She hated to leave Isaac to work part-time as a grocery store cashier. To the single mom, he was the sweetest little thing you would ever meet.
It was just as hard after she married and decided to take classes at a local college in North Dakota. But she wanted to set an example to him. No one in her family had ever gone to college.
After she got pregnant, well, that was that. Sam Lauf dropped out, had a daughter and started work as a classroom aide in Minot.
One day, a teacher at the school told her that she was getting her master’s degree online from a college in Phoenix called Grand Canyon University.
“What the heck?” Lauf said.
She immediately looked into it, and for two years, was determined to pay off old loans so she could enroll. This summer, Sam was all set to start classes in three weeks with a dream to get a degree in elementary education and become a teacher.
But on July 30, Isaac, 8, experienced intense pain and was inconsolable. They hurried him to the emergency room. A doctor told them he had a golf-ball sized tumor on his cerebellum.
Sam fell to the floor. She thought her son was going to die.
Doctors put in a drain to relieve pressure and sent mother and son on a life flight to Fargo, where Isaac immediately had surgery to remove the cancer. “But he is so strong and was making us laugh,” Sam wrote in her Caring Bridge journal a couple days later.
A long road lay ahead. Isaac went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, on Aug. 15 to start 30 rounds of radiation.
Going to college was again out.
“You need to,” Isaac told her. “That’s what you want to do.”
“Are you OK if mommy has to do schoolwork?”
“I have to do schoolwork, too,” he said.
“OK, we are going to do this together.”
As Isaac weakened from the radiation, he began studies with a hospital tutor as Sam opened a laptop to take her first class at GCU in college readiness.
“She would share pictures of her and Isaac in our class forums, and it has such a positive impact on our community,” said her GCU instructor, Amanda Errington. “She never made excuses and was such a bright light in our class. She is going to make an amazing educator.”
Sam learned step by step how to format papers and how to write a college essay, and each day she felt her depression and worry lift as classmates asked how Isaac was doing and Errington showed her grace when she needed a minute to step away.
It’s long been a forte at GCU, helping students across the country forge ahead with a caring community, even in difficult times.
When it got tough, Sam remembered that she desperately wanted to show family members that one of them could be a college graduate. When it got even tougher, and Isaac was so weakened from his surgery and radiation that he was in a wheelchair, she looked to her son.
“He was the one who made me grow up,” she said of her single mother days. “He has always kept me going through all the crap.”
Isaac encouraged her to send photos and messages to her classmates.
“He likes to hear about what I am learning and encourages me to stay positive and push through all the hard times,” she said. “I thank God I have such an amazing kiddo who is my ‘why’ for going to school. He is my biggest cheerleader.”
Sam completed her first seven-week course, and by early October, Isaac had completed his radiation, ringing the bell at the hospital signifying its completion. He asked his mom to share the video that was taken that day with Errington and the class.
They were delighted. The College of Education sent a care package to Isaac with GCU swag, including what is now a favorite blanket, and marveled at Sam’s strength that foretells a bright future.
“Despite the personal challenges that teachers face, the best educators exhibit perseverance and grit when working with students,” Errington said.
By Oct. 16, Isaac returned part-time to his classroom in Minot, preparing for the rounds of chemotherapy to come, while his mom was in her second college course.
“GCU has brought much joy and reflection in my life,” Sam said. “God was telling me you need something to keep your mind busy through all of this. I needed something to reach for. I so badly want to be a teacher. ... So I can help kids grow up to be good humans.”
The first step is getting her son through chemotherapy, so that one day she can cross the GCU stage at Commencement with Isaac in the audience.
Maybe he will ring a bell.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]