Two Summers Later

Two Summers Later

It feels like every summer has a life and a story of its own. The past three have been the most emotional and life-changing of all my summers so far. Mostly, it’s been the camps that make it so.

Before I continue, I want to clarify for some readers who might not have experiences with summer camps. I talk about my camps a lot–some people in my life say too much. But anyone who’s been a part of a summer camp knows–there’s something about them. The closeness. The intensity. The season. The rigor. The relationships built fast and left too soon. The 16-hour days getting up early and staying up late. Getting down and dirty. If you’ve not experienced that, it’s understandable that you won’t feel the level of emotion that goes into my stories about camp. But if you have been a part of a camp, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

There’s a piece of me that will always be stuck with the first summer camp I worked for. It’s a stubborn piece. Some days I want to be selfish and let it go. Some days I wish I could walk away without feeling guilty and broken. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I made some amazing friends at this camp, both with the other counselors and with the kids. I was barely 19, working with high schoolers in my first youth-oriented job. What had even possessed me to apply, and to interview passionately enough to be selected? I credit the South Dakota trip as the catalyst for my desire to work with youth. Setting out on the trip, I was terrified of meeting the kids and convinced that I would fuck up their lives in the three days we were there. I wouldn’t know what to say or do with them or how to interact. Going there and meeting kids from a place and culture I had little contact with shook me. Hearing the stories of the suicide epidemic was what pushed me into the place of wanting to combat youth suicide, which soon turned into a desire to work with kids in any way I could. My experiences from the trip were a huge motivator for me when I interviewed for the job and started working there.

But I forget that I applied for the job before the trip.

I can’t remember applying for the job, writing my application, finding references, sending it in, agonizing over it. I remember doing that for the resident assistant position at school; not for this summer camp. I remember getting the email from my supervisor suggesting the job to me and a few others. I can’t remember what interested me about the job, since I was still pretty afraid of kids. Maybe it was the fact that they would be high schoolers. Maybe it was because it was similar enough to my current position that I felt it would be easy enough to transition to. Maybe it was because I had friends who were applying. Though I wonder about it, I don’t think my abuser had anything to do with it—we were dating at the time; she had no interest in the job at all, so I doubt she convinced me. Maybe it was just because I wanted anything but to go back to my parents’ house that summer and was looking for any way to stay on campus.

At any rate, I got the job.

I felt like I sucked at it. The kids still scared me; I wasn’t always sure what to say or do. But I went through the training, learned a lot, and enjoyed it; I was making friends; I was connecting with my supervisors. By the time camp rolled around, I was excited to meet the kids. I acted as a TA for the first group, the middle schoolers. I learned the names of all the kids in my class and things about them. I made solid connections with several of them, and we talked outside of class. I didn’t have to, but I joined them each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I cried when they left.

The next six weeks I worked as a dorm counselor for the high school campers. I was going through a lot at the time. My abuser broke up with me, but we made the dangerous decision to remain friends. She was running hot and cold with me, sometimes wanting to be my best friend and sometimes ignoring me completely. My family was becoming hostile towards me, offended by my decision to further my education and experience by staying away from home. Thanks to counseling, I was beginning to recognize my depression and anxiety for what it was and put a label on my panic attacks, which was both freeing and terrifying. My self-harm episodes became more frequent and more alarming. During the first week, the head counselor noticed the scars on my arm. She took me aside and I broke down, telling her how much I felt I was struggling, how I felt I was no good at the job and close to quitting. She calmly talked me down, told me I was doing fine, and gave me ways I could be supported.

I kept trying. I made friends with many of the kids and learned all their names, though not as quickly as I wanted. As would become the tradition, the queer kids gravitated towards me. I was teaching a class called Images of Gender and I hit the cap of 24 students. I spent time with the kids even on my days off, having nothing better to do. I enjoyed being with them, though again I didn’t always know what to do or say and sometimes backed off to let the more experienced counselors handle things.

I didn’t agree with their disciplinary methods—making the kids do pushups or having them go on all fours saying “beep, beep, I’m a jeep.” I thought there were better ways to handle behavioral concerns. I felt that having them do those things would humiliate them, and I didn’t like that. If I witnessed a camper breaking rules, I told them not to and explained that what they were doing went against camp policies. If they asked why, I’d say that they were at our camp and needed to follow the expectations of camp while they were here, even if what they were doing was something they would do at home. If I heard one of them swear, I would say “I’m pretty sure you didn’t just say something you shouldn’t say, because I know that you know the rules. So I know I’m not going to hear you say words like that. Right?” It amused them. I never had a case of a camper continuing to swear after I spoke out.

The only time I yelled was when I saw them throwing bananas around the room. I was angry; I hate seeing food wasted. I tried to address the problem by talking to the individuals throwing the bananas, but when they didn’t listen, I stood in the middle of the room and yelled at them to stop. Seeing me—the tiny, timid counselor—screaming at them made them all immediately freeze. Because I never yelled or told them to do pushups, they took me very seriously in that moment.

Many of the kids liked me. Some saw me as their enemy, but I knew that I wasn’t going to please everybody, and each kid was going to have their least favorite counselors. There were some days I simply had to hide. There were some days I took my fears and frustrations out on my fellow counselors. There were some days I was not as engaged as I should have been. I knew this was not okay; I knew I had to work on bettering myself.

I thought I was allowed a few days to be weak; I thought everyone was.

The summer came to a close and the school year began. When I ran into my supervisors, we’d talk excitedly about next summer. I asked several times how I could continue to be involved, attending some of their fall and spring events and keeping in touch with my campers on social media. I asked my supervisors how I would apply for the following summer. I was told I didn’t need to, but that I would be sent an email gauging my interest in returning, and all I had to do was say yes. I knew I was going to; as difficult as it had been, I loved that job. I loved my kids. They cried when they said goodbye to me. I knew I’d made an impact, and a positive one.

