We are What we Experience

We are What we Experience

When I have a significant interaction with a person that seems to go pretty well I usually think about it afterwards. I think about how the entire thing was a series of tiny decisions that I stacked on top of one another in reaction to what the other person said or did. And each decision I made can be traced back to something someone taught me. Maybe it stems from my RA training. Maybe it’s based off something someone did for me that I really appreciated. Maybe it comes from feedback given to me by a peer or supervisor when they saw what I was lacking. Maybe it comes from something someone did to me that I never want to see be done to someone else, so instead I do the opposite.
I guess what I’m saying is: we are what we experience. I feel like I started life at 17 with no real basis as to who I was, and in the past three or four years I’ve been putting together the pieces of life that people have given me to make my own. Everyone we meet influences us, whether it’s us wanting to be like them or wanting to counteract what they did.
How we put those pieces together is important, because it makes us who we are.

Contrary to Popular Belief, Inclusivity is Important

It’s not about “not offending people,” it’s about making sure people are safe. I’m not “offended” if you misgender me. I’m hurt, invalidated and dysphoric. I’m not “offended” if you make jokes about suicide or self harm. I’m triggered and sent into a panic spiral that can last for hours or days.
It’s not about policing people’s language, it’s about building a culture of respect and understanding where people are aware that everyone comes from a different place and people are willing to learn from the experiences of others, and respect that certain things are not okay to say. Is that really such a bad thing?

My Struggle

All the other camps I want to apply to are either full-time off campus positions (which I can’t take if I want to be a teacher for TRIO, and I want to maintain any connection to my kids that I am allowed) or already fully staffed and no longer accepting apps, or have values that are so drastically different from mine that I would not feel comfortable or safe in that environment. I know there are a lot worse things that could be happening to me right now and for the most part I am a very lucky person. But I can’t help but feel discouraged and undervalued. My kids are my life. I thought I was doing well enough that people could see that. Is it just that my methods or mentoring are so bizarre to people they can’t trust me in that role? Is going out of my way to empathize and understand those that I work with so uncalled for? Is taking time to have extra conversations with the ones that are usually ignored really that horrible? Is disagreeing with what my co-workers say and do and trying to have a constructive conversation about that an instant fail? I know I had my off days where I got short with a kid or a co-worker, but doesn’t everyone have those? Why aren’t I allowed that? Just as my self esteem was beginning to blossom I get shot down again because my philosophy on working with kids isn’t exactly the same as theirs. I’m blocked from the Pine Ridge trip because of stupid politics and someone who seemed bound and determined to bring me down by targeting the thing that was most important to me–my work with kids. I was prevented from even applying to CESA 6 and their Youth Mentor Program because my fucking anxiety won’t allow me to be a safe driver. I can’t do TRIO because of “something to do with group dynamics” and a few remarks from kids about me picking favorites when the majority of their comments were positive, saying I was nice and friendly and interesting and even logical. Logical! Do you have any idea what that means to me after years and years of being written off as an emotional nobody with nothing valuable or important to say? At least one kid out their respected the fact that I took time to explain things and went about doing things in a way that made sense to me (and them too apparently).
And now I can’t do any other summer camp that’s come my way, because I missed app deadlines because TRIO took their sweet time letting me know they didn’t want me back, or because I disagree with the mission of the camp, or because choosing that camp would force me to choose between it and maintaining what little connection I still have with the kids who I promised would see me again.
I know that I’m young. I know I’m still learning. I know I have room to improve. I know that, for the most part, I have nothing to complain about.
But I’ve only recently figured out what is most important to me. I’ve only recently begun to take action on it, get myself out there, make myself known. And I am being blocked again and again for reasons that I don’t understand or agree with.
I’m not unused to this. I grew up surrounded by people who loved to shoot me down. Who told me I could do whatever I wanted and then laughed at me whenever I did what I wanted, or showed any semblance of passion or talent.
I guess the difference now is that I’m not going to let stupid petty people get in my way. I’m going to keep fucking trying. Because I might not have the confidence to believe in myself but fuck anybody who thinks I don’t love my kids more than anything else in the world, and fuck anybody who thinks I would ever, EVER give up on them. I won’t be shot down, I won’t be shoved aside, I won’t be disregard or laughed at without fighting back. I study this shit. I know it’s hard on kids to lose a mentor figure even if all that figure was is a familiar face. Let alone a trusted friend, role model or support, which I know I was to at least some of them.
People tell me that it will all make sense some day. They say that this is all a strength test and I will come through better for it in the end. But having started with so little confidence, so little strength, and sop little support, I am constantly afraid that I may physically be unable to come through at all. Things that seem like small obstacles to other people can seem like insurmountable challenges to me, because I have so little experience to go off of. I have only recently discovered my sense of self. There’s not a lot of me that I can carry around or save when things go wrong. I’ve had to start over so many times in the past three years after doing the exact same things day in and day out for seventeen years. I don’t understand life. People terrify me. Relationships terrify me. The future terrifies me. I wonder if I am capable, emotionally, physically, to continue with anything I do. If I am capable of actually being. I let people walk over me constantly. I let people take advantage of me. I let them think I am fine, I am okay, I don’t care, go ahead, you’re more important than I am. And they believe me. I let them think it does not bother me that the things that are most important to me are taken away. That it’s okay for them to define me as something that I am not, as someone who I am not. To pass me off as unimportant. Because guess what? I believe them.
I want to keep going. I want to keep trying. I want to keep fighting. I want to say FUCK YOU to anything and everything that gets in my way. If I don’t have me kids, I feel like I won’t have anything. They are my purpose ad my life.
But I’m scared. I’m scared if I can’t. I’m scared if the day comes and I no longer want to. I’m scared if I lose my support. I’m scared if everything I believe in once again falls apart and leaves me to deal with the pieces. I know that a lot of people have gone through so much worse than I have. I feel petty and stupid even complaining about this. But I am small. I came in here with nothing to go on. I had no self concept except this image of a horrible, selfish, stupid, worthless person. A person with nowhere to go.
But now I’ve found where I want to go. I want to say that nothing can stop me now and these obstacles are just roadblocks that I can overcome. But I’m not sure. I’ve been wrong before. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I was right.

