Remembering My Mother Honestly

I miss my mother more now, nearly 6 years after her death, than I did immediately following her passing. For some time after she first died, I felt like I could hardly even remember anything about my life with her. As the memories have come back in the past years, however, I have more to grieve and more that I want to remember. Following are the first 50 things I remembered about my mother when I sat down and determined to write this.cropped

  1. At one point in my teen years, we were the same size and would wear each other’s clothes and especially each other’s jewelry.
  2. Her favorite movie of all-time was What About Bob?, and she had numerous copies of it on both VHS and DVD.
  3. She was the most fantastic cook and could make delicious meat dishes even though she was vegan and would never even taste-test the food she made.
  4. Her favorite animals were sea otters.
  5. She loved reading and watching documentaries about tornadoes, serial killers, bear attacks, and cults.
  6. Her favorite color was blue, but her e-mail address told us all to BeGreen.
  7. When she was young, she loved the Jackson 5 and Elton John.
  8. When I was little, she would read me American Girl, Dear America, and Nancy Drew books whenever I was sick.
  9. Her favorite characters in movies and TV shows were always the oddballs. She loved Napoleon Dynamite, Lilly from The Princess Diaries, and Kirk from Gilmore Girls. If she had ever gotten into Friends or Parks and Recreation, I can guarantee her favorites would have been Phoebe and April.
  10. She could be tough as nails, a total Mama Bear. Confrontation did not intimidate her.
  11. She was a closet feminist. I remember talking to her about how I felt about abortion. She believed abortion was wrong but conceded that in situations such as rape, it could be for the best.
  12. She could be infuriatingly stubborn and immovable about some things and astoundingly open-minded about others.
  13. She was way too involved in and controlling of my teenage love life.
  14. I loved surprising her with little trinkets. I bought her sea otter knick-knacks, kitchen gadgets, and a resin dog with a cabbage head that I have in my kitchen to this day.
  15. She loved pit bulls and determined to rescue one and name it Tevy (meaning “angel” in Cambodian). Three months after she died, our Belgian Malinois passed away and I immediately dragged my family to the local shelter to rescue a pit bull, whom we named Tevy.
  16. She loved Kohl’s as much as I do.
  17. She spent years building up my “hope chest,” so when I got married, I had tons of household items from her.
  18. She was extremely generous and treated my friends like they were her own kids.
  19. She had aerophobia and couldn’t fly, so we drove everywhere on family vacations.
  20. Her dream was to one day drive all the way to Alaska – she was obsessed with Alaska.
  21. She was an amazing, creative teacher. She only ever worked in my grandmother’s preschool and homeschooled my brother and me, but she would have been amazing in the classroom.
  22. That being said, she admitted to me that she realized she didn’t like kids that much. She liked her own, but she lost her patience for children once my brother and I got older.
  23. She told me things she didn’t tell anybody else.
  24. She loved entertaining and being a hostess.
  25. She found being in the church ministry very stressful. She considered her service a sacrifice and would have preferred to be an average Joe.
  26. She let my friends and me get away with everything, and oftentimes, she was in on our jokes and secrets.
  27. She was often misunderstood or walked over because, in certain contexts, she was so shy and so deferential that people mistook her insecurity for haughtiness.
  28. She needed an outlet but wasn’t close with many people, so from the time I was about 11, I was her confidant.
  29. She could be judgmental, but she could also be a shrewd judge of character.
