Three Rides

Three Rides

My family has no knowledge of the three rides I’ve taken in police cars.

In the span of less than one year, I was a passenger in three different police cars, all for the same reason: I was in crisis.

The first time, I was pacing around campus, overwhelmed over a variety of things. My thoughts were overwhelming me and becoming dark. Most of my friends were gone for the summer, including my roommate; I couldn’t find a job, my relationship with my parents was on the fritz, my financial aid for the next year was not confirmed. There was not much to keep me occupied or make me feel useful, and a lot to make me upset.

As I was wandering around looking distressed, I bumped into a friend, who said I didn’t look well. I admitted how I was feeling, and he suggested I go see a counselor.

Campus had free counseling services. I’d been seeing one for going on two years at that point. She happened to be on maternity leave at the time. (By some twist of fate, it happened that my supervisor, my counselor, and my psychiatrist all had overlapping maternity leaves that year.)

It was summer, so it was easy for me to get an appointment within the hour. I described my situation and my feelings—my damaged relationships, my feelings of uselessness, depression, self-loathing. As soon as I hinted at suicidal ideation, the counselor insisted I take a police car ride to the Crisis Center.

I didn’t have a choice in the matter.

The Public Safety officer that picked me up was nice enough. But niceness doesn’t cover the awkwardness of getting patted down and asked if I was carrying any weapons and confirming that the scars all over me were from self-harm.

It didn’t help that as I was lead into the car, one of my former co-workers was smoking in the parking lot and saw the whole thing.

The cop chatted pleasantly. I didn’t have much to say. The seat in the back was plastic, making it impossible to get comfortable or brace myself for stops and turns, and there was a grate between me and the driver. It was the first time, but not the last, that I felt like my mental illnesses made me a criminal.

I’d never been to Crisis before. The questions the intake survey asked were invasive. I knew it was all there to help me, but I felt extremely exposed and uncomfortable. The front desk staff hid behind mirrored panels that I realized much later were probably two-way. No one looked anyone in the face and there was a stifling, terrified silence. It took maybe half an hour for me to be seen to.

I cried like I had at my first counseling appointment, but this counsellor was nowhere near as good as the one I had on campus. She seemed idealistic and bent on fixing me. My exasperation at her unhelpful, amateur methods chipped away at my panic and distress, and I realized I was probably better off back on campus. I let her help me make a safety plan, which involved me calling campus housing and talking to my least-favorite supervisor (I used to work for housing, so a lot of the people I called that night were old supervisors). She apparently had no idea what a safety plan was.

I called the friend who’d seen me earlier, and he agreed to let me stay the night at his place.

The counsellor drove me back to campus in her personal car. We talked about tattoos. It was awkward in its own right; the counselor had suddenly become an acquaintance letting me borrow a seat in her car.

I had my documented emotional support animal living with me at the time. I couldn’t leave her alone over night per campus policy. But I also wasn’t allowed to move her to another person’s apartment. Given I was in a crisis situation and we were making plans in an attempt to preserve my life, I figured we could make an exception. No one I called could confirm it, and it basically ended with my favorite supervisor saying he would neither approve nor disapprove of my bringing the cat with me. The next day I got a tart email from the head of housing saying I should have had someone come over to my place instead of illegally transporting my cat.

Obviously she’d never been in a panic-induced haze.

My cat and I spent the night at my friend’s place. Crisis called him to check in, and he reported I was fine. Being surrounded by him and his roommates, all of whom were my friends, was comforting. I calmed enough to sleep. My cat slept with me. They fed me breakfast, and when the 24 hours were over, they ensured I made it safely back to my place.

I lay on the couch texting my roommate, who was out of town at the time. That was why I couldn’t stay at my place. There would have been no one there, and the group I stayed with didn’t want to uproot and move when it was just easier for us to have me come over, cat or no cat.

My roommate and friends continued to check in on me, but as it got darker, I started panicking again. I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I asked my older brother to stay over that night.

He begrudgingly agreed, spending most of the evening texting other people, and leaving that morning without much of a goodbye.

**

My second ride was the worst. I was making serious plans to kill myself, and it was terrifying. My friends knew something was up. I was not myself for days. Each night my plan was to either go to the Crisis Center or die. For several in a row, I was too exhausted from my own distress to do either one. But any time someone asked, I couldn’t answer. I told them I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t want them to worry. I didn’t want them to freak out. I didn’t want them to care.

When, several days into this, I bumped into a friend and an advisor, I must have looked especially upset, because they both immediately stopped talking and asked me what was wrong.

My roommate immediately offered, even joining me for part of the counselling conversation. I was seriously in danger that time and they had me committed to the treatment center.