Powwow

Deep and earthy rhythms
rumble from the skin
stretched on oaken frames.

All hearts beat together
shake the listeners’ bones
till all jump up to dance.

Midst feathers and the forest’s brightest hues,
the lithe and agile bodies hop and peck
as the wobbling white girl finds her feet.

Let go, the music beats.
Follow, we will lead.
The drum pounds in her chest.

Her bones throb with noise,
feet hop, body follows—

She beats with the drums.

 

 

Originally published in The Sheepshead Review, April 2016

A Bowl of Chili

A Bowl of Chili

I walked towards my First Nations Studies professor’s office, found the door ajar, and knocked. My hand shook a little because I knew one way or another this conversation was going to be emotionally charged. It had nothing to do with academics, but at the moment, it seemed to have everything to do with my life, my future, and my relationships with some of my closest friends.

My professor was squinting hard at something on the screen and looked almost angry, which made me even more nervous. I knew she didn’t like the root behind the topic I was going to bring up, and I’d felt she was a bit disappointed in me when she learned I had been a part of it last year. She was a small, curly-haired, powerful Ojibwe woman, with a large voice that could be remarkably soft when she needed it to, and the greatest sense of empathy I’d ever experienced from a professor—or any adult, really.

She looked up at my knock and her scrunched-up look of displeasure smoothed into one of pleasant surprise when she saw me at the door.

“Well, hello! What brings you here?”

First things first, I decided. I held up the can of Folger’s coffee that Stacie had asked me to bring in as a gift for the Elders in Residence. My professor was delighted, rising from her chair to receive the gift. She welcomed me in, thanking me and telling me to thank Stacie next I saw her.

