Thursday, July 30, 2015

What Are Your Braces?

I grew up poor, the third of six children to uneducated parents that divorced when I was eight. My father wasn't participating in the raising of children when they were married, and he didn't change anything when they split. We did better without him, and he never paid a dime of child support. Lots of people claim poor. What I grew up in can only be described as poverty.

I know- we're off to a very big start on this, but there is no point in hiding who we are...I've learned not to be ashamed of other people's decisions. I have stories to tell, and this is only one of them, so let's get moving.

My mother worked very, very hard. Harder than I have ever worked for anything in my life. She worked two and three jobs to keep a roof over our heads, because she had no education or formal training to trade for more money. All she had was the fire at her back, the risk of losing the electricity and a nest full of hungry mouths to think about.

She had no role models on which to base her decisions. She found out that she could get a job working as a nursing assistant and make more than the terrible minimum wage, so she took the exam and went about breaking her back for the next couple of decades. We had no family to turn to for help. There were no living grandparents, she had no siblings, no one was coming to save the day.

Most times we didn't have health insurance and somehow we got by without public assistance, though surely she would have qualified. She went without to give us food and when she could afford it- clothing, school supplies and whatever she could save up for Christmas. There were no vacations or nice clothes. We were just getting from one day to the next.

One thing my mother was able to do for us, which is nearly unthinkable given the circumstances, is that 4 of her surviving 5 children needed braces, and we each got them.

There are so many things I can look back on in my life and attempt to place blame on for my failings as an adult; I didn't have a stable home life. We moved a lot. I was not well supervised. There was never enough of anything. I didn't have anyone to take an interest when I was in high school and mentor me. No one helped me to apply for scholarships that would have sent me to college for free and I wouldn't be paying off loans now. I could do that all day, but I'd still be sitting right here.

For years now, I have reflected on what made my siblings and I turn out the way we did, though. Despite the hardships in our youth, we have all gone on to attend college and/or find valuable work, becoming productive members of society despite the roads we could have taken. No one is a drug addict or abuses alcohol. No one is (or has been) in jail. We are a statistical anomaly.

My younger brother and I had a conversation years ago, where we talked about this. We all knew how tenuous the situation was growing up. We were well aware of how thin the line was that kept us together and not split up into foster homes. We kept track of each other and we didn't want to put any more stress on our mother than she already had.

When thinking about how we became the people we are, I related that I felt that our braces were the greatest gift our mother gave us in those dark times. So many things change in your life, and therefore shape who you become. Braces made a huge change, and much like the very forces that make them work, we just couldn't see the results until later.

The reality is, that with straight teeth- we could pretend. We could join the ranks of people whose lives weren't a total shit show. We were able to play a role until it became our reality. Braces made it possible for us to outlive our situation and see what it would be like for people to accept us as one of them. 

Orthodontics were truly life changing for my siblings and I. Not only for the enormous sacrifice they required, nor the way they affected how others saw us, but mostly for the way they changed how we saw ourselves. Braces increased my sense of self worth, and my belief in my own abilities. I believed that I deserved a college education and that I could do what it took to get it. We were given a gift that was much more valuable than we ever could have appreciated. We were given the chance to be judged on our own merit, the effort we were willing to put forth.

Having braces didn't make me who I am, but they definitely gave me the self confidence I didn't even know I would have lacked. The world is a difficult place, and you never know what tools you will need until you are already in the fight. I needed to be taken seriously for the words I have inside of me. I need to be heard in a way that will give someone else what they need for their own fight. I needed braces for so much more than to correct crooked teeth. In time, they helped me to see that I was more than my struggle. So are you.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Junior Assembly and the Girls That Wear Makeup

A while back, I wrote about how I was forcing a 12 year old out of a mental crib and into her real age as a productive member of society. Those days are not long gone, but they are definitely fading in favor of the ones on the horizon. Instead of being horrified at what lies beyond that thin line, I am as giddy as a small child on Christmas Eve. This is where the fun really starts. I actually wrote most of this post nearly a full year ago, so this is even more fun to read / write now.

You see, my lovely daughter is (was when I started this) 13 years old. 13 and 1/2 if truth be told. She is amazing. Smart and articulate, opinionated, a wonderful friend, thoughtful and kind. She is in love with kitten videos and You Tubers and just hung Christmas lights in her bedroom for the first time. She is spectacular.

In the process of being at awkward stages one comes across life's little hurdles and speed bumps, social affairs and obligations. In the nouveau-prep archetype that her charter school models itself after, middle school dances are known as "Junior Assembly".

Sit back and let the privilege hit you.

We asked her about a school dance - it seems to me that by the time I was in 8th grade, I had attended no less than half of dozen of these messes, starting with the ''promotion" dance at the end of 6th grade. In fact, looking back on it, those were not only the social highlight of my middle school life, but they were sanctioned and held by the school. There was one for every holiday, and some made up ones on top of that. It was as if they couldn't wait to get us paired up and dating...

hmmm..that might be a topic for research...anyways...

She casually says, "oh yeah, they had something a while ago, but I didn't sign up for it". Sign up for it? What? You buy tickets at the door, with your wadded up cash in your sweaty hand while wearing a borrowed dress and slingbacks, right?

