a master’s maybe seven years or more. Friends and relatives say they’re certain Jessica will make it — and so will her family.

“There’s no question in my mind,” says Jessica’s mother, Jeanne Ritchey of Westfield, N.J. “She knows there’s more she can do for this world and for this wonderful little boy.”

But first, Jessica has to get past Day 1. She knows no other student on campus. She will be old enough to be the average freshman’s mother. While others will talk about the weekend’s parties, she will be thinking of her daily juggling act: managing her children, her volunteer work, her small business, and on.

“My children — all of them — have brought me purpose and an opportunity,” she says. “Alex has exposed me to a field I didn’t even know existed. As soon as I became exposed to therapists, I knew I wanted to enter that world. I know who I am.”