But she could tell there was something else on my mind, and asked me about it.

Here it came.

“I have to cook a pot of chili tonight,” I told her. “And I’m not sure if I should.”

She could have laughed, as others had; she could have immediately offered suggestions without knowing the story behind it. But instead she met my gaze and nodded, straight-faced and interested, and asked me to sit down.

“Tell me about this pot of chili.”

I took a deep breath and told the story from the beginning. The Inter-Faith organization at our school had been leading a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation for one week during spring break, each year for I don’t know how many years. The trip was extremely controversial. The man behind the Inter-Faith center had refused help from the First Nations Department when they reached out, claiming he wanted his students going on the trip to enter as “blank slates” as they were immersed in the Lakota culture.

“But it doesn’t really work like that,” another of my FN professors had explained to me. “Just by virtue of being a part of modern American society, each student has already developed prejudices and stereotypes from their exposure to popular media.”

So each student that went, went in uneducated, unsure, culturally awkward, and relatively clueless, unless they had background in First Nations cultures. But student with background in the culture tended to be excluded in favor of the “blank slate” concept.

I’d gone on the trip last year. My ex had convinced me to go. It was our first conversation after meeting each other. As soon as I told her my parents would never let me go, she was on me, forcing me to go. But in the end (as I sometimes forget) it was really my sociology professor who convinced me, telling me how much I would learn, and how much I could grow.

I was the only one on the team of fifteen that decided to take a First Nations class the semester of the trip in order to better prepare myself for interacting with a culture I’d had no prior contact with. That’s how I’d met this professor I now sat in the office with. I’d been naive. I’d had no idea that the FN department had been rejected from making the trip a better one, and that my professor was extremely bitter about the whole thing. I’d sensed her reaction when I talked about it, saw her awkward anger, and never brought it up to her again.

I went on the trip. The goal was to finish staining the porch of a mobile home belonging to a family on the reservation our school had been working with for years. Years, mind you—one week each of the past six or so years to get this home up and running. And the family patiently waiting. And our group feeling so proud of themselves for this miniscule accomplishment. I’ll be the first to admit that there was some of the White Savior in me too.

But what I was really looking forward to was meeting the kids at the Pine Ridge Boarding School. The other part of our project had been raising enough money to buy them art and sports supplies, and we bought a decent amount of each of these. Kids had terrified me for most of my life after some experiences of accidentally hurting them, and I was determined to shake that. This was the trip that would define my life and my passion for youth advocacy.

It started the moment we walked into the school. It was a large and colorful building, with bars, stripes, and circles integrated into the wall’s color scheme, and a medicine wheel on the floor of the very center of the building, where hallways branched off leading into the dorm wings and the recreation areas, and the two large front and back doors, leading respectively to the parking lot and to the playground and basketball court.

Our team was greeted by the dorm mother of the school. We were informed that a twelve-year-old girl had hung herself that weekend.

It was then I realized that there was nothing I could do here.

There was no way I could be a savior. No way could I help these kids. Nothing I could possibly do to bring that girl back and stop the next one from killing herself.

The only thing left for me to do was observe, and learn, and see what I could do. I was shaking for almost the entire day and into the night. By the third day of interacting with heartbroken, energetic, paranoid, hyperactive, troubled, wonderful kids, my mind and heart had begun to fill with a desire to help them and all the kids like them. The kids in my city. The kids I see each day in my textbooks, on the news, in my social media feeds. 

Kids who were like me when I was their age. 

I wanted to learn how to help suicidal kids, depressed and anxious kids. That’s what started my work in youth advocacy, lead me to change my major, and prompted me to get involved in local service projects while remaining in contact with a few of the kids I met on the reservation (a notable one being described here).

