Monday, March 31, 2014

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

The storyteller was intending to leave his story behind, to tell the stories of others, others more in need of compassion and empathy, others more desperate for acknowledgement of humanity.

So much for that idea. What's the saying, "life is what happens while you were making other plans"? Yeah.

I had made the decision to leave my graduate program at the end of spring term because the financial aid would give me enough time to get my feet under me and to be stable. Well, as stable as one can be while entirely reliant on loans, at least.

The first day of my last term - except it isn't; that was back in January, it turns out, because I'm no longer eligible for student aid - I log in to check the status of the money I was counting on to pay rent and power and food: Ineligible.

It turns out that the incomplete grade I negotiated with my professor during last term is a problem for the financial aid office. They want a letter from the head of the department, and I'm not prepared to walk into the office of someone I respect and tell him a lie to get him to vouch for me falsely. In some ways this is a relief - I'm no longer staring down 11 weeks of lying to everyone around me.

In many, many more, it is terrifying.

I am now on the teetering edge of the very situation I had hoped to bring light to - those without a place to call home, whether they sleep rough or are long-term couch surfers.

"Doctor, heal thyself" indeed.

I have a connection that may be able to get me work, but aside from that I have very little hope of keeping my home.

Those without hope are all around you. Will you help them?

That, as always, is a choice I leave to you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New Beginning

Imagine the answered problems as black pixels and the unanswered ones as white.

The child gets his fill of language, more than he understands at the time, from the local bookstore. He made the jump to adult-level novels the summer after kindergarten and never stopped inhaling the prose. He loves the action and adventure of Mike Stackpole's X-Wing series and never loses his love of a galaxy far far away.

The math is the worst. With no outlet in life outside of school the timed tests and emphasis on arithmetic he had mastered a year prior, he stagnates. He doesn't pass a single test for the first 8 months of the school year. His teacher assumes the problem is ability, not seeing the pictures. His imagination, well-nourished by the solitary play of an only child and the fantasy stylings of his favorite books, draws simple nine-by-eleven-pixel bitmap pictures on the tests, using them as a creative outlet rather than a demonstration of aptitude. Circles, Stars, Spirals – on one he leaves a single blank space, dead center.

The teacher and his parents disagree on the cause.

The teacher argues that there is a lack of skill, not seeing her student working quickly on the test and finishing early, nor that every problem that is answered is correct.

The parents argue that the cause is a boredom with the material, not seeing the child's innate imaginative expression come out in the test, nor that the child is not in fact bored by these tests.

They are both wrong.

He is quite entertained by his own version of the testing game. It is mental exercise of the best kind, stretching both the concrete arithmetic skills and the abstract imagination. He enjoys his version to the exclusion of most activities he has access to in school. He prefers only the open-ended, unstructured games of the playground to it, games he can play with his friends while subtly playing separate games altogether. The first-grader version of hide-and-seek gets old quickly, but moving from hiding place to hiding place, following the seeker without being seen, now that is joy. Eschewing objects to hide behind in favor of darting into the hilltop fog and dropping to the ground, that is cleverness.

Nearing the end of the year, he begins to fear being held back. He wishes for new games to play with the rigid, overly-structured schoolwork he is given and that will not happen if he is forced to repeat the first grade. Moreover, he will lose his friends, whom he values dearly.

He begrudgingly paints his entire canvas black for weeks to make sure he finishes the course of addition and subtraction testing. He still finds ways to make pictures and patterns, but they are fleeting and ephemeral, filled in mere minutes later with no one to appreciate but their creator.

He passes every one and advances to the next grade.

During the summer, the results from the standardized tests arrive at the school. His mother gets a call from the teacher. “I'm sorry”, she says. “You were right”. His mother goes into the school at the request of the principal for a meeting. He has conferred with both the kindergarten and first-grade teachers and examined the test results. “We can't accommodate him”, he tells the mother.

And thus the child loses his friends anyway as he moves to the neighborhood public school for the beginning of second grade. The world is never the same.