I didn’t receive the email, even as the school year came to a close, even as my friends who applied started hearing back. One day I ducked into one of my supervisor’s office, explaining that I had one day over the summer I’d need off and that I hoped it wouldn’t cause a conflict with move in days.

She looked uncomfortable and said, “Oh, this is hard.”

“What?” I asked.

“Well, we’re not hiring you back this summer.”

I couldn’t speak. I could only stare. I felt like piece of me were falling to the floor. I thought of all the kids I’d connected with. The things some of them had said to me, about how I’d helped them, how important I was to them. I thought of every mistake I’d made that summer, of the negative feedback I’d received.

“I hope you’re not mad,” she said.

“I’m not.” I wasn’t. Not yet. “I’m…sad.”

This was worse than a breakup, ironic because later that afternoon my then-girlfriend broke up with me. This was worse than if my supervisor had told me at the end of last summer that I wasn’t coming back. They’d been telling me all year I could. What had I done to change their minds?

I agonized over it for months. When summer rolled around I cried when I thought of what they would be doing without me. I did everything I could to stay in their lives, working three hours a week as an elective teacher and volunteering for field trips. The ones who remembered me greeted me with excitement and love. I made new friends as well, once again attracting and mentoring the queer kids. My supervisors continued to interact positively. They even let me take three of the kids to my on-campus apartment to visit my cat. They trusted me completely. So why hadn’t they taken me back as a counselor?

I attended the end-of-year banquets, crying and watching them cry as they left, tucking away my favorite memories and chalking them up to a summer well lived. Wondering what I had done wrong, why they had rejected me, why it had to be like this. Wondering what I would do next year.

I wasn’t a teacher this summer. My new job schedule conflicted with class times. I’d had so many experiences since that first camp that I went everywhere confident in my abilities to mentor, build connections, lead, love, and succeed. I knew what that first camp had let walk away. They could have kept me on and I would have done better. They could have been straight up with me and told me off the bat I wasn’t coming back, because apparently they’d known all along even as they told me I could.

The only thing I did that summer was sleep over in the dorms so they could maintain the required student-adult ratio, and attend one field trip.

I could barely handle it. I couldn’t stand arriving on campus after most of them had gone to sleep, but at the same time I couldn’t bear the thought of arriving early to spend time with them. I was angry I could only attend one field trip but did nothing to fight for more.

I fostered my existing connections and built new ones. Still, it wasn’t enough. I felt myself slipping from their lives. I became less important. They stopped needing me.

I realized I could not return for another summer without breaking even more inside.

This time when I left, I didn’t say goodbye.

Back to School

Back to School

Last Friday was the first day of the year where it felt like fall. I saw brown leaves on the ground and whistling down the street on my way to work. I wore layers for the first time since winter. The air was not just chilly; it was the autumn kind of chilly, the kind that holds promises for more tantalizing days, for harvests, for darkened evenings and blustery afternoons.

I walk into stores and I see back to school banners and notebooks for seventeen cents. Along with the mellow hues of the season come the bright block colors of new pencils, crayons, and paper. Along with the chill of the air comes the thrill of going back to familiar classrooms or starting the same routine somewhere new.

I’ve been trying to stay off social media, but when I do check for work purposes, I see posts from my friends excitedly preparing for their second, third, and final years at college, or gearing themselves up for grad school.

This is the first year in four that I am not joining them. It wasn’t going to be originally, but it’s how it ended up playing out.

**

Applying for and being accepted into Alverno’s Master’s Program in Counseling and Community Psychology has been one of my proudest accomplishments. I walked through so many months with that happy success under my belt, excited that I had concrete plans to share with anyone who asked me what I would be doing after graduation.

I’d always worried about the transportation piece. I still don’t have my driver’s license; though even if I did, the idea of the three-hour drive through highways and city streets terrifies me. Taking the Greyhound wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially if it’s to further my education in a field I was really excited about. At that time, I wanted my counseling license as soon as possible; I was sure I wouldn’t be able to get an impactful enough job without it.

I was determined not to move to Milwaukee, either, though many of my friends and advisors suggested that I do. I didn’t want to leave behind the many connections I’d worked hard for in my city. I didn’t want to leave my current job—if there was even a chance of my ability to return.

Besides, I didn’t have the resources to make such a dramatic move. I had nowhere to live there, and no knowledge of the safest places to live there. I didn’t have the money it would take to make the move.

So I waited knowing something was going to work out—I just had to figure out what.

Three weeks after graduation—three weeks of being homeless, living out of my car, and couch surfing—I got my current job. Originally I’d applied to the place as a part-time daycare teacher, just looking for anything to get me through the summer. But once I submitted my application and resume, I received a reply just a few hours later, asking me to apply for a different position: Youth Program Coordinator.

When I read the job description I was elated and apprehensive. It seemed too difficult for my current capabilities. I wasn’t sure I was up to that much commitment, that much work. Was I qualified? Should I even bother? It would be my first full-time job, my first professional position.

But the title—“youth program coordinator”—spoke to me. The descriptions of the position working with youth and families and developing programming for them excited me on a level I hadn’t felt before. This could be a bridge into exactly what I wanted to do.

I applied and was invited for a phone interview. At the end of the call we scheduled a face-to-face interview for the following week. At that interview, I talked with the childcare supervisor, CEO, and CFO. I was intimidated; and yet they were all so friendly, inviting, and encouraging. They saw my foot bouncing with excitement, they saw my eager smiles as they described what I would do. I saw their looks of satisfaction when I described my experiences and passion.

They said they’d been looking to fill the position for a few months, and had hoped to have it filled by now. But they were waiting for the right person.

