Month: March 2020

Lessons around us now

As we are all learning new lessons about how to be safe, how to protect ourselves and others, and how to view the world with different eyes; I hope you can each find memories – or even make new ones – that sustain you and remind you of all the goodness that still surrounds us.

Lessons

            The summer passed doing the things young people did on Long Island.  Another roommate lived nearby and the three of us played and explored, in pairs or as a trio.  We visited the beach and bars and bantered about the future and fate.  But beneath each day’s adventures, the roots of worry grew deeper in the soil of my self-doubt.  I looked for jobs, even had an interview, but deep down knew this was not where I wanted to settle.  I collected a small unemployment check, and on each visit to pick it up was bluntly reminded that I needed to find employment – as if I was not aware of my beggarly status.  I started searching their information banks for jobs back in the city where I had gone to school, an area that I was at least familiar with.   I found a listing for a low paying position at the university daycare center.  It was not a professional position but would do for now, a small but steady paycheck.  The job also possessed a major draw – I would be working with young children, a deep desire since very early in my own introduction to school, a direction I still wanted to move in.  And it would look better on my resume’ than waitressing.  I applied and it was soon confirmed that this would be the next branch to emerge on the growing tree of life experiences. 

            Despite the loss of closeness with the good friends that had supported me through a summer of searching, the move back to my college town felt right.  I moved in with another roommate still in the area.  Yet more support from another young women that had become my second family at school.  Little did we all know that we would be there for each other long into the future, through good times as well as those that challenged our bodies and souls. It didn’t take long to understand that a true woman friend was as valuable as any relationship with a man would ever be; that she would be there even when the more trumpeted union of man and woman hit sour notes that blasted them apart.  I started my new job and soon found a small studio apartment.

            I didn’t know all that I didn’t know about the development and temperament of 3-5 year old children, especially not in a large group setting.   I had taken courses on childhood development, knew Piaget’s stages, but had little experience with this age group beyond one summer job babysitting two kids following freshman year.   And I was the team leader, the head teacher, with a college degree and even some professional experience in a school!  I learned quickly to value the skills of those under my direction, to be open to suggestions, to listen to the knowledge hands-on experience had bestowed to those without the degree behind their names.  I received my first lessons in how to work as part of a close knit team, in the intricate coordination required to keep little bodies occupied and safe.  Instilling excitement and joy in learning, that would ideally accompany them through years ahead in education – and in life, was also a primary goal.  It was an education for me, one that would become entwined in future jobs in my trained profession. An education as important as any I paid for to have added to my list of accomplishments.  As my own experience and skill grew, so did my love for working with young children.  My long awaited desire seemed to be met in every way – except compensation.  Now I just needed to find a way to do this work with a paycheck that could support more than a one room, third floor apartment and aging car.

Direction?

            Finding work in my new profession after graduation was not easy.  Lack of experience presented the challenge it often does for new graduates.   Federal Public Law 94-142 had just been passed the previous year.  The new law guaranteed a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability, with emphasis on special education and related services (including speech therapy) designed to meet their unique needs.  But the identification of those that qualified was just beginning for more than one million children that had previously been excluded from the education system.  This law would be closely tied to my future employment opportunities, but the jobs were not yet there.  To gain valuable experience, I moved to a small dreary city, long past its glory days as a port on the Erie Canal – which now saw little use of its polluted waters.  I took a six month position for a therapist on leave to complete her Master’s degree.  I knew not one soul.  Each day consisted of little more than traveling to work and then back to my tiny studio apartment. The days were torturous, as I tried to step into the shoes of an experienced highly respected therapist.  The nights were torturous, as I sat alone with my black and white TV, long before personal computers and cell phones provided connection to the outside world from your chair.  It was winter.  It was bleak.  It was a job – and what I needed to do to optimize future opportunities. 

            My lunch break was spent in the therapy room; the shadow of shyness obscuring any vision of entering the teacher’s lounge, where everyone knew each other.  I was more at ease with the students.  Games and a bit of silliness were employed to break down the wall of unfamiliarity, knowing from personal experience that laughter is a form of interaction that can be the key to unlocking the door to communication.  They responded to my tactics and I observed progress in their speech and language skills.  I started to look forward to the job I had trained for.  Spring slowly edged the gray skies towards blue and I learned to smile and talk about what was happening in therapy with the classroom teachers.  Then the school year ended.  My first professional job was under my belt, but numerous applications had not led to success in securing another.  My short term lease was over and I knew I did not want to stay in this depressed area.  My parents wanted me to come home, but I also knew that was a direction I still desperately needed to avoid.  One of my college roommates graciously offered shelter while I tried to figure out where I was headed next.   So I packed my all my possessions into the trunk of my Plymouth Duster and headed to Long Island.

