October 12, 2015
The Re-Education of a Panda
Some friends are having some troubles so I present to you an abridged educational autobiography to convince you that if I can do it then you, too, can do it..
I am lead to believe that most children are told they can be whatever they desire to be. That with enough hard work and determination, anyone could become a doctor or an astronaut.
That was not my reality. I tried to throw myself headlong into school, but I could only do my homework after I finished the dishes and the laundry and sweeping and helping my brother with his homework. My reality was a never-ending onslaught of diatribes about my inherent worthlessness. A mistake, even. An abomination that my father hoped would one day get hit by a car.
When I became a teenager, I told myself that these views weren’t rational. That everyone had to have some worth. Breaking down statements to find some sort of consistency, I would think even if I was stupid/dumb, it had no bearing on whether or not I was lovable because even at that age, I knew my father was an idiot. So I managed to fight back against these abuses, quietly and subversively. Bukowski taught me how to travel Los Angeles and find pockets of peace. The Myth of Sisyphus taught me not to give into despair. Once, I misplaced a library book. It would cost $35 to get my card privileges back. In an effort to avoid a scene, I told my father at the restaurant he as running. As the blows came, so did the yelling.
“The problem isn’t even you exist! You exist to take, take, take. You don’t care about anyone else – just your own, selfish self. You’re a horrible person. A horrible, miserable person.”
I was 13. It took 5 months of saving tips to pay off that $35 book charge.
Oberlin once sent me an advertisement. I decided right then and there that Oberlin was where I wanted to go. Neither one of my parents graduated high school – my mom didn’t even go to high school – so I knew nothing about college or how it was supposed to work. I knew nothing about reputations or the Ivy League. I just knew that, at the time of receipt, I still felt like I had a shot. It’s a sad truth that poor kids, minority kids, those existing in the “other” realms, are all told their worth is based on their ability to go to college. So I erroneously thought, as many kids like me thought, that only “the smartest” go to college.
One day, I shared with my father that I wanted to go to Oberlin. His response was “You’re not going anywhere but the streets.” I swiftly rejected his statement, demanding proof of that outcome.
“You’re too dumb to do anything. You’re just like your mother. You’ll turn out just like your mother.”
My mother’s greatest accomplishments include not overdosing on drugs (yet) or dying of AIDS (yet). That is who I was supposed to turn out like.
But I fought back: quietly and subversively. I found friends and went on wild Los Angeles adventures. My friends taught me how to dream and have fun. Most of us were just fucked up kids, but we became family to one another.
By the time I was 17, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to go to college – I couldn’t stand school anymore. I was working at Taco Bell and barely making rent. You’re told in school that your failure to do well is a failure in yourself. It would take years to realize that my circumstances had kept me from success.
Then, my father read my diary. My diary – my only source of comfort and strength. When I came home, offended by the less than stellar things I had written, he punched me in the face. I punched him back. And then I punched him again. And then he beat the shit out of me. But those two punches I gave him were glorious and wonderful and I will remember them for the rest of my life.
I was then arrested for elder abuse.
Mr. Payim Kade, the social worker, told me me when I entered his office that I was in “a lot of trouble.” And a cop told me he recognized me from Sepulveda (insinuating I was a prostitute.) And I was told what a horrible human being I was for beating up this elderly man – even though I had a black eye and a swollen lip. I just cried and asked what I was supposed to do. Their only response was, “You’re a liar. All girls like you are.”
The failure of the justice system to respond to me as a victim was devastating. To hear that this man who had built his life on abusing people was the “good guy” took away all the hope I had. To have a social worker, who I had thought would be my advocate, advocate for my “kind father” was traumatizing. To have my precious journals laid out as if they were a freak show, to be shamed and judged for merely expressing myself – I still haven’t found the words to adequately describe that particular torture.
My dad did not press charges. That same day, he took me to dinner at Pho 21. While I sobbed quietly into my soup, he said, “You’ll never beat me. I will always win.” He never hit me again, but every day he would remind me that he was the victor, and if I didn’t stop crying he would send me to the group home Mr. Kade threatened me with. I kept crying – I knew I would be destroyed in a group home. I told my new journal, “Girls like me get eaten alive. How will I survive?” That spark that kept me moving forward, that kept me believing in myself — however miniscule– vanished. I exchanged my sister friends for a group of rockabilly assholes who could keep up with my drinking. The only thing I could do was drink. At that time, with the social workers blessing, my father ran off to Kuwait for 6 months, leaving me alone to find a job, pay rent, and take care of home and brother. I dropped out of high school, worked taking photos at the DMV, and proceeded to to further run down a spiral of my own self-pity and shame. In my father’s absence, my apartment resembled the anti-10 commandments. Thou shalt snort cocaine in the kitchen and smoke meth in the bathroom. Thou shalt allow your boyfriend and all his friends to leave empty beer bottles all over the living floor. Thou shalt eat all the Munchies ™. My father returned from the Middle East early . . . I sobbed while my best friend and I put the apartment back into order. It had been five months since we had even spoke.
Two weeks later, I called my father from a friend’s house to let him know I was coming home. “This isn’t your home anymore.” “Excuse me?” “I don’t need you anymore. I’m putting your shit on the street tomorrow.” And, with a banker’s box of my belonging, I found myself homeless. Almost being arrested for elder abuse was nothing like the pain of being homeless and depending on others for necessities. My 18th birthday came and I drowned it with a gifted bottle of vodka. After bouncing around for a few months, I managed to stabilize myself and get into my own apartment. I even managed to somehow convince a guy that I could do paralegal work and then stayed at that job for 10 years.
