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.