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Maybe you’ve read this story before – about someone who grew up with nothing but became something. That’s me. But I had a lot of help from my mom.
My family had a cycle of growing up poor. My mom came from a large family with little but the clothes on their backs. My dad was adopted at a young age. My grandparents grew up with very little as well. What’s worse, we were a family that gambled a lot in hopes of hitting the big one. We all know how that works out, right?
By age 5, I was already showing an interest in calculators and VCRs and small machinery. Before I knew it, I was trying to take apart the Commodore 64 in my kindergarten classroom, much to the “delight” of Mrs. Campbell.
As I grew older, I kept learning more and more about technology. In Grade 2, I was helping the teacher load up the computers with the game Lemonade Stand so students could learn what supply-and-demand was all about. By age 9, my babysitter was teaching me how to program in BASIC. We made a slot machine program. I know. The irony isn’t lost on me.
By this point in life, it was just me and my mom and despite being completely in love with technology, we were too poor to afford a computer. My mom tried many times to save up for one but it never worked out. But when I was 12, she landed a job cleaning taxi cabs. The owner of the company was going to throw away an old 386 desktop machine (you might have to Google that to remember it), but my mom asked if she could bring it home instead. He agreed.
I was excited to have my first real computer. This thing must have weighed about 30 pounds and came complete with a 30-megabyte hard drive, DOS and a monitor that only displayed text in green. I loved it. I spent hours programming in BASIC and learning DOS commands. I took it apart just to see how it worked and put it back together again.
By the time I was 15 and in high school, my computer-science teacher suggested that I attend a computer camp. He gave me a brochure and I took it home in excitement. That quickly faded as I handed it to my mom and she realized it would cost several hundred dollars. I went into my room that evening and cried. I yearned to be around other kids like me, who were equally as nerdy and just as in love with technology as I was.
A few weeks went by and I received a phone call. It was the head of the computer camp telling me I would be attending the camp. I could barely process what he was saying and thought, “My mom did it again. Somehow, she figured out a way.” I met a ton of great kids at that camp and learned how to build websites and computers from scratch. I felt confident for the first time in my life.
As the years went by, I kept on learning as much as I could. I kept telling my mom I was going to help us get ahead and become someone someday. She believed in me. But until I was much older, we continued to have little in our home.
Two years after that life-changing summer, I received a phone call from the camp administrator. “I’ve found something that I think you would be interested in reading,” he said and suggested we meet. When we did, he pulled out the application form that my mom sent in when I was 15 and a really long letter in her handwriting.
She wrote about how I was the smartest kid she had ever known. She talked about my love for the calculator and VCR at a young age. My love for computers. How I would go on to become this great and wonderful adult and do great things for the world. It finished off by saying she could not afford the cost of the computer camp and hoped in her heart that they would still accept me anyway.
The head of the computer camp saw the passion in my mom’s letter and knew he had to do the right thing. I broke down crying right then and there.
I’ve never told my mom that I saw this letter.
Over the years, I decided to move from job to job and learn as much as I could at each, instead of attending university. My natural tendency was to prioritize earning money over anything else, to ensure that I was taken care of and that my family was taken of. It took a long time to land a job that was truly technical, but I did it in 2014. I’m proud to say that I recently passed an expert-level cybersecurity exam and have a job that puts those skills to good use. I am even more proud to say that I broke my family’s cycle of living poorly.
I have a wonderful wife of almost 11 years and two amazing kids. Everything I have learned about sacrificing for my family, I learned from my mom.
I’m not sure how much time I have left with my mom. I may just have to sit her down and tell her about the letter and thank her for all the sacrifices she made to ensure that I would have a bright and successful future in a career that I enjoy and love. Heck, maybe I just told her by writing this essay.
James Dulmage lives in Regina.