‘Before I walked across the stage in 1992, as the youngest R.N. in my class, I had already received a different title: ‘Mother.’ Twice.’: Teen mom defies odds to become awarded nurse

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“This June, I will be celebrating 30 years as a Registered Nurse! It seems so long ago, and yet just like yesterday. I have worn many hats over the years, and when I graduated at 22, I wore a hideous nurse hat. I am glad those times changed; however, it was a part of the uniform. I was thankful and excited to start working and making my own money. My love for nursing directly correlated with my passion for helping people. It provided me with a platform to sharpen my critical thinking skills as a young woman.

In this business, one must always be prepared for any situation. In some instances, mere seconds can mean the difference between life and death. This was something I was all too familiar with growing up in Compton, California. At 26, just four years into the profession, I received the Nurse Merit Award. This award is presented to nurses who have displayed noteworthy and exceptional performance, participated in professional development, and contributed to elevating the nursing profession. I worked in a 1,100 licensed-bed facility with thousands of nurses, to put it into perspective. I was chosen amongst my peers.

African American woman receiving a Nurse Merit Award
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson
Nurse Merit Award issued in 1996 to an African American woman named Shannon Jones
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

I felt recognition for the first time in my life. This day changed everything for me, including how I was viewed as a young leader. I knew then I had found my purpose. By 29, I received my Bachelor of Science degree (BSN). At 35, I was hired as the first black and first female Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Chief Nurse Officer (CNO) at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center. However, the road to get there was a difficult one. Before I walked across the stage in 1992, as the youngest R.N. in my class, I had already received a different title; ‘mother.’ Twice.

Drugs, sex, gang violence, and police brutality were the center of national news in 1984. The Compton streets were divided in colors; blue and red. It was difficult for a young girl to stay on the ‘straight and narrow.’ My mother and her mother raised me. We had a balanced life, and although my father was not in the picture much, I was surrounded by love. My grandmother was highly active. She was a neighborhood watch member, worked in family planning, and worked closely with the city councilwoman. And if you guessed she was a God-fearing woman, you are correct! We rarely missed a ‘meeting.’

African American woman smiles for a photo in her living room while wearing an orange and white outfit
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

One day, a church friend called my grandmother and told her about a community drill team program. She described how positive it would be for me to join. I would have the opportunity to meet other girls my age and be active in the community. My grandmother was not entirely convinced but agreed with a bit of encouragement from her favorite granddaughter. I started my first year at Compton High School, and now I would join the Carson Quenette’s Drill Team in the fall. That’s where I met him. The boy who would turn my life upside down. He was a drummer. He came from a good family. He was older. He had a car. He was hot, and I was in love. I was sure that in 1984, I had met the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life. The only thing is it went nothing like this.

picture of a young African American woman standing on the street outside of her house waving and smiling
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

It still gives me a bit of anxiety to think about it now. It was in January of 1985. I was sick as-a-dog that day. I remember lying on my grandmother’s couch feeling like death and bawling uncontrollably. I kept having to get up and go throw up in the bathroom. Deep down, I knew my months-long ‘courtship’ was more than likely the contributing factor. My grandmother came over beside me and asked, ‘Shannon, what’s wrong, baby?’ If you are a parent, you know this response all too well. The no eye contact, the slow and unenergetic shoulder shrug, and the ‘I don’t know’ mumble. Yep, it was all it took for her to phone my mother and schedule an appointment for a pregnancy exam.

That day, my family and I were told I was two months pregnant. My grandmother and mother were initially disappointed. My grandmother said, ‘Shannon, I work in family planning. I could have gotten you birth control pills. Why didn’t you tell me? I could have helped.’ I was so ashamed and embarrassed. I knew I had been raised in the church, and this was not the future my family had in mind for me. My son’s father and I parted ways after discovering he enlisted in the military and ‘knocked up’ another girl (plot twist). I was heartbroken! I felt so stupid for allowing myself to believe this boy could love me. I just went completely numb. I couldn’t even tell you what was going through my mind; it was blank. After the initial shock wore off, my family rallied beside me in full support.

My grandmother and my mother had a straightforward request, ‘You must finish school if you want our help.’ Compton School District had a state-funded program that automatically enrolled pregnant or expecting students. There was also a policy that school officials had to be notified if you became pregnant. So, instead of returning to my school, I went to the Harriet Tubman Alternate High School. They believed the environment would be better for pregnant students and more conducive to learning. They also thought the pregnant students would be provided with safety and support as they continued their education. It was exactly like a high school. It had books, desks, chairs, and brightly colored walls. The main difference I saw right off the bat was the nursery.

It was a school for girls with babies, and there was an undeniable sisterhood between the students and faculty. The shame I felt before I walked in disappeared. I realized I was not alone, and I wasn’t the only little black girl from Compton dealing with this. We had to select from standard core classes like everyday math and science. However, students here had to choose a trade. One of the administrators asked me, ‘Do you want to learn how to sew?’ I responded swiftly, ‘No, thank you.’ She continued. ‘Would you like to learn how to cook?’ I remember pausing and thinking to myself, ‘Cooking? I am only fifteen years old. My mother and grandmother cook for me. Umm, No. Then I looked at her and politely responded as I had on the previous question, ‘No, thank you.’ All that was left was a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program. So, I took it.

