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.

 

What’s Broken Breaks Free

What’s Broken Breaks Free

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

How did graduation go?

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were too afraid.

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” the mother said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This went on for months.

I did not tell them about my name.

**

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

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

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

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

How did graduation go?

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

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

**

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

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

breathe