The next day I received an email inviting me to fill the position.

I was the right person.

**

All summer I worked on programming, connections, fundraising, relationship building, planning, organizing, and assisting with anything in my realm. It’s the most intensive and exciting job I’ve ever had. I feel more confident and at home than I have in years, except maybe for my position in the after-school program.

All of my experiences cumulate into this position. I’m reminded daily how good I am at what I do, and my supervisor has mentioned more than once how happy they were that they’d waited for me.

“You’re the one for this job,” she tells me. “This is you.”

I didn’t really think about Alverno until August had already begun. I’d applied before my legal name change; I realized I had yet to change my name in the system.

I realized that Milwaukee was more of a commute than I was prepared for.

I realized that counseling wasn’t what I needed right now.

**

I formally withdrew from Alverno the day before Orientation. Numerous phone calls after numerous days putting them off lead to two unanswered voicemails from my advisor and, finally, a request to receive the withdrawal in writing. It took me longer than it should have to send the email because I was full of regret. But when I got the reminder on my phone because I forgot to delete it, I felt some relief that I didn’t have to drive hours this morning or take the greyhound all Friday afternoon to get there. Besides, I wouldn’t miss the last day of camp for anything.

Earlier that month my supervisor had pointed me in the direction of UW-Milwaukee’s online Master’s Program in Community Engagement and Education. I applied experimentally and was accepted two weeks before classes started. I was excited; it was even closer to what I wanted to do, and I wouldn’t have to make the terrifying drive or sacrifice every other Friday afternoon to bus rides.

A few days later I received a call from the residency office telling me I was not an established Wisconsin resident and didn’t qualify for in-state tuition. I had to establish residency first. Despite having been a Wisconsin resident almost all of my life; despite having parents who had been Wisconsin residents for decades; despite receiving a degree at a public University in Wisconsin; despite having a valid Wisconsin state ID; despite owning a car registered in Wisconsin; despite having filed Wisconsin income taxes for the past three years.

“So, which state do I have residency in instead?” was the question I wanted to spit out, but never asked out loud.

I called them back and they told me the only way to prove my Wisconsin residency was to get tax documentation from my parents.

My gut dropped when I thought of the months-long tax battle I’d only recently gotten over. I told the caller that this was not an option for me. That they had basically disowned any commitment to me.

“But look at it this way,” he said. “You’re getting an education to better yourself. I’m sure they’ll want to help you do that.”

I thought of my dad’s furious reactions when I said how much I liked college and how much I was learning; his bitter conversations with my mother on how horrible this college experience was for the family. I thought of his sharp email asking me where I was going to get money for the Study Abroad trip I wanted to take. Their refusal to grant me even grocery money. Withholding vital documents and information I needed.

No, sir, they do not want me to succeed.

“They have proven to me several times that they will not do anything to help me,” I said as calmly as I could.

He relented and told me I could appeal. I groaned inwardly at the amount of work I’d have to do and hoops I’d have to jump through to in order to file the appeal. It was a week before classes started, and there was no guarantee my appeal would go through.

My only other option was to sustain myself financially for a year without attending school. It was stupid, but the easiest and most feasible option.

I contacted the registrar, and they delayed my enrollment until the fall of next year. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was the same day I sent in my official withdrawal from Alverno.

**

At the same time, I sigh at the bittersweet knowledge I will not be returning to the familiar classrooms, not joining my friends in the exhilarating scramble for fresh school supplies. But then I see my kids at work preparing themselves for the upcoming quarter, and feel the same excitement I felt at the end of last summer. I look at my plans for my programs in the public schools and feel the same shivers in my chest.

The thrill of gathering notebooks and binders for myself can wait.

Now I’m preparing myself to set out on a new adventure, where my learning doesn’t come from books and papers; where I’m the one writing the curriculums and presenting them to classrooms. I’ve been an educator and even a teacher before. But this is the first time it’s my full-time job, and this is the first time that the programs I’m a part of are my own.

The same day I withdrew form one school and confirmed the date of my enrollment for another was the last day of camp. I said goody-bye to some of my campers. For those who are returning for our school-year programs, I tease them with hints at what I have planned for them. I can’t wait to get them involved in the projects and activities I have in store. All my preparation over the past few months has been leading me towards those moments.

It’s been a great summer, and it’s going to be a great fall.

 

The Best Summer of my Life

The Best Summer of my Life

I’m coming to terms with the fact that the summer is almost over.

This summer has probably been the best of my life.

I’ve broken free from my parents. I cut toxic people out of my life. I let go of thoughts about my abuser and my most recent ex. I found my own place and have been living independently for two and a half months. I made the tough decision to withdraw from my first choice master’s degree schools to look into other programs that better fit my current needs.

I’m one of the only people in my cohort that I know of who has a professional full-time job and is living alone. Most people I know of are still working part-time and living with their parents or significant others. I’m not saying that makes me better—but it’s a different experience, and one no one thought I could have on my own.

I live within walking distance of my work, which makes every day easier as I wake up at 6 to open the school-age camp room at 6:45 almost every morning. For the first several weeks, I would follow this routine. It’s similar to my college routine, as I often worked early there as well or had early classes and walked a comparable distance to get to them. But it’s different; this time, I do not walk in with anxieties over what I should have done to prepare for class, or fear of not knowing who I would encounter on my on-campus jobs. I walk into work confident and excited. I know what to expect. I have a good idea each day which kids will be there, but even if some show up unexpectedly or are there when they usually aren’t, I can handle it. This is my realm. I’m a professional among professionals, sure of my step, confident in my role. It took weeks to get here, but by the time July rolled around I knew what I was doing. I have enough autonomy to make choices to guide my day, enough knowledge to fill the gaps of time where nothing requires my immediate attention.

