At 23 years old, I was retired.
No, I wasn’t some eccentric billionaire. I was your average disabled American placed on Social Security.
At 24, I began a stint tutoring at the Good News Rescue Mission in the Women’s Day Program.
Education was and always has been the equivalent of freedom to me. It’s why I’d get burned out by recess half-way through the year, and spend a semester in the library learning about art, science and psychology with my ‘other’ friends– books!
Education is the catalyst to change all perceptions of self and your heretofore thought of truth about the world around you.
Having gotten back into a college career, what with all the free time on my hands, I joined the Women’s Day Program to assist women in transition navigating an often difficult process of applying to junior college; obtaining their GED’s and taking college
entrance exams, setting up orientations, meeting with counselors, identifying their areas of interest in education, passions, goals, and to acquire necessary tools needed to prepare for examination.
I did this all for purely selfish reasons. I needed to know that I, too, could change the entire course of my life. I was a woman in transition.
An Uncle asked me, post being placed on SSI/SSDI why I’d chosen to go to college when my “entire life is set!” I to this day never understood the question. Did I seem like someone who had no hopes or dreams beyond securing the bare minimum? The bottom rung?
It got worse when after telling my psychiatrist that I’d been given a $40,000 scholarship to a university, replied “don’t stress yourself out, be a Walmart greeter!” These experiences are important because I could share them with the women I tutored, who were often barely literate and had been chastised for being human time and again.
We’d talk about what it was to female, and to do math. To be thought of as a dark-skinned woman in Redding and instantly saw as less-than. As stupid, and called as such. One of the most pressing problems was the way our peers treated us. If we couldn’t find support in the home, our schools surely could offer it, right?
Not the case in Shasta County, where priorities ran to children whose parents were of wealth and the proper coloring. Otherwise you flew under the radar.
Tired of being told, time and again that we were of no viable, lasting use to society, it’s no surprise that these women and I should end up in the same room at the same time, and for much the same reason. I may have been the tutor, but I was there to learn a much more valuable lesson about who I thought I was.
To say I identified with the plights of aged out foster youth, recovering drug addicts, survivors of domestic abuse, the mentally unsound, to that of jobless, single mothers left by men that said they’d always be there… Well, in some form or another, eventually I’d come to understand what it felt like through my own life experiences, for sure. For now, I saw my face in theirs, and a need to help.
There is this constant misunderstanding about what it means to be homeless. When you walk downtown in any town, often you’ll see some of the most desperate and perhaps even exploitative in nature of the situation. Having worked with and gotten to know this community intimately; living within close range of them for three years, preparing and serving them meals, and calling ambulances for those having difficulty with the darkest of demons, I know homelessness is not one size fits all.
I think of these women I saw working desperate to overcome odds you may have the good fortune to never know. And the children we often seem to forget accompanying their families into the situation. Most of the homeless community seeking the services we like to rant and rave about being “used and abused” I have known looks a lot like people working to get themselves out and away from it. People in their right minds, working to get the hell out of that situation.
When something irritates me, be it the minutiae of life, some request or complaint about what in the grander scheme of reality is so obviously not important, I like to take myself back to those mornings downtown on Market Street, in a dimly lit room, full of aspirations and hope.
We women opened our sessions holding hands in a circle, as equals seeking a similar goal of growth. Beginning with a powerful quote about education and self-betterment, then a prayer to the patron saint of education, we’d finish and immediately begin the business of changing ourselves first, and then the world. Because that’s how all great people do.