The trip was being planned again for this year. My ex, having been the team leader the year before, told me I could go again and serve as an advisor to the new team lead. That was before we broke up. I didn’t think the breakup would have any effect on my participation in the trip. What I didn’t know was that during the time we were not speaking with each other, my ex had continued organization without me, picking her friend and my roommate as leaders, and all of them had begun planning without me. So by the time we considered each other friends again it was apparently too late for me to jump on board.

The fact that our breakup was now the only thing preventing me from going, no matter how many stupid excuses m ex made about my previous behavior or lack of team ethic (all of which were wrong according to everyone else in my life), infuriated me beyond anything I’d ever felt before. I fought to keep myself on their radar, offering my time, ideas, experience, input, and by far doing the most outreach via classroom presentations (I’d have to say almost half, if not more, of the people who applied did so because they saw me present about it in their class).

I offered to cook chili for a dinner fundraiser they’d planned. That was before other things started happening.

Before my roommate told me I could not go on the trip, despite the fact that my ex was in a different country and no longer had influence.

Before I found out from the other leader that the Inter-Faith supervisor hated students to go more than once unless they were leading. That his main focus was not building support for and connections with the Lakota people on the Reservation, but exposing students to what was basically poverty porn and voluntourism if it wasn’t pulled off right.

Before I found out that their next project was to build a coffee house on the Reservation.

When she heard me say that my professor leaned back and drew a hand across her face.

“A coffee house?” she said. “Who’s going to travel miles and miles across that huge Reservation to pay five dollars for a cup of coffee?

“Who’s going to run it? Who’s going to pay for it?”

“It’s not part of their culture,” I said.

“It’s such a middle-class, white thing to think of!” my professor exclaimed. “If they want to help they could just build a generic rec center, not restrict it to a particular use.”

“And it has nothing to do with what we learned last year. No one we talked to said they needed a coffee house. They all focused on their youth—they need more resources for their youth. I can tell they’re going to frame it as a way to build community and have an alcohol-free space, but first off, it’s not going to work—it’s not part of their culture, it’s going to be expensive, who’s going to buy coffee when they could buy whiskey, and the kids aren’t going to be interested in it. And second, it lets me know that the one big takeaway they all had last year was that Pine Ridge has an alcohol problem. Not that they’re taking great strides in providing for the next generation, not that they’re building themselves up.”

The issue was that I wanted to say all of those things, but I had been given the opportunity to lead the trip next year. If I put myself in a bad light by criticizing the current teams’ every move, it was unlikely I’d gain favorable rapport and be able to lead.

But I also wasn’t sure I even wanted to lead anymore. It was not the trip I’d signed up for; I’d gone in with a completely different perspective on what it was supposed to be. Did I really want to be a part of bringing a bunch of “white saviors” to perform tasks I didn’t agree with and work with people I was coming to resent?

An alternative was to start a project right here in my city, helping out the local kids. As my professor pointed out, “You don’t have to go all the way to South Dakota if you want to help out the Natives.”

“There’s porches to paint right here,” she said.

We talked about launching a mentorship program or coat drive with local schools. We generated a few ideas; I got excited; my professor spoke to me again.

“You were put on this Earth to do big things,” she said, resting her elbows and clasped hands on her desk. “The trip you went on, the impact it had—that goes beyond you. You were meant to go on that trip. And I didn’t say anything when you talked about it, because I didn’t want to interfere in your learning process. You got to this point by yourself. And I’ve seen the work you have done since then, and what you took out of your experience was good.”

South Dakota 18

I breathed slowly, and she leaned back in her chair again. “You came in here to ask about a bowl of chili,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not sure if I want to make it. If I don’t agree in what the trip stands for anymore.”

“I can’t tell you if you should make it or not,” she said slowly. “I can see it would be difficult to make something if you don’t agree with it. But I can also see that you gave your word, and keeping your word is very important.

“I can tell you if you decide to make it, make it with good thoughts in your mind. Make it with positivity, and that positivity will go into the food, and everyone that eats the food will feel it. Because if you make it with bitterness, and put your frustrations into the food, then everyone who eats the food will take in that negativity.”