            It was an experience beyond either the country or small city that had been the extent of my living arrangements so far in life.  Endless suburbia surrounded one town after another after another after another.  Countless mazes of side streets and cul-de-sacs branched off the main stem of transportation– the Long Island Expressway.  I had never driven within two hours of New York City, and now I had to end up on the far side of it to get to my destination.   My heart raced along with the traffic speeding by in more lanes than I had ever encountered in the driver’s seat.  Huge bridges loomed in the distance.  Paper maps and written directions were my guides, GPS was not even on the horizon yet, and only pay phones at gas stations were available to make contact if I became lost.  I did not arrive in a peaceful state, but I was safe and deeply thankful that I could turn off the ignition and let my feet carry me forward. 

            My friend lived with her father and younger sister.  It was hard trying to find my way in someone else’s family home.  Experience with family practices beyond my own was limited, I did not know what to expect or how to act.  This was more than a few overnights and putting on a ‘company’ face – for all of us.  At dinner one night we ran out of ketchup and I was directed to the basement refrigerator to get a new bottle.  It slipped from my hand and crashed to the floor.  My fragile façade splintered with the glass.  I tried to hold back the tears but they poured out like the tomato concoction at my feet.  Stupid, clumsy, pathetic girl; can’t even retrieve a simple bottle of ketchup without making a mess, costing someone money.   My friend and her family were so kind, reassuring me over and over it was just a simple accident, just a bottle of ketchup, nothing to worry about.  But it felt like it was my life that had shattered.  No job, no way to support myself, dependent on the kindness of my friend’s family, no way to repay them, unsure of how long I would need to stay, or how long they were willing to have me.  I was tottering on the edge of the life I had worked so hard to prevent, the life I had left my own family home to avoid.  

Enough

            We both worked some evening shifts.  At times his apartment, our haven, bore hints of other visitors – an odd comb, evidence of a meal cooked beyond his usual culinary skills, an extra towel where only one usually hung – not definitive, but noticed.  I did not ask and he did not need to deny.  Instead, the possibilities were added to the pile of uneasiness already neatly stacked like firewood, kept in a place where they would be safe from the flame of fury.  And then I loved him harder, to help him understand that I could be enough.  That he was enough for me. 

            At times evidence became undeniable.  I turned a blind eye, not believing the others were important to him, believing they were his defense against his fear of being hurt again.  When I could no longer look away I broke up with him, and became totally miserable.  Then he called or approached me, making excuses or telling me it was over with the other woman, and I flew back into his arms.  Eventually I traveled the same route again and then again, did not allow myself to recognize the growing pattern.  We stayed together for three years, but my tolerance grew steadily weaker.  Or maybe my belief in my worth grew steadily stronger.      

            One winter break we traveled more than 24 hours on a Greyhound bus to sunny Florida, escaping the gray snow of upstate NY.  It was a group trip and our first extended ‘vacation’ together.  I told my parents I was going with my roommates.  With little sleep, an aching body, and swollen feet I exited the bus, certain it was worth it.  We were traveling together, away from it all, experiencing new things, nurturing a deeper connection.

            I had never been to the real south – not knowing that Florida was largely the transplantation of northerners to sunshine. Warmth, palm trees, sand and ocean in January – or any time of year for that matter – were foreign to my hardcore snowbelt upbringing.  The few memories of what we did included: a pool, eating cheaply, a second rate hotel room and attending a Jai Lai game that was high on his ‘to do’ list.  My list included whatever he wanted to do.  The stadium was crowded, loud, hot and dirty. We had cheap seats high in the bleachers –thankfully with a roof to provide relief from the intense sun.  I had never been to a large sporting event and didn’t understand the game, but was content watching the ball being passed between players.  He was his usual joking, talkative, flirty self – aimed at young women wherever they appeared.  

            He returned from a long absence with drinks and food.  I had sat uncomfortably, waiting, surrounded by noise and strangers and strangeness.  I was relieved to see him climbing the steps to our seats.  He greeted my eager, anxious face with a casual comment: “Sometimes I wonder what I see in you, with your puffy cheeks.”  I sank through the seat, the stadium, and the earth, to my own personal hell.  Every ounce of self- doubt and worthlessness I had ever felt fused into one solid lump, and turned my heart to lead.  It was true.  I was ugly.  And even the man I thought loved me couldn’t understand why he did.  Later he tried to joke his way past those words, but they were too heavy to float away on laughter.  I don’t remember any more of the trip – not even the long bus ride home.  I am certain I went on as if the bomb had not landed – I always did.