My counselor said it usually takes six months to reach this point in a new job. I am once again fortunate to work in a place where people support one another, judgement is held back, humor is prevalent, and almost everyone loves what they do. All of this makes the job so much easier.

My job in the after-school program before this had everything this job had. But as much as I loved that job, the one I hold now has even more. It’s full time; often I get to see my kids all day, every day. I hold a title no one else holds; I’m recognized as having skills and requirements others don’t. I get time most days to work alone, developing my programs, making connections, and doing research. I have my own desk and laptop for work. I have a private phone with my own extension. My name tag states my position. I even have my own business cards.

It’s incredible. My position is everything I’ve wanted in a job. It’s something people told me I would not find unless I got my master’s, left the city, had years of experience elsewhere. But here I am, fresh out of college, and people are already looking to me as an authority in my area and expecting big things from me.

It’s been the best summer of my life, and I can measure that by looking back and seeing almost every day as one where I’m excited to wake up, excited to get to work. I’m sad to leave work, but each night I returned to a place that is my own. Once I leave work, I’m not weighed down by tasks to be completed. Instead of dedicating hours to homework and outside-of-class activities, I have time to keep my apartment clean and run errands. I have my own car, and am gaining enough confidence in driving to take myself to get groceries and even take some trips for fun.

But now I’m looking at the coming week and realizing that summer camp is almost over. Soon school will start; some of the kids I’ll only see in the afterschool program, and others I’ll have to wait until next summer to see again. I’ll spend more time at my desk planning. Soon I’ll be going into schools to run my own after-school activities, something I could only dream about doing four months ago.

It’s going to be hard to let go of this summer. With each youth program I’m a part of, it becomes a little easier to say goodbye. I’m less pessimistic and more resilient. It’s hard to believe three years ago people looked at me and wondered why I was trying when I clearly wasn’t good at it. It’s hard to believe that two years ago I would hide from some of the kids I worked with, cry almost every day over how hard the job was, and constantly question my decision to get involved in youth work. It’s hard to believe one year ago I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s hard to believe six months ago people said what I wanted didn’t exist, and that I was nowhere near prepared to do what I wanted to do.

I proved everyone wrong—especially myself.

The past few summers before have been hard. The summer before I came to college was full of anxiety and an intense desire to get out of that house. The next, after my freshman year, I experienced heightened hostility from my parents as they resented my education, demeaned my experiences, belittled my successes, and discouraged me from taking on the opportunities that came my way. The following summer was the pinnacle of my relationship with my abuser and my first intensive job working with youth. It housed my first suicide attempt. Last summer, I was disappointed in having little to do; depressed; and again tried to kill myself. Each summer had its highlights and moments of joy. But this summer held the most excitement and happiness. This summer had the most days in a row where I felt good. I’ve had dark moments, but they weren’t been quite as dark and they haven’t been as long.

I feel confident. I feel comfortable. I know what I’m doing. I have tangible long-term plans. I know where I’m going. For the first time in maybe my whole life, I feel like I have my life in my control.

It’s the best feeling.

Legos

Legos

(The names of the individuals in this post have been changed to protect their identity)

Consent is a very important and very tricky concept to build for a child.

In a society where rape culture is sickeningly prevalent, I’m relieved to see more of the parents I work with practicing consent with their child.

“Did you ask before you took it?”

“If they said ‘no,’ you have to listen.”

I work with kids and parents on a daily basis, and have for the past year. While at college, I studied and took trainings on sexual assault and consent. I learned that concepts like the importance of “no” and asking permission can and should be introduced at a very early age. I started looking at my interactions with my kids in terms of consent.

Almost every interaction I have with my kids is flavored by something I have learned. I make hundreds of choices every day, at each turn. I try to make the best choices based off of what I know.

I’ve been trying to teach consent with my kids in all the various groups I work with. Some of them love giving hugs. I love getting hugs. But I try to remember to say, each time, “Thank you for the hug! Let’s make sure we always ask before we touch, though.”

When one kid is getting unwanted attention, I remind the other, “Make sure we ask before we touch.”

If one kid is playing with something, or has a personal item with them, I remind the other kids if they try to play with it–“That’s not yours; make sure you ask before you touch it.”

I bring up the reminder every chance I get. Many of the kids I work with are young, so it takes consistent reminders before things start to sink in. It’s become part of my daily vocabulary, something that slips out as easily and naturally as “Thank you for listening,” “Make sure our voices are quiet,” “Please use kind words,” and “Thank you for helping me.”

I believe that the more they hear it, the more natural it will seem to them too–so that at some point, I won’t have to be around for them to remember that I say it, and hopefully that reminder is what helps them make a safe, kind choice later down the line.

I see almost every moment as a learning moment and every interaction as an opportunity. After years of working with a variety of youth in a variety of settings and capacities, I’ve gotten to a place where I feel confident navigating most situations, even if I’m jumping from one group to another within the week. I’ve learned that the way I say things has an enormous impact on how the day goes, and that it’s often the kids themselves who drive the most important twists and turns of the day. And sometimes small things will reveal big issues.

In one of my youth groups, it happened over Legos. Five kids sat at a table, each with their respective pile of Legos. Some of the piles were bigger than others–some of the kids had been playing for longer.

One of the kids was trying to get a Lego piece from another. I didn’t see the interaction, the cause and effect; I was looking at something else, and when I turned around, all I saw was Alan lifting his arm about his head to keep a piece away from Sam, and heard Alan yelling “Stop it already!

“Captain Tonie, Sam keeps trying to take my piece!” Alan said.

I approached calmly and asked Sam the question I always did in this instance: “Did you ask if you could touch it?”

