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A mother and son graduation
Paul Ehlers is a foot taller than his mother, Deborah. He’s quiet and soft-spoken. She’s exuberant and chatty. His hair is straight and blond, hers brown and curly. When they stand next to each other, dressed in their graduation robes, one red and one black, they make an odd couple.
But the verbal give-and-take between the 17-year-old Mercer Island High School senior and his 49-year-old mother is easy and filled with affection.
“We’ve come to the end of a very long road, both of us,” said Deborah.
“I'm proud of the fact that she pulled it off,” said Paul. “She’s a strong woman.”
Last Saturday, June 9, Deborah Ehlers graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in English after pursuing her degree for 22 years. Tomorrow, June 14, her son Paul will graduate from MIHS. In town to celebrate the two graduates are grandparents from as far away as South Africa and Australia.
The Ehlers family — father Mario, Deborah, Paul, Thomas, and Hannah — came to Mercer Island in 2002 from South Africa via Massachusetts, Delaware and Nebraska.
“I was two years into my college degree when I was hauled off to America by my husband,” said Deborah. She put her education on hold until starting up again at the University of Nebraska in 2000, at which time she jettisoned a history minor she began in South Africa; her new B.A./J.D. degree would include a year of law school.
Arriving in Seattle, Deborah found that despite having numerous credits, she was lacking in math, and the University of Washington wouldn’t admit her without it. She enrolled at Bellevue Community College.
“We were both doing pre-calculus at the same time,” said Paul. “She’d say that she didn’t understand something, so we’d go over it. The next night, it was the same thing all over again.”
“My math was 30 years old!” said Deborah.
“She was very studious. She poured over her notes, and eventually got a 4.0,” conceded Paul.
“I was trying to teach him how to study,” said Deborah. “I tried to make us a team. In the evenings, all three kids and I would be sitting at the table with our books, erasers, and calculators. I figured that the neighbors who could see us through the windows at night must be thinking, ‘That’s one weird family.’”
After doing so well in her math classes, Deborah speculated that she might just switch her major so that she could teach math.
“Paul told me that was fine, but to please not come to MIHS!” she said. She ultimately decided to continue her English degree after being admitted to the UW.
Deborah said a lot of the credit for her degree goes to helpful friends, and especially to her husband, Mario. “He was unbelievably supportive. He took over for me, and was always home to help when I had finals,” she said.
“It’s true. He cooked and cleaned, and played housewife,” agreed Paul. But Paul gives a lot of the credit for his own success to his mother, too. “She kept me fed, clothed and sheltered. That's no small feat.”
In the fall, Paul is off to college at Washington State University, a school he’s never visited. “We’ll see it all together for the first time,” said Deborah. She explained that in the culture in which she and her husband were raised, it wasn’t the norm for children to go visiting colleges, or, for that matter, to spend time away from their families at summer camp or elsewhere.
“That’s an American thing,” she said. At spring break, Paul took his first solo trip to Australia to see friends and family, and this summer he’ll start his first job, doing maintenance at the Mercer Island Beach Club.
He expects he'll be a bit homesick when he goes to college, but is heartened by knowing that he'll have some MIHS friends with him in Pullman, where he hopes to join the club crew team. “It’s a close-knit community there. It should be all right,” he said.
“I’m sad,” admitted Deborah. “I realize it’s a milestone every mother faces, but I’m feeling kind of maudlin about it.” She glanced over at her son and smiled. “We will not have ‘old loudmouth’ at the dinner table.”
Asked how he feels about his mother’s accomplishment, Paul said, “I’m impressed she went back to school at her age. When she started, she was a kid like me. She learned to study again. She’s a scrappy middle-aged woman.” He paused. “Or old woman,” he said, laughing with his mom.
Deborah said she will decide in the next year whether she’ll go on to pursue a law degree. “I ask myself, ‘Does America need another lawyer?’ I’ve been on the fence for a while. Right now, I’m enjoying being able to just read a book for my book group, and not having to study.”
Paul and Deborah Ehlers will celebrate their graduations on June 16 with a party of their intimate friends and family. “It will be the people who we care about, who are part of our lives,” said Deborah. She smiled across the room at her son. He nodded, and smiled back.