06 June 2010

Recovering from my life

I wanted to run away from home when I was a kid. I didn't know why, I just knew that I did. At one point, before and during my parents divorce, I was signed up to see a child psychologist. I remember going to his office once a week, in a part of the same hospital I went for typical medical kid issues, but this was in a different building. There were locks on doors, bars on windows, and rules. Some kids lived there, and I knew it wasn't by choice.

I don't remember what questions were asked, but I do remember that my response was always the same-- say nothing. I hoped they'd eventually give up. I also remember being threatened with the possibility of staying there permanently if I didn't start talking about what my problem was, since my mother was spending so much money and time to take me there. There was one point where I know I was so depressed that I actually tried talking, but I didn't know what I was supposed to say. Then I found out that my visits to the psychologist were being paid for by insurance-- so much for money being spent on me, my adolescent self said.

I remember sitting in the waiting room for what seemed to this day like a long time to have to wait for a scheduled appointment. I can see the artwork on the wall- Chagall-- and the latch hook rugs (yellow with red letters) spelling out “TEAM IV”. I can see the hallway leading out, with locked doors and reinforced windows. The old fashioned fire escape outside the barred window. The elevator. The fire door. And most of all, I remember thinking about how I'd rather run away and die on the streets alone than let anyone lock me up in here.

Not just thinking. Planning, specifics. When I'd leave, where I'd go, what I'd do to survive.

I went to a Catholic grade school (and junior high school), where most of the teachers were nuns. They weren't as strict as the nuns my Dad told me about, but I still had my mouth washed out with soap more than once, still had my knuckles wrapped on with a ruler now and then, and still got sent to talk to the head nun in her office. There was time after school, there was talking to a counselor in the library, there were so many tests to see why I didn't get my homework done, yet still aced the standardized tests. “He's so smart, but he's got some sort of mental block getting in the way.”

I read, a lot. Anything I could get my hands on. A kid who reads a lot is also left alone a lot, because if he's reading he's learning and so he'll be smart. He's also not causing any trouble, so let him read. At the same time, I didn't do a lot of math-- I lagged behind the rest of the class, usually. Neither of my parents were math people. There were math kids in school, but they generally weren't my social circle.

The math kids were the rich kids.

Graduating from a Catholic grade school is a little like graduating from a high school-- if you're lucky, you get to pick where you're going to high school because your parents want you to get a good education. Even before I finished eighth grade, my parents had divorced, my mother had remarried, and I had moved with her to the country (about ~40 min away). I wanted to go to a somewhat nearby Catholic high school; the new house was about a mile outside the school's territory.

It wasn't to be. I ended up at the public high school the next town over, where I didn't know anyone. I didn't have much choice in the classes I got, and since my mother told the school I was bad at math, I started out in general math my freshman year. General math started at addition and subtraction, and at the end of the year-- not the semester, the year-- got all the way to doing things with fractions. It was a class of burnouts, troublemakers, and problem children.

People who were bad at math.

I considered running away then, too.

Why, when I'm sitting in the middle of one of the top research universities in the country, am I remembering all of these things like they were yesterday? I have more vivid memories of those things than I have of the past couple of years of working and taking classes part time at my local community college.

Maybe it's because the last time I was really presented with an environment that contained extremely smart people that would go on to be leaders in their fields, me going in that same direction was presented to me as impossible.

It happened with high school. Kid, we're not going to invest time, energy, and trouble into you going to that Catholic high school.

Eighth grade was the last time that I was in an academic setting with people who would go on to do great things. That doesn't mean that the people I was in classes with in high school or any of the other colleges I attended would not lead meaningful careers, or lives. Many of them have done very well. That last year at a Catholic school was the last time that I was a privileged kid, someone who went somewhere that not everyone went.

Now, I'm a privileged kid again. I go to school at a really, really good school. I have teaching assistants that went to Brown and Carnegie-Mellon, professors that came here from Princeton and Harvard and Yale. Buildings are named for dead guys who taught here and won Nobel Prizes.

You see my school's name in the New York Times. Not the sports page, although we appear there sometimes-- the science page, because someone here has just figured out something that will change medicine, genetics, or some other field.