  30. She was totally the PTA mom who made cookies and cupcakes for my class, volunteered to chaperone on class field trips, and bought little gifts for all of my classmates on holidays. She even gave me the lines to convince a Jehovah’s Witness kid that accepting my gift was okay!
  31. She loved the ocean and especially the North Shore of Massachusetts, and she instilled a love of the New England coast in my brother and me.
  32. She hated funerals. She didn’t attend her father’s or her sister’s funeral, and she definitely would not have wanted an open casket at her own funeral. She also wouldn’t have wanted me to go to her funeral if I didn’t want to.
  33. She loved planning vacations, and she involved me in the process. We’d sit or lie on the floor with travel magazines/guides/brochures, website printouts, and notebooks and plan where we wanted to eat and visit.
  34. She always got the fork with the bent tine.
  35. She packed great lunches for the few years that I went to an actual school (3rd-5th grades). I remember a thermos full of Spaghetti-Os, a baggie of dried raspberries, sliced bell peppers, a stick of string cheese.
  36. She had a very bad habit of waking me up a few minutes before my alarm went off in the morning, and it made me homicidal.
  37. She never wanted her own Facebook account, but she sure enjoyed stalking people through mine!
  38. She was a collector. She collected prints of “Madonna of the Streets” by Roberto Ferruzzi, Colonial Homes magazines, copper luster, and more! She was also something of a hoarder—she had a hard time throwing things away.
  39. She had trust issues, and as a result, she was very reserved. She liked and even loved people, but most of her “friends” didn’t really know her. Although she spent most of her life in the Local Christian Assembly, her two lifelong best friends were women she spent her childhood with on Trumbull Dr.—women who knew her in the days she wore hot pants, had a crush on the only black kid in the neighborhood, sang along with Michael Jackson, played “house” in her very own camper, and called people “stiffs.”
  40. She could decorate the hell out of her house, though some of us remained skeptical about the leopard-print accent pillows that she claimed were an authentic aspect of the French Country style.
  41. If she cheated on her diet, it was for dessert. And she was “one of those” who claimed that her vegetarian alternative tasted like the real thing.
  42. She did not have maternal instincts. She doubled over in laughter when I fell down the stairs, spraining and chipping the bone in my right ankle. It took her forever to gain her composure and get me an ice pack, even though I was at the bottom of the stairs, unable to move and screaming at her to get me ice. I was furious at her in those moments, but we laughed about it afterwards.
  43. She spent countless hours of her life combing and detangling my hair after washing it.
  44. She was actually quite artistic, which you would never guess if you played Telestrations or Pictionary with my brother and me.
  45. She always believed that I was as successful as others without working as hard as others.
  46. She hated listening to music early in the morning.
  47. She taught me how to drive in the Berkshire Mall parking lot, and she was never nervous with me behind the wheel.
  48. She was the one who made up our pets’ weird nicknames and backstories. She claimed that one of our cats was a cross-dresser who frequented the local dive bar, while the other was conservative, deeply religious, and celibate. She adored both cats but pretended to like only one.
  49. She used to wax my eyebrows, and she was really good at it, but she would laugh every time and I’d be paranoid that she would mess up and take off a whole brow.
  50. She was the first friend with whom I watched scary movies. Often, we’d do it when my dad was away on business—or when we were traveling back and forth from PA to CT after we first moved—and we’d get so freaked out that we’d have to sleep in the same room.
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A Truth of One’s Own