I nodded.

A few more things were said, we thanked each other, and I walked out. I felt lighter. Hearing her speak and the method with which she used her words, the patterns and rhythms of her thought, always calmed me, always helped to guide me.

I want to believe what she said. That I was put her to do big things.

I know the effect of this trip goes beyond me, and that’s why I can’t let it go. The trip influences every person that our students interact with on the Reservation and everyone that we talk to about it. It affects the kids that I met, the ones who want me to come back and see them again. The ones I told I wanted to come back. The ones who would not see me and who would add me to their list of people they could not trust to hold their word.

Because that’s the kind of relationship this trip is promoting.

I walked back to my apartment and into the kitchen. I pulled my tomatoes out of the cabinet. I started cooking onions. I thought good things as I stirred, and when I hugged the pot as I carried it to the Inter-Faith Center, I felt its positivity.

My impact goes beyond this one pot of chili and I’m determined not to waste it.

The End

The kids are gone. My coworkers are preparing to move out. The program is over and I am left with memories of what has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had the privilege of being part of.
I love the kids I met this summer; so many of them found their way into my heart and will never leave, even if we don’t see each other again. Working as their RA showed me a lot about what life is like for their generation now and how they cope–and just what kinds of lives these children lead; the struggles they face and the obstacles they overcome. Working as a teacher for one of their classes, I learned more about what is expected of our students and what our students expect from school. I gained confidence in presenting material I’d collected myself, and I learned methods of facilitating respectful and engaging debate. And as the students’ friend, I learned more about being a person. I learned what it’s like to be seen as a role model, as someone who’s seen more of the world than you and can help you through it. I learned what it’s like to be seen as an equal, to be sought out for a good time or a good talk. I learned what it’s like to be looked down on by someone younger than me, to be seen as a nuisance and to have my work go unappreciated. I learned methods of fostering positive relationships and ground rules for a safe and respectful living environment. I learned that there’s no such thing as an off day when you’ve made an emotional investment in something or someone. At any moment a dynamic can change, an incident can spring out of the blue, a situation can prove to be to much for someone to handle–and you have to be ready for it. There’s no turning away when a child depends on you for support. I can’t imagine what that would feel like.
Or maybe I can. But just from the other perspective.
This year I started working with kids more as I’ve explored the option of a career in youth development or advocacy. And as I’ve done so I’ve started to look back on my own childhood and how it impacts me to this day. I saw a quote on Tumblr once–“Be the person you needed when you were a kid.” As soon as I saw that I knew that was what I needed to do in order to feel complete. The mark I make in this world, if anything at all, at the very least must be this.
Working in this program, I started to wonder how my childhood would have been different if I’d been in a program like TRIO. I feel like I could have used the support, the social experience, the adventure of being thrust into a strange environment and taken to so many new places.
That didn’t happen to me, though. Instead, I got to work here. I got to fill the role I felt I might have needed. I got to help kids have an experience I never had.
One if my kids wrote me a letter before she left, and among other things she said she wanted to thank me for teaching her that it was okay to be childish sometimes. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re compelled to grow up too soon. She was the oldest in her family and mature beyond her years, already taking charge of her life in a way some have the luxury of putting off a few years. The most touching thing for me was to know I had given her some space to step back and be a kid again. To know that responsibilities don’t automatically take the fun out of life. Especially as this is something that I struggle with myself. If she got that from me, I must be getting better at knowing it for myself as well.
And if I gave her those moments where she felt like she could be childish sometimes, then I have already done for one person what that Tumblr quote requested.
The most important thing to me is that we let kids be who they are. Find their identities and let that shine. That’s what I needed when I was a kid. I needed someone to brush me off and see me sparkle. These kids are all diamonds in the rough. My team and I took eight weeks out of our summer to help polish off some of the grime life covers its youngest with. Hopefully they’ll go back to the world a little brighter than before. And I am so lucky to have been a part of that.

iPod pics 018