From the time I was arrested for elder abuse to when I was 21/22, I lived in a forgetful haze. The only thing I cared about was not reliving the traumas, the disappointments, the heavy weights of blame and shame. I finally woke up to discover myself in some sort of feminine mystique hell. I was “engaged” to a cheating bass player and saddled with a child that wasn’t mine. I was depressed and overweight and found myself once again being told just how worthless I was. Our fights often ended with him screaming, “You’re just a feminist! I hate feminists!” “I am not!” I would cry.
And then, one day, while I googled “feminism” to prove him wrong, I only proved him right.
“Holy shit,” I thought. “I actually am a feminist.” And just like that, a switch was flicked on.
Leaving was hard. He had given me my first tastes of stability, and I was taking care of this little person who lived with us and who I adored and who adored me. For the first time in my life, I thought I had this “family” and I was throwing it all away. “You won’t find anyone who will love you except me,” he said.
“Then I will just have my books,” I replied.
I . I had to break up with the whole “scene” I had found myself in. Full of petty people who tore each other apart. I counted as my friends date rapists and wife beaters; misogynists and jealous women who trashed each other. I got rid of my cell phone. I stopped going out. I moved away. At the age of 22, I became a social hermit. I had to accept that everything I knew about myself and everyone else was incorrect. That the way I saw the world, the way I interacted with people – it was all wrong. Even the way I ate was wrong. Everything I thought was wrong. The way I treated people was wrong. More importantly, the belief that I deserved to be treated the way I allowed people to treat me for so long was wrong. I can’t adequately express the fundamental shift in my being that happened once I accepted everything about me was wrong. Accepting that I wasn’t right about anything gave me the freedom to search for new truths.
So I read more books. I read bell hooks and Jessica Valenti, Courtney Martin and Naomi Wolf. My feminist awakening was life-changing. I became almost bold. It occurred to me that my father’s treatment of me had little to do with myself, as an individual, but everything to do with myself, as a woman. I was able to separate the abuse from something that was inherently my fault and see that it was his pattern with all women – from the dawn of time until the end of time. And that was liberating.
Those last two had a profound effect on me. Feminism was cool, but I was mostly being exposed to white middle-class academic feminism. And while I am white, I wasn’t culturally white. My unconventional background made relating difficult. I had no idea where I belonged. Reading these books forced me to understand structuralism and how inequalities are nurtured by a dominant culture. As I educated myself, that heavy weight of responsibility I had carried for so long began to vanish. Like a phoenix, I began to rise from the life I had blindly created for myself. They taught me that change – deep, personal change – was possible. It was never too late to be educated. It was never too late to start over. It was never too late to try. Malcolm X, particularly, will always hold a special place in my heart. In addition, learning about astronomy and understanding just how miniscule we all were in the great scheme of things – was incredibly comforting. “You are made of star stuff” was one of the most amazing things anyone had ever told me. For the first time, I felt connected to the world, connected to humanity. We were all created in the core of a dying star.
Still, I felt I wasn’t smart enough to go back to school. At that time, I had started tutoring at a homeless shelter and one of my students called me out on my own lack of a college education. “To prove to you that you can go to college,” I told her. “I will go back to college – for reals.”
That first semester was shaky and I went home and cried every day – convinced I wouldn’t be able to write this essay or that essay. I was overcome with stress and pressure – this was it, I reminded myself. After figuring out how to balance full-time work and going to school, awesome things started happening: I always got A’s (left community college with a 4.0 GPA). Professors reached out to me as mentors. I was offered a “free ride” at a great university. More professors noticed my academic sincerity and took an interest in my education. I discovered incredible friends and a normal, complicated, full, and happy life. And more importantly, I developed a sense of identity that, I hope, is rooted in compassion for others and myself.
Now, I am in a good place even though I am still obviously a work in progress. Most of my friends see me as someone intelligent, kind, and responsible. Sometimes, I think people think I’ve just always been good at things. Or, that I’ve always just been popular. Or that I’ve always “been smart.” And I am OK with that, because sometimes winning in life means people can’t tell where or what you came from.
I don’t offer up these stories to whine or complain or for sympathy. Sympathy and empathy are things I’ve never expected, and I am still deeply touched by the kindness of my friends. I offer up these experiences simply as “a story.” A part of my story. I have failed more times than I have succeeded. But, the lessons I learned failing meant my successes were much greater. And even if I was moving at a snail’s pace, I knew I had to keep moving.
Other people’s stories have helped and guided me so much in life. I realize that I am in a position to serve – I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say as an inspiration (we all have different dreams)- but, maybe, as a guide for some. A friendly nudge that says, “It is possible. You can rise up. It will be hard, but you can rise up.” You will make mistakes, and they don’t have to define you. You can admit you were wrong and be reborn.You can be brave. Regardless of what path in life you take, you can be brave.
To my friends who think they are stuck or trapped or meaningless, there is a light. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had it hard or had it easy. Your story is important. Sharing your story is important. Everyone has loved someone, lost someone, and is scared of something. Still, there are amazing experiences and good people in the world. Persevere with a sincere heart and the universe will root for you. As Bukowski once said:
“there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight