NEW YORK — Catherine Arnoldi always dreamed of becoming an artist. As a first-grader, she won the first of many public-school art contests. Even now a still life of a mandolin and fruit, painted in high school, graces a wall in her apartment, its luminous color and careful detail attesting to her youthful talent.
"I was the artist in my town," she says quietly.
But any plans for a career appeared to end when she was 17. Unmarried, pregnant, and without family support, Ms. Arnoldi gave birth to a daughter, Stacie. Instead of enrolling in college, she worked in a latex-glove factory and moonlighted as a waitress.
"When you're single and have a child, people tell you you've made a mistake," she says, noting that her pregnancy resulted from a forced sexual encounter with an older acquaintance. "You're immediately marginalized. Things you thought were going to happen in your life are now inaccessible."
But not necessarily impossible. Through years of adversity, Arnoldi never lost her desire to attend college. That perseverance paid off, as she reveals in "The Amazing 'True' Story of a Teenage Single Mom" (Hyperion, $16). Ever the artist, she uses homespun comic-book drawings and direct prose to create a heart-tugging autobiography - a redemptive story of hard work, faith, and unwavering maternal love.
Perched on an artist's stool in her airy studio apartment here in New York, Arnoldi reflects on the odyssey that took her from Ohio to the West Coast and back East, from dead-end jobs to a new life as college graduate, author, poet, and artist.
"The love for my daughter is what moved me forward," says Arnoldi, a stylish woman with a serene manner and a soft voice.
She was 5 when her parents divorced, leaving her mother alone with three children. Shuttled to her sister's house, Arnoldi endured both her mother's indifference and her brother-in-law's abuse.
After Stacie's birth, she pinned her hopes for a fresh start on a pleasant young man at work. Using her savings, they drove to Phoenix. But once there, he turned violent. Terrified, she scooped up Stacie and fled in her stocking feet to hitchhike to Denver, where her best friend lived.
But not a single car stopped. As darkness closed in, mother and daughter camped in the desert. A penniless Arnoldi feared that her life would continue to be "one bad thing and then another bad thing, over and over."
Then something wonderful happened. "Under the stars, I had a spiritual experience," she recalls. "I felt the Infinity. I felt my problems were small and specific. The word Jesus came to me. I said, 'Thank you, Jesus.' I felt such relief. I also said, 'Everything's going to be OK.' "
In Denver, another single mother told her about financial aid and helped her enroll in a community college. Arnoldi eventually earned a bachelor's degree in art and a master's in creative writing. Without college, she thinks she might have gone from one batterer to another.
"When I meet young moms, I know that many of them are in battering relationships and are going to believe another young fellow," she says. "Many still have a traditional romantic ideal that they will be rescued. I see them as I was, the same way."
Arnoldi considers education essential in making these young women self-sufficient. So passionate is she about the importance of education, that she takes college financial-aid forms to mothers in high school equivalency classes. She also gives them her book, hoping it will inspire them to see their own possibilities. Her efforts are needed at a time when 1 in 3 households is headed by a single mother.
"They have no role model of someone who went to college, and certainly no one like themselves," she says. "They think college is for rich people."
Student housing ranks as a chief barrier. Arnoldi herself waited two years for a place to live at the University of Arkansas.
A second obstacle is child care. "I taught at City College," she says. "They had 20 slots in their day-care center for 12,000 students. It's the same problem in high schools for pregnant teens. There are long waiting lists."
Young mothers often face another deterrent to higher education: negative experiences in high school. Undetected learning disabilities can take a toll. So can alcoholism in a student's family.
Arnoldi criticizes welfare-to-work programs that pull mothers out of educational training for low-paying workfare jobs.
"You have to get a job, you have to support your child. You would no sooner think of a college education than you would of buying an Armani suit," she says. "It's a luxury item."
She also faults high school equivalency programs for not encouraging single mothers to get an education.
Arnoldi asked directors of two programs in New York if they tell students about college. One responded, "These women are not college material." The other said her program only focuses on jobs.
"I'd love to see a GI Bill for single moms," Arnoldi says. "Just like the GIs who returned from World War II, we're discovering that a college education is the best way for them to support their families." A single mother's chances of having a second child also drop if she goes to college.
Arnoldi's relationship to her own daughter remains close. With quiet pride she pulls out a photo of Stacie, a magna cum laude graduate of Hunter College in New York who is now applying to medical schools.
Arnoldi herself is working on a second book, this one about growing up in an alcoholic home.
Reflecting on the long journey that has brought her here, she smiles and says in wonder, "Before college and after college, there's no comparison. The change was instant. I went from working in a factory - bells ringing, half an hour for lunch, lines at the bathroom - to being asked my opinion. I can't believe how my life changed. I just can't believe it."