Category Archives: College Life

Gradually then Suddenly

I remember this quote from Prozac Nation:

“There is a classic moment in
‘The Sun Also Rises’ when someone
asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt,
and all he can say in response is,
‘Gradually and then suddenly.’ When
someone asks how I lost my mind, that
is all I can say too.”
— Elizabeth Wurtzel

When I was sitting at the food pantry a few weeks ago and asking myself how my life had fallen apart, this was all I could tell myself. Gradually and then suddenly.  From a private university to welfare in the span of two months. That has to be a record.

I remember being a kid and my mom was on food stamps. Back when they were actual coupons that looked like fake money that you pulled out of a booklet. As a kid I would pick that time to find something else somewhere else to do. It was a humiliating experience that burned into my memory. When my daughter was born I found myself in the same situation. My experience being on welfare was traumatic enough that I chose the cold austerity of a shoestring budget over jumping through the government’s hoops of shame.  By the time my daughter was in school, I was enrolling in college which provided the scholarships and loans that allowed us to get by and make ends meet. Things were hard, but they worked.

Now it seems as if after graduation I’m right back where I started. I honestly feel as if I’m no better off than I was with a GED and dead end job.

Applying for food stamps required a workforce orientation where someone shows us how to apply for jobs. Apparently being financially strapped equates to being an idiot.

So as I was sitting in this lobby waiting to find out if I would have to take the same basic literacy and mathematics tests as the people without college degrees (it turns out that everyone has to take that stupid test and my blood is still boiling) I had an epiphany. I would use this time to be academically productive!

I remembered reading Nickled and Dimed and being incredibly annoyed.  In this book Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to experiment with poverty and write about it as if her experience was authentic. I remembered thinking that one cannot simply try on poverty. There’s a certain fear and desperation that is inherent with being broke. Something that Ehrenreich never was able to experience in her experiment.

So instead of lamenting my downturn in fortunes, I’ll make the most of the experience. I’ll see if the welfare system really can work and I’ll document my experience along the way.  With any luck this will be a very quick experiment and I’ll either be employed or be in grad school by January.

Gradually then suddenly everything fell apart. Maybe gradually and suddenly they’ll come back together.


And Life Marches On

I graduated.

That sentence still brings tears to my eyes. It’s been almost a month since I walked across that stage and received degrees in Mathematics and Economics.  Those degrees are currently sitting on the file cabinet by my desk. I haven’t framed them yet because sometimes I still need to open the covers and run my fingers over the parchment to make sure they’re real.

The whole graduation memory is a blur. For four years it felt like a moment that would never come. Now it feels like a moment that was gone too soon.

My painting professor said that graduation would be a moment of incredible happiness followed by an incredible sadness. He was quite correct. I find that I’m already missing my university life. Everything from the excitement of planning classes and buying school supplies to the stress of midterms and papers.

What I really miss the feeling of belonging…the feeling of purpose.  I’ve been a professional student for almost a third of my life. Now that chapter is over. It feels like I’ve lost my identity. Now I’m just sorta here, trying to figure out what to do.

My fixed income has been slashed nearly in half which has piled on the stress. I’ve been applying for jobs every day.  I made it part of my morning routine to check the job postings every day and apply to at least three that I may be qualified for.  One of my greatest fears right now is that I’ll be a 31 year old single mother with five college degrees working at a fast food place to make ends meet.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

I thought when I got a car that everything would be okay. I’d be able to get a job and things would work out. Having a car did help out immensely but it also came with so much added expense to worry about.

Then I thought that once I graduated everything would be okay. I’d be able to get a job and things would work out. So far that hasn’t panned out either. Despite good degrees from a great school, I’m still falling victim to a sluggish economy that’s filled with more qualified competition.  None of this is really a surprise. My term paper for my labor economics class predicted this scenario.  I can hear it saying “I told you so” from the stack of discarded term papers on my desk.

In all this I’m trying hard to stay positive. I’m trying to remember what I learned in therapy. Very little of this is within my control, and it does me no good to dwell on things I can do nothing about.  Most of all I’m trying to avoid downtime and all the things that trigger my free falls into depression and self destructive behaviours.

For now I’m focused on staying healthy, paying bills and applying for jobs.

Everything else is just noise.


And then she writes…

It’s been awhile. Usually a lapse in writing means that things are going swell and I’m out living life and being happy. The gaps in my entries are usually good things. I wish that was the case this time. Back in February I got sick. Long hospital stay, phantom infection, failed surgery… the works. Since then I’ve been trying to focus on getting better and graduating. Happy to say that I’m doing well on both counts. The number of pain free days is increasing and I’m only four projects, and a few exams away from two degrees.

