Doing it all: Bernice Bridges tackles a double major, raises 7 children and volunteers on the side

Editor’s note: About 50,000 students, staff, faculty members and visitors converge on the University’s Twin Cities campus every day. In the midst of this sea of people, it’s easy to think of the strangers passing by as just anonymous faces.
Every Monday during spring quarter the Daily will peek inside the lives of some of the strangers you see every day. Randomly chosen from the University phone book, those profiled could sit in your class, ride your bus or pass you on the sidewalk someday. They share the University with you, and now they won’t be strangers.
Ingrid Skjong

t’s Friday evening in Bernice Bridges’ liv-
ing room and the kids are out for the night.
Settled back in her deep leather chair with black-framed glasses perched squarely on her head, she is ready to unwind.
Then the phone rings — for the fourth time in less than an hour. This time it’s her daughter checking for any urgent messages. Earlier it was one of her children’s friends.
Most of them call her Mom.
“I’m everybody else’s mama,” she said. “I have no name anymore.”
As a 49-year-old single mother of seven children who range from ages 12 to 32, Bridges plays an extensive repertoire of roles, each requiring something new.
From chauffeur to chef, child psychologist to mechanic, she handles everything, including a sociology and African-American studies double major at the University. Two Spanish courses shy of graduation, Bridges is living a dream that took 28 years to realize.

After 23 years, back to class
A defiant teenager with little interest in education, Bridges said “Male 101” was her preferred subject during high school. After giving birth to her first child at age 17, she left school and her family to live on her own.
As her family grew, so did her interest in returning to school. She hid her uncompleted high school career from everyone she knew, and her desire to attend the University became a gnawing need.
Bridges recalled taking her young children to the University clinic and watching hurried students bustle about the campus loaded with books and backpacks. She said she would close her eyes and envision herself doing the same.
Twenty-three years after abandoning high school, she was determined to fill the void.
“It’s like having a dress on and forgetting your high heels,” she said. “You look down and you have your Reeboks on and think, Something’s missing.'”
Hungry for high standards and an authentic high school environment, she refused the GED and enrolled in a Racine, Wis., high school. Two years later, at the age of 41, she graduated with a 4.0 grade point average.
Her lips curl into a satisfied smile as she remembered the day she stood as valedictorian and delivered her graduation speech amid the cheers of classmates and family.
“I think that’s my greatest accomplishment,” she said. “I don’t think when I walk across the stage at the University I’ll feel that same exuberance.”
Throughout her first two years of college at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Bridges threw herself into school.
“She was a doer,” said Spanish professor Walter Gutierrez. “She was not just soaking up knowledge and letting it sit there.”
With an insatiable thirst for exposure to different cultures, Bridges helped design student programs at Parkside’s cultural center. She took her work seriously, and Gutierrez said he still envisions her as a big sister to the younger students.
Though Parkside comfortably initiated Bridges into college life, she said she always felt the University was where she belonged. The family made the move to Minneapolis in 1994, and two days after arriving in Minneapolis, Bridges attended her first lecture as a full-fledged University student.