The new school is hell. He has blocked most of the memory of second grade out entirely, though his mother tells him in his adulthood about the battles waged and the tears shed. What he remembers vividly is not the emotional abuse from a twisted teacher, but the feeling of his mind betraying him.

You see, this teacher was a believer in the educational power of rote copying of information from the teacher to the student. She uses the pair of small whiteboards on the side wall rather than the large one at the front of the room, alternating back and forth as she fills each in turn.

She erases the writing on the first board as soon as the second is full. The young boy does not copy fast enough and finds that he cannot keep up, falling behind quickly and consistently through the year. His pleas for more time to copy the information fall on deaf ears. To make matters worse, he is isolated, without his friends and in a hostile place with no chance to establish new friendships.

He convinces himself, the boy who just months ago was told he reads at a level unmatched by students three times his age, that language is not his realm. The thoughts whirling about in his head come too fast for his young hands to give them form. The hands that sit idly, disobediently, as he tries to coax them into giving life to those thoughts.

The mother draws a connection from a galaxy far far away to low earth orbit and the space shuttle. The boy soaks up every bit of relevant learning he can. Math, science – his bedroom wall is painted a mural of space and his night ceiling mirrors the night sky he sees through a telescope. He sees the feature film Apollo 13 and is enthralled, watching it countless times as fast as the VCR can rewind. He builds a Saturn V replica from Lego blocks that he plays with while watching. Having had the abstract arts torn from him he clings to the concrete math and sciences. He interprets his inability to write in the way that the schools require as an inability to write, for he is never taught another way.

He spends the years from eighth grade onward delving deeply into the sciences, then five years of undergraduate university getting a Bachelor of Science in chemistry.

He emerges from university in 2012 amidst the worst economy in the United States since the Great Depression He goes into the job market only to find that even entry-level positions demand five to seven years of experience and the meaning of the phrase “résumé black hole”. He spends a year serially unemployed, first pumping gas, then doing tech support in a call center, and finally as a delivery driver. Most companies he applies to don't even bother with a “dear applicant” letter.

After a year, he enters a graduate program. Engineering this time in the hopes of finding his way into a more healthy job market upon graduation. It is during this year that the realization is made of the mistake he had made in choosing his path all those years ago. The realization that thirteen years of training to be a scientist has been his second-best and not something he enjoyed for any more reason than that he had ability in the field. The thought of making a career in the sciences is now gone. He is not a scientist.

He is a storyteller.

He begins by telling the story he knows best.

This is his story.

This is my story.

I don't know the future I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to go out into the world and tell the stories of the invisible, the overlooked. I'm going to give a voice to those who the world at large denies any measure of empathy. I'm going to show these people that they are not alone. I'm going to tell their stories to anyone who will listen.

Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Save a Life

Author's Note: This post is from before the present direction  of this blog. I leave it here in the hopes that it, like the other stories on this site, will be compelling to someone. Many men and women deal with similar thoughts throughout their lives - suicide is a very real problem that takes too many lives. If you are experiencing these thoughts, you are not alone and you are worth help. Talk to someone; a counselor, a friend, anyone you trust.

This night is many things to many people. The mainstream uses it as a reason to don disguises and wander the neighborhoods in search of a sugar fix. The college-aged use it as an excuse to throw another party. Many who have been or are parents stay in with the lights on, hoping to see some creative costuming from passers-by. One friend of mine celebrates her birthday. Others following the pagan and druidic traditions see it as a holy day when the veil between life and death is at its thinnest.

It is this last interpretation that I keep settling on as I undertake what is likely to become my Halloween/Hallowe'en/Samhain tradition of reflecting on the events of my life this past year. Many people do this as the calendar advances another year, but I find this day to be more meaningful.

Why October 31st?

Two years ago, I nearly crossed that veil. Not through an accident or the malicious intent of my fellow human, but by an act of personal will. Two years ago, I had convinced myself that life was not worth living. Two years ago, I decided I was disposable.

