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?

When Life Becomes Work, your Work Becomes your Life

When I think of all the kids I have been privileged enough to encounter in my short time working with youth, I can remember every time one of them said or did something that changed my entire perspective. I remember the stories that I heard from the students in South Dakota that made me realize what I wanted to do with my life. I remember the middle schooler who said inspirational things about life and then told me her life was not meaningful. I remember the six year old who told me she wanted to die. I remember the high schoolers who told me what life was like at their school, telling me things that I never thought could happen. I remember the elementary school girl who made her fingers into a gun and pointed them at her head. I remember the tears of the kids who couldn’t go home when they wanted to and couldn’t think about anything else. I remember the kids who cling to my arms crying and can’t tell me what it is that they’re feeling. I remember the four year old who ran around the room pretending to shoot people. I remember the boy who ran around the room knocking things over and screaming and then flung his arms around me and held my hand and sat in my lap. I remember the faces of all the kids I’ve ever worked with. I have so many names etched into my existence. I have so many voices laced into my dreams. I have so many stories weighing down my heart. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to rise in the morning and smile at my kids when they run to me shouting my name and hid my tears until I fall into bed at night.

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.

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.

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