When we asked why she didn't want to go to this dance, she said without missing a beat: "Only the girls that wear makeup go to those things." Oh. Is that so? The 'girls that wear makeup' sounded too much like 'he who shall not be named' and I snickered. Then I looked up this little affair to see what it was about, since we had not received any information on the event, and who knows? There might be another and she might change her mind.

Oh how the times have changed.

These affairs are no less than practice debutante balls. Sure, the dresses are made out of slightly better fabrics, and the boys have moved from Drakkar Noir to the despicable toxin that is Axe body spray, but these little 'dances' are not the public events for pubescent early teens to attempt vertical dry humping to hip hop music that you and I attended. Nope.

The Junior Assembly is a chance to learn etiquette and show it off to your other clumsy friends and their eager parents. Ahead of these events, students register for their etiquette classes to learn how to behave in a formal setting (BLEH!) The room is filled with anticipation and expectation, all of the fears and desires of upper middle class white parents hoping that this will connect their spawn to the right people and that their fates will be sealed.

No wonder she had no interest. These are not her people. She watches superhero movies and is a major fangirl of the Doctor Who/Sherlock variety. These girls already have an account at Sephora. I for one, am glad to have gotten out of yet another shopping trip wherein I drag her around to try on dresses she has zero interest in, so no skin off my teeth. 

And a 14 year old who still doesn't wear makeup? You just don't really understand the gifts that the universe is throwing at you until you have them, do you? She can keep reading and watching Minecraft videos on  YouTube for as long as she wants. She's not missing anything.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Horoscopes and the Levity of Hope

I have an app on my phone to check my horoscope every day. Seriously. I own a set of tarot cards given to me by my mother. I played the Ouija board at sleepovers in middle school.

My numerology life path number is 9, and in the Chinese Zodiac, I am the Sheep. Or the Ram. Or the Goat. That has to be the most difficult language to translate, because all of those animals are for the same year. Also- can you imagine? All people born in the same year share the same traits!?!?

It's ok if you're going to pretend you have no interest in what your life holds or think that there is no secret to the magnificent universe and you have no interest in this. If you plan to continue that way though, this is your trigger warning. Its about to get interesting and I wouldn't want you to waste time here when you could be glowering in a corner, knowing everything. Everyone else- take off your shoes and grab a velour floor cushion. I just lit some patchouli incense and candles to set the mood.

We all want to know what will happen to us, we want to be able to prepare for the tough times and we want something to look forward to. In a way, we also like the idea at times that there are other forces at work, so as to absolve us of all of the responsibility of making our lives great on our own. Why do you think so many people believe that there is an omniscient being who has pre planned their lives for them?

Don't put down my superstition by using your own. Just sayin'...

Sometimes I read my horoscope every day. Then I don't read it for a month. Then I'm back again. The tarot cards are carefully encased in plastic, in case I get really desperate. Or drunk. Doing someone's tarot cards is a fun party trick, I don't care who you are.

The reality is that human brains love a pattern and we try to find them everywhere. That is why we see shapes in clouds and in the texture of the bathroom wall when we take a crap. might not know your numerology life path, but you do see the little scenes in the wall, don't you? Me too.

I don't think it is any coincidence that humans do this. In fact, I think it's a sign of advanced life forms. We are trying to make sense of the world around us. Man has done this since time immemorial. We attach meaning to anything that happens, good or bad. The moon creates the tides, so why couldn't the time you were born affect your mind? And who cares if it is wrong? So one day you were advised to keep a lid on your opinions when you could have spouted them off more freely? Hmm..maybe that's not such a problem, is it?

Many of us just need something outside ourselves to get along. Many days it is a good red wine. Some days I am practically pulled along by my faith in the capacity of human beings and the fascination with the vastness of the universe in which I don't register as large as a speck. But some days we all want to know that someone knows more. That there are secrets we could tap into that would expose the "right" way to live our life, the timing that would make it all work out the way we envision it.

We need hope. Something to believe in. And an excuse for days we feel like being an asshole. So much easier to blame that on the stars. As for me, I know it might all be for nothing. Even so, I leave myself open to the possibility- that there is more than I know, that we are all connected in some way, and that those lucky numbers might be my ticket to riches.

Don't ask me my sign at a bar, though. I'll lie to you and make up a persona to match your preconceived notions about that sign. I might be interested in this stuff, but that is a tired line for anyone not wearing a mock turtleneck. What a weirdo, amirite?

Friday, July 24, 2015


It has been a while since I posted here. I've got tons of posts in draft form,  some quite old now... that I never finished. Ideas I started, then let languish in the beating sun of my intolerable existence at work. Things have been weird. And amazing. Please, come in.

One month ago today was my last day at work. June 25, 2015 was the last day I worked.

Not just my last day at my job. This is an important distinction. It was my last day "at work". I quit my very last job. The last time I will trade my hours for the currency determined by others so I can make them more money, or make them look better. If we're using my time and talents, I'll be the one making the decisions, thank you.

Let me back up a bit. It really has been a while. When I read this later, I might not even be able to make sense of what happened without a record of it...

