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From the moment I was laid under the fluorescent lights in the hospital room, all proclaimed I was a girl. From the moment I was swathed in a pink blanket and cap, the expectations of girlhood were placed upon me, many years before my brain could compute girlhood and femininity.

I am 27 years old now and my femininity and womanhood have existed as a dynamic, oppressive cloud over my head, changing forms and redefining itself as societal forces shoved my self-concepts around, exerting their power upon me.

This month is also Women’s History Month. As it stands, I have two decades and seven years of history as a woman to share.

The experience is different for every single person who becomes a woman, their own ideas of what it means shifted and molded by the powers that be. I am interested to hear about everyone’s experience, whether they were born with female genitals or a female spirit, or some dynamic other identity that incorporates femininity.

Now, I share my own experience and all the memories and associations that define it.

After being told I was a little girl for over a decade, adolescence brought me the new, jarring idea that I didn’t look feminine. A particular memory rises to the surface: a summer day, standing on a pond’s dock in my friend’s backyard. I was twelve years old, and my friend Casey lounged on a rubber raft on the pond’s murky green water. Her older brother Zane and her brother’s friend sat on the edge of the dock and we exchanged snark, arguing about something that didn’t matter at all.

Zane’s friend ended the argument by zeroing in on my appearance with the examining precision of a doctor in a patient’s room. He pointed to the thick black hair on my legs, pond water forming trails between each strand. He pointed to my square face and my black eyebrows. He patted my broad shoulders.

“You don’t look like a girl. You look like a gorilla!”

I looked down at the brown drops of water trailing down my legs. Shame shot me through the heart; the observation seemed so accurate. My friend, lounging on the raft, wore a bikini and already had a curving shape that I wouldn’t even achieve until I was twenty. Her hair was bright blonde, her face a lovely oval that formed a delicate point with her soft chin. Her lashes were longer, her small shoulders sloped. The blonde fuzz on her legs was invisible.

But me, but me… it was true, I was square: my shoulders square, my frame square, my chin square. Nothing tapered. My hair was thick. I could easily pass for a boy, if I wanted.

His argument silenced me. The boys laughed triumphantly.

Just as easily as a boy could tear me down, unsex me, he could just as easily force my own sexuality upon me and make me feel vulnerable, exposed. This gesture was never anything I could reciprocate. I could fight back with words, but sexuality was always this dangerous last resort. Something I was never prepared for, thus leaving me defenseless and confused. No one had ever given me any guidance regarding what I experienced, and all I had at my disposal was “boys will be boys.”

This began at the same time the criticism of my appearance and femininity began, at twelve years old. The boys that liked me would approach me in the pool and wrap their half-naked bodies against me, forcing my friends to pry them off while I ran. They would trap me in the back of the bus and refuse to let me out until they touched my breasts, still small and developing. I would look to the other boys for help, begging them to help me get away, and they stammered to their friend, “Hey, man…. that’s… that’s not okay.” So timid it had no effect. The same boys I would turn to for help would also make jokes about chopping off my breasts and masturbating to my body. They were my friends.

We were adolescents. They approached this with the same air as a game. There was laughing—I laughed. But I was also the brunt of the joke. Me, and my body, which was in the same stroke prematurely being described as inadequate and masculine. My confusion was thick, the fragments of my identity developing and coalescing poorly, with no answers or direction. I was ashamed.

My body gave me many things I was taught to be ashamed about. When my mother spoke to me about periods, her words were quiet and she warned me against allowing men to see my disposed feminine hygiene products. She told me I had to dispose of it all in a separate garbage can, in another room, away from the eyes of the men in my family. Whatever other instructions she gave me, the message was clear: this is gross, shameful.

I internalized the message. I have a horrific memory of being eleven, walking through the mall with my friend Casey and her mother. While browsing through the stores, I felt my period arrive unexpectedly. We took a bathroom break and I saw that everything was far worse than usual, blood everywhere, dripping down my legs and soaking my pants. Every last fiber of my being was wracked with shame and mortification as I spooled out the toilet paper to make a make-shift pad, standing up and pulling my winter coat down below my bottom. I could have told my friend that I was in a dire situation, but she hadn’t begun her period yet. I should have told her mother, who was ushering us along and running errands, but my shame prevented me.

Instead, I endured and kept completely quiet. Her mother decided to go to the food court, decided to stop at the library. We picked up her brothers. Meanwhile, I stood stiff as a board, legs pressed tightly together, my stomach twisted inside out with sharp, corrosive shame. I spent hours soaked in blood because I was terrified to say anything. Looking back at the awful experience, I see now how easily I could have spoken to her mother after our bathroom break.

But shame is powerful. No one had ever told me what to do, or that this was normal.

Confusion continued to shape my experiences as I moved through my teenage years. My femininity was like an object I couldn’t quite stick a pin in. My male friends pushed it one way, then another; my girl friends pulled it vigorously in another direction; my parents told me I was too abrasive and opinionated for a girl; media and society pressed down from above.

When I was fourteen, I was sitting on the couch with a friend when I noticed her breasts for the first time. They were much more shapely than mine—they turned me on. I realized in a quick, horrifying moment that I was attracted to her body. I attempted to shove this realization out the window, but the seed was planted and these thoughts dogged me for the rest of my adolescence as I ran as fast away from them as I could.

I never escaped it.

When I was twenty, I hesitantly, timidly, tip-toeing, began to think of myself as bisexual. I began to do what I had always wanted to do and kissed girls. Even still, I could never say it confidently until well into my twenties. Again, shame and paranoia shadowed me.

At the age of sixteen, I cut off all my hair. I wanted to look like a boy. It was a subversive act—everyone was always asking me why I don’t date boys, I was confused, and I wanted my difference from the other girls to show. But my confidence only lasted as long as it took until all the hairs were cut from my head. After that, I was again vulnerable and subject to criticism. The other girls in my class asked me over and over again why I didn’t style my hair. It wasn’t enough to say I didn’t want to, and I was too ashamed to tell them I didn’t know anything about styling my hair. My mother had always been aloof about appearances and taught me nothing feminine except to hide my biological functions. I had no guidance, no base knowledge. I had no role models that were women. The other girls implied that this was wrong.

When I did finally strike confidence, I had an explosive oil well of it. I grew my hair out and experimented with my femininity. My shape began to morph, my body blooming later than most others’, while I was in college. My associations were so strong that I wasn’t able to experience confidence until I felt I looked like a woman. I began to take leadership positions and faced the onslaught of criticism with much more energy than I used to have, my shame at that point tucked away in the core of my being.

My mother was mortified by my outspokenness and structured the narrative that I was a bad, selfish person. I made enemies, and they called me aggressive, abrasive, and crazy (in a spectacular long adventure in gas-lighting that succeeded in convincing me and put me in the hospital). I felt as if I had moved from being acceptable and a vulnerable victim, to unacceptable and willing to defend myself.

With all of these trials came experience, and as the years wore on, my experience helped me sift through my identity and gather a coherent picture of myself, as a woman, that wasn’t like any of the images pushed on me, but something unique to myself. It took a long time, but I slowly gained the ability to make affirmative statements: I am bisexual, I am a woman, I am intelligent, I am feminine, I am masculine too, I am a leader.

And I am a role model.

I understand that a lot of my sense of femininity has come from my body—but that’s just my personal experience. Not every woman gets a period or has female sex organs. For me, these were identity-shaping factors, but I recognize everyone has their own experience.

I want everyone who is femme to discover their own womanhood and femininity on their own terms. It shouldn’t be forced upon them, it shouldn’t be explained to them. Every idea that was imposed on me just suppressed and confused me. It’s for each and every one of us to discover for ourselves.

My hope is that it won’t take as long for others as it took for me.

