Can a skinny 17-year-old girl be a Super-Heroine in a book full of villains?
If she has no special powers?
In the graphic novel world?
Where all the good guys are like Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman?
If it’s Katherine Arnoldi, she not only defies the odds and defeats her assailants, she does it while raising her baby with the only superpower she has – a mother’s love.
Arnoldi is a successful author, graphic artist, advocate for equal educational rights for single mothers, a mother herself and an Alpha.
Her 1998 graphic novel, The Amazing “True” Story of a Teenage Single Mom, is about the perils of a teenage single mother determined to follow her dream to go to college. (A graphic novel is a kind of comic book with a complex story line, similar to those of novels, usually aimed at mature audiences.)
Arnoldi’s Teenage Single Mom battles evil boyfriends, bad bosses and bad luck.
But, just as in Arnoldi’s life – the inspiration for The Amazing “True Story” – the unlikely superhero finally triumphs.
In real life, the plot went like this: Arnoldi met Jackie, another single mother with a daughter the same age as her own, who wanted to exchange babysitting. When Jackie told her about the local college, she used two words that changed Arnoldi’s life forever: “financial aid.” Arnoldi got a Bachelor’s Degree in art from the University of Arkansas and a Master’s Degree in creative writing at the City University of New York.
While running a “Single Mom College Program” at a community center in New York, Arnoldi passed on the same helpful hints that Jackie gave her about financial aid. She handed out applications, but many of the mothers made excuses not to fill them out. That’s when she decided to share some cartoon sketches she’d made about her own life.
She copied her personal comic strips and gave them to mothers in GED programs.
The women were comfortable with comic books, even mature comic books. This was a story they could understand, a heroine they could relate to. They began to fill out the college application forms they’d been dropping in wastebaskets.
So Katherine finished the story; it reached book length, 176 pages. She’d already published some short stories in literary magazines, and through those contacts, found a publisher for her graphic novel. So The Amazing “True” Story was launched. It won The New York Foundation of the Arts Award in Drawing. One reviewer called it, “Heartbreaking, brave, compassionate, and close to the bone. Katherine Arnoldi’s story is an amazing one.”
Says Arnoldi: “I was hoping that people would feel the book was worthwhile. I wanted to find a way to make the writing and the drawing work together in a significant way.”
- Katherine Arnoldi at her Graduation
Among her other challenges, Arnoldi had chronic breathing problems. She had pneumonia several times over a period of years. She was only 23 when she was told her lungs were scarred, apparently from repeated bouts of pneumonia.
Later on, someone did the right test and diagnosed her with Alpha-1. The diagnosis came at the same time as her acceptance letter for Graduate School. With her health hanging in the balance, Arnoldi decided to forego grad school. She worked on her fiction and taught as an adjunct professor, the whole time thinking of her doctorate. Finally, she applied again and was accepted at Binghamton University, New York, where she graduated in 2008 with a PhD in creative writing.
After her diagnosis, she was put on augmentation therapy and began to take antibiotics at the first sign of a cold. “I pace myself and am careful in my choices of how I spend my energy now,” she says. But she’s been free of pneumonia for years.
And her Alpha-1 doesn’t stop her from working hard.
She says the biggest problem for many teenage mothers is that they drop out of high school – and miss the opportunity to speak with a guidance counselor – and then are unaware of the financial aid available for college. “I didn’t know about financial aid, because I never had a guidance counselor,” Arnoldi said.
She says there is also a level of discrimination that makes it difficult for single mothers who do seek out a college degree. Some colleges, for instance, require all freshmen to live on campus, but don’t offer any family housing. Many moms get discouraged when this happens and give up. “This is a Title IX violation,” Arnoldi says, referring to the 1972 law that protects anyone receiving federal financial assistance for education from discrimination on the basis of sex.
Her website, College Mom Magazine, helps single mothers with information and inspirational articles. The website includes a “Guide to Colleges for Mothers,” which includes information on Title IX, activist moms, financial aid and a list of the best schools for mothers to attend. She also started the Katherine Arnoldi Scholarship Fund for Teenage Mothers, for graduates of the Teen Age Services Act (TASA) in New York who plan to go to college.
Arnoldi continues to speak at GED programs and homeless shelters. With her book and applications in hand, she compares the amount of money that college financial aid would give to single mothers in homeless shelters against the amount they get from the shelter after working.
“After we compare the numbers I ask, ‘don’t you think you’re better off going to college?’ Arnoldi says. “And they almost always answer, ‘yes’.”
Arnoldi recently received a Fulbright Scholarship that will allow her to study the Mennonite community in Paraguay for 10 months. She plans to write a novel about them.
Arnoldi, a Mennonite herself, wants to study how social changes are affecting the Mennonites in Paraguay. Since coming to Paraguay as refugees in the late 1920s, the Mennonites have built a community of stores, factories and farms. Nowadays, people from surrounding countries are coming over to Paraguay to find work, and are slowly driving the Mennonites to move.
“I still have a lot of things I want to accomplish. I consider my time so valuable,” Arnoldi says. “I need to be humble, grateful and worthy of the life I have been given – which has been extended miraculously by Prolastin.”
And of course, she plans to bring her message about education to centers for teen mothers in South America, too.
Article first published in Alpha-1 Magazine in Fall 2008