I have always been interested in what makes people tick. For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to know why people do the things they do, and I've long been affected by the behaviors, moods and attitudes of the people around me. I think that's because I'm a highly sensitive person. Personality type certainly does play a significant role in the way we view the world, in addition to the attitudes and beliefs we hold about society and our fellow citizens, but that's not what I want to focus on in this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about the life events that have made me who I am today. So I thought I'd share a little bit of my history with you. Being the studier of people that I am, I'd love it if you'd share a bit of your story with me, as well.
Growing Up in the Trailer Park
I was born in a trailer park in central Pennsylvania and grew up there until my family moved to western Pennsylvania my senior year of high school and we got our first house. Saying that makes it seem like we were impoverished and poverty stricken. I don't think we were. My father was a lineman for a telephone company, eventually working his way up to a supervisory position. Therefore, we did see a bit of a change in our lifestyle through the years. We moved from a tiny trailer in the park to a brand new one in a newer section of the trailer park. What's really most significant about growing up where I did is that the trailer park was in a pretty wealthy school district. Therefore, I always had a sense of being "less than" and looked down upon by a number of my peers. To make matters worse, I was a gawky little girl with red hair, freckles and glasses, in addition to being trailer trash amongst the elite. It was a heavy burden to bear for a kid. We bought my school clothes at Hills, while many of my peers in middle and high school were wearing the latest brand name fashions. My theory is that growing up an outcast helped shape my affection for the underdog throughout my life.
high school graduation - I was rockin' the '90's hair, right? Damn, look at those bangs!
Coming into My Own in College
College was an awesome time in my life. Attending Slippery Rock University, I got away from home, a place, I must admit, that did not always provide me with encouragement and support. My college years led to discovery and increased self-esteem. Classes like American National Government and Intro to Women's Studies taught me about new viewpoints and ideas that resonated with me. I learned about a whole different world than the one I had absorbed growing up in my conservative household. College was a time of endless possibilities. I grew and explored, not only through my coursework, but through my interpersonal experiences. I lived in the dorms, encountered people from all over the world, had a crazy-ass roommate (I'm talking about Tricia, in case any of my other college roommates are reading this.), met my first gay and lesbian friends, joined a sorority, went to parties, got busted for underage drinking, lost my virginity, lived in my first apartment, met my future husband (the first one, not the one I have now.) All of that, I would learn later in graduate school, is what is great about college. It's not just the degree, college provides so much more.
that's me with Vinny at a sorority date party - I'm Facebook friends with him, though I don't know if we'll still be friends if he sees this picture!
Into the Real World
After college graduation, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life, so I did what I knew best and took some more classes. One semester of post baccaulaureate courses, then I enrolled in the Children and Youth Counseling graduate program at SRU. I didn't finish that program, though, because I got married about halfway through and moved to North Carolina where my husband, a dual elementary education/special ed major got a teaching job. Guess who else was offered a teaching job? If you said me, the Spanish/Social Work major who had never taken an education course in her life, you would be correct. How hard could it be, right? I liked kids, and I knew Spanish. Combining two things I really liked should have been an awesome gig. Yeah, sure. It was the scariest damn experience I've EVER had. There I was, Yankee white girl at the ripe old age of 23 who had never lived outside of Pennsylvania, and I was thrown into a classroom in a poor area of the rural South, in one of the district's worst schools. Oh yeah, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing in my job. Let's just say it was rough.
But I learned so much in the brief time I spent there. I learned about corrupt school systems and inequality. I learned I was tougher than I thought I was. We ended up leaving, not because little white girl who never taught before had a nervous breakdown, but because my husband's school was breaking all kinds of federal special education laws, and he really didn't want to throw away his entire career in the eventuality that the district would get caught and decide to throw him under the bus. I also learned about the potential of kids who are given some encouragement and the resources to succeed. Many of those kids hated that mean Yankee teacher, but there were a few who said they were sorry to see me go because they were afraid they would end up with a long-term sub who didn't even know any Spanish. I wouldn't doubt that they were right.