We were too busy to shout “Happy New Year,” so the DJ calmly expressed his well-wishing as we clasped the arms of the people closest to us and pressed our bodies together. The second floor of the club, splattered with layer upon layer of graffiti that commemorated a thousand separate memories, crowded us together between several pillars on a flimsy dance floor that shuddered under our bouncing weight. Once midnight hit, our friend had been pounced by an old fling of hers whose eyes were wide and sparkling, rolling on molly, and they were entangled in the middle of the room in a kiss.

graffitipink.png

My partner and I had moved to this city inspired largely by her, but once we arrived her life fell apart. She lost her wife, she found someone new, and then she lost her too. The overwhelming density of her strife meant we had also lost her. She lived down the street but she was adrift in her endless preoccupations, not answering our messages and canceling plans. I was irritated, yet empathetic, and through my annoyance I continued to comment on all her photos and reach out to her, even if she didn’t respond.

And now, once she parted from her most recent lover and stumbled away, she came to our arms and we hugged her and told her we loved her and were inspired endlessly by her.

The three of us left the narrow old building that housed the club, standing on the sidewalk with goosebumps crawling up our arms and Uber vehicles crowding along the side of the road. Our friend’s tryst stood in the doorway, her body alight, her wild eyes trained on us, insisting we enter her vehicle and come downtown to Black Mass with her, dance away the rest of the night with her even though they would soon be unable to legally serve alcohol. We weren’t alive with uppers, however, and had multiple bottles worth of depressant drenching our organs, so we slid into a van to head back to our friend’s apartment.

Around the time I entered the Uber, my hair slick with sweat and my damp shirt slipping down over my shoulder, 200 miles away in another state, my father’s heart muscles struggled to receive a supply of oxygen. He laid down in bed, squeezing his eyes shut and thinking that if he died, at least the pain would stop.

But he woke up the next morning. He went to the hospital and they slithered a wire through his veins and put a stent into his heart with a balloon catheter.

My little brother contacted me the following morning, our lives so different yet his brain so much like mine, doing neurotic circles, a game show reel spun out of control and every prize actually a possible demise. He had recently had his first child and he held his newborn, contemplating worst case scenarios. When I called my father’s cell phone, my mother was a manic scribble as well.

My own neuroticism was firing off and so I recalled the progress I had made, the progress I had reflected on while drunk and silly in the graffiti’d club bathroom the night before, fluffing my hair in the mirror and staring into the drunken spiral of my eyes, observing the purple half-circles of perpetual illness standing out crass against my pale skin. I rubbed my face to bring some color and, as the New Year’s occasion called for, reflected on my personal progress of the past year.

I assume that others, during the whir of drama and chaos and inebriation, stare at themselves in the mirror and demand the truth. My soul procured what I most desired in that moment, which was pride — in myself. For what? What good had I done in this past year? I had barely made enough money to get by, many bills going unanswered and mostly unnoticed; I had worked pitifully small jobs and hardly lived up to my full potential, failing to inspire during job interviews; my relationship had completely fallen apart and I had managed to slap it back together with skill and grace. So much failure, but that last one — the latter conflict — had put me on a path of realization.

It hasn’t been that long since my last meltdown, my last time checking into a crisis service center and begging them to help me sleep. A year and a half, not even. Since then, I had put forth a considerable effort to help myself, or, to try to build up some defenses and thought patterns that would prevent myself from shutting down again. I read articles and books that were not necessarily always about self-help but had the sort of content I could use to infuse myself with good ways of thinking that I could practice.

I had practiced changing my thoughts. Swiveling away from the anxiety and neuroticism to more constructive ways of thinking. I flexed my brain cells, attempted to build a reflex toward reason. I read many articles on, simply, how to breathe. I felt silly reading them, but still — I caught myself not breathing when I stressed out. I found myself remembering to take good breaths.

I also found myself asking this question that had been repeated to me over and over again by therapists, who I had ignored: What can I take care of right now, in this moment? I began to seriously ask myself this. Often, the answer was nothing. Often, I found myself jotting down a time in which I would take action toward solving a problem, which wasn’t at that current moment. I had trained myself into a habit. This question had been meaningless to me for so long, until I managed to prescribe it with my own personal, intimate meaning of self-improvement. Maybe one day it will be meaningless again to me and I will need to find a new question to infuse with intimate personal power.

Standing in the club bathroom, surrounded by graffiti about hot, wet pussy and colorful tags, I stared myself down and acknowledged that a year had passed and the work I had put into myself was noteworthy and fruitful. Though continuously plagued with insecurity, I felt pride bubbling up in my chest. A sense that these thoughts, habits, friendships, myself… were not worthless.

I could hold my pettiness in my hand and then gently swat it away, just like any normal, pained human being. After this continued reflection of the night before, I held my phone in my hand, thinking of the neurotic triad of my mother, brother and myself. We had all influenced each other, touched by conflicts and trauma that traced far back into the past. It would be a long story to tell, if I were ever so inclined to write it down, but I knew where my anxiety came from. I knew who I shared it with. I knew, also, that I was capable of handling anything, that I had proven that to myself.

I spoke to my dad after speaking with them. After his dazzling heroism had worn off years ago, I had spent the majority of my adult life being angry with him, for his bad politics and prejudices. But this evaporated into a petty cloud of smoke in the conversation in which he told me his thoughts about believing that he was going to die.

Only one memory pushed to the forefront of my mind then. I was five, vulnerably small in my large bedroom, my bed pushed up against the window over the driveway and the apple tree so I could see the comings and goings of the outside world instead of the tall shadows of my cavernous room. I lay in bed with my nose pressed up against the windowpane and watched my dad’s car crunch up the driveway to rest under the tree. I was supposed to be sleeping, so I pulled the covers up around myself and pretended. My dad came up the stairs and set something next to my head, kneeling over me for a minute before leaving.

When he was gone, I rolled over. There was a book. He had brought me a book.

My entire childhood, my dad gave me books. It is because of him that I love to read. It wasn’t something that just happened, I didn’t just find books and devour them. He summarized books for me, sparking my interest, then put them in my hands. This became an integral part of my identity, leading me up to the point where I am today.

In the midst of conflict, anxiety, despair, I have managed to hold the good in my hand and ruminate over it with a calm heart. I have curled into myself in the bathroom, my chest crushed and holding back sobs that threatened to rip me apart, and I stood up afterward and recovered. This did not just happen. I wasn’t able to immediately use my legs properly after being shoved so forcefully to the ground.

But with effort, it happened.

I mull over these new realizations, habits, and histories on my drive into work, now that I’m working consistently again every day, driving a half hour to a school that offers me the best experience possible, even if without insurance benefits. I think about myself, about the politics blasting from my speakers and shaking my flimsy car; I think about the friends who both push and pull, disappear under their grief only to hold me tightly in an embrace the next time we meet. The patience I forward to my friends is worth it, despite the frustrations.

January has brought cold, icy rain that slicks up the roads and makes everything gray. I swish along the hissing water on the highway every morning, the sky blanketed with black clouds, navigating myself using the golden halo from the street lamps overhead. The sound and smell of constant winter rain is the backdrop to my thoughts on this place inside myself I’ve slowly discovered, this infinite ocean of patience that swells and moves, that is colored by my mood and kept undisturbed and endless through simple and sheer willpower. Underneath the anxiety bursts, the paranoia, the self-doubt and insecurity, it’s still there. Underneath the troublesome clouds of despair, it’s there. It’s somewhere at my center, infinite in all directions.

Acknowledging its presence doesn’t make the chemicals in my brain flux correctly however. This ocean isn’t a panacea, it’s just there and accessible. I still have my bad habits, such as washing my poor brain with all sorts of drugs to modulate my experience.

On Friday, one of the few friends I’ve made in this city returned from Saudi Arabia — having visited her family over her school’s break — and she returned wanting to do two things for her upcoming birthday. She wanted to go to her first concert ever and she wanted to take LSD while she did it. We had taken acid together before after a tryst we had the previous year, so there was nothing objectionable about this situation. I was hoping the acid could help me clear some of the depressive gunk in my brain, something that was far more difficult to rid with healthy thought patterns because it just calcified to my personality and ebbed and rose in mass throughout the month.