*As is usually the case with me, I started writing this a couple months ago, but I felt that today was finally the day to be me in front of you. #womensmarch

I have confronted hypocrisy all my life. When I was young, others modeled it for me, and in some respects, I modeled myself in their image. On the other hand, I have always been uniquely me – something I learned how to be from my mother. Yet my mother also taught me not to flaunt my individuality and my penchant for rebellion (hence the birth of my public and private selves). Growing up in the uber-conservative Christian environment that I did, dissent in any form would be targeted. Hard. And sometimes, when my individuality got the better of me, I was targeted, even bullied. My spirit oscillated from total brokenness inspired by shame and total infuriation that inspired me to rebel even further. (In fact, this is a complex that has followed me almost all my life – if my family puts even the slightest pressure on me to do something, I will almost invariably do the opposite.)

Since divorcing from my conservative past, hypocrisy bothers me more than ever; and yet, I feel hypocritical because I still adhere to what my mother exemplified – that it’s better to keep the “peace” and suppress any controversial part of my essential self than to actually be myself and potentially make others uncomfortable. As a result, people have continued to walk all over me, asserting things about my self that are not true but that they want to believe because it helps them to assure themselves of the legitimacy of their beliefs. “No kids yet? You’ll change your mind.” “It’s been awhile since you left church, but I know you still know the Truth.” For every time someone has said these things to me: No.

Sometimes I like to convince myself that, by now, people know who I am and what I stand for, yet they continue to prove me wrong, and I let them do so because I am not a confrontational or even tremendously assertive person. But I am a writer, and I have always been able to be me behind the ink of my pen or the clicks of my keyboard. It’s cowardly, perhaps, but at times I feel that it’s the only way. It’s the only way for you, dear reader, to know who I am and what I stand for, because as soon as I publish my prose, I’ll go back to being my demure, deferential public self.

Here are some things I think you should know, in no particular order:

  1. I straddle the line between agnosticism and atheism, or as my husband would describe it, I’m an atheist with the attitude of an agnostic. I don’t believe, but I am ready to acknowledge that I—and everyone else, for that matter—could be, and probably am, wrong. I would say that, more than anything, I consider myself a humanist.
  2. I am unquestionably pro-choice. Having experienced even the mildest form of sexual assault in the past, I am adamant about maintaining my right to a legal, safe abortion should I ever be raped or should my personal circumstances warrant it. Additionally, I think if people really were pro-life—and not just pushing a politicoreligious agenda motivated by a selfish desire to impose Evangelical Christian morality on others and hail the U.S. as a Christian nation—they would A) pray more and speak less and/or B) demonstrate more concern and activism for the actual suffering of human lives worldwide—for genocide in Africa or casualties of terrorist acts in Syria.
  3. I know climate change is real and threatening. Water is life. Science and reason matter.
  4. To me, Black Lives Matter, and I think anyone who argues otherwise (say, with the “ALL lives matter” crap) has entirely—and probably willingly—missed the point. Also, yes, one can have friends of color and still be racist.
  5. I recognize that this country has been built on the exploitation of mostly non-European immigrants. I support DACA; I embrace cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity; I know that Mexicans aren’t taking your jobs and that “Muslim” does not equal “extremist,” “radical,” or “terrorist”; I will lose my shit if I hear you say, “This is America! Speak English!”
  6. I am sick to death of Christian Zionism and the United States’ unconditional support of Israel, which is essentially founded on an age-old superstition. Neither Israel nor Palestine is blameless, but somehow people forget that Palestinians are people, too, and people with religious convictions as deeply rooted as Jews’ or Christians’ (and, indeed, some of them ARE Jews and Christians).
  7. I do not believe that motherhood is the be all end all of my feminine existence, and I love being in control of my own body and reproduction (or lack thereof).
  8. I don’t blame victims. Women are not raped because of the clothes they wear or the alcohol they drink or the streets they choose to walk. Women—and men, for that matter—are raped because someone else chooses to rape. Period.
  9. Drug addiction is not a criminal issue; it is a public health issue, and the War on Drugs was never a criminal issue either. According to John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s chief domestic affairs advisor, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
  10. Love is love, and the fact that same-sex marriage is legal does not make anyone’s heterosexual marriage less sacred or special or valid.
  11. Sometimes, there will be people that you just cannot respect, and that’s okay. Sometimes, it’s possible to respect too much—if you tolerate abuse in the name of respect, for example. Individuals should earn respect based on their actions, not on their titles or positions. Still, it is possible to treat someone with respect even if you don’t respect his or her character, and voicing dissent is not inherently disrespectful.
  12. All people are entitled to their beliefs, but one’s beliefs should not entail the infringement, or attempt of infringement, on the rights of others.
  13. I am a patriot, not a nationalist. In the words of Sidney J. Harris: “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”
  14. Love. Equality. Diversity.

Love Is, and Should Be, Liberal

I first began drafting this blog post on May 2, 2015.

