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.

 

Conditional Worth

Conditional Worth

We’re put in groups with other random people who wanted to learn, and who want to learn this. We’re expected to take time out of our weeks to join together in a room and listen. We’re expected to participate, to listen to each other and speak up. We’re expected to look at others as humans, with respect, We’re expected to grow ourselves and take chances and make choices.

I get too attached to people because I have never EVER had the loving support I do now before this point. Love was conditional; affection was withheld. In my parents’ house there was a standard that had to be met. If you didn’t reach the threshold of perceived goodness, your worth was in question. Love was a privilege in that house.
I love my professors. They trust me and believe in me. They critique me not to shut me down but because they can see potential in me. They know I can do better. They want to support me. They want me to succeed, not because it somehow benefits them—because they see what I can be, and they want me to be there. For my own sake.

It’s a kind of caring I’d never had before but was fortunate enough to receive as soon as I came to UWGB. Within the first three weeks of classes I had a professor who spotted me as someone she wanted to see succeed. Someone she could challenge.

I was terrified of this and at the same time I was thrilled.

I was learning what it felt like to actually be appreciated. To have someone in my life who believed I was capable of great and important things.

But I was terrified of failing, because I had no idea that there would be any reaction but disappointment and isolation.

I still haven’t quite convinced myself that my professors aren’t going to do that to me.
That my friends will not shun me if I say one stupid thing.

That my real family, the family that’s been built around me in my four years at school, will not isolate and abandon me if I don’t fall in line.

My worth is unconditional. It’s not the tree that falls in a forest when no one’s around.
Love should be unconditional. Affection should not be a prize for perfection.

I still get too attached sometimes. Maybe more often than not. I want people to fill the roles I wished my parents had. I crave the unconditional love and support.

Lately I have seen more of it. When I have the energy to open my eyes. I can feel it. When they ask me. When they talk to me. When they give me that moment to breathe.

I love them too much for it and I don’t know how to give that back. I want to be as good as them. I want to be as strong. I’m building a new me on an old and broken foundation. It’s almost like I have to tear down what was there just to get something solid started.

It feels like a never ending struggle. Maybe it is. But I want to be okay someday. I want to help people the same way I’ve been helped. To see in them what they don’t themselves. To show them. You are worth it. You are strong.

An Open Letter to the Summer Camp that Broke my Heart

An Open Letter to the Summer Camp that Broke my Heart

Dear TRIO,

I’m writing to ask why I was not hired for the summer of 2016.

Is it because I refused to make the kids do pushups, instead taking the time to patiently explain camp policies and values?

Is it because I connected with the queer kids on a level no one else could, and was able to talk with them about their coming out, dysfunctional families, fractured support systems, and questions about their gender/sexual identities?

Is it because when one of the girls was in danger of harming herself, I was the one her friends told when asking for help?

Is it because I spent two hours of one evening answering one student’s fascinated questions about the lgbtq community, saying things some of the other RAs in the room didn’t even know about?

Is it because I made food for the kids and helped them out in the kitchen?

Is it because I made coconut ice cream for the vegan student when all the other students got ice cream?

Is it because every Wednesday and Friday I made sure there was a vegetarian option for the orthodox Catholics who couldn’t eat meat on those days?

Is it because after an argument with one of the girls about race and labelling others, I told her it was okay to be angry and walked with her as she explained herself and cried?

Is it because I told the kids that as RAs we were not infallible, and that we were learning from them as well?

Is it because I made boob jokes with the high school senior who later wrote to me thanking me for being the older sister she never had?

Is it because I had fascinating, productive conversations about gender theory with the philosopher kid no one could stand?

Is it because when the large, scary-tempered middle schooler got yelled at for not doing his homework, I took him aside afterward to thank him for reaching out and apologizing that I hadn’t helped him sooner?

Is it because when one of the girls showed signs of depression, I talked to her to find out what was wrong?

Is it because I asked one of our Latina girls to teach me phrases in her language?

Is it because I listened to the annoying kid’s rants in my class and thanked him for his contributions, seeing the big grin on his face when he heard those words from me?

Is it because I sat through a Batman marathon with the two kids that wanted to because no one else would?

Is it because on my days off I continued to plan activities with my kids and tell them I would be there to do things when they asked?

Is it because when one girl forgot her money, I secretly bought the gem stone she’d been admiring to surprise her with later?

Is it because I listened to all the random thoughts of the sweet little boy the teacher ignored?

Is it because I explained to the girls no one likes what they were doing wrong, and continued to face their wrath at every step despite the fact that they showed that they hated me?

Is it because I hosted a hair dye party in my room when my queer kids initiated me into their peculiar brand of punk culture?

Is it because I listened to the boy with Asperger’s as he ranted or looked into the tiniest of things when most of the others ignored him or tried to get rid of him?

Is it because I listened to the white ghetto girl who didn’t know shit about diversity, but who still had things to say and needed someone to tell her what she missed?

Is it because I volunteered to teach my class even after being told I could not be paid for it?

Is it because I cried in front of the kids because I was beyond not showing them I was human?

I’m not dumb, I know none of these are reasons. But maybe when you read them, you’ll understand what you lost when you fired me.

I know you probably fired me because last summer I was struggling with depression, self-loathing, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. It’s probably because I needed a little extra support from my supervisors to get me through a week. It’s probably because I was honest with the kids and told them I’d been through a breakup and when my uncle died. Or maybe it’s because of my gender identity, and that’s why you can’t tell me about it.

