Student closes book on lifelong doubt
By KATHERINE GAZELLA, Times Staff Writer
TARPON SPRINGS -- It was 1984 when Nadine Kapoun first drove up the hill at St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus. She saw students lugging textbooks or studying for tests, all of them unaware that they were living her dream.
She couldn't explain how or why she went. She just seemed drawn there. But she couldn't get out of the car, couldn't even turn off the engine.
As much as she wanted a college degree, she could not quiet a voice inside her.
The voice said she'd never be good enough.
It said she was silly for even considering it.
It said stupid.
But something pulled her to the campus. On her way to work in the business and finance offices at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, she would drive onto campus.
Often, she would just keep driving. Other times, she sat in a parking spot with her hands glued to the steering wheel.
She went some 50 times in 14 years. It became a familiar pattern: Drive up the hill. Freeze. Panic. Leave.
Then, a few days after Christmas 1998, she did something she had never done. She got out of the car.
At the age of 46, she had broken the spell.
Like a fairy tale
To an outsider, this is clear: Nadine Kapoun isn't stupid. She never was.
In high school, she was inducted into the National Honor Society. But her mother, Doris Vedder, who now lives in New Port Richey, did not see college in her future.
"Growing up, all I can remember is, "You can't do math. You can't do science. You can't go to college. You're stupid,' " Kapoun recalled.
She should graduate from high school, get a job and get married, her mother told her.
That's just what she did. After graduating from high school in Holland Patent, N.Y., in 1970, she went to work with physically handicapped children by helping them get payment for their medical needs. She got married, then divorced nine years later.
In 1984, she was living in California. She had just lost her father, a man she considered "my best friend," and decided to move East. It was a bold decision; she had no job awaiting her here.
She began working in the management office at Countryside Mall, where she met Larry Kapoun, a mechanic who worked on the elevators at the mall. They married in 1986.
She later switched to a job at the hospital. Kapoun, a woman with a generous spirit, raves about how much she likes her bosses and what a wonderful place it is to work. Still, something was missing.
At the urging of her sister-in-law, she finally walked into SPC on a cold but sunny day in 1998. Her doubts hadn't gone away. She stood inside the front entrance, and, as if sensing her fear, a woman at the school latched on to Kapoun.
Kapoun expected the building to bustle with activity, but there were only a few people around. The employee at the school had Kapoun fill out some admission forms, and she signed her up to take an entrance exam the next day.
Kapoun had little time to worry. She called her son that night and said, "How do you do algebra?" He offered some pointers, and she was on her way.
Her first class was English composition in 1999, with instructor Jennifer Haber. She earned an A, the first of many.
"When she first started taking my writing class, she didn't think she was any good at it," said Haber, who taught Kapoun in a total of three writing classes. "I really saw her grow as a person and as a writer."
On Monday, Kapoun will graduate near the top of her class, with a 3.9 grade point average and a well-earned sense of pride. She recently was named to the USA Today All-American academic second team for two-year institutions, one of only a handful of SPC students ever to receive that honor. She also has won writing awards and was last year's statistics student of the year.
"It's like living in a fairy tale," Kapoun said.
In the fall, she plans to go to Eckerd College or the University of South Florida to get a bachelor's degree in English, with a focus on creative writing. After that? Maybe a master's.
"You never know," she said. "I didn't think I would get this far."
Once the terrified person in the parked car at SPC, then the tentative student, Kapoun has turned into the confident graduate. She is quite certain that nothing can stop her.
There was just one thing left to do.
It was never easy for Kapoun to talk to her mother.
For decades, they spoke occasionally. Sometimes they went years without talking.
Kapoun moved out of a mobile home in Tarpon Springs in 1985 when she moved to Palm Harbor. She invited her mother to live in the mobile home, and her mother accepted. Even so, their relationship was strained.
Once Kapoun returned to school, she gained more confidence in her academic abilities. She also felt more sure of herself in her personal life, and she decided it was time to improve her relationship with her mother.
"It was not until after becoming a student again that I had grown enough as a person to let her back in my life," Kapoun said.
They met at Wendy's in Tarpon Springs in 1999 and sat by a window. Each had a hamburger and small Coke. They shared an order of fries.
"She paid the bill," Vedder, 78, said with a laugh last week.
"Yeah, I guess I did," Kapoun said, catching her mother's contagious laugh.
They talked for a couple of hours that day, and turned a corner in their relationship. Afterward, they talked once or twice a week.
That didn't settle everything. Kapoun didn't talk with her mother about the lifelong feeling that she was stupid -- until last week.
By now, Kapoun has grown accustomed to facing her fears. On Tuesday, she picked up the telephone.
"I said, "Mother, you really did make me feel stupid,' " Kapoun said. "She said, "I know I was like that, and I'm sorry.' " They both cried.
Vedder later said she doesn't remember having ever called her daughter stupid, but she doesn't dismiss that she may have said it sometime in anger.
A couple of days after they spoke by phone, they sat next to each other in the living room of Vedder's New Port Richey apartment. Vedder talked about having gone to a one-room school, then a larger school in upstate New York.
She graduated from high school, stayed at home while raising Nadine and her older sister and worked in a series of jobs: manager of a convenience store, receptionist at a gold mine, hostess in a starched apron at the old Grandy's restaurants in New Port Richey and Clearwater. Kapoun's father, Sherwood Locke, was a mechanic at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y.
Most people in the family didn't go to college. When Kapoun was younger and spoke of going to college, Vedder said, it just didn't seem practical.
"Back then you didn't have the money and all that," she said.
When asked if she remembered telling her daughter she wasn't smart enough to go to college, Vedder replied: "Parents never think of the effect they have sometimes."
Now, she said, she is extremely proud of her daughter's accomplishments. Kapoun hasn't taken a test in the past year that her mother hasn't asked about.
"I told her to put all the plaques up" from the awards she has won, Vedder said.
Even while recognizing how well her daughter has done, Vedder didn't give Kapoun all the praise.
"You have to give her husband a lot of credit," she said.
Mother and daughter will travel to graduation together Monday night, in a large van Kapoun rented so her whole family could go in one vehicle. Her son is here from Seattle; her sister-in-law came from Virginia, and other family members and friends will ride with them.
At graduation, the school will announce the winner of its prestigious Apollo Award, the highest honor given to a student at SPC. Kapoun is a finalist, and she has a speech written, just in case.
It includes a poem she wrote called "Believe," which borrows from her experiences. The last line is: Believe in a child, and you'll see a better tomorrow.
If she doesn't get the award, she said, she will gather her family together after the graduation ceremony.
"They'll hear it," she said, "one way or another."
-- Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks