I have not been able to sit and watch any sort of TV or movies in months. Last night, I decided to try and watch President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address and also get a glimpse of my friend Portia Collins son Jason who sat near First Lady, Michelle Obama as her guest. As the SOTU began, I immediately got nostalgic because in the past, I would sit comfortably in the sun room along with Darrell and Justin and we would watch and listen, as a family, to the coverage of elections and whenever the President spoke.

Justin loved history and politics and was able to have a great teacher, Mr. Newhart in 7thgrade during the initial Obama Election. I clearly remember how stressed I was on Election Day November 6, 2012. I was so nervous and could barely do anything. Later in the evening when the President was re-elected, Justin posted on his Facebook (FB) page: “I knew Obama won when I felt the thumps from praise dancing upstairs….” We laughed after he showed us all the “Likes” he got from his post. It was funny and true; I was dancing up a storm after that victory! Darrell also told Justin that he had the opportunity to be the President of the United States. When Justin looked at Darrell in disbelief, Darrell firmly said: “Yes you Can!”

All of the topics that were to be addressed in the SOTU hit home. No doubt the aggregate of the issues will somehow affect every American citizen at some stage in their life. I honestly got a knot in my throat when the President began to talk about the plans and goals for Education. All that Darrell and I could do, as we glanced over at each other, was shed a few tears and shake our heads because that dream of ours for Justin’s higher education was beyond deferred it will never be heard. However, we did firmly agree that since we knew the importance of Education (that was instilled in us by our parents) we were so glad that we were able to give Justin the best; even if it meant to switch institutions to find the right fit for him. We often told Justin that “ Yes you can follow your dreams and goals.” Furthermore, we also know that the majority of American students do not always have such a choice to choose the best education that others are fortunate to have. Our public education system is floundering and sometimes kids are unfortunately being passed through the system.

I was glad to be interrupted by the ringing sound of the phone and so I left the room. It was my niece Laureina -who recently graduated from UC Berkeley and who chose to work in one of the most dreadful spots of our country as an English Teacher in rural Arkansas. I asked her if she was watching the SOTU and she said no, she was getting ready for her next day. Due to the aftermath of a colleague leaving, she had inherited yet another class to teach 8th grade English, and she now had over 110 students.

She called to tell me that she has seen a tremendous difference in “her” kids reading abilities and that today she gave them each a bookmark that her mom Susan had made (using Justin’s infamous “Happy to see the sun” painting.) She also showed them the recent video of the student who won the Art Contest to Monaco from the school that Justin adopted to help along with his peers from school. Laureina told me that she wanted to give her students hope that their dreams can be heard. She tells them that “ Yes. They can do better. Yes. They can read, and Yes. She will help them. They said: “ Ms. Toler, you know so many famous people.”

JCWWP Dare 2 Dream Workshop

Unfortunately, she said the big difference is that these kids never see anything positive on TV. They see crime daily and at a minimum weekly, they know someone in their family or someone that they know has been impacted or afflicted with crime. So, they come to school with extra burdens, they have heavy loads on their mind and they are numb with even thinking about hope.

Laureina said: “Auntie, Justin was too much and is still impacting people who never even knew him. It is so powerful that people continue to tell you often about what Justin meant to them, even if they never met him. How do you feel when you get feedback? “ I told her, “I love it when people reach out to me and Darrell to tell us about their connection to feelings of Justin. It does the mind and body good. Really! It helps me get through the day. So how do you keep hope alive? Justin’s goals and dreams will now have to live through us and through all of you.”

Laureina, Justin and Maurita

As for my niece, she takes her job seriously and is making strides in her quest to be the “best teacher” she can be. Last week she posted this last week on FB:

this last week on FB:

“That simple, yet epic moment when one 8th grader who avoided reading at the beginning of the year interrupts teacher reading to ask if he can read the next paragraph to the class. This could all mean 1) he really wasn’t feeling my reading voice OR 2) his reading/ confidence is growing. I’ll take either one! We call that progress, baby!” Laureina

I feel that my badge of motherhood has been stripped from my heart. I have to tell myself that I will always be a mother “ Yes you can” be the surrogate mother to so many others who need your guidance and love; just like I gave to Justin.