After the show, I burst out into the night, holding her and my partner in an embrace and breathing in cold air and tasting it, tasting the colors of the lights, tasting red and blue on my tongue. The following day, sunshine radiated through my brain and the shadows disappeared. But my energy was zapped and my heart was beating too fast.

Another week begins, my mood is high though I’m exhausted and no amount of sleep after Friday has been good enough. I want to be wide awake and I want to sleep forever. I caught myself not breathing this morning, my heart thudding in my chest, holding my breath for no reason other than anxiety rearing its face at the change in my daily schedule, however small. I’m struggling at both being awake and receiving the appropriate amount of sleep, knowing that mixed up in my desires is the need for balance in order to actively maintain good habits.

And underneath this flux of daily routines, too much sleep or not enough, distant friends and needy friends, the eternal complications of love, unexpected troubles and matters of life and death, I am aware of that infinite ocean of patience. I may lose sight of it again one day, but it’s there. It’s always there.

People large with winter coats bustled in the foyer, blocking it up with conversation and children. I toddled through the glass doors with my family, a small child in a perpetual state of scared silence, bumping back and forth and losing my balance. The church was compact with human life. Heat radiated from each of us and made us sweat under the slick fabric of our coats. We, the holy mass of people seeking mass, squeezed through the double doors on either side of the foyer into the warm holy belly.

The high vaulted ceiling of the nave, ribbed with wooden beams, ballooned upward and outward, catching all of the sounds and spinning them around in an echoing hum, like someone had struck a tuning fork. The vibrations seeped from the building, reaching every Catholic in the town. We were all here on Christmas Eve. We spilled into the chamber, summoned, by faith, by insistent family, by tradition, by the helpless acquiescence of youth.

The immense space above the pews daunted me as I slipped inside. All the emptiness between our heads and the ceiling’s spine. We looked like we were shuffling onto an immense boat, we were animals coaxed onto an ark, baby animals wailing and pulling at their mothers’ hands. Where were we going? Why were we really here? Our boots pushed in the snow from outside, it moved across the foyer with us, melting as it went and leaving brown slush and puddles that loudly slapped and sloshed and sucked under our boots.

My family plopped to the right, I dipped my hand into the holy water cistern as we went and stuck a wet finger to my forehead, leaving a fat tremulous drop there. Once we reached the pew, there was a lot of sliding, endless scooching along the smooth wooden benches, and we nestled like birds on a tree branch. We preened and wiggled our butts around on the seat, formed a nest with our coats and hats and scarves and gloves. Suddenly, everyone I had pinballed off of in the foyer was now close to me again, their heads hovering in rows above the pews, an endless sea of bobbing heads in all directions, their sweaty hair plastered to their scalp from their disrobed winterwear.

My eyes spun, assessing all the strange smells and sounds from people pressed up against me, the scabby backs of their heads hovering so close to my nose, their white moonfaces pointed at me from behind. We all squeezed in even closer together to fit more people; the pews were filled to the brim, people were standing in the back, standing on the choir loft, there were faces peeping out of a soundproofed window in the back where people patted their screaming babies. I could smell deodorant and sweat and Listerine and perfume, all mixed into the hot soupy air, occasionally stirred by a frigid breeze sneaking through the doors.

This once a year experience — a packed church — was overwhelming and exciting for a child. My confusion regarding religion would eventually swirl around and coalesce into a profound atheistic indifference, but in that moment I peered over the sea of heads to see Jesus Christ hanging in the apse over the altar, his head and legs twisted, the tendons carved taut, with textured muscles and folds of skin. Then the choir began and the spiraling, humming cacophony boomed down from the belly of the boat, bouncing off every beam and stained glass pane and surrounding me as if I had plunged into a deep pool, the unintelligible human sounds and echoes clashing and crashing in waves through my head. I sank down into the pews, toward the slushy ground and onto the padded hassock. The statues in the sanctuary disappeared from my sight and the sounds flew over my head. I entered the world of mud and boots and wood patterns and footrests and fallen gloves.

When the sound ceased, the booming noise cut off in order for the priest to speak and be heard, the dramatic shift filled my chest with awe. I listened to the reverberating words from my spot hidden down on the hassock, surrounded by puffy coats and the warmth radiating from my relative’s fat thighs, the Lord’s message flying over my head and resounding off the massive stained glass window above the choir, off the image of a blue-gray dove rising into the sky amidst flames and spirit. “The Lord — his disciples — God’s will — Creation — His mercy.” I played with my hair and stared up at the vault of the nave’s roof.

I didn’t emerge from this den underneath my family’s kneecaps until the priest called the children up, which he did every Christmas Eve, summoned them past the crossing and onto the elevated sanctuary around the altar. I crawled back onto the pew and over the laps of loved ones until I stumbled into the aisle, desperate to go to some place that I was never allowed to go at any other time of year, some mysterious location with a new perspective — at the helm of this big boat. Stumbling with the other small children, I stepped up onto the chancel and slid between the giant poinsettias gathered there, boots scraping against the carpet as I squirmed to and fro and knocked heels with other children. The world had gone from the darkness of the pew crowds to the blindingly bright stage where all sound now originated, so close to the slamming, monstrous notes of the organ and the priest’s voice, which occupied every corner of the apse and escaped to reach the very top of the nave, the timorous organ and sermon and holy hum and the high-pitched warble of the old women in the choir all blending and separating and re-mingling, seeping into my little ear canals and stunning my brain.

The priest looked at all us little children, our legs bent every which way and our noses up, mouths hanging open, and told us a Good Samaritan story that checked with everything we had been told about being nice for Santa. Occasionally a small child would start screaming and sobbing, nostrils dribbling, and a parent would come grab them and carry them back to the sea of bodies below. They couldn’t take it, all the light and the sounds and the statues staring down and the life lesson. I could though, I could.

When it was over, I proudly slipped back to my spot in land of mud and boots and uncomfortable hassocks. I sunk down past my mother’s knee and crouched on the floor. The congregation was nearly at an end, I knew from memory — there would be the Peace be With Yous, elderly strangers would clasp my hand and squeeze it while they stared down into my eyes and wished, implored, for peace to come into my life. I spun in a circle and everyone, strangers with poor circulation, little boys with clammy red palms, held onto my hand. “Peacebewithyou/Andalsowithyou.”

Afterwards, when the priest spoke we echoed back with memorized lines, sending our collective voices to the top of the nave so they could come rushing back to us tenfold and rattle our saturated brains.

“Lift your hearts.”

“We lift them up to the Lord.”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.”

“It is right to give Him thanks and praise.”

I suspected that perhaps peace was with me by this point, and everyone rose and we moved like a storm back to the foyer, where the slush had dried and the ushers had opened the doors wide open so the cold air could smack us in the face and knock the peace out of us before we all descended to the next level of family tradition, which was perhaps quieter, definitely less bright, in the kitchens of our relatives, to stuff ourselves disgusting with the Wigilia meal and tasteless papery bread that cleansed our palate of vivacious spirit, menacing holy sounds, and lessons echoed through an ark full of animals.

I feel shitty due to a dream, a good dream.
I reconnected with a college friend, she laughed,
fussed with her hair like she always did, rosy face
framed by her hands. The world was a mall,
we browsed through arts and crafts, all of that,
I saw everyone I used to know, even people I hated.
I looked great, all of us functioning fluidly in a seamless social scheme.
“How is it that we don’t talk anymore? Can I see you more often? I miss you so,”
She was amazing, everything I miss, connective conversation drawing me in —

but she’s not actually like that. She breached the surface of
that colorful, that connecting, that stimulating, for three days in time —
and if we were to reconnect it wouldn’t be like the dream at all,
she was never that bright or friendly, and if I spoke with her again,
the motions would be cold, and even — the horrible truth — awkward,
she’s just not who I wanted her to be, didn’t turn out how I wanted her to be,
she had every right to be something other than what I wanted,
but how am I nostalgic for something that never even was?