It was twofold; it’s not good to touch something someone else has if they said no. But its also important to share–none of the Legos belonged to the kids; they all belonged to the facility. While I want to emphasize each kid’s right to what belongs to them, I also have a responsibility to make sure our community materials are being shared.

So when I asked the question, I was trying to figure out which scenario this interaction fell into.

“Did you ask if you could touch it?”

It was pretty simply answered when Sam replied, “No.”

“Okay.” I stepped closer so I could see better. Each kids had a pile of Legos. Alan had a few more than Sam did.

“I want the hat,” Sam said.

“And I said no. I said he can’t have it,” Alan relayed to me.

“So, Sam,” I said, “Alan’s got the hat right now. It’s not okay to take something from someone if they said no.”

Sam contested this. He tried to backpedal, tell me the whole story, of how he’d had the piece first, even though that had been a few hours ago, how no one ever let him play, though he’d been playing with them for the past twenty minutes. I tried to get back to the point, which was that “No means no.”

I realized pretty quickly that this was about more than a Lego piece.

Sam felt entitled to the piece, even though it wasn’t his, even though Alan had it, even though Alan said no.

Sam kept contesting this, no matter how simply I tried to put it. Eventually, some of the other kids butted in. Usually I don’t like it when other kids get in on a discussion between me and one other, but this time I backed off a bit. When I heard what they were saying, I realized this was an important interaction between not campers and counselors, but campers and campers. If they figured this out between themselves, it would have that much more meaning.

“Alan didn’t even say you could have it,” Jordan said.

“Alan told me I could. I should get it.”

“I didn’t say yes,” Alan said. “I said maybe.”

“No, you didn’t,” Sam said. “You said you would give it to me.”

“He said maybe,” Evan interjected.

“No. He said will.

“I heard. Alan said maybe,” Jordan put in.

“I said maybe,” Alan insisted.

“No, you said you would.

“Either way,” I put in, “you can’t just take it if he changed his mind and said no.”

“Yes I can!” Sam insisted. “You can’t say yes and then turn around and say no.”

“He didn’t say yes, he said maybe,” Evan said.

“I said maybe. And then I said no. So no!”

“You said yes! You can’t just take it back!” Sam said.

Some of the others tried to stop things and just keep playing; normally I would agree and cut things off after we hit stalemates like this, just to keep the peace. But I found this point too important to just let go. My belief was confirmed when Jordan spoke up again.

“You know what, Sam?” he said. “If you ask, and he says maybe, he can take it back. Even if he says yes, he can still take it back. So just leave him alone already!”

Jordan had uttered a crucial statement that I hope he’ll carry with him the rest of his life. Consent is verbal and voluntary, and can be withdrawn at any time. Something grown-ass adults have a hard time grasping.

I was relieved when the other kids at the table agreed with Jordan. They stood up for Alan and reinforced the point that his “No” was important and needed to be respected. But Sam stared back steadily and said, “No. He can’t.” I broke a little inside.

It took a lot more fighting among them, a lot more stern talk and persuading from me, and Sam was still staunchly convinced that he had a right to take what he wanted, regardless of the other person’s feelings or needs.

Sam left that day still convinced that he had been the one wronged, that everyone was ganging up on him. He walked out with a skewed sense of what consent looked like. I worried for him; I worried for his home life, his future; what he might do to others–what he may let others do to him–if he continued life with this conviction.

I cried because I was so proud of Jordan for understanding what grown men refuse to. I was proud of the others for standing up for Alan when they saw him being intimidated and taken advantage of. I was scared, both of and for, Sam. I was shaken by the power in those minutes at the Lego table, and how much they said about my world and theirs.

I wanted to say something to Jordan’s mom when she came to pick him up, to let her know how proud I was of Jordan for understanding the importance of consent. But I wasn’t sure what would be effective and appropriate.

I have many, many hours to teach my kids about consent and the other lessons I try to weave into each day. Still, it often seems like every second is precious, and I need to squeeze every drop of significance from it. We live in a world where things can happen in a millisecond. Kids absorb what they see and experience. They internalize what authority figures convince them to believe. Those things can be positive or negative, or just things; but if I see each day as a series of choices flavored by the lessons I’ve learned, each day is at least one lesson that will shape a child’s perceptions, feelings, mindset, actions, reactions, and eventually their world.

As the adults–authority figures–in their lives, we need to make sure the lessons we teach are positive ones, that lead to positive growth.

If a 9 year old kid can use Legos to teach us about consent, why can’t the grown-ups of the world do something before our kids become rapists or raped?

The Dream

The Dream

The other night I had a dream about my abuser. It was different from any other dream I’ve had about her. Up until now, all of my dreams about her have involved her showing up unexpectedly and demanding my attention, and for one reason or another I’m powerless to refuse. They often involve her telling me how I was the one that screwed up and how bad a person I am. They leave me with anxiety, sometimes panic. I dread seeing her in the waking world; I illogically expect her to appear wherever I am.

The last interaction we had was over text message. Last summer she texted me, wishing me a happy birthday a month after the fact. She reminded me that we’d agreed to talk once she got back into America, which happened months ago. My reply was that, while I had agreed to talk once she got back, I no longer wanted to, as I had nothing to say to her.

She tried to reel me back in, saying that she would not be returning to college in the fall.

I knew she wanted me to ask why. To get me talking. To feel sorry for her. To win me back.

I replied simply, Okay, good luck.

When I put down the phone I laughed and cried with relief. I no longer had to worry about what I would do when I saw her at school. I wasn’t going to. She wouldn’t be there at all. The next time she texted me, I pretended she had the wrong number.

Though I exerted power in those instances, I still had nightmares about her finding me, and worried during the day that I would somehow bump into her.

Then I had this dream.