As I write this message, I could not help but reflect back to last week when I was walking with Amber down a unpaved trail when I saw ahead of me a mother carrying a newborn baby close to her heart. As I looked down, I at her feet, I noticed that the mother’s shoe was untied. I immediately yelled, “ Hey mother with the new baby stop, your shoe is untied. “ I walked towards her and said, “ Stick your foot out so I can tie your shoe. “ She immediately asked me “ Are you a Mother? “ Amber was horrified. I calmly told her “ My only son recently died.” She did not know what to say. She said choking on her words, “I’m sorry.” Since I was wearing Ambers HW visor, the mother said, “ Was he the swimmer from Harvard-Westlake? My brother went there. Do you know Portia Collins?” I said, “Yes that was my son Justin and Yes, I know Portia, and she is my friend.” She then gave me a hug. I gave her a card with Justin’s picture on it. She said, “Thank you.” We parted because quite frankly, there were no other words.

When I got home, I emailed Portia and told her about my encounter. She said she knew the lady, and that her sons Jarron and Jason went to HW with her brother. The next day, Portia sent me the following response from a dialogue she had with another friend.

“Gloria, My friend was on a walk in the canyons. She noticed a very nice young mother carrying a very small baby girl walking down the hill in front of her. My friend stopped the young mother (a total stranger) and told her that her shoe is untied and as she mentioned it to the young mother, she began to tie the shoe all-in-one-motion.

The young mother was shocked that my friend had bent over and tied the shoe so quickly. The young mother asked my friend if she had children of her own. My friend, proudly said, “Yes, I had one child but he suddenly passed away almost a year ago.” The young mother was startled by my friend’s honesty and really had no words other than to express her immediate and sincere sorrow.

My friend was wearing a visor. The young mother noticed the HW logo on the visor and she desperately wanted to change the subject, so she asked my friend if she knew Portia Collins?

Well, my friend is Susan Carr and the young mother on the walk today is Vanessa Karubian. Vanessa proudly said that her brother graduated from HW and that he went to high school with Portia Collins’ sons. Susan, exclaimed, ‘That’s my Girl which is an affectionate expression often used amongst sister-friends.

My point: You never know where your reputation will surface so try and make a good impression with every touch with those you know well and with total strangers….” Portia

Gloria wrote back to Portia:

“Portia, This is a great story, thanks for sharing. We all know you never know where you will meet a stranger with so many connections to friends. That little girl’s name is Stella, which was my Mom’s name and I think fondly of my mother every time I see them. I often think of Susan and whisper a prayer for her family.


I often ponder on how I will respond to that question “ Do you have kids?” Because it is bound to come up over and over again. It took me back to the book “I love you forever” that still rests on the bookshelf that my friend Tona gave me when I was pregnant with Justin. I, in turn, have given it to dozens of friends. Tonight, I had to pull it out and read it and of course cry. It is a story about a young mother who watches over her son from birth until he became a grown man. Each night she would sneak into his room, no matter what age he was, hold and rock her son and say to him “ I love you forever, I love you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” When she got to old to care for herself, her son would sneak into her room and hold her each night. You know the night before Justin left this Earth, I was lying on his bed and I told him to help me up. He said, “ Mom, you know you can get up. When you get old, there will be a time when I will have to help you up, but not now!” He said I love you, I told him “ I love you too!” So glad I did. But now, everyone out there, we are going to need you to help hold us up as we walk this road. Yes, you can!

President Obama-Yes you can be the leader of our United States, Portia-Yes You Can be the proud Mother of your sons Jarron and Jason, Laureina -Yes You Can be the best Teacher that “ Your” students can have and so desperately need. Yes, I can stop to help a stranger. Everyone alive you have the opportunity to say ‘Yes I can!” to do everything positive that is at your fingertips. Yes, I will proudly say yes I am a mother and I will always be Justin’s mother and for as long as I’m living Justin, my baby, you will be!

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