Sometimes it’s not that you burn the bridge,
it just crumbles due to poor infrastructure
and you dream of the blueprint and a matchbook.

When I first started working at a city charter school in 2011, it was because the Dean of Academics had called frantically the previous evening.

The Dean was frantic because I was the only substitute teacher she had interviewed and she had been unable to reach me all afternoon. I was working at Walgreens at the time and I had dropped my phone while on my bathroom break. I had very little money and owned a cheap flip phone that shattered when it struck the tiles. When work ended that night, I reassembled my broken phone in the car and listened to her voice mails in the dark parking lot.

A very necessary teacher at the school, the ISS (In-School Suspension) teacher, would be out and her spot needed to be filled the next day. This position was necessary because the school-wide discipline system involved setting aside students with the most serious infractions in a separate room for the day. These sort of infractions included swearing at teachers, skipping classes, bullying other students and racking up enough detention referrals in a single disciplinary category. The same tiered system of discipline would remain in place for the next four years I worked there, the detentions so plentiful that the ISS room was often filled to the brim, proving far too popular to be effective.

On my first day there, I walked briskly into the old brick building crammed in between the much larger buildings downtown. At the time, there was no grass anywhere to speak of, just asphalt and notable architecture in the neighboring run-down office buildings. Eventually the school would put some effort into landscaping alongside the front steps of the school, filling the space with stones and aesthetically placed trees. A block away, there were bars with neon-lights in the windows, and a giant hole in the ground where some building had been demolished, surrounded by wire fencing.

The school itself was an old YMCA building, far too small for a school. All the classrooms were crammed on top of each other.

I was delightfully surprised by the school lobby. There were leather couches and a rug with the school’s logo on it, as well as potted plants and a high ceiling. The secretaries had an enormous counter surrounding their office space, and there were students and parents leaning over the counter-top at all times, waiting or filling out paperwork.

Eventually, I would learn that they put forth a great deal of effort to make this positive first impression.

The lead secretary was a fastidious and shrewd older woman, her hair sparse and gray, just a few longer strands pinned back onto the base of her skull. She would shout at the students during class changes and guard the front desk like a vicious badger. We often saw her snap at the principal (or the Director, as he called himself) and were left with the impression that she ran the school. We would joke with the students that she had been there before the school and the administration had no choice but to employ her, as she wouldn’t leave.

On my first day, the Dean of Academics greeted me in the lobby and led me down into the school basement. There were several classes down there, in an open and well-lit hallway. Though the ISS room would eventually be moved into a room branching off this brighter hall, on my first day it was hidden behind two large double doors that led to a dim and pencil-thin corridor near the maintenance and storage rooms.

The Dean opened the door to the ISS room and I saw several rows of desks crammed into an incredibly small room with a desk, printer, and bookshelf. Five students were already sitting in there. One high schooler had her head down on her desk, and four middle schoolers fidgeted and gawked at me with near-manic anticipation. The Dean of Academics handed me a walkie talkie and told me that if the students talked or didn’t follow my directions, I needed to summon one of the school’s two security guards, or the Dean of the Middle School or the Dean of the High School.

After asking me if I was okay, she then left me there in the room with a computer, a walkie talkie, and five students. I was to spend the entire school day with them, and they were to be completely silent the whole time.

For a while, we all sat in silence in that grimy little room in the basement. But despite my ordained task, in reality I was in a room with several human beings who I had never met before and I was curious to find out more about them.

Their names were Jericho, Royal, Ariana, Torian, and Magic. The four middle-schoolers were in seventh grade, and I would end up seeing them throughout their middle school years and then their high school years, chiding them when they needed it, giving them advice, guiding them through writing tasks, and recommending them books.

After that day, I discovered that nobody really wanted to substitute at this school. The entire building, both high school floors and the middle school wing, only had one building substitute to rely on, and no outside substitutes ever applied for the job — or came back after one day. The Dean of Academics was absolutely delighted with how casually I went about my day down in the ISS room, coming out of it unruffled without any student yelling or picking a fight with another. I hadn’t even really done much at all. The students hadn’t had anything more to do than a worksheet or two over the course of eight hours, I had only chatted with them and shook my head at their adolescent silliness.

The Dean asked me to become a second building substitute teacher. I would come to the school every day and she would put me wherever I was needed. Teachers were constantly taking off, and there was such a shortage every day that often classroom teachers were pulled away from their planning periods to cover classes in other rooms. Everyone was overworked, with few breaks. Often, no breaks. I always figured this was why they took off so much. I would later find out how exhausting it was, how the constant screech of stress flayed the immune system.

I had just graduated with my teacher certification. I was more than happy to accept the position and it seemed charming to work in a small charter school compared to a big chaotic public school. The high school and middle school only had about 400 students total and this remained consistent the entire four years I was there.

The students were mostly African American, with perhaps a 20% Hispanic portion of the student body. There were also many students who had recently immigrated from other countries and had only spoken English for a year. Many had gaps in their education — missing a year or two. There were many students from Turkey, some from Somalia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and Iran. The majority of the students came from Christian households, but there were enough Muslims that we provided prayer rooms for the students.

All students were required to wear uniforms and teachers were required to police the uniforms with daily ferocity. One buttoned down shirt with the school’s logo cost the parents around twenty dollars — the average student owned perhaps two of these shirts, then maybe a school sweater. Some only owned one shirt and they wore this shirt every day for the entire school year. Many also only owned one pair of dress pants. Their crumpled blue shirts would obtain bleach stains and grease stains. Often when this was noticed, teachers would pool money for additional uniform items as Christmas presents for the students.

Many times students would arrive to school without their uniform. This resulted in them spending a day down in the ISS room. Sometimes, they didn’t have the correct pants because they were staying with a parent who was at work all the time or who didn’t have a washer and dryer. Our school would have seriously benefited from having a washer and dryer down in the basement –– the students could have gone to class instead of wasting time in punitive isolation.

Within a month of work, I was asked to be a co-teacher in an 8th grade English Language Arts classroom. This meant I would assist the classroom teacher with planning and delivering lessons, and provide extra and small group support to students who were struggling.

At the same time, I was also pulled from the classroom a lot. I was placed in every classroom in the building at least once when there were staff shortages. When the Dean of the Middle School was out on maternity leave, I was placed down in the ISS room for an entire month. Eight hours a day of mostly sustained silence. I would crack most of the time and answer the students’ questions, give in to their prying and speak with them about their lives. They joked with me and it was genuinely funny, I enjoyed that more than staring at the crumbling ceiling. If teachers walked in while I conversed with them, they would shoot me a resentful glare.

Later, in three years, I would be the teacher walking into the ISS room. There were several times, my fourth year there, in which I walked into that room to deliver worksheets to the students and found them laughing about something. I would glare at whatever teacher was behind the desk. I had forgotten.

One day, during that month I was down in the basement in that small room with ten teenagers, a rock from behind a pipe on the ceiling fell down and hit a student on the arm. The student — a seventh grader — made a dramatic show of the event. She screamed and writhed, laughing at the same time, yelling that her mother was going to sue the school. She forgot about it pretty quickly, like adolescents are prone to do, but I knew it was ridiculous that the ceiling was falling on the students.

That year, despite the effort everyone put in, the 8th grade ELA state test scores were abysmal. We had played a lot of catch up but they just didn’t do well on the test. This was the same year the state test had included the passage about the talking pineapple that raced a rabbit.

The hammer from administration came down hard, because the state test results for 8th grade ELA and Math were an important part of the school’s charter. When the state came by to see how the school was doing, in consideration of whether the state was going to renew the school’s charter, after doing a day of observation they always disappeared into the various conference rooms and watched Power Points of the test results — including data from periodic benchmark test results.

