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.

 

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?

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.

 

Theater Seats

I’m always particular about where I sit in a movie theater. It’s different from watching movies at home—at home you can move around if you need to, get up to use the restroom and find a better spot when you get back if the first one didn’t work out. But at a movie theater, it’s not like there’s a bunch of couches and chairs and rug space in a natural formation. The seats are all smashed together and in a line, making moving around inconvenient and uncomfortable. Once you pick your spot, you’re stuck there the whole time unless there’s an intermission, which happens less and less lately.

Who you sit with can define your movie watching experience. Despite this, when groups go to see movies, they don’t seem to care as much who they sit next to as they do at home.  It’s just a mad scramble in a half-lit room trying to find a row with enough empty chairs to fit us all. It’s an intense bundle of seconds for me as I try to predict where each person will sit in relation to everyone else, timing my movements to make sure I claim the spot I need before things shuffle around again.

I need to sit with someone I know on at least one side. That is, someone I like. I’m not always in a group filled entirely with people I like. It might not even be that I don’t like them, but sometimes I want to share this particular movie experience with someone specific. Plus, I need to sit next to someone who won’t judge my leg twitches and constant fidgeting. Ideally, it will be someone who appreciates my side comments and adds their own, who lets me hide by them when things get intense. I want to be able to cast a significant glance their way and see knowing eyes looking back, rather than just awkwardly look at the side of their head and to see them still staring at the screen.

If I see a movie in a house and the experience is disappointing—if people don’t engage with me or I get embarrassed—it still sucks, but at least I didn’t pay for it and drive across town for it. And there’s usually something to do or somewhere to go after. Or I can get up in the middle if I know the house well enough and spend some time in another room. Or pretend to fall asleep. But in a theater there’s not much of an escape unless I want to squish past everyone to spend awkward extra minutes in the public restroom. And movie theater chairs aren’t comfortable enough to even pretend to fall asleep in.

Seeing a movie in a theater is extra fun and extra stress. For someone who overanalyzes everything, those few seconds it takes for everyone to take a seat define priorities. In my experience people tend not to make an effort to sit with me on purpose, so if I feel a need to claim someone’s periphery, I need to act quickly. The stress of making sure I sit where I need to is enough for me to consider declining every invitation I get, or relieved when I rarely get any invitations in the first place.

 

 

Our Youth, Our Future

Our Youth, Our Future

I work for an Afterschool Program in my city. Almost every day I walk into my school and am greeted by nearly one hundred elementary school students that would have nowhere else to go after school. These are children with parents who work past 5pm each night, who would be bussed back to empty homes if not for this program. Each day I work, I encounter a child who tells me if it weren’t for the meals offered at the program, they would be going the rest of the day without food. Every day I work with kids who take vital skills from the lessons I teach and apply them to their daily interactions. I have seen so much growth in my students thanks to the curriculum that we teach. I see students making friends with other students they might otherwise never have met. Students learning from each other about lifestyles and cultures different from their own.

The bonds that are forged between the students and their Afterschool mentors are irreplaceable. I have students confide with me things they say they wouldn’t tell anyone else. I have students who tell me I’m their role model or that I’ve helped them solve a problem in their lives. I see students becoming better people because of the interactions they’ve had with Afterschool staff, learning to mentor others and make mature and educated choices.

I’ve worked with kids whose teachers have given up on them. I’ve guided “problem” students to places of comfort and engagement that no one expected them to reach. And I’ve seen each of my co-workers do the same, day after day, week after week, month after month.

These programs are vital in serving our communities. These programs give students tools to become educated, engaged citizens. These programs provide essential resources for parents and families who work so hard to build good lives for the children in their care.

Communities thrive when they are given resources for their youth. Our youth are the foundations of the future. Our youth are the voices we will be listening to years down the line. Building a community of strong, educated, engaged youth is the best investment we can make for our world. These are the people who will be shaping our world very soon, so we need to do the best we can to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to prepare themselves.