A hardwood veneer
There was little doubt as to why Bridges was at the University, but her kids remained ambivalent.
“Everybody was kind of quiet,” said Louis Johnson, her 28-year-old son. “I think everyone was scared of the move.”
For two months, Bridges and her four youngest children lived in a cramped, bare room in a local homeless shelter. Juggling school, family and the dreary living situation was difficult, and Bridges was forced to drop a class.
Even today, four years later, the sound of her voice grows contemptuous at the memory.
“My kids had never lived with roaches,” she said. “I didn’t want that to become a part of them. I want them to know that life is real out there, but I don’t want them exposed.”
Bridges is all too familiar with the real world. After living in Chicago for 15 years, she learned to remain alert and cautiously guarded.
“I never walk down the street without looking,” she said. “You make yourself a victim when you let your guard down.”
Rose Brewer, chairwoman of the African- American studies department, once told Bridges she ought to receive a Ph.D. for street saviness.
For security’s sake, she foregoes purses and never leaves home without a leather fanny pack cinched around her waist. Fashion aesthetics not forgotten, she owns one for casual trips and another for more formal occasions.
During a recent visit to New York for the VH-1 Fashion Awards, a trip she won in a drawing at a local shopping mall, Bridges donned a $200 dress with her formal fanny pack slung over her shoulder as if it was a Chanel bag.
Despite slipping into the role of student at an age when many begin dreaming of retirement, Bridges’ priorities never wavered.
The children rarely stayed home alone and she roused them out of bed each morning to see them off to school before departing herself.
“I’m a mother first, student second,” she said emphatically.
However, her children didn’t initially understand her drive to be a student.
“When she first started, I really couldn’t understand why she did it,” said Bridges’ 21-year-old daughter, Chanel.
Final exam times particularly shook things up. Although Bridges was usually an unstoppable gourmet, carry-out pizzas became the norm. Armed with Diet Cokes and stacks of books, Bridges tackled studying from her familiar chair.
The kids learned to tip-toe around her, but there were times they said they just needed Mom.
Sixteen-year-old Chamera admitted she would interrupt her mother with less-than-earth-shattering questions just to get an opportunity to have a conversation.
Loaded with term papers and in need of feedback, Bridges often recruited Chamera to act as a sounding board and editor.
“I learned watching Mom,” Chamera said. “It helped me a lot because (now) I write good papers.”
Occasionally the stress weaseled its way into Bridges’ resolve and caused brief but cathartic flare-ups.
“Sometimes my kids think I have a hardwood veneer, but I have my breaking points, too,” she said. “There are times when I’ve thrown the book on the floor and said, That’s it!’ But I always pick it up again.”