This time, I was the one who stumbled upon her. She was working at Walgreens or something, somewhere I needed to go for an errand. The dream was incredibly vivid. I don’t dream very often and when I do the dreams are often murky and hard to remember. But occasionally I have dreams like this—they feel very real, they cut close to home, and I remember many of the details.

In the dream, I approached the counter. She looked up, recognized me, and smiled. She made some comment about how long it had been since we talked. Asked if I was still sure I did not have anything to say to her.

I expected to panic, but instead I felt calm and in control. Even seeing her face and remembering everything about it, her voice, her hair, that smile—and I didn’t panic or freeze, like I always did in my dreams and expect to in real life.

I didn’t feel powerless. It was remarkable, liberating. I had control over myself, and maybe even her.

In the dream I calmly replied that I still had no interest in talking with her. I just wanted to run my errand. She persisted, bringing up incidents from the past. This time, she was reminding me of positive things. The good moments we’d had together. She was trying to reel me back in.

Again, I was surprised by my own composure, my sense of strength. I refused to let her win me over. I admitted that things had been good at times, but I was not going to give in and go back. I was short, cold almost. I could sense her wilting. This time it was she who was at a loss.

I remember distinctly this line from her—“I may have deserved my time in jail, but I don’t deserve this.”

In the dream I laughed inside. I’ve wondered since I cut off contact what she’s been up to—what trouble she’s gotten herself in. I imagined her boyfriend breaking up with her; I imagined her getting pregnant and hating the baby; I imagined her living in a hotel for months, as I saw she was doing when, in a moment of weakness, I checked her Tumblr. None of these scenarios gave me joy; but I speculated what kinds of situations karma, or her own reckless naivety, would get her into.

So hearing that she’d been in jail for a short time since we parted ways did not surprise me in this dream.

I knew she wanted me to relent, apologize, ask why she’d been in jail. I did none of those things. I continued on my errand. I didn’t falter or feel weak. She continued to follow me around. Once I had what I needed, I told her I was leaving, and had no desire to talk to her anymore.

She said something along the lines of, “Alright then, I’ll let you go. But I can see us being friends again, like we were. We had something really good and I don’t want it to be gone forever.”

Her dream self was very sincere, to the point where I almost relented, almost agreed that it was a possibility. Once again, my dream self surprised me by thinking, No. I’m not falling into this trap again. She hurt me, abused me, and I’m not letting them happen again. I’m not letting her back in, no matter how sad and sincere she seems now.

I left with no goodbyes, no promises. She could only stay behind, powerless to stop me or bring me back.

In the dream, I walked away feeling elated by my own power. I never expected myself to be so calm in her presence and so confident in my refusal to listen to anything she said. In all of my dreams, and all of my imaginings of what I would do if I saw her again, I was weak, I slipped up, I let her back in or let her hurt me.

Of course, it was just a dream. But the sheer possibility of my being so powerful in that situation gives me a hope I’ve never felt before.

And something even better—apathy.

I don’t care about her anymore, and I’m not afraid if I happen to see her someday. I can handle myself. I can show her my power.

What’s Broken Breaks Free

What’s Broken Breaks Free

On the day after my graduation, my mother sent me a text message.

How did graduation go?

Last August they’d asked me if I was going to graduate that spring. I said I didn’t know, and that was true. The last they’d heard, I wasn’t graduating until 2018.

I figured out I could graduate in May. I wasn’t going to tell them, though.

To be perfectly honest, I did not want them to know.

I did not want them to be at commencement. It had been bad enough dealing with them at my brother’s. Me dressed in my suit and tie and the spare (that’s what I called my second-oldest brother) running up to me smirking. “Who are you and what did you do with our sister?”

I’d almost hoped they wouldn’t recognize me.

**

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Things had only gotten worse since then. That last Christmas in a house full of animosity where I texted my brother get me out of here. The following Christmas they didn’t even ask if I was coming to visit. They sent me safe gifts, most of which I donated. I didn’t even eat the chocolate they sent me, instead giving it to my roommate’s boyfriend.

That Spring Break I planned a visit, mostly because I wanted to see the cats and my younger brother. I asked one of my best friends to come with me; he was excited to see the cats. Once the day rolled around, though, I panicked, and shamefacedly told him I was not able to try and see the cats, after all. We went to a park instead, and then walked around town; my fear was such that we had him walk between me and the window of the bookstore where the spare worked.

A year before my graduation I made the mistake of visiting them on Mother’s Day. I was only there to see my little brother in a show; I had no desire to see the others. I’d hoped to pick a day they would not be coming. But of course the only day we could go was they day they were going.

My mother wouldn’t even let me talk alone with my little brother, instead encroaching on us every time we tried to separate from the family. The older brother and I managed to get the younger one into the car with us when we drove to Old Mexico for lunch. We talked freely then, but the whole time feared the subversive backlash. Anything we said during that short trip could, if repeated, be used against us. The mere fact that it was the three rebel children riding together was enough to earn us cold shoulders, snide comments, and another log in the fire of suspicion that built and built, steadily smothering possibilities of future times spent together.

We met up at the restaurant, miraculously receiving only a few sharp glares as we rejoined the group. At the table, my little brother sat next to the oldest one. I let them have that; they didn’t talk as much as we did. But of course, then, I was sitting across from the mother.

She would not stop talking. I would not look at her. She mocked me openly when I did not respond submissively and sweetly. I was far from submissive. She asked me how my cat was doing.

I showed her pictures of Callie, but let out some remark that I was surprised she cared enough to ask about her.

“She’s your cat, of course I want to see her.”

“You didn’t seem very interested in helping me get her,” I said.

The mother became defensive. “Well, you have her, so does it matter?”

“It matters to me. I want to know why you didn’t help me.” I’d asked her to be my reference for the adoption application; I was loathe to ask favors, but she knew how good I was with the animals. She’d refused, saying she felt she would be betraying the cats that lived at the house.