When that 8th grade teacher was fired — a move that didn’t look very good, considering at the time she was the only minority on staff — I was passed on to the new 8th grade ELA teacher. It was the previous 7th grade ELA teacher, so she was going to be receiving the same students from her classes the previous year.

She had short hair, a short temper, and a shrewd eye. I knew immediately she had eyed me up and down and decided I was too inexperienced. I was intimidated by her, but I also knew that I was just as short tempered and quick. I decided to prove myself to her, so I dressed in the best clothes I could afford and arrived to our classroom every day with the willpower to pound out task after task, making materials and assisting students and being as useful to everyone around me as possible. After all, this was my second year co-teaching and I understood the rhythm and vibes of it.

It didn’t take long for us to become a formidable teaching pair. She was able to yell with a booming authoritative voice that shook adults, and I had a keen eye that noticed everything that went on within the classroom, appearing by a student’s side and whispering instructions before they fell out of tempo and lost their momentum, giving them that slight push they needed to remember the task at hand and excel. We shared secretive, knowing looks, and communicated wordlessly across the room. We shared jokes and fed off each other’s intelligence, performing a two person play in front of the kids that kept them entertained and involved. Students visited us in between classes, and filled our room in the morning and after school, seeking our advice.

As required for the preparation of transforming my initial teaching certificate into a lasting professional form, I chose her as my mentor. We bore the stress of the job together and left the school for good at the same time as well, an escape we didn’t plan but executed together. I chose to not renew my contract with the school, having decided that I was moving to another state. She was fired after a disagreement with the principal, regarding her coming in on a Saturday and the school refusing to pay her.

The administration were all former teachers, but they were unlikable. They had been awful teachers. We discovered this by talking to older staff members and older students. They were not the teachers that students visited after classes ended, desperate for some tidbits of wisdom. They were awkward and stiff, like an out-of-touch relative at a holiday gathering. They were still attending college to receive their administrative degrees while holding their positions and bringing their instructive incompetency to an administrative level. They were far less qualified than many of the regular teachers on staff.

The principal (sorry—Director) was a tall gangly man with sallow skin and a weird connection with the Board of Trustees. All of the staff kowtowed to the Board of Trustees, they were the final say in any decision, a disembodied, distant ruling head. The Director was not seen very much and the students often didn’t even know he was the principal. The ones that did know him believed he was a vampire. They would speculate about where his coffin was in the building. Whenever he did walk into our classroom, the students would eye him as a curious stranger.

After I left, he was cycled out to be the principal at a different charter school owned by the same people in another state. His underling, a thoroughly unskilled man that stuttered and floundered at every challenge, replaced him despite the fact that all leadership roles had been passed down to him over the years with the ease of someone fumbling over glass plates.

One year the administrative team introduced a new evaluation form for the administrators, sending them to the teachers’ inboxes with an air of solidarity over how much we all were evaluated and torn apart on a monthly basis. I only filled out one evaluation form — it was for the principal’s underling. The Dean of Whatever-It-Was. The future principal. He had thrown many poorly planned schedules and baffling error-ridden emails at me, implored me to come in on breaks and drag “low level” students around the building to small closets that were never unlocked, in which I was supposed to drill them with test prep questions. He made me drag these children around during any available half hour throughout the school day, pulling them from Homerooms and Art and Music classes to fill out multiple choice answer sheets.

I wrote a long bitter paragraph about him and punctuated it with the fact that no one knew what his job in the school building actually was — every email he sent had new job titles in his signature — and we had no evidence of any tasks he performed outside of making confusing Excel spreadsheets.

That following August, the underling took a moment during the beginning-of-the-year Professional Development meetings to show a Power Point that explained his many jobs in the building. The title of the main slide was my question, the one I had written so vehemently: “What do you even do?”

The Board of Trustees cared only about test scores. They cared because the state cared. The principal, therefore, cared about these test scores immensely, and he passed down all the burdens of this care to his underling. And the underling passed them down to the teachers.

And the teachers, we slopped down all these concerns and charts and data sets onto our plates and struggled to hold them up high over our heads without any of it spilling over onto the students. A lot of my time at the charter school was spent struggling to prevent the ridiculous workload and demands from becoming palpable to the students.

This was an impossible task. During visits from the state, the administration and strange men in suits breathed down all of our necks over the test scores. They increased the amount of benchmark exams and practice tests that were given throughout the year, and peppered these long test sessions with diagnostic tests as well. There were many things that were difficult that I had to deal with my four years at the school — students swearing at me, beating the shit out of each other, bleeding all over the place, running around, parents screaming — but nothing was quite as difficult as delivering blocks of testing that could take up to two weeks — four hours a day, every day, for two weeks — multiple times a year — to a small room full of squirrely, dreamy, growing, bewildered adolescents.

The charter school had more tests than the other public schools. More benchmarks, more practice tests. This was because our test scores were not better than the public schools. We weren’t doing better than the public schools.

To say the students were burned out was an understatement. They would writhe in their chairs looking delirious after staring at a booklet with 12-point font for four hours, knowing they needed to do the same thing for the next four days in a row. I would slip them paper and crayons and Jolly Ranchers, something to occupy their minds while they waited for everyone to finish, but often they would just slump forward onto their desks with defeat.

As children, they didn’t even really fully understand what it was they were working so hard for, but they knew it involved new levels they needed to reach. They knew because with so much pressure and content revolving around the state exams, the administration would open the gates so that all the information surrounding the tests reached the students.

I always felt as if the whole affair should have been less pronounced, the students themselves not so embedded in the process. But the administrators needed the scores to go up every year — specifically with the eighth graders — and they didn’t seem to think that lecturing the teachers about it every morning was enough. Their approach involved pep talking the students with complete disclosure about what was going on.

The students knew that the continued existence of the school — the renewal of the charter — depended on the 8th grade Math and ELA state test scores. The same students who would rant and rave about how much they hated the school would keep their mouths shut and fill out their Scantrons, the seriousness in which everyone took the situation registering in their heads.

I always imagined that if I was an adolescent who hated my school, I would break the no. 2 pencils in half on testing days and declare that the whole school could be boarded up for all I cared. But even the most bitter students never did that. The most troublesome students would pinch their peers, throw their papers all over the hallway, but come in and silently test with grave looks on their faces. It’s not exactly that I wanted them to rebel, but the level of conditioning was observable.

Things that involved money and numbers and products were important. The administration would order new t-shirts every year with lame slogans that appealed to the students: “Turn up for the test!” Every student received one.

The administrators fretted on testing days and barked at us to never sit down, to walk the room, watch the children, be encouraging. Without really knowing anything about the students at all, they would prowl and get in the way. One year, a student named Jose was completing his ELA 8 state test with a slow-paced intensity that I knew was characteristic of him. In order to remove all distractions, he lowered his head close to the paper and carefully scanned the lines on the page. I sat in a chair, watching him do this — I had seen him do this many times before. I knew he was struggling to follow the passage, occasionally his head lifting up as he turned the page and then zooming back in on the small font.

The principal walked in and saw him with his head down. He assumed he was sleeping, failing to observe that the boy’s face was hovering over the paper as if he were about to take a plunge. The Director walked over to him and stuck him with a long, gangly finger in his upper arm. The poke startled Jose immensely and he jerked up, yanked out of the complex reading passage he was attempting to follow and staring up at the principal with a wide-eyed, confused stare.

The year after this occurred, I became used to the task of disseminating the data we received from the results of the state tests. What was always very inconvenient about the whole thing was the impractical timing of the whole affair. State tests were in April — we did not receive the results until August. By that time, the students were once again disinterested in their efforts and the data was only good for their upcoming teachers.

The school administration instructed me to analyze the results based on standards and prepare materials for each student based on the areas in which they needed the most work. This involved slapping the students with the labels that were used to determine the students’ “grade” on the state exam.

For the ELA state test, a student could receive one out of four “grades:” Level 4, which is Mastery; Level 3, which is Proficient, or Passing; Level 2, which is Partially Proficient, and then Level 1, or Well Below Proficient. These were divided up even further, where certain scores would be considered “Low Level 2s” or “High Level 2s.”