I still can’t believe it’s almost over. I’ve been at this university thing for so long. I feel like I’m just now starting to get the hang of it. I’m just now figuring out how it all works and it’s over. I feel like I’m getting ready to leave the nest. This school is my home, these people feel like my family. We may not be close but they’re the people I see every day and it’s going to be strange not being around them. I’ll miss the banter with my professors and the commiserating with my classmates. I’ll miss the cats, the pink roses, and the bells at noon. I think most of all I will miss my daydreams. I’ve spent four years building fantasies and plans for what I’ll do after graduation. Now I have to face the fact that most of those plans will probably never happen. I hear my classmates talking about their internships, grad schools and job offers. And while I’m excited and genuinely happy for them, I can’t help but feel a bittersweet pang of envy.

I feel like the only thing I’ve learned in college is everything that I did wrong. From picking the wrong degrees to not gaining enough practical experience. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m graduating with over $100,000 in debt, questionable health, and no job prospects.  It’s quite overwhelming.

How can I be on the threshold of the biggest achievement of my life and still feel like a failure?

This is the moment I’ve been dreading. Disappointing everyone that’s had so much confidence in my eventual success.


Lather Rinse Repeat

Lather

Once again I am standing on the threshold of a new semester full of this crazy optimistic anxiety.  Every semester I go through the same resolutions: I will use my planner, I will do all my reading assignments, I won’t leave my papers till the last minute, I won’t be dependent on medication, I won’t let my bi-polar crap consume me, I’ll keep my environment organised, and I’ll strive to reclaim my identity as an honour student.  At the dawn of every semester I run through this list of goals with as much dedication as a junkie fresh out of rehab.

Rinse

I’ve decided to go off my meds again. I can just imagine the eye rolls and exasperated sighs of some people that will read that statement. I’m sure that’s a common occurrence for people dealing with bi-polar people. We’re notorious for going on and off meds. I’m no exception. After a lot of thought I’ve decided that medication and therapy were useful in getting me through the crisis. But I don’t think I’m in crisis anymore. I think that’s why they became less effective. I think I just didn’t need them anymore. I think I’m ready to do this on my own. I made it through the whole summer break without them. That’s a huge accomplishment for me. Summer break is a dangerous minefield of downtime. Downtime is a poison dart to me. I beat summer break. Now I’m going to try to beat Fall 2011.

Repeat

It’s the first night after my first day of class. I’ve diligently used my planner. I’ve colour coded and tabbed my economics books. I’ve finished one assignment. I’ve checked off the misc. stuff on my to-do list. So far I’m doing well. But now the fatigue is setting in. It’s already 11pm and instead of doing my  reading and my other economics assignment I’m blogging and considering going to sleep and doing it in the morning. Just like a junkie falling back on a needle, it’s effortless to fall back into my natural groove. After all it’s a groove that has 20 years of wear.

Lather

Boethius said “The worst misery is to have once been happy.”

I think that’s why I haven’t been able to get back to the academic standing I used to hold.  Back when I was an honour student, I was totally alone. I didn’t have friends, or love interests, or a social life.  I hadn’t tasted happiness yet.  Now that I have, the absence of it has been crushing.  I didn’t know how much the loneliness hurt back then so it was easy to just focus on school and make good grades. Now I’m so painfully aware of my loneliness, it makes focusing on school work difficult.

Rinse

So here I am again. On the threshold of a new semester. But not just another new semester. This is the first semester of my senior year.  And with more dedication than a junkie fresh out of rehab, I think I’m finally ready to let go. I’m not just letting go of those months of happiness that were followed by those years of heartache. No, I think I’m finally ready to let go of all the pain, resentment, animosity, guilt, bitterness, and fear that’s been holding me hostage for most of my life.

Repeat

No.

No, I don’t think I will.


The Strays

I like the stray cats on campus. Just watching them roaming around, hanging out, observing…waiting.

Waiting on what?

A scrap of food, a scratch on the head, a kind word?

Waiting to be noticed?
Waiting to be wanted?
Waiting to be loved?

I relate to them. I always have. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always been drawn to strays. They used to call me the underground railroad for strays. I was always coming home with some poor furry soul that needed a home.

I think I’m a stray. Can there be stray people? I feel like I’m just like these stray cats on campus.

Alone and for the most part invisible. Just silently observing the world pass me by. Waiting for someone to notice me, want me, take me home and love me.

Perhaps I’m waiting for my turn to wear the shiny collar that says I belong somewhere, I’m a real person, I’m special to someone and I’m loved.