“I didn’t want to hurt Kitty’s feelings,” the mother said. “She loves you so much.”

“She won’t have any idea I have another cat. You wouldn’t let me take Kitty. Of course I had to get another cat.”

“But you got one without my help,” she said. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”

“I’m upset because you didn’t care about helping me. You decided not to do something that was really important to me. You decided it was more important for you to say no to me than it was for you to help me.”

She sputtered for a few seconds. “Why are you so upset about this?”

“Why was it more important to say no than to help me?” I shot back.

The entire family was watching us. Staring. I was afraid my father was going to interject angrily, but no one said a word.

They were too afraid.

I don’t quite remember but I’m pretty sure no one hugged me before we left. Except maybe the younger brother. We stayed in the garage playing with the cats and talking about the play. I was so anxious I was shaking the entire time. As much as I wanted to see my cats, I wanted to get out of there more. I wanted the older brother to stop chilling with the fam and get me out of there.

Originally, my then-girlfriend was going to come with us. A few days before, however, she’d gently broken up with me. In the end, it was better. I couldn’t imagine the shitshow that may have resulted from me bringing a girl as my date. When I’d emailed them to let them know she was coming, there had been no reply. No one asked why she wasn’t there until halfway into lunch.

That was the last time I set foot on their property.

**

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The last time I entered that vicinity I stayed in the car. My roommate was taking me to see my little brother, and we were going to visit a park in the area and hang out. It had taken weeks just to plan the visit and get the parents to agree to it. The emotional distress that went into bargaining with an abusive family through my guiltless younger brother felt like torture. Some days I just cried over the fact that it shouldn’t have been like this. It shouldn’t be so hard just to see my brother. He was 18; he shouldn’t be controlled by his parents so severely, even if he did live in their house.

Families shouldn’t be so fucked up that it takes subversion and flat-out lying to get them to agree to a visit between two legal, adult siblings.

The night before the visit I slept on the couch, something I did when I was really stressed and anxious. I had nightmares about being trapped in that house. I’d been having a lot of them lately. There was panic at the thought of once again being trapped under their control. Often the dreams involved me staring out my old bedroom window, wondering how hard it would be to climb down or how quickly one of my friends would be able to come rescue me.

That morning I woke up crying and texted my roommate I can’t do this. I was terrified of going back there. My panic was such that I illogically believed simply driving to that house was enough for it to suck me in and never let me go.

My roommate came into the living room to talk me down. She told me that if I really didn’t want to go, she wouldn’t make me. But she didn’t want my brother to be disappointed, and she didn’t want me to regret not going after putting so much work into making this happen.

“I’m not going to let them do anything to you. I’ll face them off myself if I have to. But I promise nothing bad is going to happen.”

I listened, and we took the trip. I texted my brother when we were five minutes away telling him to wait for us in the driveway, not wanting to spend any more time by that house than we needed to. I didn’t even want to step out of the car. I was hoping we could grab him and drive off before either of the parents saw us and came over. As we pulled in I saw my brother with his shoulder bag, standing by the front steps. I motioned him to come over. I saw the mother coming, seemingly out of nowhere. I felt the panic rising again and willed my brother to walk faster. As he got in the car, my mother knocked on the window. My roommate cast me an apologetic glance as she rolled the window down.

“Hi,” the mother said.

I think I may have nodded, or said the word back.

She asked me how I was. I responded vaguely. I said something about the garden. I can’t remember. All I remember is making sure I cut it off as soon as possible and my brother telling me that one of my comments would make her happy. That helped me relax, just a little bit.

The visit was great; I hadn’t seen him since the performance. We went hiking, took pictures, shared stories, and went out to eat. The ending was marred with him mentioning that he felt it necessary to come up with proof that he was not blindly following in my footsteps. To come home commenting that something about the visit was off, so the parents could walk away assured that he was not too attached to me. He’d already lied to them about not talking to me. Apparently, the mother hawked over his shoulder sometimes when he was on the computer. Most of the time he had to message me from his tablet in his bedroom with the door closed. When he wanted to call me, he usually went into the garage.

When we went out to eat with him I ordered a frozen margarita. We decided to tell them that I’d asked him to take a drink of the margarita and he refused. Make it as if I pressured him and he warded me off, because it was that important for the parents to see him pushing me away. They would never stop considering me a bad influence. There was no redeeming me in their minds. We had long since given up on that. The only thing to do was fabricate scenarios that would make them feel better about him.

There was little contact for a while after that. Occasionally my mother sent me texts. The only time I responded was when she mentioned Fannie Flagg had a new book out. The two of us had had something of a book club while we both read Fannie Flagg’s books; I couldn’t help but ask more about it. All of a sudden, I missed our friendship so much I felt willing to try again.

I kept my distance, though, and continued my silence. Going back was too painful. I had such little faith that anything was going to repair what was left of our relationship.

I didn’t tell them about the name change. I was waiting until it happened, until most of my documents were switched over and they couldn’t do anything about it. The night before my hearing, my mother texted me How’s it going? I felt exposed, as if she somehow knew everything. I didn’t reply. I panicked, hyperventilating and considering self-harm. I managed to stave myself. I slept on the couch that night, too.

**

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My name change was successfully legalized. I was talking to my counselor about when and how I should tell them about the change. She recommended I wait until things were relatively smooth between us before breaking it to them.

“Are you going to tell them about your gender, too?” she asked. “They’re kind of intertwined, and they may ask why you changed it.”

“I don’t know.” Part of me wanted to come out; maybe the huge reveal would give me a bridge back in, or maybe they would be so outraged they would disown me entirely. The most likely reaction was that they would pass it off as nonsense, not replying and assuming I was once again looking for attention. To be a special snowflake, like I was trying to when I told them I had depression and anxiety, or that I was gay.