When I first began using this data and splitting up students onto lists, I kept this data hidden in my desk and never spoke of it with the students. I knew they needed work on making inferences, for instance, and that was enough, as I was in charge of providing them with the tools necessary to improve that skill. The idea of telling a student they were a Level 1 seemed abhorrent to me.

As time went on and pressures mounted, the state ticking off a list of things our school was doing wrong, jabbing their finger at the test results and tearing apart our principal, this data became common knowledge. When I was arranged to pull Level 1s from their electives to grill them with test prep questions, they somehow came to know they were Level 1s. This information was communicated freely between the admins to the parents to the students. I was forced to make phone calls home that involved me telling parents, “Your child has scored a high Level 2 on their benchmark exams, and so we would like them to attend extra classes over this Spring break in order to help them achieve Level 3 this April.”

Students sat in front of me with multiple choice questions, telling me, “I’m a high Level 2, but I want to be a Level 3.”

In meetings, the principal’s underling scrolled through Excel spreadsheets and bar graphs, telling us, “Please compile a list of high Level 1s to pull for extra help. Do not bother with low Level 1s who can’t be helped — but we do need to reduce the amount of Level 1s we have. Level 1s make the school look bad.”

The Level 1s were almost always students with IEPs — Individualized Education Plans — who attended Resource Room every day and received the attention of consultant teachers during class. The school’s individualized education department was incredibly small, and the staff were often unable to provide students with the level of support they needed. Over the years, the school cut the special education department — but also bragged about how much money they spent on technology.

The students who were expelled were almost always Level 1s. We expelled a lot of students, with carefree abandon. In order to keep up the attendance numbers, new students would be brought in, with parents who knew the administrators. The new students all scored 3s.

Level 1s were also largely English Language Learners, or ELLs, and our situation in that regard was even worse — we had one ELL teacher on staff, a poor, overworked, abused-looking woman who could hardly catch up with her students’ needs or provide them with the resources they needed. Her room was a tiny, squished room in the corner of the building without any windows. We had a number of ELL students, perhaps making up 15% of the school’s population. Some students had only been in the United States for a year and did not have parents who spoke English that I could speak with.

While on the topic of short-handed departments, the most egregious example at this charter school involved the counselors. We were constantly short counselors, and our school social worker — we only had one — doubled as both a school counselor and an administrative assistant. I found that the roles of social workers and counselors in the school were absolutely necessary and that they were an invaluable resource for teachers and students, so only having one at any given time was incredibly frustrating. Students would have problems, serious problems, and I would have a dozen things to do at any given moment. I couldn’t help them. Helping them meant shirking my duties and I would be in trouble. Often, no one could help.

Often, they were sent to the ISS room.

The administration would often talk about how it was okay to make the students feel uncomfortable. We didn’t need to baby them. They would excel when they were uncomfortable. It all just seemed so literal — the poking during testing, the desperation of the students trapped at their desks — and then the temperature. The old building had ridiculous temperature regulation problems.

During the winter, the building was absolutely freezing. I would tremble and sometimes even wear my coat. The students would curl up in their desks and pull their arms inside their shirts, their teeth chattering. At first, the Director would not allow them to wear their coats. Sometimes we would tell the students to go get their coats anyway. We told the Director they needed it, they were freezing! Our insistence led to an announcement that any student who wanted to get their coats could do so. Every year we spent several weeks wearing coats inside the classroom.

This was not helped by the fact that in our classroom we had a broken window, boarded up. We spent weeks heckling the admins that cold air was seeping in through the cracks. This led them to fix it — by putting a black garbage bag over the window. The window wasn’t actually fixed until they replaced every single window in the entire school.

This problem was not reserved to Winter. The heaters would not turn off in the Spring in our first classroom. We emailed the admins, the secretaries, maintenance, but they ignored us. Our classroom was so small that some of our desk were up against the heaters and one day a student complained to us that his seat was hot. I walked over and touched the desktop, yelping and drawing my fingers away. It was scorching. We had no other place for those kids to sit, so we took out some folding chairs and moved the students away from the blazing heater. The admins narrowed their eyes at us and told us we had one of the biggest rooms in the building. We should be grateful.

Eventually, Tim the maintenance man showed up. He was the only maintenance staff in the entire building. He was a massive man, bloated to the point that he looked like he would pop. He looked unwell, constantly waddling from one end of the building to the other, doing every single thing that needed to be done in the building in silence while the staff of the financial office barked at him. He had a room in the basement, where he showered and often slept.

It’s difficult to tell all the stories I built up over the years. There’s too much to tell, it’s overwhelming. We worked long hours, teachers and students alike. Teachers were required to go to work early for meetings and leave late for mandatory activities. We all came in on Saturdays and we worked during holiday breaks, holding academic boot camps for students. I taught summer school. It felt like so many of us, students included, just didn’t get a break. Teachers often lost our planning periods, our lunches. We united as a team to give each other breaks, sparing moments to allow each other to eat, to go the bathroom.

Sometimes, we gave each other crying breaks.

The teaching staff was wonderful, we all formed a formidable team and we looked out for one another. I loved them. We bonded as a family and we enveloped the students into this family. We were all incredibly overworked, dispirited. We needed to be social workers, parents, therapists for the students, and we needed to teach so much. We needed to work harder to compensate for the mistakes the admins made, we kept the school together by working harder. As much as we wanted to scream, “FUCK THIS SCHOOL!” and run far away from the building, we knew we left the kids behind. So we put on poker faces and bit our lips and worked hard for them.

The turn-over rate was ridiculous. Teachers were fired every year, their contracts not renewed, almost always because they had a disagreement with the admins, who were unprofessional and held grudges. Teachers quit, or found better jobs, usually outside of teaching.

Eventually, I quit. After four years, I told the Director I would not be returning for a fifth school year.

I am still ashamed of this. I chose to turn away from the endearing, lovely adolescents because the environment was too poisonous to me. I was someone who could help the students and I turned away from them. I was sick all the time, I was angry every day, I came home and spent hours destressing, I thought about work all the time, even when I slept. I was exhausted, both physically and spiritually, and there was never any reprieve from this. Every day was a trial, with a tidal wave of problems that swept us all away, teachers and students alike.

I wanted less stress, I wanted better resources, I wanted less work, I wanted better benefits and support. I wanted to stop working so damn hard to compensate for the school’s shortcomings only to have the school not even register as being as good as the public schools. I wanted that blame to not fall onto me. I wanted to be thanked. I wanted to be appreciated, rather than having my outstanding work ignored.

So I left. So many of my teammates left. I cried on my last day of work, slipping on my sunglasses to hide my grief and standing outside the school with my mentor. We leaned on our cars and looked at the old building. I would miss almost everything: my team, the students, the familiar classrooms. She burned with anger. Eventually she would homeschool her children, to do a better job than all existing school systems.

I keep in touch with many of my old co-workers. Only one of them still remains at the school and she just texted me to tell me that they were expanding to include fifth and sixth grade. They asked her to teach fifth grade, expecting her to get certified to do this while she taught without her elementary certification, expecting her to compensate for their shortcomings as usual without actually paying her to go back to school. Typical.

Where are they putting the fifth and sixth graders? I asked. Did they purchase a new building?

No, they’re cramming them in the basement. The basement, a single hallway, such small classrooms. No windows.

When I fled to another state and began substituting in the public schools, I was shocked. The teachers seemed so independent. So carefree. They complained about trials that seemed so easy and miniscule to me. The admins weren’t hanging around to criticize them every single day. I found myself nervously following routines out of fear, only to find there was no one breathing down my neck. No one was criticizing me.

I was… respected as a professional. People believed I was doing the right thing. And I was, but I was shocked to find myself in an environment where I was doing so little work and people still had faith in me. I was so accustomed to going above and beyond only to face doubt and scrutiny.