This is when I met Ms. Lillian Giles. She was a registered nurse and the instructor teaching the CNA program. By watching and learning from her, I developed a love for people, patients, and other students. It was her professionalism. It was how she talked to us. She never talked down to us or made us feel guilty about our situation. Instead, she empowered us and stressed the importance of education. I wanted to be just like her. She is why I pursued nursing as a career, and she is responsible for changing the trajectory of my life. I love her beyond words. Believe it or not, we have stayed in contact with each other even until this day. I was married in 2018 for the first time, and she attended the wedding!

My pregnancy was not an easy one. I developed preeclampsia, which is a condition that can occur during pregnancy where there is a sudden rise in blood pressure. By having this condition, I was considered high risk. In addition to my school and the CNA program, I attended a high-risk clinic weekly for close management and monitoring. By the summer of 1985, I was ready to deliver my son. I was initially scheduled to return to Long Beach Memorial Hospital. However, the doctors there had difficulties hearing the baby’s heartbeat because my blood pressure was elevated. After multiple attempts to get it to come down, they decided to transfer me to an Obstetrician working at the Martin Luther King medical center, a county facility specializing in high-risk O.B. patients.

On August 30, 1985, I delivered an eight-pound, eight-ounce, and 23 inches healthy baby boy. I named him Craven Foster Charles. He was named after my mother’s brother, who was killed in a car accident while I was pregnant. After I had my son, I got on welfare and food stamps. It was so tough, but I finished the trade school CNA program at 16, all while balancing motherhood, school, and myself. My family was my rock. I could not have done it without their love and support. I graduated with honors and my original Compton High School Class of 1987! I enrolled in the nursing program at Compton Community College. Even though I knew what I wanted to be, I didn’t know who I was. I struggled emotionally. I would get depressed, stressed, and anxious all of the time.

Mid shot of teen African American mom holding her newborn baby and smiling
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson
African American woman and her brother hugging outside of the entrance door of their house
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

I realized I was lonely, so I went out looking for love in all the wrong places – again. Four years after my first child, I was pregnant. Not one, but two baby daddies, at 19 years old! ‘What have you done?’ ‘What is wrong with you, Shannon?’ I remember just asking myself over and over again. My self-esteem was in the toilet. It was so low, I attempted to take my own life this one time. I am ashamed to say it because I love my children so much, but it is how lost I had become with the news of my second pregnancy. Even though I went to church with my mother and my grandmother, I never really connected to spirituality on my own. I just knew we had to go.

Young African American boy talking on a blue land line phone
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

While I was pregnant, there was a night I went to a bible study with my mother and auntie, and unbeknownst to them, I had attempted to take my life that very day. They could see I was not doing okay. Maybe everyone could see I was struggling, but the pastor walked over to me towards the end of the service and asked me, ‘May I pray for you?’ I just bowed my head and let go of the hurt, disappointment, shame, and guilt. I dropped to my knees and sobbed like a child. I decided I would stop feeling sorry for myself, pick myself up, and become the woman I was always meant to be. For the first time in my life, I felt the heaviness lift from my spirit. I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and clarity. That day made me believe in the power of prayer and the forgiveness God extends to all of us.

I had my daughter, a four-year-old son, a CNA certificate, and a full-time nursing schedule at the community college. I was careful, however, not to work during the week so I remained focused on my goals. I did just that. When I walked across the stage at 22, I was determined to lead by example. I wanted to show any young mother out there the choice is theirs to make. Only you can decide how your life will turn out. First, you must love yourself and make yourself a priority. Secondly, be kind to yourself. The world can already be ugly; don’t add to it. Next, when you get down, reach out to someone. Seek help. There is nothing wrong with receiving the attention necessary to heal. Don’t suffer in silence. Lastly, take accountability. Own your mistakes and move on. Period. Begin to set a plan for you and your child’s life. Create a vision board that requires action.

African American nurse wearing a white lab coat and smiling with her body turned to the side and a brick wall in the background
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson
Mid shot of African American woman wearing a long sleeve turtle neck shirt smiling with the Livingroom blurred in the background
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

With consistency, discipline, faith, and self-love, you can accomplish anything. I am the CEO/Founder of Living Your Life Without Limits, LLC, based in Compton, California. It is a platform I created about two years ago, which allows me to travel the country as a motivational speaker, educate my community through my ‘street love’ program, and coach nurses and future nurses. I will be in Belize in two weeks, speaking to a group of medical professionals. I have hired an incredible team who works with me and keeps me inspired. About six months ago, I was featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show for my philanthropic work in the community of Compton.

African American woman sitting on a couch at a studio while smiling at the computer and holding a mug
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson
African American woman wearing matching white outfit with the logo and initials of her company called Living Your Life Without Limits
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

Talk about a full-circle moment as ‘The People’s Nurse,’ a nickname given to me by one of my VIP clients. I have had some incredible nursing opportunities. For example, before I started Living Your Life Without Limits full-time, I worked as a concierge nurse for parents of the ‘rich and famous’ in Hollywood. The possibilities are endless, which is why I have dedicated this stage of my life and career to reaching as many people as possible. When so many nurses are exiting the profession due to fatigue and low morale, I know my mission to motivate is needed now more than ever.”

Two African American women and a man wearing Christ related shirts and one shirt that says THE PEOPLE'S NURSE
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson
African American woman sitting in front of a microphone while smiling and fixing her shirt's necklace with painted art of African American women in the back
Courtesy of Shannon Jackson

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shannon Jackson, The People’s Nurse. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her foundation Living Your Life Without Limits. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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