In an effort to perhaps enlighten the mind and heart of another, in an effort to stimulate greater compassion and quell self-righteousness, in an effort to equitably illuminate an aspect of the Baltimore riots that remains largely disregarded, I posted a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on my Facebook wall. It read:

“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

These words—and more significantly, the heart-wrenching truth and relevance of these words—moved me to tears and touched my heart in an inexpressible way. “Surely, this will move someone. Surely, this will reach someone I want to reach,” I thought. But hardly anyone reacted, and the Christian community especially seemed unfazed. When I, saddened, mentioned this to my husband, he had two responses. First, he said that people don’t read, especially if they have to click “read more” to see an entire post. This didn’t surprise me. Christine Rosen, in her article “In the Beginning Was the Word,” claims that the internet has “trained us to expect the easily digestible, the quickly paced, and the uncomplicated . . . so we now find ourselves in the position of living in a highly literate society that chooses not to exercise the privilege of literacy.” The internet has bred viewers, not readers.

Second, my husband teasingly told me, “Of course no one pays attention to you. You’re liberal now.” You see, in the context of orthodox Christianity from which I sprung, “liberal” has a rather negative connotation. It is, of course, often used with a capital “L” to refer to the Democratically inclined, which Christians rarely are. But when my husband said this to me, I had an epiphany: “Love is, and should be, liberal.” And then I decided to look up several definitions of the word liberal in the dictionary:

  • marked by generosity
  • ample, full
  • broad-minded
  • not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted; favorable to progress or reform
  • free from prejudice or bigotry

Interestingly, two months have passed since I first began drafting this blog post, and it seems to me all the more relevant now that the Supreme Court of the United States has legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. The internet is abuzz with praise and judgment, celebrations of love and assertions of condemnation. But for those who believe that love is the law—whether or not they believe in a supreme deity—how can they deny that love is, and should be, liberal?

If love is liberal, it is “marked by generosity.” If you’re Biblically minded, this might sound reminiscent of “Love is kind” or “Love is not self-seeking.” If love is generous and unselfish, does this not mean that we should confer on others the same rights that we are privileged enough to enjoy? Does this not mean that we deny our own will in order to bestow love fully, without reservation?

If love is liberal, it is “ample, full.” We should have enough love for everyone, not disseminate it to the elite few we deem deserving because they are like-minded, or because they are family, or because they stroke our egos. Love is love only without exception. It is inclusive, not exclusive.

If love is liberal, it is “broad-minded.” In other words, it is tolerant and not easily offended. Hmm. For those of you who subscribe, or claim to subscribe, to the tenets of I Corinthians 13, this too might sound familiar. “Love is not easily provoked. Love bears and endures all things.” Love, then, is accepting.

If love is liberal, it is “not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted; favorable to progress or reform.” If you view Jesus as the paragon of love, then think of how he challenged the Pharisees (i.e., the religious extremists of his time). Think of how he reversed the religious mandate that adulteresses must be stoned to death. Tell me that’s not reform.

If love is liberal, it is “free from prejudice or bigotry.” Ah, that’s the big one. But what causes us to feel prejudice, to be bigoted? Isn’t it pride? Pride in being white. Pride in being straight. Pride in being Christian. We are so proud of ourselves and our traits, which are mostly accidental. You didn’t choose to be white, and you didn’t choose to be straight. Yet we take such pride in these coincidences of nature that we begin, without any just or reasonable cause, to perceive ourselves as superior, and that leads to othering. So when 1 Corinthians 13 tells its readers that “Love does not boast and is not proud,” isn’t that also telling them not to be bigots?

My husband was right. I am liberal now, and it is because I love more and harder than ever before. I don’t love because I believe a deity commands it or because I’m trying to live up to someone else’s example. I love simply because I believe in love and its power to transform the lives of others for the better. I love because it is a challenge to love, and the challenge provokes me to grow.