There’s still so much I haven’t recounted. More flaws, more joys. I can recall so many memories, but they all slip in and out of each other, weaving and unweaving, it’s hard to pin one down. This experience wasn’t unique. It wasn’t typical of every charter school, but many of them. Most of them.

Is this a real solution?

 

 

On our first date, we sat at a counter in a local restaurant, facing the windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. They displayed the television show that was main street. There was a smattering of hard clumps of snow on the ground and yellow Christmas lights wrapped around the trees by the roadside. I was too nervous to eat and I watched the endless stream of people passing by while he unfolded his taco and regaled me with stories that were doing an excellent job at convincing me that he was interesting and adventurous.

“On our way to San Diego, we got into a pretty bad car accident. It was on the highway. We were just riding along – I was asleep, he was driving – and then out of nowhere,” He slapped his hands together. “We were flying! Someone coming from an on-ramp merged into our lane from the left without seeing us, struck us from the side, and my car went flipping across several lanes of traffic. I was still trying to figure out what had happened when he yelled for me to get out of the car, and we did. My car was completely totaled!”

“Were you hurt?”

He pulled out his phone and flipped through his photos. He still had the pictures they took at the hospital afterward. “Here I am,” he said, showing me an image of himself where he looked younger, with longer hair, yellow bruises on his face. Other than that, no real injuries.

I tried to imagine being in a car as it flipped across the road. I couldn’t. I had been in several minor car accidents at this point in my life, but they were nothing more than fender benders. Anxiety bloomed in my chest just thinking about it.

My first experience with a car accident occurred when I was twelve years old. My friend’s mother was driving and my friend Casey and I were in the backseat, her little brother sitting in between us, his face a dense map of freckles and his nose running. We were driving to an amusement park on an island, vibrating with excitement. We bickered with her little brother, who whined about our presence as her mother swore and sighed loudly at the wheel.

“Stop touching me,” I snapped at the little boy. I had known him since he was two years old and felt as if he were my own little brother. “Why are you such a brat?”

“You smell! It’s not my fault, you smell!”

Suddenly all of our heads snapped forward. I hit the seat in front of me and let out a loud exhalation of air. Casey grabbed her brother and her mother screamed, “Fuck!” She then leaned the front of her body into the backseat and began patting around at us, asking us if we were alright. We were fine, just confused. I looked around, only seeing a gas station through the small windows in the back.

A young woman in a Chevrolet in front of us had slammed on her breaks in front of the gas station. The back bumper of her car was smooshed inward. Our car, on the other hand, was completely fine, for all I could tell. Casey’s mother ordered us to stay in the backseat and left the car door open while she went to talk to the young woman. We waited in the backseat for what felt like a long time, watching all the cars on the road passing slowly and staring over at us.

“Stop staring! Who do they think they are?” Casey huffed.

“Yeah, what do they think is happening here? Look away, losers! Bye!” I said.

We made faces at everyone spectating.

Eventually a young police officer showed up, and he stuck his head into the backseat. He looked incredibly large looming over us. He asked each one of us a series of questions that seemed unimportant and unrelated to what had happened, interviewing Casey’s little brother last. He asked him for his home address multiple times, but the little boy just stared at him blankly, the quietest I had seen him that day.

“He’s five,” Casey told him testily, laughing. “He doesn’t know his address.”

The police officer stared at her, then disappeared without saying a word.

After more than an hour, we were finally free to finish our journey to the amusement park, since there was nothing wrong with our vehicle. We drove away, leaving the miserable-looking young woman behind. The day proceeded from that point as it was meant to and we grew sunburnt and content underneath the crisscrossed shadow of wooden rollercoasters.

I didn’t experience another car accident until I was nineteen years old. At this time, I was working at home for the summer and staying with my parents to shorten the commute. One night, my boyfriend at the time managed to finagle away his grandfather’s car and came to pick me up so we could spend the night drinking in a nearby suburb with his scruffy neckbeard friends. His grandfather was a solid blob of a human being, melting into his recliner, never speaking a word, making this a rare opportunity.

My boyfriend decided to take me home around 2AM and we began our drive through the inky darkness of the countryside. My parents lived deep in the woods, where the streetlights were rare and glowed eerily under a blanket of insects. We could see little of the road in front of us, the asphalt continuously spawning with a ghost-like haze, the sailing vehicle surrounded by darkness on both sides. I had my window open as I leaned against the door and let the cool wind whip at my face.

Then a figure loped into the road, a brown comet soaring out of the blackness. It passed quickly in front of the car and nearly cleared its passage when —

CRACK. The sound exploded as if a bullwhip had come crashing down next to my ear. The doe’s head struck the right side mirror and rolled wildly on its neck. My face was just a foot away. I watched her glowing eyes spin as she ran, leaping back into the endless black.

I screamed, I screamed. My boyfriend pulled the car onto the gravel shoulder and began shouting, “Fuck! Fucking deer!” He turned to face the abyss beyond the ditch. “I hope you’re dead! I hope you’re fucking dead!”

He ran along the side of the ditch looking for the animal, but she was gone. He said that maybe she had only been slightly injured since she had been able to run off. I remembered the hideously loud crack. “I doubt that.”

The right side mirror was dangling from a single vein. My boyfriend was yelling and swearing as he tried to snap it back into place, mortified that he had damaged his grandfather’s car. We fiddled with the mirror for a while, then gave up and drove to my parents’ house as I held the mirror on the ledge of the door.

I didn’t want my parents to discover we had hit a deer, so I crept into my house and searched the supply room for gorilla glue — or something. My little brother, still in high school at this time, appeared in the kitchen doorway, his eyes squinty from sleep. “What are you doing?”

“Do we have some sort of — strong glue?” I whispered, then told him about the deer.

“No.” He laughed, shaking his head, his long hair sweeping in front of his face.

I found some duct tape and held it up victoriously.

He shook his head even more vigorously. “You’re an idiot.”

I glared at him, then glanced out the front door at my boyfriend sitting in the car. Maybe I was an idiot.

It would take me another two years to affirm that I was indeed an idiot.

Meanwhile, my next car accident would happen the following summer. At this point I had saved up enough money to buy my own car, a blue ’99 Chevrolet Cavalier that I called Bathsheba. One day I drove several towns over to pick up the same dopey deer-killing boyfriend and took some backroads as I brought him back to my parents’, where I was staying while I had my car inspected by someone we knew.

Despite having chosen the backroads as a short cut, I was feeling incredibly impatient and couldn’t fly through the woods fast enough. The roads were long and straight, with small rounded hills that sent my car flying into the air as I struck them going 90mph. I felt exhilarated and my blood roared in my ears. My GPS had given me an estimated arrival time and I had managed to shave five minutes off of it. I was incredibly impressed with myself.

“We’re almost there!” I shouted, my car lifting off the road and seamlessly rolling back down. I realized my turn was coming up soon, quicker than I had expected, and I spun my wheel to catch it.

As I rounded the corner I tapped my brakes to slow down but felt the back of my car continue to drift. Alarmed by the way this felt, I slammed down harder on the brakes. Bad idea. The vehicle was far beyond my control at this point. My boyfriend grabbed the handle on the ceiling as we spun across the intersection, the car turning sharply to the right and veering straight into a deep ditch.

I hyperventilated for a moment in the front seat, still fairly new to this sort of thing. Finally, I stepped out of my car, walked through the weeds in the ditch and looked down at my poor automobile sticking up at an acute angle. It looked like someone had chucked my car down there from the sky and made a bulls’ eye.

I called my mother, who was just down the street. “M-m-mom?” As I held the phone up to my ear I saw some damp spots on the road from water. It had rained earlier. “I — hydroplaned.” Yes, I’d been taught about this once. The lie was effortless and removed some of the guilt from driving recklessly. “I hydroplaned on the wet road and my car is stuck in the ditch.”

She groaned, her instinct most likely tuning her into my lie. Naturally as well, I grew annoyed that she didn’t believe me.