I'm going to put forth the theory that the rich kids, the smart kids, the ones who got good grades from birth forward-- I'm going to say that they're the ones who weren't abused. They're the ones who had families that supported them and made it a point to show them what the world had to offer them They had the opportunity to put their hard work into something that would do some good, above and beyond just bringing home a paycheck and staying out of jail.

And I'm going to extend that theory by saying that the ones who did grow up in broken homes, who were victims of sexual and other abuse, whose daily lives were about survival-- we didn't get access to those opportunities in the same way as the rich and smart kids did. We had to take the long way to get there. I don't have anything against people who have families that are better off than mine, or people whose parents are in white collar professions. I hope I don't sound bitter or angry. I'm not trying to put anyone else down. I am trying to resolve why my semester was a train wreck, and I think class differences had something to do with it.

You see, not only was the campus a new environment-- the size, scope, and schedule-- but my classmates and professors are the kind of people I haven't had much exposure to, since eighth grade. Since then, I've gone to public schools and been in the military. I've been stationed overseas, and I've been to a war. I've delivered pizza and packages to crack houses in the inner city, worked the night shift at a truck stop down the street from Deliverance, and hauled empty beer bottles to the dumpster at 0300.

These are environments where you have to actively survive-- first make sure you're not going to die, then make sure you have food, clothing and shelter. If you have all these things covered for the next few hours, you're doing pretty well. I'm good at that kind of survival. I have a lifetime of practice.

You don't meet many math and computer science professors who came from Princeton when you're delivering pizzas to a crack house. Maybe that's why this semester, I was afraid to talk to my professors and teaching assistants and ask for help. I didn't know what to say. (One day I did stop to talk to one of my professors, in one of the classes where I'd fallen behind. There were a group of students on the couch in his office, with him in the middle, explaining something from the textbook for the class. And that frightened me to death, the possibility that I'd be one of those students.)

I saw those kids in my classes, the rich and privileged kids. Not saying they were normal or had perfect lives, but at least they hadn't had sex by the time they were out of sixth grade and most likely had never spent a night sleeping in chem warfare gear because they were afraid of sleeping through a nerve gas attack. People ask me where I'm from, and I tell them my hometown, and my current town by way of the military. It's a cop out answer, because it would take too long to explain what I did between becoming a civilian again and making it here. It's an answer that seems to satisfy most people, but it still feels like a lie. I went through so much to get here, and I want it to matter.

It doesn't matter, really, where you're from once you get here. It doesn't matter that you are a sexual abuse survivor, or can clear a gas mask and don it in seconds. It doesn't matter that you weren't one of the privileged class before you got here, that your father worked in a steel factory or your mother never went to college.

No one really cares. It's not that they're assholes, it's just that that isn't what matters here.

What does matter is that you know the right ways to think about problems, in order to learn how to solve them. It matters that you can talk to a professor, teaching assistant, or classmate every day in order to understand something. It matters that you can be honest with an advisor, and yourself, and take a step back and repeat a class just to make sure you know what you're doing.

I didn't do those things early enough, often enough, or correct enough this semester, and my grades reflected that. When I started getting bad grades, when I started being uncomfortable all the time, that's when the PTSD kicked in and I went into survival mode.

It's not easy to let go of the past that you've spent your entire life surviving, and learn completely new ways of doing things. You have to look in the mirror, and say to yourself that you're an incredibly brave and strong person, and then in the same breath say that you have to start over and be the old dog that learns new tricks. Starting over isn't a destination, it's a journey in itself.


  1. Whoa, thank you for sharing such a personal insight into your life. I wish I could purge the demons of my childhood, by writing about being sent to one school after the other with barely enough time to learn the name of the kid next to me before my mum whisked us off to another city, or country. I remember pouring a can of vegetable soup into the toilet and telling her I was sick just so I didn't have to go to school and be ridiculed by children who knew each other since birth.


  2. Bravo. You're a brave man. You've been though more than you're share and survived. It takes strength of will to endure what you have.

    I know how difficult collage is, spending 6 years working on 2 degrees myself. It's particularly difficult when you have a history of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, I know this from experience. But I completed my degrees before Iraq. I don't think I could do it now. You're doing it post Iraq. It's an incredibly difficult task that few can appreciate.

    Regardless of the degree you're pursuing, my Masters isn't worth the paper it's written on compared to your achievements. It's a testament to what you're doing. Soldier on.


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