If you elected to exercise your privilege of literacy and have read up to this point, it may be because you, too, are a lover. Or maybe you were stimulated by a sentiment to the effect of, “That Eleisha just burns my biscuits! I don’t even know who she is anymore!” If you are of the latter camp, I challenge you to love me. I challenge you not to be offended by my words or my person. But if you cannot accept this challenge, then I challenge you to remove me from your Facebook friends list. I will know, then, that you could not love me, truly and liberally, but I will love you all the same.

Why I Love RACC

We’ve all heard the stereotypes. Community colleges are for remedial or disadvantaged students. They have low academic standards and second-rate professors. Now imagine you hold these stereotypes to be true. What could there possibly be to love about a community college in the heart of America’s second-poorest city?

Reading Area Community College is my mother. And I acknowledge, despite what you might like to believe, that mothers are not perfect. When I was a student, RACC, like a mother, sometimes annoyed me. Sometimes she scared me. After the Virginia Tech. massacre in 2007, RACC received at least three bomb threats. One irritable math teacher kicked the desks of students who answered questions incorrectly. Sometimes, RACC embarrassed me, and sometimes she confused me. But like a true mother, she gave me life.

When I graduated from high school, I planned to attend Penn State (Berks), to which I had been accepted, but my own indecision and my parents’ financial concerns convinced me not to enroll. One Wednesday night after church, I stood in the vestibule with one of my best friends, Gaby. I casually shared with him my lack of direction, and he encouraged me to try RACC. Having graduated from high school the year before, he had already completed two semesters at RACC and had only positive comments. As a result of Gaby’s persuasion, I–like so many of today’s prospective students–registered to take the placement test about a week before the start of the Fall term, and I–again like so many of today’s prospective students–did not take the test very seriously. I received the results almost immediately, however, and learned I needed to take only one developmental math class. Surprise, surprise. That day, I registered for my first three college classes: The Individual & Society with Bob Millar, General Psychology with David Brant, and The Environment with Andrew Lapinski.

For my first Environment class I was characteristically early and sat in the third row. To my delight and surprise, Gaby came through the door and, spotting me, took a seat by my side in Yocum 117. I still have my notebook from that class. It tells of global warming and population growth, pollution and nonrenewable resources. But amidst the science that urged me to change my ways are the notes Gaby and I wrote to each other, and the games of tic-tac-toe we played. We kept track of all the quirky things our beloved professor told us but wrote them out of context in a series of “Bogus Notes” which are interspersed with the “Real Notes”: Watch your step at Reading Museum! Don’t shake goose eggs; it’s mean! Get your meat at Redner’s. Chemistry is like cake. Organic chemistry and organic chicken aren’t the same. Oak trees don’t migrate, so everything will die. It’s so darn cold in Siberia! China wants the BigMac, but something’s gotta give. Skip the cow; eat efficiently. Where does all the manure go? — your water glass! Using more legumes is smart. Don’t poke the pandas. My chickens forage for plastic! A million people is a lot of people, and they shoot up in the crack houses! (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!)

After several months of driving to school together, having class together, and studying together, it was obvious we were falling for each other. One night, as Gaby helped me study for a Spanish test (taught by an amazing profesora who is now my colleague but more like a mother figure), he wrote on a napkin: “Quieres ser mi novia?” He drew a box next to “no” and one next to “si.” For the next year or so, RACC played an integral role in our lives and relationship. We shared our first kiss (and many more!) in the student parking lot. We ditched class and went to Friendly’s when we were temporarily evacuated for bomb threats. An esteemed, aged, and entertainingly cryptic English professor told us every time she saw us, “Don’t get married yet.” (We both saw her in Redner’s, where we obviously buy our meat, shortly after we were married, and she approved of our waiting 4.5 years.) And what I remember distinctly is that Gaby was always there, always present, waiting for me to get out of class or sitting with me and holding my hand before class began. I can still picture him waiting for me at the flagpole, as I reminisced in the following poem shortly after I began teaching:

I almost walked into a flagpole today –

the one by the building on stilts

that marks the halfway point

between the library and the old hotel.

