I am Alexandra Norton, typically referred to as Alex or Mrs. Norton by my favorite people, and this is my story. Please be aware that this story contains sensitive themes.
I grew up among the sun-filled valleys and deserts of Southern California. Home life was a mixed bag. I lived with warm and loving parents and my big brother, Steven, all of whom had loads of unresolved personal trauma.
My beautiful father was a talented and passionate man, with a severe drinking problem and terrifying rage. He was native to Argentina, where he had spent a significant portion of his childhood in a British boarding school. According to my father, this experience left him with two legacies, an excellent education and a head full of ghosts that would haunt him for the rest of his life. At around 14, my father and his family immigrated to the United States, leaving behind his grandparents, whom he worshiped. The transition to life in the states was rocky to say the least, and a few years after high school, my father enlisted in the United States Army to join the Vietnam War. The worst part of the war for him, was coming home to a nation that spit on him for all he had chosen to sacrifice on their behalf. For a man who had never wanted anything more than to be loved and accepted, this created irreversible damage. He married and divorced 5 times before finding my mother. During one of those marriages, he was lucky enough to conceive my older sister. But he largely threw away that prize and, to his shame, was often not the father she deserved. That of course is her story to tell. My parents would divorce too, and then remarry. Despite his drinking and anger, my mother couldn’t stay away.
My wonderful, compassionate mother had chosen my father as a second husband. Her first husband, who was also father to my brother, Steven, was extremely physically abusive, and engaged in crime that warranted the family’s placement in witness protection for a time. When she was finally able to flee from her husband, she found her way back to her childhood home of Santa Monica, where she met my father. Unfortunately, this was before schools were vigilant about who picked up children after school, and Steven’s father found him one day and took him back to Oregon. My mother was devastated and fought to get him back, but the situation became messy, and Steven was placed in foster care. Again, this was a time before foster care licensing was as thorough as it is today, and Steven was placed with a family who very clearly did not want him and let him know. Eventually, the court realized its mistake and Steven was placed fully in my mother’s custody. Within a few years, my mother and father would marry, and together with Steven, make a home in San Diego. With all that trauma, you can imagine that things were not exactly easy, and then I came along as a surprise.
Our family had several things against it. Mental illness, trauma, substance abuse, strain and tension. It left me with scars, but it also left me with tools to reach out and get the help I needed to become the person I am evolving into today. My parents were not bad people. In fact, after 32 years of life I can say my parents were 2 of the best people I’ve ever known. They were loving and kind, generous and caring, vibrant and talented, committed and resilient. They were both well loved by the many people in their lives. Of course, for my father, people loved him more or less depending on his mood at the time. I recognize the choices my parents made that didn’t serve them well, and by extension did not serve me or my siblings well, but I adore them and wouldn’t choose anyone else to be my parents. Their goodness was profound, and it made me.
When I was 15, my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Two months after my graduation from college, my father would take his own life. A few years after I was married, my brother would follow suit, and end his life. Their deaths will always be a part of my story, but it is really their lives that continue to shape my path.
Amidst family life was always school. And while I didn’t particularly love being a student, I pretty much started school knowing I wanted to be a teacher. Even in elementary school I would analyze the way my teacher would deliver a lesson and imagine how I would do it differently in my mind. Then, at home, I would play teacher with my hoard of stuffed animals, diligently doing the work of each student so I would have papers to grade. It was a lot of work! But I never wavered. When middle school came around I joined FTA-Future Teachers of America. And of course when I finally made it to the golden gates of college, I started my path toward becoming an elementary teacher. During my last two years of college I even had the opportunity to teach Spanish to 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at a local private school.
However, college was my tipping point. I had been battling Obsessive Compulsive symptoms since I was 8 years old that had become debilitating once my mother died, and hit an all time high my senior year of high school and first year of college. It was during the second semester of my freshman year of college that I saw a school counselor for the first time. I had finally found my way into the arms of psychology. I camped in those arms throughout college, and after getting what felt like a double major in liberal studies (the elementary teaching path at my school) and personal psychology, I graduated and became… a flight attendant! Education had never stopped calling my name, I was just trying to figure out if anything I had ever been was real. I left after a month of flying to become a preschool teacher.
I got married, nannied, taught at a couple preschools, one a Montessori preschool, and then went back to school and became… a licensed massage therapist. I worked in a spa and then started my own massage practice, but I still never stopped hearing the call of education. I continued to evolve and search for myself.
One quiet afternoon I found a park with a large labyrinth, and I walked it. I walked around and around contemplating my life and what I could offer the world. And when I made it to the center, I knelt down and closed my eyes. Teaching, I knew, was where I belonged. It was time to fulfill the call I had felt since childhood. Who knew where I would end up, but I knew the elementary classroom was my starting point. So, I went back for a second bachelors, and got my South Dakota teaching certificate. It was an emotional day, the day I received that envelope in the mail. I was finally a teacher. The first day I walked into the doors of my own classroom was surreal. My dream had come true.
I worked as a 5th grade teacher for a year and a half in Rapid City, South Dakota, until my husband and I moved to the Seattle area. As fate would have it, I immediately landed a 5th grade teaching position in a magical school close to home. I was instantly enchanted with the district, with the community, with the school grounds, with my team, and most of all, with my 5th graders. I have been at my school for five years now, but three years ago made the transition from 5th grade to 1st grade. Did I get tired of 5th graders? No way. I still miss them. But I knew there were tools and perspective I was missing as a 5th grade teacher that I might be able to attain if I worked with students from the beginning of their academic careers. I was right. It has been a whole new world to encounter and invest in the literacy, mathematical, and behavioral development of children ages 6-7. And I would do 5th grade differently now.
In my career as an educator, and in various other capacities, I have had the opportunity to work with students ages birth-18. What always strikes me is their potential. Human beings are truly remarkable, and I consider it a great privilege to have a front row seat to their development. What I want most to be able to offer families is validation, compassion, support, and guidance that enables all family members to reach their full potential as individuals and as a collective.
At one point in my teaching career, I went back to school again (I learned to love being a student eventually) and got my masters in psychology. My capstone thesis was titled, “Supporting Parents to Support Children.” My research brought me to the conclusion that families in the United States and across the globe generally need support in 3 areas to effect positive change that ripples across society. These areas relate to deep poverty, chaotic homes and lifestyles, and parenting practices. It is a very difficult time to be a family. There is more judgement than guidance, more advice than compassion, more information than the ability to take it in, and more things we’re “supposed” to do than time to do it in. My current passion project is leveraging my personal background, education, and experience in the fields of education and psychology to make it easier for the families I serve to enjoy life and one another by offering education and support with a focus on the three areas I found to be of utmost importance in my masters research. In other words, my hope is to help the human beings I so admire reach their own fullest potential.
If my story resonates with yours, and you would like to follow my progress with issues related to mental health, grieving loss, infertility, and human development in general, feel free to follow my blog, The Rocks in my Pocket. Talk soon!