When you think about it an engagement/wedding ring is like a collar. A symbol that tells the world you have a place, you have a home in someone’s heart and there is someone that loves you enough to look for you and find  you if you happen to lose your way.

I’m just like a stray with no collar. The men in my life are like these people on campus.

They notice me for a minute, a temporary display of affection and wanting.

But in the end they all leave, they all go back to their lives.

“What a beautiful and awesome cat.” he will say. “I love spending time petting her, but I can’t take her home. I can’t keep her cause there’s just no room in my life for the commitment of having a pet. So I’ll pet her when I see her and tell her she’s great and that I’m sorry I can’t be more than a tourist in her life. And I’ll walk away hoping she’s not too sad – believing she’s so great someone will surely take her home someday, cause she deserves better than this.”

And he’ll leave. It’s no loss to him, his life will go on undisturbed. But oh how the heart of that cat will ache. For that cat, every scratch on the head heralds in the question…”Is he just going to pet me and leave or is this the one that’s going to love me enough to take me with him?”

Ever noticed a stray that wants to come and take what you’re offering, but they stand back and hesitate, not sure what they should do? Wanting so much for this to be it, but remembering all the times that it’s gone wrong.

It takes a lot of risk for a stray to go out on the limb and let someone get close. I’m sure it takes all she has to cast away the fear of rejection, and open up.

So when he leaves, another little piece of her will wither and wilt. Eventually she’ll become one of those cats that’s content to observe but will run and hide the minute someone new reaches down to touch her.

I’m a stray in life wondering around just trying to find a place in someone’s heart to belong.


Dry Spell

During spring break I had decided I was going to start hydrating via actual H2O instead of just coffee, alcohol and energy drinks.

So last Thursday I finally got around to acting on it. I bought a spiffy new water bottle, because bribes motivate me, even when I’m bribing myself. So I got this water bottle at school. A stainless steel beauty with a poptop and the university brand in a linear pattern of gradient school colours. I was stoked.

The next morning I filled it with water and felt I was really getting one over by not paying $5 for a morning latte and $3 for an afternoon Rockstar. Instead I was filling my $9 water bottle with FREE water. WIN!!

I carried my awesome bottle around that whole day. I felt so in style. Like my water bottle initiated me into the first step of being one amongst the trendy coffee & chemical hating health hipsters. I made it through my first liquid stimulant free day pretty well. Upon walking in the door I was feeling a bit parched so I reached for my lovely water bottle to partake of a refreshing drink of lukewarm tap water.

GASP! It was gone!

Had the health hipsters gotten wind of my wrongful admission and reclaimed my water bottle? Frantically I searched everywhere to no avail. Mentally retracing my steps of the day I suddenly realised that I had left it in my Theology class.

Feeling defeated I limped back to the coffee shop the next morning for a grande dirty chai w/ whip & extra shot. The coffee ladies welcomed me warmly. I saw the bottles of Aquifina lined up in the cooler mocking my failure, so I quickly took my cup of over-priced buzz in a cup and left. That afternoon I headed to the campus bookstore. This time it was the water bottles lined up on the shelf that were taking the piss. Like an affectionate dealer the Rockstar punch took me back no questions asked.

Today I went back for my afternoon energy hit. Out of the corner of my eye, next to the spring sale table I saw a cute little water bottle all on its own. I felt a sense of connection to the marked down outcast so I picked it up. Perhaps I had simply set my aims too high with that posh bottle and what I really needed was something a bit more understated and humble.

I felt an immediate connection with this water bottle. It was a clear blue BPA free plastic with a simple StMU logo and poptop. It even had a quirky loop to hook it to my backpack or hold it with my finger. I could tell this was a match. This time it was going to work. I immediately washed it out & filled it up with the brain-freeze cold water from the fountain.

I left work with my new water bottle dangling from my finger. How fun and not nearly as needy as the previous bottle that had to be carried with the whole hand. I went to drop off some paperwork and make an advising appointment. I set my water bottle on the secretary’s receptionist’s man-that-answers-phone-and-makes-appointment’s desk.  I dug out all my forms, wrote the appointment in my planner and dashed out to catch my bus home. It was pulling up right when I got there. SCORE!

I hopped on, set my stuff down and reached for my water bottle in anticipation of a cool crisp drink.

WHAT THE FUCK!!!

It was gone.

Are you kidding me?

So now I’m on my third bus home and about to pass out from dehydration while my little discounted water bottle sits in a dark desk drawer in the Student Rentention office.

So in total that’s $20 in water bottles and  0 thirst utils .

Damn I’m thirsty!!


2+2 = cat.