About 5 years ago I was looking for a job. That was the intention I put out into the universe. I hated my employer and left to save my soul - and had nothing lined up. So I was desperately looking for a job. I said it over and over...a job, a job, a job. 

I only put one small caveat around 'a job' and that was that I knew I needed some sort of meaning to my work so I wanted to go to work for the public university or community college system where I live. I got my education there and I knew how important it was to find someone who knew what they were doing to help you on your journey. I wanted to be that person for others. To democratize higher education. Just because you don't come from money shouldn't mean you don't get the same chance to do something with your life, right? Right! So that was my thinking...

As the universe does, it provided. I was hired to the community college system. Day 1 was a nightmare and the next 3 years were just compounding layers of terrible. I met the worst boss I have come across in all my years of working. Things went from bad to worse. Not only was I not doing anything meaningful to help students, I could not afford to quit. Depression set in and got comfortable. I fought the good fight. Then one day, a manager threw something at me in his frustration with another manager....I was quickly transferred to another campus. Mostly so I wouldn't sue.

This seemed to be a great change. A period of wonderful things ensued. I met an incredible boss who gave me the first look I have ever had at leadership without dictatorship. THE.FIRST.ONE.EVER.

Nearly a year into this, when I was unsure of my future, toeing the waters of maybe going to graduate school again and putting that idea and message out, the universe provided again. Somehow all of the "gifts" bestowed upon me have seemed more like an anvil dropped from a cliff, but hindsight is 20/20 and I know now what a present this one was.

The college decided that I was doing such a good job, that I was so competent, that they would see what I was really made of. A dean who had successfully sued the system several times for discrimination (and had a long history of people working for her who would leave in tears,) was dropped into my lap after her secretary walked out. 

Already overworked and without authority to change what was happening, I started calling out for help from underneath the weight of this new development. I used the tools I had been given, the path promised to employees to rectify situations like these. I was not hired to babysit this incompetent dinosaur. I had 500 students to be responsible to, for federally mandated disability accommodations. That cannot go unnoticed, right?

I learned a few things in this effort; namely, that people will do anything to stifle the screams of someone hurt by their own actions. Also, that being right was not the same as being vindicated. I learned that you can go to work every day, do your absolute best, be loved by coworkers, supervisors and students, and none of it matters if the rock dropped on you screams louder than you do. A number of changes took place at a level I could not see and the path evaporated....people suddenly left or retired with no notice. I was alone.

I spent months in a strange place. I loved my students, I was proud of my work, I was abandoned by my leaders. I let the college know I was planning to leave in the summer to attend graduate school. Truly, if this person had not been dropped in my path, I would have stayed longer. Too long. I needed the push to get me out of my complacency. Since things weren't as terrible as before, I would have continued on. An object in motion and all of that...

Another amazing thing happened. My boss, the one shining light throughout the tunnel of bureaucratic bullshit, put in her notice. I knew I couldn't stay without the buffer zone she created, and I made my last day the same as hers. That forced me to put a date to the end and stick with it. Together, we walked out, leaving a vacuum to fill where two dedicated, competent and overworked people had been. Not only had I gotten the anvil off my chest, I had the distinct pleasure of dropping it off right back where it belonged, onto the laps of people who pretended I wasn't crushed underneath it, begging for their help.

During the darkness, I discovered things about myself with clarity I cannot ever expect to have again, so I made the most of it. I am not a worker bee. I never have been. I spent years fighting that, because I believed that I had to just work harder at it and I would BECOME a better worker bee. It is alright, there are hundreds of people who need the jobs I have left. I don't feel guilty.  The students will get the help they need or they will go elsewhere, like every other consumer. If the school doesn't do the right thing by students with disabilities, the government will shut their doors. The institutional problems that plagued my time at the college system I so admired are not mine. I did not make them, I did nothing but try to help and I know I left things a damn sight better than I found them. I take comfort in that and I sleep very well.

I cannot take orders from someone who is being floated along. It does not make me an asshole that I can't make a daisy out of a pile of shit everyone refuses to pick up and throw away. That is the work of earthworms and I am not one of those either.

To be honest, I don't know what I am. I've been searching for years to find myself. There have been so many things in the way of me, that I couldn't get a clear vision. Some of the things I put there myself. I just found that out. Again...even more this time...

I quit my job and I'm not looking for another one. I have not determined what I am doing about graduate school yet either. That's right. No job, no plan. I spent a year doing the only thing I could control and that was figuring the money part out so that I could walk away. From the job, and from the version of myself that was taught to sit there and take it, so I could exchange my pride and intelligence for a measly paycheck.

That was the hardest step and the first step. So often they are the same.

I spent a year reading personal finance blogs and inspiration pieces and listening to meditative music on YouTube to quell the panic attacks. I wrote and rewrote our household budget, over and over and over again.  I knew I needed out and I was looking for permission. No wonder I haven't figured out my life yet- I just realized that I am the one in control.

So I gave myself permission. I changed some things in my life so I could change everything in my life. Maybe, just maybe, with enough perseverance, the clarity of space and time to figure out who I am, and the passion to create a better existence for others- I can change a lot more than that.