Down time
Bridges’ vices are few. She admits to a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, although the air in her home gives no hint of cigarette smoke. Her real drug of choice is crocheting.
Her warm voice lulls as she explains it’s the only time she takes care of herself.
“I can pick up that old crochet hook and be in my own world,” she said calmly. “No one can get involved. It’s just me and the thread.”
The passion she feels for the craft radiates through her delicate handiwork. Reaching behind her chair where she stashes her patterns, thread and needles, she draped intricately stitched doilies reminiscent of diaphanous snowflakes over her arm.
When her mother and grandmother attempted to teach her the complex task in her early 20s, she admitted her enthusiasm was negligible. However, the hooks’ comforting rhythm became alluring as the need for an escape became a priority.
The kids know that when mom settles into her chair and sets the yarn in her lap, it’s her time. The solitary ritual is simply an extension of her abilities.
“She’s very talented,” said Chanel. “I don’t think I would have the patience to do all that.”
As a single mother, she learned to seamlessly blend the roles of mother and father into one, all-encompassing identity. That balancing act single-handedly held her family together.
She can bake an apple pie and without missing a beat march to the living room and rearrange the furniture.
“I remember growing up she’d be out there fixing cars,” said her son Louis Johnson. “I’m not just talking changing the oil. She’d change the alternators and everything.”
He remembers breaking his bike as a 6-year-old and imploring his mom to take it to a repair shop. Rather than cart the mess to someone else, Bridges insisted they work together to fix it.
Every Tuesday and Thursday Bridges still finds time to work at Bethany Lutheran Church’s food shelf. One year ago, in true Bridges style, she noticed the shelf’s director Peggy Wells loading bread onto a truck and asked if she needed volunteers.
Wells said she had heard volunteer promises before and been disappointed, but was pleasantly surprised when Bridges arrived at the church several days later ready for action. She has been a fixture ever since.
“It’s become a way of life,” she said. “When I don’t go I kind of miss it.”
Despite her 5-foot-3-inch stature, she routinely hoists crates of garden-fresh cabbage, cantaloupe and kiwi, and wrestles 100-pound sacks of potatoes. Some days she spends six hours on the truck talking with Wells and stocking the produce.
“I lug those big cases of bananas and grapefruit just like any man,” Bridges said.
Never forgetting the struggles she experienced, the food shelf enables Bridges to reach out and give back, something Wells said she loves to see.
“I don’t think she’ll ever quite move on,” Wells said. “I’m sure she’ll always grace our presence.”
Bridges’ pride and joy are three neatly labeled recipe boxes.
As she placed them on the floor, she snapped open their tops, revealing hundreds of alphabetized cards. They each bear the neat, black letters of a manual typewriter. Culled from family, friends and magazines, the recipes read like an eclectic international menu — southern fried chicken, enchiladas, maitai punch and a double crust pizza she particularly recommends.
The food is so fabulous, her kids know what the object of contention will be in her will.
Eighteen-year-old Rechard, a cook at Baker’s Square, credits his mom with teaching him the finer points of good cooking. It all started with a basic hamburger.
“I just sat around and just watched, and she showed me how to do it,” he said.
Holidays provide Bridges with the perfect opportunity to flex her culinary muscles. At Easter she staged a 10-hour cooking marathon culminating with a glistening ham, mounds of sweet potatoes and countless other delicacies.
Often Bridges is so exhausted after such an endeavor she can’t muster the energy to eat. She rests and leaves the family to themselves at the table.
“She’s good at winning people through their stomachs,” Louis said.
Bridges’ culinary flair wins more than undiluted family praise. It helps her explore different cultures with which she is fascinated.
The daughter of a Polish father and a French-Creole mother, Bridges refers to herself as a rainbow of everything and is eager to learn as much as she can about her heritage.
“You shake that family tree hard enough and you’d be surprised at what falls out,” she said.
Going around the roadblocks
Self-motivation is something Bridges voraciously instills in her children. Ensuring they avoid the pitfalls she encountered is paramount.
When they do stray, Bridges wastes no time pulling them back.
Chanel experienced her mother’s unshakable resolve as a rebellious high-schooler, when her growing frustrations with classes led her to a less than perfect attendance record.
Acting on nagging suspicion, Bridges went to the school one day and found Chanel ditching class. Refusing to watch a repeat performance of her teenage years, Bridges dragged her protesting daughter back into the building.
For that entire day she shadowed her thoroughly mortified daughter. Perched on a chair outside each classroom, she took the extra time to do her own class readings.
At the end of the day the principal praised her gumption. Even Chanel, despite still cringing at the thought of her ordeal, admits her mom’s action was pretty gutsy.
“Actually it was something positive,” she said. “I think if she hadn’t done that I might not have gone back.”
With plans to enroll this summer or fall to complete her last few courses, Bridges looks forward to graduating and moving on. She still takes the Route 20 bus to the University every two weeks to visit her friends in the African-American studies department, and if she can’t physically be there she always calls.
Mary Chisley, the department’s secretary, said she greatly enjoys her conversations with Bridges. She particularly enjoys commiserating about parental woes.
A foster parent, Chisley said Bridges never forgets the names of her children and is a continuous font of child-rearing advice.
“She takes things as they come,” Chisley said. “If there’s a roadblock there, she’ll go around it, where I would probably dwell on it.”
One of Bridges’ favorite memories of her African-American studies was a group project she did dealing with African-American women stereotypes.
Tired of addressing negative representations, Bridges instead focused on professor Rose Brewer — someone she considered a significant success.
After extensive research, Bridges presented a sketch of Brewer’s life, unbeknownst to the professor.
“They shocked me with that,” said Brewer fondly. “It was really quite moving for me.”
After graduation, Bridges said she would like to pursue a master’s degree in social work, and even when she is done she claims she’ll always find an interesting class to take just for fun.
But for now, the formidable task of keeping her roles straight and relationships solid takes up her time.
“Life is a role,” she said. “And if you can’t play it, you’re out of shape.”