            Almost without notice my trust in his love started to drip through the holes pierced in the fabric of our entire relationship, despite the numerous stitches of denial used to darn them close.  Infidelity secretly grew into a two way street.  He never knew what a good teacher he had been.  I was not aware that I was looking for an exit ramp, and was paying heavy tolls on my trip there.  Vengeful acts piled self-hate on top of insecurity.  It took more than a year of wrong turns, dead ends, and blaring horns to get past the traffic of promises, blind hope, and excuses.  Following graduation I carried my diploma into his apartment along with the rest of my belongings.  As soon as he left for work, I could not resist the need to rummage through his things, feebly justified by the fact that this was now our shared apartment.  I found Polaroid pictures of other women, similar to those I had allowed him to take of me, and the raw truth could no longer be denied.  On his return home my rage ripped through the air like a forest fire destined to burn down anything in its path.   I had never allowed such anger to surface.  It felt scary, uncontrollable.  It felt right.  I screamed.  I threw things.  I hit him with the table phone.  He called the police.  They arrived and tried to hide their amusement.  I stood there, red faced with tears and snot running down my cheeks, under five feet tall at 100 pounds.  He stood there, calmly, with his black belt muscled body that towered over a foot above me.  They stood there, smirking, as I packed my possessions and the hard lessons etched on my ruptured heart into my car and drove away.  What was not so easily visible was a more robust load of dignity than I had moved in with, along with the muscle added to the strength of me.  I had graduated from the blur of innocence.  Love had not healed all things.   I had become my mother, ultimately controlled by my love for a man.  I renewed my vow never to be controlled again.

Working it out

            My expenses were offset through a work study job at the information desk, located in the Campus Center building.  It was difficult at first, being forced to interact constantly with so many people.  But I learned the facts and figures quickly and was soon able to spit out answers to questions ranging from: “Where is the nearest rest room?” to “How many cobblestones are in the front entry to the campus?”  I learned to recall dozens of phone numbers without referencing the index, and led group tours – churning out statistics and history along with more personal information about dorms and life on campus.   By the third or fourth tour my voice began to grow in volume and animation.  A sense of command started to emerge and I eagerly volunteered for any tour others didn’t want.   My ability to meet people eye to eye, to participate in and even initiate interactions, unfolded like a crocus pushing its head through a long winter’s snow. There was power in knowing the answers and I thrived on it.  Work shifts were regular, often with the same people. Casual chatting, joking, and playful teasing expanded with my ease.  I became part of a crew for the first time and learned about respect and camaraderie in a job. 

             Sophomore year ended and I found a full time summer position as an Orientation Assistant (OA) for incoming freshmen.  Room and board were included with the job.  I was amazed that I had been chosen from the numerous applicants, and assumed my work at the information desk had been a major deciding factor.  But old insecurities bubbled to the surface – new unfamiliar tasks, new unfamiliar people.  The positive side was that I would not have to go home for the summer; not to mention I could stay close to the man I loved. 

            Tremors of unease rattled inside as I met the other OA’s.  They all seemed to walk and talk with an air of confidence, seemed to offer something special.  Some played guitar and sang, others had experience from the summer before, many were from big cities or had traveled to other countries.  How did I fit here?  What did I have to offer?  Confidence that had slowly blossomed behind the information desk seemed to wilt, and threatened to collapse all together.  

            Group after group of new students arrived for three day introductions to their future.  I answered questions and attempted to calm some of doubts and fears I not only understood, but still grappled with on a regular basis.  I gave tours – the easiest task – and directed them where they needed to go.  It went smoothly until the structure of the day sank with the sun.  Dusk lengthened like the shadows in the woods as small talk and more personal exchanges took the place of routines and facts.  I reverted to smiling and laughing when I could, and watched the clock as it ticked towards the day’s end.  But as the summer progressed glances at my watch became less frequent, my posture relaxed as I chatted, and laughter erupted in response to genuine humor rather than nerves.  A growing ease trickled in as I allowed the wall of insecurity to soften towards belief in myself.

            Days between orientation sessions were spent at my boyfriend’s apartment.  Outside distractions seemed to be fewer.  We took frequent trips on his motorcycle and he came to visit at some of evening orientation functions, often chatting and joking with the soon to be students.  I did not notice his return during daytime activities, did not observe his pursuit of new innocent prey ready for his personal orientation into the college world.  

The summer flew by and I returned back to my parent’s house in the woods briefly, with only a few clothes in my small suitcase, before returning for junior year.  I felt more certain than ever that my relationship with my boyfriend had grown, that our love had become more grounded, shone on by the summer sun.