I avoided crashing into it and continued my brisk walk,

for it’s been a brisk day

(one that would instantly freeze my lips or tongue

to such a flagpole),

but I cast it an appreciative glance,

a nostalgic glance,

as I reflected on how strangely significant

a flagpole can be in one’s history.

I met you countless times standing

beneath that very flagpole.

“The flagpole.”

“I’m at the flagpole,” you’d say, or text.

I saw you standing there

as I swept down the stairs with Hector,

who just struck out,

and I told him I was going to marry you.

The Floridian

shook your hand under the stripes and stars

and told you I was special,

as if you didn’t already know it.

And now, it’s my landmark again,

the point that lets me know I’m almost there,

almost out of the cold,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

as if you’re still there waiting for me,

my refuge from everything.

Finally, about two years after I took Gaby’s advice and enrolled at RACC, we graduated together with our Associate degrees.

Let me now defer to another of my blog posts to relay the advancement of my ties to this institution: After graduating from Albright College with my B.A., “my former supervisor at the writing center informed me of a part-time tutoring position available in the writing lab at Reading Area Community College. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘My perfect job.’ I even had ties to the school already, as I had completed my first two years of college at RACC, graduating with honors and even receiving the first-ever Humanities Division award. After submitting my resume and the necessary recommendations, I received a phone call to set up an interview. I was comfortable, confident—overconfident, in fact. One of my former professors, with whom I took several classes, met me at the door of the office where I would have my interview, which I would have aced if it had been one-one-one. Behind door number three, however, was not the prize I was hoping for. Five pairs of eyes, some familiar and some terrifyingly foreign to me, magnetized to my face, and my stage fright returned. I stumbled through the interview, and I didn’t care whether or not I got the job; I just wanted the experience to be over! When it finally was, my dear old professor walked me out and said, ‘You know, if this doesn’t work out (hint, hint), you should contact the Humanities Division dean. She’s looking for adjuncts for the spring semester.’

“Thankfully, I was not surprised when I heard that ‘after a lot of consideration,’ the panel had chosen another candidate for the tutoring job. I was almost relieved and immediately wrote an e-mail to the Humanities Division dean, who wrote back to me a day later to set up an interview. This time, I was prepared; after that horrible inquisition by the five-fold panel, I had something to prove. After inviting me into her office, the Humanities dean told me, ‘Well, I didn’t ask for references because I already have them from your former professors. All I want to know if what kind of classes you’re interested in teaching.’”

I was hired as an adjunct instructor in English/Communications two months before my twenty-first birthday, with the stipulation that I would pursue my Master’s degree, and in my first year of teaching, I taught in the same classrooms where I had sat as a student for history with Jack Lawlor, English comp. with Casey Cartledge, and even The Environment with dear Prof. Lapinski. The opportunities RACC has given me since then are innumerable. I love my work, I love my students and colleagues, and I am especially humbled by their continued support and trust.

Now, after a long adventure away from its security, my husband is returning home to our college, like I did, to work. We’ll survive because of it. RACC has given me my life, and I love it for that.

Pro-Choice Means Something Different to Me

We stand on common ground—as motherless women who are ambivalent about bearing
children or who have consciously made the decision not to have children, we are criticized and marginalized. We are victims of stay-at-home-mom-bloggers, Newsweek authors, well-meaning but irritatingly inquisitive acquaintances, and passive-aggressive Facebook comments. People’s remarks to and about me have ranged in meaning from “Well, if you don’t want kids, you might as well turn in your ‘woman license,’” to “She’ll come around,” like I’m in a coma. In short, the lack of respect with which people I knobaby namesw have so blatantly approached me is the shameful result of prejudice and misinterpretation.

First of all, my husband and I have not yet decided whether or not we want to have children. We are lingering in an anxious and uncomfortable state of ambivalence, which should be clear after one glance at my Pinterest boards. Of course I think about how I would dress my children; what they would look like; what their interests would be; how we’d decorate their bedrooms. My husband and I chose our potential future children’s names six years ago. But the weight of the decision to have or not to have a child prevails over any cute daydream and every spontaneous romp in the sack without a contraceptive.