A tow truck showed up eventually and struggled to yank my car out of where it was stuck in the ditch. The first heavy duty, beastly-looking chain snapped. The second chain did the trick. My car was fine, despite the mud and weeds crammed up into the grill.

I received a reprieve then in my life from smashing my car into things, such as other cars, ditches and deer. I was doing fairly well, actually, until I was around twenty-four and working at a charter school downtown as an English teacher. On my way to work one day I found myself smacking into the back of someone’s car in a rather uneventful fender bender, startling an old hippie who was just as desperate to get to work on time as I was. He waved it off and slid back into his car, which was crammed full of boxes of paperwork.

I continued my jaunt to work and arrived late. The gym teacher found out that I had been in a car accident that morning as I stood around the faculty room, sipping at a coffee, and she grabbed my hands and stared down into my eyes.

“Go home, sweetie. Go home.”

This made me incredibly nervous. “N-no, I’m fine. Everything’s fine! I need the money anyway.” I had a contract with no paid sick days.

She continued to stare at me unblinkingly. “Go home. I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you right now to go home.”

I pulled away from her and told her I couldn’t accept that. This woman had a skeletal look about her and routinely took off work to go in to donate her platelets. They looked like they had sucked the meat off her bones in the process. She quit later that year.

Stress from work forever rendering me a shaky and manic creature, I had fender benders in my stars. I had only recently learned to not fly over the road like a madwoman and that was after being forced to take a class for “At-Risk Drivers” that was supposed to reform me. A year later, I bought a newer car — not new, newer — also blue — and named her Esmeralda.

I had Esmeralda for only around three months when one day I was driving home from work, wracked with stress over a new after-class program my charter school had me in charge of with a few other teachers. The program was called Study Hall (not a traditional study hall) and was after last period. Since the middle schoolers weren’t allowed to walk home or catch a city bus, every single one had to file up to the cafeteria after their class period and be subjected to this regimented work period. Near 200 adolescents would file into the cafeteria, screaming from the maddening flux of hormones coursing through their bodies and exhausted from the school day, unwilling to take another pointless direction. Eventually we would organize this chaos a little better and develop ways to lessen the traffic, create group activities and bring in guest speakers. At the beginning of the school year, however, the administrators had thought very little of this out and also not given us time to plan for it.

Four teachers struggled to figure out how to contain the storm of pre-teens. We were miserable, we hated it. Eventually we figured out how to keep 200 children moderately quiet, but this hadn’t happened yet.

My hands were trembling on the steering wheel, my nerves frayed in all different directions from the hour of unorganized madness I had just endured. I drove down the wide road that cut the city into two, waves crashing through my brain: How can we group the students with so little space, the tables so close together? My feet hurt. Red light. How can we lower the noise level? What do we do about the stairwells? Is Class Dojo even worth it? Green light. What worksheets and activities are worthwhile and even possible with so many kids? How can I make sure they do their homework? My feet hurt. Why was Isaiah so rude to me? I thought I had been rather nice to him. Red light.

Green light. I sped up. A wave crashed and I saw an errant movement out of the corner of my eye. Several cars ahead, a vehicle moving forward had suddenly braked and turned left without signaling. This resulted in a series of cars slamming on their brakes.

HIT THE BRAKES!

I was too slow. I watched as the bumper of the car in front of me came hurdling toward me, my car sliding forward despite the effort of the brakes. I watched our bumpers collide and my head snapped forward, my chest smacking the wheel, bruising my ribs. I sat stunned. Cars simply drove around us.

I pulled out my phone and texted my co-worker: “I crashed my car because of Study Hall.”

The driver in the other car didn’t get out. I climbed out and approached only to find an ancient woman, shriveled into a mantis-looking creature, clinging to her steering wheel and looking confused. She turned toward me, her neck trembling and making her head wobble. Her wrinkles had hardened into narrow mazes without an exit point. She wore glasses that magnified her eyes to the size of walnuts.

“What do we do?” she asked.

“Pull over,” I instructed her. “We need to exchange insurance information.”

She spent five minutes carefully writing out her information on a piece of paper, each letter formed with noodled lines. Eventually a police officer showed up, looking massive with a cowlick dampened with product. He told us to get moving in a monotone voice and I sat on the corner to watch liquid leaking out of the front of my car. My hood had buckled and would no longer close. He raised his voice and told us we needed to go. I snapped at him, “Aren’t you supposed to help?”

I ended up needing to bolt my hood down with pins in order to keep it from flapping around menacingly on the highway.

At this point, whenever I drove I began to see the image of a bumper rushing toward me, faster than I could react. While on the highway my imagination would paint vivid pictures of the car in front of me suddenly braking, racing toward me as my car pummeled forward, my brakes ineffective as the metal crunched. I imagined that familiar jolt as I hit the steering wheel and my neck snapped forward. I dreamed about car accidents, waking up from the force of the impact.

I began to think that surely that image of a car backside rushing toward me would be my manner of death. One day my car finally would flip and it would be the end of me. The more I drove, the greater the chances.

If you ask me now how I think I’ll go, I will still affirm — a car accident. A real one. All these shocks and fender benders were just training for something bigger. So I could recognize what was happening in the moment and really understand my fate.

Last year I hit a patch of ice on a bridge and spun, smacking my bumper on the side of the bridge. I had been driving slowly — carefully — dreading — so there was merely a crack in the plastic. I looked at the crack, at the cars driving around me, and I just got back into my car and moved on.

These things happen. Accidents happen.

I’ve never liked water, but I like metaphors, so there I am, a fussy cat sitting on the deck dipping my toes in the pond. The deck is covered in blistering spots with the green paint coming off, and I peel at the thick chips while she and all her brothers splash around in the water and tease me. I say I can’t swim very well. They’ve all seen me swim before, so this doesn’t fly.

The depth of the pond makes me nervous, but this isn’t enough to stop me. After all, I can awkwardly paddle my arms about in a way that passes as swimming and keeps me afloat. The water is a bit cold, but I know that my body will adjust to this in just a minute. The sun is scorching above our heads, and I can feel a bead of sweat trailing down the back of my neck. I’m made of water — it’s not the water that scares me.

I won’t be self-aware enough to articulate this for another decade, but it’s the moment of impact. The dread of hitting the water, knowing I’ll be awash in an entirely new environment and temperature so quickly that my senses will go reeling. It won’t matter that I’ll adjust, that I know I’ll adapt. I’m still paralyzed with fear at that sudden change that runs through the body from toe to head. That second of shock, the clamp of cold hands enveloping my entire frame and squeezing.

When given a beach, I wade in slowly. Slumping through the water, my arms folded up on my chest as friends flip around much farther in. And I tip-toe towards depth, like an astronaut bouncing forward on the lunar surface. Careful, purposeful.

But often it’s just a deck high above the pond’s surface, or a ladder that drops into a pool. I’ll pace back and forth, back and forth, my feet suctioning to the damp surface as my friends and cousins laugh and splash and dive down. They all ran and jumped in immediately while I paddled over puddles to peer over the edge.

Decades later I’ll find myself on dry land far more often. There’s too much work to be done, and no one owns a pool anymore because we don’t own houses. We’re far too saddled with debt. But as I sit completely dry at the table, clacking away at a laptop, I wonder how much the dread of impact has to do with my perceived failures.

All that time pacing in front of an opportunity, fearing the change of total submersion. It’s an awful lot of time to waste. I wonder, how much time have I wasted? Is life just a series of opportunities, moments of jumping off the deck and into the water, and is that blithe bravery the key to success?

I do jump. I do — but it takes a moment. A lot of moments, of building myself up and bracing myself for change. Is too much time lost?

I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be successful, and as I spend too much time thinking and piecing things together, I can tell you at least that I’ve jumped enough times that I can be quicker, braver, more rash when presented with a pool on a hot summer day. I’m braver, if only by a little bit.

I can shut off my brain, and jump.

SheldUnbreakable

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