Part of me wanted to just get it out and over with. The other part felt they did not even deserve to know.

I steeled myself and waited for that moment we’d talked about in counseling. Around the time I was preparing myself to come out to them, I became embroiled in a fierce argument with my father about how I was going to file my taxes. On top of his refusal to let me file my own exemption, they’d neglected to tell me that I’d been taken off the family insurance. Thanks to that, my prescription had been delayed almost two weeks, causing me to miss days of medication. Then for three months I was not insured, and had to dish out more than 80 dollars to pay for my pills. I could barely afford it; I ended up skipping an entire script to avoid the charge. Even though I tried to phase myself off slowly, the withdrawal symptoms left me constantly exhausted and even more disorientated than usual. Just as the withdrawals reached their peak, my new insurance finally kicked in. As I phased myself back into the medication, withdrawal symptoms mixed with reuptake symptoms, leaving me miserable for several weeks.

If I’d known about the insurance earlier, the whole ordeal would have been avoided.

In addition to the medication problems, I now had to spend hours battling my father about the taxes. It very nearly turned into a legal altercation, as my father insisted on claiming me as a dependent. I stressed to him that it simply was not legal for him to claim me. He denied this; his oppressive insistence, along with intimidating voicemails I refused to return, caused me to question myself again and again. I spent hours on the phone with the IRS, and hours on hold; I filled out pages of paperwork to reconcile my father’s fuckups. I was frequently in tears. I skipped classes to do the work or have nervous breakdowns.

This went on for months.

I did not tell them about my name.

**

Even as I told my friends, professors, and counselor these stories, they continued to question my decision not to invite my parents to my graduation. Once again I questioned myself; once again I spent hours deliberating over my choices.

My older brother and I tried to plot to get my little brother to my graduation without letting the parents know that’s where he was. We crafted an elaborate pretense that fell apart when the parents simply were not interested in letting him go. To top it off, they refused to pick up my brother at the train station when he’d planned to visit.

My older brother was at my graduation, though I didn’t want to see him. My little brother was not. My parents were not.

But the day after my graduation, I received a text from my mother.

How did graduation go?

They’d known the entire time. They wouldn’t have come if I asked them. They simply did not care.

The emotional turmoil I’d gone through on their account had almost killed me, as I once again visited the treatment center when I was planning suicide during these altercations. And they hadn’t even wanted to come.

**

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Out of all this, though, came my freedom. I’m on my own health care plan; I’m independent from them on my taxes. They have no access to any of my legal accounts and documents, as the name they have me under no longer exists. They don’t know where I live or work. They don’t know my role in my community or my status as a queer person. They no longer hold power over me. The only thing I need to do is protect myself emotionally.

But they have no power over me, and it finally feels like I can breathe.

breathe

I Felt it Once, and Sometimes it Comes Back

I Felt it Once, and Sometimes it Comes Back

There are those days where I desperately miss my hometown.

Maybe it’s not that I miss the town itself—I miss what it felt like to enjoy living there.

I miss the few true friends I actually had.

I miss my first boss—one of the best and most understanding ladies I’ll ever have the privilege of knowing.

I miss my co-workers—such caring, thoughtful, and fun individuals are hard to find.

I miss working at the boutique—remembering how I learned to interact with people, learned that I could be confident and competent.

I miss working on Jefferson Street with all the local shop owners, the ones who weren’t just in it for the tourists but who actively participated in community functions and gave back.

I miss the small-town events that were tailored towards residents and not just tourists. I miss running up and down the street on errands; that wonderful day where I made and delivered huge bouquets of balloons.

I miss rainy days at work listening to Frank Sinatra Leonard Cohen. I miss sunny days in the garden. I miss admiring the clothes that were too expensive and that beautiful pair of earrings I almost bought. I miss the pride in knowing that all of our products were either made in America or certified fair trade.

I miss my boss’s stories and tales of inspiration, the adventurous life she led. I almost went to New York with her; if I’d stayed, I probably would have.

I miss the routine of setting up in the morning and taking down at night. I miss packing my lunches and finding moments to snack on my trail mix and bean sprout sandwiches. I miss running down to the bakery to buy the homemade baked goods and bring them back to share.

The excitement of filling out my first time card, of my first paycheck.

I miss the theaters. The shady nights volunteering in the open-air theater, the paper tickets, watching the actors roam around the growing night before the show started.

I miss my first internship, where I learned all the nooks and crannies of the theater, and could still find my way to the third floor if I went back there today.

I miss folding programs and answering phones, filling out the ticket orders every Thursday morning. I miss chatting with my friends there, delivering mail, sweeping under the theater seats. I miss standing on the stage as I helped move props or held book.

I miss the smell of the theater. To this day I can’t describe it, but I’ll never forget it.

I miss stocking concessions, those awful trips up and down the basement stairs. I miss the Door County Cherry trail mix and Ben & Jerry’s single serve I occasionally treated myself to, as a benefit of being a volunteer.

I miss the feeling of sitting in that dark cool theater and watching people I knew acting on the stage, so close it never failed to send tingles down my spine. I miss memorizing the lines with the actors as I eavesdropped on rehearsals over and over.

I miss seeing shows for free and becoming a familiar face with the other workers and volunteers.

I miss co-directing the acting workshops for first graders, filling in the roles no one else wanted and reading Roald Dahl’s Vile Verses with the ecstatic kids.

I miss the feeling I got when working and volunteering, that the people around me genuinely cared about me. They were happy to see me. They were interested in my life. They enjoyed sharing these moments with me.

I miss those people; they were the first ones who made me feel like I had somewhere I belonged.

I miss my shop, I miss my theaters—my first real homes.

I miss feeling like that small town mattered to me.