Or it’s for other reasons I don’t know, which apparently are not worth telling me so I can grow from them.

I hope the first day of training goes well; I hope the new RAs get along with the old ones, and everyone has a chance to learn and tell their story. I hope you all have a fantastic summer–and even if it doesn’t sound like it, I mean that sincerely.

Because who could spend a summer with those kids and not chalk it up with the best days of their life?

You’re never going to read this letter, because it wouldn’t do any good if I sent it. But I hope at some point you reflect on the person you rejected and wonder what it would have been like if you’d kept them.

Because every hour of every day this summer I’m going to think of those kids. I’m going to wonder what they’re doing and ache over the conversations and experiences I’m missing.

Have a great summer. Tell the kids I said hi. If they ask, I’ll leave it up to you to explain why I couldn’t come back.

Town Hall Meeting

Town Hall Meeting

So I went to the Town Hall Meeting this morning. The Chancellor was there to speak and answer to questions, and the seats were full of faculty and staff. I guess I was lucky enough to be in the area and not have work at the time; there weren’t many students there today, since a lot of them were either gone or working at the moment.

Faculty and staff asked a lot of questions about how the impending cuts and potential policy changes would affect their positions, their places in the University, how this University will cope. All great questions, and unfortunately not a lot of them got very satisfactory answers.

I finally managed to muster up enough courage to ask my question, which was how these cuts and changes are going to affect the students. It took a few minutes for the Chancellor to notice that I had my hand up,and when he did, he skipped over me in favor of hearing a faculty member before coming back to me. I asked him how he anticipated the budget cuts and policy changes were going to affect the students, reminding him that a lot of us are already seeing repercussions–classes we want and need aren’t being offered, and some student jobs are at risk just like the faculty positions are. This is what he told me.
1) He didn’t know about the potential of student jobs not being able to pay/compensate what they initially promised and so couldn’t comment on this.
2) The potential cuts and changes are going to affect the students.

Yes, I know. I know these changes will affect students. I know because they already are. Can you say anything to help me understand if and how they will continue to affect us?

Questions continued to be asked from the viewpoints of faculty and staff (which makes sense because they comprised the majority of the audience) and the Chancellor did not bring up the students’ viewpoint as much as would have been appreciated. I was getting pretty antsy because I was not getting as much out of this discussion as I had hoped. I didn’t understand a lot of what was being said because there were a lot of terms I didn’t understand and there just wasn’t much talk about how the students were factoring into all this.

I asked for the mic again. I said that I wanted everyone to keep in mind the perspective of the students in this debate, because almost everything that affected faculty and staff would then affect the students, but not everything that affected the students affected the faculty and staff.

I told him about myself and my friends. I told him I knew students who weren’t just leaving this college, they were leaving Wisconsin, because of how shitty the system is getting. I told him I knew students who had to drop minors because they were no longer being offered, and students who are afraid they’ll have to drop their majors if their programs continue to lose faculty and course offerings. I told him I knew of students who had to travel to other campuses to take classes that fulfilled major requirements. I told him I knew students who wanted to go into teaching, but who are now second-guessing this career path because of how messed up Wisconsin education is becoming.

He acknowledged me. He told me to keep saying this, because this is what needs to be heard.

Somehow though, I don’t really feel like he heard me.

After I spoke a faculty member who was seated in front of me turned around and whispered, “Well said.” As I was leaving the meeting a few more professors and staff came up to me to thank me for saying what I did, because they too sensed that the student perspective was being neglected. As I was sitting outside the town hall recuperating from my public-speaking jitters, the Chancellor walked by with some of his staff, and again thanked me for speaking, and went on his way.

I’m not writing this to toot my own horn or to shame anyone for not coming, because I know that a lot of you are elsewhere or at work and it was impossible for you to make it. And to be honest, I almost didn’t come, even though I was fully capable. I’m glad I did because otherwise what I said might not have been said. Anyone else could have said it (and a few people I know could have said it a lot better than me) but I was the one who was there who was willing to say it. It was purely circumstantial and I just want people to know that. I am more than happy to sit back and let other people do the talking, and I hate being redundant, so if what I have to say has already been said, I don’t say anything.

But sitting there for an hour and not hearing my own voice represented made me really anxious, and I knew that there are a lot of my friends who would have loved to be there where I was saying what I wanted someone to say. Finally I decided that it was more important for that voice to be heard than it was for me to spare myself some stage fright.

It was only because I have been working on this with awesome, passionate, talented people that I was able to stand up and say what needed to be said. I’m just throwing this story out there because I want people to know this. You can’t always wait for someone else to say things for you. You have to be willing to pay attention to the people you admire and respect so that when they’re not around, you can speak for them and the many voices that are unable to be heard at that moment.

Student voices need to be heard. Without students, the faculty and staff would have no one to work for. So even though it seems like the focus is on faculty keeping their jobs (and granted that is HUGELY important), we have to remember that it’s the students who are going to feel the most of what may or may not happen as these cuts and changes become more and more real. And unfortunately it’s the voice of the students that tends to be underrepresented or drowned out.

One of the faculty members who approached me after the meeting told me that it’s important for students to stand up for themselves. He said, “When policy makers hear from faculty, they tend to think we’re just whining. But when students speak, they listen.”

So, speak. I can’t say I felt a lot of love from the Chancellor today, but what I had to say was heard by some, and if we all continue to say it, we WILL be heard.