It was a cold day in Corvallis, Oregon. I met with my group to finalize our presentation of a major project. As we were working, my email inbox blinked. It was from Dr. Harding.

Some background: This was my "senior year". Like many students, I did not complete my degree program in the advertised four years. Part of the fallout of having spent nearly three of those years in what I now recognize as an abusive relationship was a strong anxiety about some very mundane occurrences. I would wake up in the mornings and be unable to make myself leave the perceived safety of my bed until I had 'agreed' to not go in to class. Once out of bed things were fine until I tried to leave.

I was a self-made prisoner in my own home, and I was ashamed of every minute.

This shame only made things worse. Having missed class on Monday, going in on Tuesday to face a disappointed instructor was impossible.

You can see where this is going, I'm certain.

My academic performance (predictably) took a nosedive, making it even more difficult to force myself to go to classes. My instructors had no idea of this. I lied to them, told them I was ill. In hindsight this was true, but not in the way I was painting it for them.

My instructors were understanding, based on what I gave them. They were willing to give me extra time to submit assignments. Dr. Harding was very willing to work with me regarding revised deadlines and the like, and this is where the problem started.

Having missed nearly three weeks of classes in a ten-week term is a lot of ground to catch up on. In previous terms I had responded to such overload by a triage strategy, cutting a class to save the others. This term, though, I had nothing to cut if I wanted to graduate, so I mashed my head into the wall and tried to catch up in every class. I ended up succeeding at none of this.

The one area that I did not fall behind in was a group project. My life was going to hell, but I wasn't about to ditch on my project group. This took over all of the time that I would have been using to catch up and thus I didn't. Dr. Harding was upset about this, and his email conveyed that fact. He asked me to drop from his class (the one that included the group project) as I was not taking advantage of his merciful syllabus bending.

The idea crystallized in my mind that none of my instructors would have to deal with my weaknesses again. I'd make the presentation (our project came out terribly) and having completed all of the obligations I cared about, would go home, and would proceed to kill myself by poisoning. My background in chemistry and desire to not make a mess of things made this the obvious choice of method.

The time came, we made our presentation, couldn't acceptably answer the questions of our panel (I had been outvoted on the approach we would take and didn't have much experience with the popular method), and as soon as we were done I left.

I don't think I'll ever understand what happened next. I left Merryfield Hall and needed to go left to catch the bus that would take me home. Instead, I went right. Without knowing quite how, I ended up on the fifth floor of Snell Hall at the reception desk for the university's counselling service.

I had been turned away from making an appointment twice before - they have this moronic idea that allowing people to come in and schedule appointments in the future is a bad thing. Had they turned me away yet again I wouldn't be typing these words.

Something in my eyes, or maybe in the way I was speaking, finally clued the receptionist in. She took me to a meeting room off the side of the waiting area so I'd have some privacy and told me someone would be in soon to see me.

It was only then that the floodgates opened up and I let myself sob out my feelings. My shame and guilt over my anxiety, my fears of failure and certainty that they had been realized, my conviction that I was wrong to want help and even more wrong to need it.

It was about 20 minutes before Linda came into the room and about 15 before I stopped sobbing. It was about a minute into the session that the tears began to flow again. I wept out my feelings of worthlessness, of abandonment, and of shame. But mostly I just wept. Through it all, Linda did something nobody else had ever been willing to do: She listened.When I took my time to answer after a question, she waited. Granted, she probably gleaned more information form those silences than from the words I spoke, but she was not afraid of letting them drag on.

I had been to counselors before. All of them seemed to have a need to fill up quiet space with words as though asking the umpteenth variant of a question would result in getting an answer faster.

Through her quiet listening, Linda told me something that no one else had. She told me that I was important as a person. She told me that I didn't need to earn her regard or her help. She treated me like a human being instead of a human doing.

When I returned to OSU this fall, I stopped by in the hopes of gleaning more wisdom from this kind woman only to find that she had also moved on to her next stop in life.

So wherever you are Linda, I hope you read this. You saved my life that day in a way that few people could do. Thank you.