I value my right to choose. I feel neither emotionally, nor biblically, nor biologically compelled to reproduce; I do not view procreation as my duty just because I was born with all the anatomy that makes child-bearing possible. Reproduction is a choice, not a mandate. I take pride in the fact that one thing that distinguishes me from other animals is my ability to choose whether or not I want to procreate; I am not driven by an irresistible, innate urge to “be fruitful and multiply.” Still, asserting my right to choose has resulted in a barrage of unwelcome opinions over the years, and the more people try to convince me that kids are the best thing that could ever happen to me, the more I’m determined to prove them wrong.

I have known many couples who have adopted an almost careless attitude when it comes to their reproduction: “If it happens, it happens,” they say smiling, as if they’re playing the lottery. In some cases, it is, perhaps, thoughtless; in others, these couples’ financial security and confidence enough to have a child at any time is admirable. But I’m not like them. I can’t make that gamble. For my husband and me, choosing to have a child is so much more involved than deciding to forego the contraception the next time we have sex. I think about everything from the magnitude of the long-term responsibility to ethical implications to my personal preparedness.

Undeniably, there’s the matter of affordability and pragmatism, like there is for many couples in our shoes, like there is for this writer for TIME who explains, “[My husband and I] live paycheck to paycheck and go long spells without health insurance and dental cleanings. Our schedules are beyond erratic. I often write on weekends. My husband has had jobs that require regular night shifts.” She describes my and my husband’s lifestyle almost exactly. If you’ve been my friend for more than a minute, you also know that I positively love my job, but my position as an adjunct does not provide much security to me, now or as a mother-to-be. Additionally, pregnancy and child-bearing will—probably irrevocably—alter my body, and my pain threshold is so low that the prospect of labor and delivery is utterly horrifying. Perhaps more significant than any other consideration, however, is how the existence of a child would impact my relationships with friends and family, but especially my relationship with my husband. We’re completely absorbed in each other, and we probably have as close to a perfect marriage as you can get. About a month or two ago, in one of our late-night bedtime conversations, my husband confessed that one of his reservations about having a child is its unpredictable effect on our marriage. “I don’t want anything to get in the way of us. I want to give all my love to you.” In other words, “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?

Essentially, the point I’m making is that I don’t need your opinion, and I don’t need your approval. What I would like is your respect. I pride myself on making great choices; seriously, making wise decisions is one of my life skills at which I am most accomplished. If I decide never to have children, I do not need you to claim I’ve made the wrong choice, to warn me I’ll regret it, to assert that children are God’s greatest blessing, to argue that I don’t know what I’m missing, to feel bad for me, or to snidely say that if I feel this way, I shouldn’t be a mother anyhow. I know I would adore my children if I had them; contrary to popular belief, I think some kids are pretty amazing. I believe children deserve to be happy, healthy, safe, and loved. But there are also many qualities of children that I genuinely dislike, and it’s not a personal affront to you or the choice you made to have children, if you made that choice. I, however, believe that I can live a fulfilled life without children. They are not the “be-all and end-all” of my existence. At this point in my life, I have no valid reason to have a child, and I will not contribute to an overpopulated planet to satisfy others or to join the exclusive motherhood clique that so clearly expresses its distaste for pro-choicers like me.

I’d like to close by saying that it’s truly a shame that I felt compelled to justify my right to choose. No one ever asks women who do choose to have children to explain themselves. Let me play with this cliché for a moment: Parents love to say that “Parenting is the hardest job in the world.” So let’s talk about jobs. I’m an English teacher. No one has ever asked me why I didn’t become an accountant. We seem ready and willing to acknowledge that people are not cut out for certain jobs, and we don’t interrogate or judge them when they choose sales over politics. We respect others’ decisions and trust that they know who they are. So please, just give me a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You don’t have to refrain from your opinions, but please refrain from your comments, and respect yourself enough not to be offended by the choices I make, as they affect only my life.