Of course, I had to ride a police car to get there.

And this time, I didn’t just feel like a criminal, I was treated like one.

I was a danger to myself. They put me in handcuffs and the officer held my arm as he led me to the car. I will never forget the feeling. The weight of the cuffs on my hands. The pinch of the clasp. The ways I tried to maneuver my body to avoid the pain of the plastic seat pushing the cuffs against my wrists and back.

I never want to feel that again.

**

The next ride was almost comical. It occurred the following spring, a month before graduation, when several things cumulated into a nervous breakdown and a fierce desire to self-harm.

Before things got too dark, I felt myself in danger again and took the bus to Crisis. I had the presence of mind to pack an overnight bag. I took the wrong bus, got off at the wrong center, and used Google Maps to walk to the right one. I read my homework assignment as I waited for the counsellor to come get me. I calmly explained my fears and my desire to go somewhere where others could keep me safe and I would be separated from the responsibilities and anxieties that were eating me alive.

I got into the voluntary wing of the treatment center, which was a lot less scary than the involuntary side. My counsellor and I agreed that this was a smart thing to do. He was impressed that I’d brought everything I needed for an overnight stay.

Everything—except, of course, my anxiety/depression medication.

Well damn. “They won’t let you in without your meds.”

I offered to take the bus back to campus, grab my meds, and then bus myself to the treatment center. He told me they couldn’t let me do that. Despite the fact that I was asking to be committed, they couldn’t afford the liability of me going off by myself and changing my mind to take matters into my own hands.

It made sense, but I was beyond irritated at having to ride in a police car again.

They drove me back to campus to pick up my meds. The whole drive there, I worried that my roommate would be in the apartment when I walked in with a police officer. I’d hid under the bed earlier that day to avoid her when she got home and I was in the midst of my breakdown. We were going through a rough patch at the time. The last thing I wanted was for her to find out I was back at Crisis by seeing me with a police escort.

Another officer was hanging out outside my apartment. “What a coincidence,” I said, and they seemed a little embarrassed to admit he’d been called to help with me. For pete’s sake. As if one large armed man wasn’t enough to take on a tiny person like me.

My roommate was not there, but one of my neighbors did a double take when she saw me walk in flanked by the officers. I grabbed my meds and we went back into the car to drive to the treatment center.

I wasn’t treated like a criminal this time, going in voluntarily, but that didn’t cushion the harshness of the plastic seat I slouched in on the way over.

**

My hope is that I will not have to ride in a police car again. I don’t know what life will throw my way. I haven’t been suicidal in a while, and I haven’t self-harmed since I moved in to my new place. I use that as a marker, as a goalpost for this year. Soon I can say it’s been a year, and it’s that thought that keeps me from buying razors.

I’m still depressed. I’m still anxious. I still panic. I still have thoughts that I’d be better off dead. I still shudder when I feel my keloids, flinch when I see my scars, and I still panic and sometimes scream when someone cuts or gets cut onscreen.

These things are not going away and probably won’t for a while. Maybe ever. But if my goal for this year is to not take any more rides in a police car—I’m 83 days in so far, and counting.

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day

Anywhere you go now, any grocery store, department store, dollar store—you’re greeted with pink, red, and white. Candy, streamers, balloons, cards. It’s always there weeks before the holiday, and once it’s over, we forget about it. That’s always the impression I got at my childhood home. The candy lasted another week or so, but the valentines found their way to a box under the bed the next day.

It used to be cute. We sent homemade cards to our grandparents and made little valentines for each other, which we stuck in a toy mail box and opened after a dinner of pizza and a chocolate cream cheese marshmallow fluff dessert.

But there was always the passive-aggressive competition between my parents as to who could be the most romantic; between my brothers as to whose cards were the funniest. I struggled to make mine in the least way suitable. In my tween years, my skin crawled when I opened cards from my older brothers, not meeting their gazes and avoiding the words that might have a sick double meaning.

Valentine’s Day has always been tricky. I made a valentine for my first crush, trying to design something neutral that wouldn’t scare her off. It either came off too strong or she was just a flighty person, because I never heard from her again. After I sent it I came out to my mom, who convinced me not to tell anyone. She didn’t give me dating advice or help me plan ways to see this girl.

Two Februaries later, my infatuation with a certain asshole cumulated into the two of us claiming some kind of relationship. It was scary, it was exhilarating, it was sweet. It started off happy and ended ugly. There’s enough on this blog about that story, and definitely more to come.

One year later, after that relationship exploded and some of the wreckage was finally blowing away, I’d met another girl. She was sweet, she was funny, she was fun to talk to, and, as it turned out, she was into me, too. We’d both made passing comments about February 14th, that we’d be spending the day single. A little over a week later, we admitted our feelings in a fluster and took the weekend to think about it. What followed was too months of sweet, innocent romance. It ended before things got messy or tense, and after a summer of space, we’ve maintained an amiable friendship that we both value.

And then there’s last year. I joked to my boss that I will never begin a relationship in February ever again.

I’m not going to say much about it. It’s over, and it didn’t end well. We haven’t spoken in months. I don’t know if we will. It still hurts. But I’ll say this: I’ve never felt that close to anyone in my life.

February is coming up again. I have no persistent crushes and no ardent desire to find a partner. I’m still bitter about the last one. And two years later, the first one still eats me inside.

I don’t know what I want in a partner, so I’m focusing on what I want in life. I see young people around me breaking their hearts over unhealthy relationships and pining for a partner at the expense of their friendships. I don’t want to be that person. I also don’t want to be the person that dwells over past relationships and lets it define them. So I’m laying it all on the table, hoping it’ll let out some of the steam. If I can make it past February without getting myself into another fit of love, I’m thinking I might be okay for a little while.

My Reggio Classroom

My Reggio Classroom

This May I started working at a child care center coordinating their community youth programs. Among other things, I have a classroom of 14 first and second graders I work with every day after school.

My center enrolls about 40 kids in its after-school program. They’re split into 3 classrooms, and I run one of them. It was a pretty proud moment for me when my supervisor told me I’d have my own classroom. Not only did this affirm that I’m lead teacher material, it gave me an opportunity I’d been waiting for since I decided to become an educator.

I got to decorate my own classroom.

The room I was given hadn’t been used for much in a while. One of the other teachers had spent time over the summer reorganizing it, but I got to take it over from there. I had shelves, a rug, a couch, some tables, pictures, whiteboards, and a fake tree to work with.

My childcare center follows a particular philosophy of learning—the Reggio Emilia approach. The Reggio Emilia philosophy follows the belief that children aren’t empty sponges waiting for us to fill them—a popular belief in many settings—but that they’re sponges already full of knowledge, curiosity, and potential, and it’s out job as educators to coax that out and guide it.

Rather than teaching them curriculums and integrating structured learning, we set up an environment that’s natural for exploration and self-lead learning. We give them invitations—setting out materials that they can work with if they want; and provocations—laying out a challenge or asking a question that they can attempt to meet or answer.

The approach was developed in the 1970s, as educators in post-World War II Italy looked for new ways to teach their students. It is geared towards younger kids, which is a large portion of what our center focuses on. But we serve a good number of school-age youth as well, and Reggio methods are adapted in age-appropriate ways for the after-school program.

Loose parts are a huge part of Reggio. Loose parts can be almost anything—acorns, beads, pine cones, sticks, leaves, beans, pebbles, string, corks, rings, pop tabs, rocks. These items are traditionally arranged in baskets and laid out on tables or shelves. That’s part of the invitation. They’re always there, and the students are welcome to use and explore them. But there’s no pressure to do so, or to do so with a specific goal in mind. That way, discoveries occur naturally, and it’s a lot more satisfying and exciting for the student. I watch my kids every day as they take out the baskets, sort pieces, mix and match, build, create, and observe. They get so much more out of it than if I’d handed them a bunch of rocks and said “Build a tower!” or beads and said “Make a pattern!”

Blocks are also very versatile. My class has traditional wooden blocks, “natural” looking blocks, wooden train tracks, cut-up sponges, and cups. LOTS of cups. I gave them cups on a whim, looking to fill one of the empty compartments on my block shelf, and they ran with it. Almost every day now, I have multiple students building cup towers, making cup walls, sorting the cups based on size and color, and all sorts of things.

It’s so much more exciting than pre-designed Lego sets or puzzles.

The best things happen when the areas overlap. I’ve seen many glorious palaces built with a mixture of loose parts and blocks.

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The classroom layout and environment is also very important. According to Reggio, education consists of three teachers. First, the child; they lead themselves through life and are constantly showing us new things. Second, the traditional educator role: the responsible, trained adult in the room who can ensure safety and guide learning. And third, the classroom itself. Everything about the learning area influences the experiences had inside it.

I spent a lot of time arranging my classroom until it satisfied my needs. I wanted lots of options for play, but not so many they were overwhelming. I filled the shelves with items that got swapped out occasionally with others in the closet. I wanted the classroom to be open, to invite collaborative play and to let the students decide what the spaces would consist of. Wide open floor spaces make for awesome buildings. Putting the art table next to the “creation station” with no barrier left plenty of room for crossing over materials.

I wanted the room to have a natural feel. The art table went by the window to let the outside world and natural lighting inspire their work. The book nook went in a quiet corner, which I equipped with the couch, the rug, the tree, soft pillows and bean bags, a fish tank, and of course bookshelves. The book nook was closed off on one side but not all, so there could be some separation if quiet was needed, but it was not totally isolated, allowing for some versatility there as well.

I wanted the room to be inviting. The first few weeks the students were there, I lay out the invitation for the kids to make art to hang on the walls. I wanted them to feel like the room belonged to them—it wasn’t someone else’s room that they borrowed for a few hours each afternoon.

The walls were soon bedecked with their art: their hand prints, color patterns, abstract shapes, items of interest. The invitation is ongoing, and I still have some of them coming up to me with art asking if it can be put on the walls.

I’ve worked in programs before where we followed a specific schedule and lead curriculums. Those experiences were very rewarding, and I could see the benefits they had on the children I worked with in those settings. It was a huge change for me to arrive at a place where the emphasis was not on what I would be teaching the kids every day, but on what we could all learn together as a community.

I love watching my kids explore the materials laid out for them. I love seeing the amazing things they come up with in exploration and pretend play. I love being able to interact with them on a new level as I explore with them, sometimes sitting back and watching as they guide themselves through the day.

I do have one big thing in my classroom that is not Reggio: the job wheel. Though we don’t follow a specific agenda, each day brings a series of steps we need to follow. We walk from school, eat our snack, and clean up. During the first days, the kids fought over who would walk in front, and it often ended in tears. Some of them didn’t care, but for those that did, it was a pretty big deal.

The one it really mattered to had ADHD. That might have been the cause of the frustration, or it might have just exacerbated it. He would push and yell at others when they tried to walk in front, but didn’t seem to think it was unfair for him to walk in the front every single day. (For ease of reading, I’ll call him A.)

I’d tell him, “You can’t walk in front today, let someone else do it,” and be met with an indignant “Why?”

“Because it’s not fair.”

Why?

So, among other things, Line Leader became a job that switched every day. The first day I introduced the job wheel, when A pushed his way to the front, I said, “A, you’re not in the front today.”

I was met with his pout. “Why?”

“Because Line Leader is a job now, and today, it’s B’s job.”

“Oh. Okay.” And A walked to the back of the line.

It felt like a miracle.

The job wheel helps me so I don’t have to hand out plates and wipe the tables every day. But it’s also very important to A now, as well as the others in my class who have ADHD and other needs. For that reason, I’m not getting rid of it, even if it’s not Reggio.

I love my classroom. It’s a place where I can witness creativity, teamwork, struggles, resolutions, tears, laughter, growth, and learning every day. During my interview, my future supervisor could see me bouncing with excitement when she described the Reggio Emilia approach. I’d been trying to explain to people for years that kids come into this world equipped with everything they need, and in most cases, adults don’t build them up, we squish it all back down by convincing them they don’t know anything. If we’re teaching them stuff they already know, how is that going to make them feel? Bad? Wrong? Inadequate?

There are things like the alphabet and how to hold scissors that have to be taught. But a sense of curiosity, wonder, excitement, a love of nature, the drive to learn, a feeling of community, caring for others—that’s part of the package they walk into our lives with. Reggio Emilia takes for granted that all of that is there. It’s not our job to invent our students. It’s our job to meet them where they already are, and give them the chance to invent themselves.

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Find out more about the Reggio Emilia apprach here: 

https://www.reggioalliance.org/

http://www.reggiochildren.it/identita/reggio-emilia-approach/?lang=en

 

Long Time

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything. My goal was a post every two weeks last year. Life happens. It wasn’t even that dramatic. Jut a lot of becoming an adult. I got my first apartment. I have a full-time job and recently earned 40 hours a week over my previous 36. I run three programs and travel between four different sites. I just took out a 72 month loan for an awesome car. I’m living my life; I just haven’t blogged about it.

I lost my insurance this month. I’m required to get a group plan through work, and it doesn’t cover any of my mental health needs. I had to cancel all my counseling appointments and I’m dreading the day this week I run out of my prescription. If I can’t pay for my psych visits, my script will run out, and I’ll be on a limb. In October my pharmacy fucked up on me and withheld my meds for two weeks. During those weeks, the people around me could see a change. I was erratic, distracted, moody. Getting back on was like flipping a light switch. It’s ironic that, after just over a year of taking these and doubting their effectiveness, the moment I realize how well they’re working is the moment I’m threatened with them being taken away.

I’m sitting here typing and eating gummy bears by the fistful as my cat tries to eat my granola. At any rate, I’m here. I’m sketching out a few ideas for posts about my job and recent events. Look forward to that. In the meantime, peace out, take care, and keep on rockin.

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.