When I started at St. Mary’s, I had plans to get a math degree and be a high school math teacher.  I had become appalled at the state of the education system which focuses more on warehousing kids instead of teaching them to think.  At the time, I considered mathematics to be the foundation of teaching students critical thinking and problem solving skills.  If a student has a firm grasp of mathematical concepts, they will normally have a better time understanding other disciplines.  That’s not to say that every mathematician can write a novel or paint a masterpiece, but the fact remains that the majority of the great thinkers and artists had an underlying understanding and appreciation for mathematics and logic.

This appreciation for mathematics has depreciated over time.  The first round of blame goes to parents.  When parents fear hate math, they teach their children to fear hate math as well.  The second round of blame goes to educators that fail to introduce higher mathematics in a way that facilitates the interest of students.  I felt compelled to be a math teacher because I believed that a student’s first introduction to advanced mathematics sets the precedent for the attitudes those students have about math.

Over my academic career I have had the opportunity to study not only my core subject, but also the application that I was anticipating.  What I uncovered about the education system made me turn full circle, pick up an extra major in Economics and abandon any idea of jumping on that sinking ship.

The truth is that this country no longer values education. This country values money, and the quicker we can get these kids out of schools and into jobs, the better.  It’s disgusting and insulting to think that a student can get a high school diploma without being able to read at grade level or understand the algorithms of arithmetic (barring of course those with learning disabilities).   Related to this advancement of inadequacy, are the consequences of raising a generation of students with an instant gratification/entitlement complex.  It seems that there exists a generation of parents that (in memory of their own adolescent angst) view educators as adversaries.  When students do something wrong, the parents don’t react with repercussion to the student, they instead lobby blame at the teachers and absolve their delinquent offspring of any liability.

Teachers however have been saddled with the burden of raising classrooms full of children.  Teachers are having to act as trusted adult counselors for students from dysfunctional backgrounds, and educators of basic living skills on top of the responsibility of a bare bones basic education in their discipline.  Teachers are spending their own money buying school supplies for low income students, they are spending hours every day outside of school hours planning lessons, grading work and attending workshops.  As if those weren’t enough extraneous anxieties, teachers must also contend with the absolute power that students wield with reckless abandon.  In these days of instant information, all it takes is one disgruntled student to make one accusation and a teacher’s personal and professional  name is permanently scarred.  Teachers go to work never knowing when some drunk/high/mentally unstable student is going to flip out and attack.  The world is always worried about the safety of students, but who stops to worry about the safety of teachers?  And on top of everything, there’s the standardized testing beast to face.  Teachers carry 98% of the weight in these exams with the administration stepping in to account for maybe 1.5% and the last .5% is shared by the students, the parents and the government. [Disclaimer: This is not to be taken as an accurate, fully researched statistic. This is simply meant for illustrative purposes and dramatic effect.] The job of the educator is not really the easy ride that it’s long been made out to be.

The system has removed incentives for students.  I’ve been a student. I’ve taken those exams, and I know that the minute they told me that exam didn’t count as a grade I filled in random bubbles on the answer sheet, got my juice box and spent the rest of the time doodling some boys name on my book cover till it was over.  I’ve made this argument before and people tell me that this isn’t the norm.  But if it can happen even once than it cannot be used as tool of measurement.  It becomes completely invalid.  The idea that a teacher’s salary and career hinges on the arbitrary nature of children is ridiculous! There are some kids that will do really well, and there are some that just won’t care.  Motivation comes from within and no matter how skilled a teacher is, there are some students that will never self actualize enough to produce measurable results.  An answer on an exam says one thing. That the answer provided is not the correct answer.  Everything else is correlation.

I had an Algebra professor once that said two things that changed my life.

1. 2+2 = cat.

2. This is rocket science and people do die.

When no instructions are provided 2+2 = cat is a perfectly valid answer.  It is only from providing the parameters taught in basic mathematics that the sum of the quantity 2+2 will equal the integer 4.  When we fail to instill the foundations of mathematical logic we set our kids up to thinking 2+2 =cat.

This leads to the second statement.  The small mistakes can leads to disastrous results.  A mistake in arithmetic causes a spaceship to explode, a building to fall, or a machine to dispense too much/little medication and people die.  Ask any mathematician and he or she will tell you that the most common mistakes made in higher mathematics are not related to the Calculus or the Algebra, they are related to the basics of arithmetic.

It’s the small things that matter. It’s the small things that make a difference.

A final exam at the end of a semester tells you more about the student and the teacher than the massive state exams every other year.

Galileo said that “Mathematics if the language that God used to write the universe.” If we teach our kids to appreciate, respect, and admire mathematics we bestow upon them the tools they will use to write their own universe.