The idea of our federal government cutting funding for these programs blows my mind. So many resources have already been reduced or taken away from our public schools. How can we even think about calling ourselves the greatest nation in the world if we don’t support our youth?

Please call and write your representative and urge them to advocate for the continued funding of afterschool and summer youth programs.

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

You’re wrong.

I buy my own food. I take the bus to work. I have 4 jobs, 2 internships, class, bills to pay, a cat to feed, medication to keep track of, and a family that was loathe to send me $100 for groceries for the whole year, who fucked up my financial aid, and who refuse to give me physical or emotional support and who actively criticize and invalidate me.

On top of this I live with 3 diagnosed mental illnesses, struggle with emotional PTSD after a childhood and adolescence of abuse and neglect, and I’m a queer person in a Trump world, where not only students but also professors have gone out of their way to sensationalize or invalidate me.

And yet I still somehow find the time and energy to fund raise $113 in a day for a cause I care about, lend several hours of my time to volunteer for efforts that are important to me, reach out to help and support those around me, communicate with faculty and staff for projects outside of work or school, fight to make my university a better place, stand up to people who are fucking things up, support my successful friends and colleagues, and help my school outside of my work hours.

I have succeeded in all of my classes. I have done well enough on assignments to get praise from my professors. Sometimes my professors ask me to work with them. I seek out academic challenges and they readily send them my way. Many of them have pointed me towards volunteer and work opportunities, and have offered to be references for jobs or write letters of recommendation for scholarships.

I have been successful in all of my jobs. I have received praise from supervisors on doing a good job, being a role model, going above and beyond. I have had productive and enlightening conversations with them. I have worked to better myself and seen my progress. I have formed lasting relationships with my co-workers and in many cases have been a part of a cohesive and amazing team. I have seen the impact my work has on those around me–whether it’s them beaming over their improved writing skills, finding their own passions, gaining valuable life skills, seeking out challenges of their own, growing as people, learning about diversity, becoming a better ally, becoming a better friend, finding joy in everyday things, opening up to themselves and others,  finding their safe places, making connections, gaining experience.

I have forged amazing friendships. I have encountered incredible people and worked to keep them in my life. We’ve had life-changing experiences and supported each other through thick and thin. I’ve been through breakups and lost friends to misunderstandings and abuse. I’ve become incredibly close to people who end up leaving. I have found comfort in unlikely people. I’ve worked through an intense fear of being loved. I’ve taken dramatic steps in relationships. I’ve fallen in and out of love. I’ve created a support system for myself that has been there for me during my darkest times and has shared with me some of my greatest successes. I’ve helped friends through depression and anxiety and even suicide.

I’ve lived amazing experiences. I’ve traveled to places that 15 year old me never would have dreamed about. I flew on a plane by myself and navigated my way through a foreign city on my own. I have friends in other states and other countries.

I’ve battled with my inner demons and, in some cases, won. I have scars that will stay with me my entire life, but I refuse to let them take me down.

I’ve three times tried to kill myself, but guess what, I’m still here.

So yes please get mad at me for saying things that don’t appeal to you, for questioning your authority, for taking things into my own hands, for going out of my way to do things that distract me from my ultimate goal (get an education). Please do blame me for things outside of my control. Please do take advantage of me and freeload off my efforts. Please mock my experiences and make light of my struggles. Please discredit what I tell you because I can’t possibly know anything. And while you’re at it, go ahead and say I’m not doing anything with my life. Go ahead and make fun of me for trying. Go ahead and mock my passions. You won’t be the first or the last.

And you’ll never know how I’ll keep fighting. How I’ll move on from your verbal bashing. How I’ll protect myself. How I’ll stop asking you for help because I rarely get the help I need from people like you.

And I guess I should thank you–for reminding me that the close friends I have are extraordinary, that most people I will encounter in life will be more like you. People I will learn to fight because for once in my life, I know I’m right about something.

That it’s never wrong to keep working for what you see needed around you.