We ended up moving back to my then husband's hometown and getting jobs in a nursing home, yet another helping profession. I was surprised to learn that I actually loved that job, especially when I transitioned from my nurse's aid position to working in the activities department. Alas, that job would not be a long-term thing, as I was placed on unemployment due to the liabilities my newly discovered pregnancy might cause the nursing home. It ended up being all right with me in the end. Someone once told me, "Pregnancy is not your friend." That about sums it up. I was glad not to be working through my morning sickness and ridiculous body aches, not to mention my insane mood swings. However, the financial position the decreased salary put us in led to my first experience with any type of assistance. With the arrival of my beautiful bouncing boy also came the WIC vouchers that would allow us to afford his formula. Forget what I said earlier about scary jobs. Ain't nothin' compared to the fear I had of becoming a mother. The fear of breaking that precious little baby was overwhelming, but I eventually settled into the daily routine of baby care, leading to a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.
Skip ahead a few months. My husband was offered a teaching job in Virginia. We moved there with the baby. We soon learned that school systems in the south leave a lot to be desired, and we moved back north to accept positions as house parents at a residential placement facility for juvenile offenders. One more intimidating experience for me to grow from. I sure did a lot of growing in those years. Being new with absolutely no seniority, we were given the house in the greatest state of disrepair, with the most residents (12 boys, who also happened to have the reputation of being some of the worst behaved due to the lack of structure that was in place before our arrival.Yippee.) But I was always a bit stubborn. The turning point for me was the day my husband and baby boy were both sick, and I had to handle the cottage full of boys all by myself. I went out there in the morning, woke those boys up and introduced them to the new Miss Mary, the one who wasn't taking anyone's shit and who dared them to even try to give her any. Guess what? Not one of those 12 boys even tried. From then on, the intimidation factor was gone, and I was able to really get to know some of those boys and learn from my interactions with them.
Eventually, I began to feel a bit burned out. It's hard to live at work. We worked 10 day shifts, 16 hours a day. There was very little privacy. Also, a new administration come along with a more "child-centric" philosophy. That philosophy didn't work for me. That place wasn't just my job. It was my home. Not long after we started there, I became pregnant, and my daughter was born in that house (we had our own apartment adjacent to the house the boys lived in.) My husband and I weren't the strictest cottage parents there. I like to think we were pretty middle-of-the-road. But in my home, where I was raising my children, I needed to feel I had more control.
So we moved on. I went to graduate school to study College Student Personnel. I wanted a job in which I could still help people, but I didn't want something that would burn me out. Working in higher education seemed to be a perfect fit. And it was. After graduating, I got a job as a community college academic adviser and loved it. I worked with students who were living their real lives, while working on their degrees at the same time. I encountered many adult students. As the coordinator of a program for academically at-risk students, I encountered a number of single mothers and students of low socio-economic means. They showed me the resilience of people working toward a dream and just what dedicated people will endure in order to reach their goals. It was an amazing position, and I was honored to receive the "Outstanding Academic Adviser of the Year" award for two consecutive years from the college's students. During my time there, I got separated, divorced, remarried and became pregnant. I was already feeling the stress of not being there for my two kids, so I made the decision to leave the college to pursue freelance writing, a job that would allow me more flexibility for my family. I haven't looked back since.
all three of my babies
Walking Away With Insight
Whew! I've really written a lot. I've also left out quite a bit. I didn't mention my retail jobs, nor my stints as a mobile therapist and behavior specialist where I was sworn at regularly, had to stop a kid from killing a rooster with a shovel and encountered some of the most chaotic home environments imagineable. What all of these experiences, from growing up kind of poor to obtaining an education to overcoming obstacles to working with marginalized populations, have shown me is that I care about people. Ultimately, despite the frustration people sometimes cause me, I am a people person. Everything I've experienced has shown me that you never know a person's story or what they're dealing with. My own personal story would surprise many. All of these things combined are what fuel my political passions, what make me fight for those society deems "less than." And I'm so very happy to have had each of those experiences, no matter how difficult some may have been at the time.
So what's your story? Why do you believe the things you do? I want to hear it. This truly is a good exercise in self-reflection, even if you don't want to share. But should you decide to share, feel free to leave a comment with your story or a link to your own blog post. Thanks!