Support us with Kachingle!
November 29, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Nakia Bowen joined her father and two teachers in the place where her new life began, a GED classroom in a church basement. Her blonde hair dipped just below her chin and framed the smile that seemed to be her natural state — always optimistic and never defeated.
The 28-year-old mother of two boys is confined to a wheelchair after a paralyzing accident, but that didn’t stop her from learning to swim without the use of her legs or going back to class to earn the equivalent of her high school diploma. She was determined to set an example for her two boys.
Nakia grew up with her family in Branson and had always been close to her father, Ron Atchison. He recalls taking Nakia down to Lake Taneycomo to when she was little. She would line up rocks on the stairs by the lake and count to make sure there was one pebble for each step. It was an early sign of her love of math, something she inherited from him. “My dad always used to let me help with things around the house,” Nakia says. “I’d sit there and help measure.”
Even when the lake was ice-cold, Ron couldn’t stop Nakia from swimming. Her mother, Sheila, describes her daughter during the summer as “dark as a coconut with snow white hair.” Nakia got along well with her mom, who remained supportive through the difficult times. Still, Sheila says, her daughter is a daddy’s girl at heart.
But Ron and Nakia’s relationship changed when she entered high school.
They argued over her desire to be a cheerleader and go out in the evenings. At 17, Nakia moved out of the house to live with her boyfriend. Her parents encouraged her to stay in school, but she dropped out and became pregnant. Three months after his birth, she got pregnant again with her second son.
At 21, she married her boyfriend. Her father felt like he’d lost his daughter for good. “I could tell from the start that it wouldn’t last,” her father says. “The fact that she married him anyway was very hurtful.”
Their feud seemed futile when Nakia experienced the most traumatic event of her life in 2007. She and her husband were cutting down trees for firewood. One tree crashed to the ground in the wrong direction — right where 23-year-old Nakia was stacking wood. It landed on top of her.
A week later, she woke up permanently paralyzed from the waist down with no memory of the accident. During her three months at Rusk Rehabilitation Center, she suffered from severe depression. “There were times when I was mad at everyone,” she says. “People were worried I was going to take my own life.”
A year after Nakia’s accident, her husband asked for a divorce. She received sole custody of the boys, and Sheila saw her daughter becoming her bubbly self again. “The day of my divorce was nothing but a relief,” Nakia says. “I felt like I wasn’t burdened down anymore with someone who didn’t want to be with me.”
From there, Nakia felt like she could start taking control of her life again. After the accident, she had become afraid of swimming, but she began taking classes at the YMCA and eventually regained her confidence. This summer, the family went boating, and Nakia swam without any help. “I freaked my parents out,” she says.
Seeing her newfound confidence, Ron encouraged her to take the GED test. She brushed the dust off his old books and started studying.
Nakia was not alone. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 20 percent of individuals older than 25 in Audrain County, where Nakia lives, don’t have a high school diploma. In Columbia, where she took the test, less than 8 percent of people don’t have their GED or high school diploma.
In September, Beth Lower, a teacher from the Columbia Adult Learning Center’s branch in Mexico, Mo., helped her sign up for classes. Nakia worried most about the history portion on the GED test but loved the math homework. “She knew when she came in that she could do this, and she wasn’t going to stop until she conquered it,” Beth says.
On test day, Nakia breezed through the math section and became more confident when she saw the essay prompt. Asked to write about something she enjoyed learning outside of school, she immediately thought of driving lessons with her dad. The words came easily, and so did the tears. She jokes that the proctor probably thought she was having a nervous breakdown.
For more than a week she awaited the results. Her boys would come home from school asking, “Did you get it?” More than anything, she wanted to tell them, “Yes.”
On Oct. 26, she could finally give them an answer. “Did you pass?” they asked. She teased them with a frown before breaking out into a big grin. “Yes,” she said. She only needed 2250 to pass; she scored 2990. The first person she called was her dad.
Nakia plans to start online classes in January. She originally wanted to go into accounting, but now wants to become a geometry teacher.
The GED was the first step toward this dream. She scored well in every section, but one element of the test ranked even higher than her mathematics — the essay about her father teaching her to drive. “You’re looking at me like you’re really proud right now,” Nakia says to her dad in the classroom.
He sits across from her and beams.
Read department editor Kate Everson's reflections on this story at our blog, VoxTalk.