In the words of Macklemore, “Live on, and be yourself.”

For related blogs and articles, please read the following:

To The Women Who Choose Not To Have Kids

http://www.salon.com/2014/02/11/9_reasons_not_having_kids_is_the_best_decision_i_ever_made_partner/

Childfree Adults Are Not “Selfish”

http://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/women-are-not-freaks-just-because-905131

http://joannagoddard.blogspot.com/2012/03/motherhood-mondays-one-reader-asks-im.html

http://joannagoddard.blogspot.com/2012/11/motherhood-mondays-would-you-ever.html

Childfree Adults Are Not “Selfish”

http://www.alternet.org/gender/why-not-having-kids-admirable-not-selfish

 

 

My Dissent

I think I’ve always been something of a dissenter. I have always been extremely opinionated and tenacious; in other words, I am not very easily influenced, I have never been one to succumb to “peer pressure,” and I form my views carefully, thoughtfully, and informedly over time. However, even as a youngster, I realized that my ideas about the world were often best left unexpressed, mostly because they went against the tenets of the fundamentalist church in which I grew up. My mother was my confidant, but my mother was also the one who taught me not to admit my thoughts to anyone else, especially people in church. I remember when I was about four-years-old, I was trying to wrap my head around the idea of eternity. After all, it was the center of everything I heard in church. We sang about it in worship and learned that if we strove toward perfection, our reward would be admission into heaven where we would do nothing but praise God for all eternity. The thought terrified me. “There HAS to be an end!” four-year-old me argued, almost pleaded, with my mother. I told her I was scared, that when I thought about eternity in heaven I got nauseous and did everything in my power to think of something else before it brought me to tears. In her typical, somewhat rebellious fashion, my mother did not try to comfort me by saying that eternity in heaven would be incomparable to this life; she didn’t reference the golden streets, or the mansion, or the tame lions. She said that she, too, was intimidated by the concept of eternity: “But don’t tell anyone else I said that!” I cannot begin to recall the many times over the years I expressed similar sentiments to my mother, and, every time, she would react the same way. She’d agree with me, tell me she couldn’t believe I was saying what I was because she had always thought the same thing but never spoken it out loud, and then caution me not to share with anyone else what we had discussed.

My views on mainstream issues (homosexuality, abortion, feminism) never quite aligned with the convictions of the church. I’d sit silently in a group of young people as they spewed the notions we had all been taught and supposedly all believed, knowing that if I dissented–even with a valid argument, even quoting scripture–I’d be in for it. I’d be accused of using my intellect; the ministry would chide me, saying that as an elder’s daughter I had a responsibility to be an example; some of my friends might stop talking to me. I held my tongue and usually left the group to join another conversation or find some peace and quiet in the bathroom. But thankfully, on Monday, I’d be back in school, where I was me. I could be a believer on my terms. I could wear my skirts and sit on my hair and still bash patriarchy. I could choose not to drink and party but still walk by a professor’s office with a sticker on the door of an upside-down rainbow triangle that said “Safe Zone” and smile to myself and think, “If I was a professor, I’d have that sticker on my door.” I could cry at The Laramie Project and adore women’s studies. Just don’t tell anyone in church.

Since my husband and I left the church in whose jurisdiction we lived for over two decades, he tells me I have become more confident and more vocal, and he’s right; but it took my whole life to realize that the people who love me will love me no matter what I believe or whom I defend, and those who thrive on being offended will find what I believe and whom I defend, and the choices I make and the words I give voice to, offensive. They’ll say that I’ve changed, and changed for the worse, as they say of anyone who has left the fold. But the thing is, I have always been me. I just couldn’t tell anyone about it.

Teaching: A Passion Realized

The following was written as an assignment for my Theories of Teaching Writing class in eary 2013, but it reads something like a blog. Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity. 

Anne-of-Green-Gables-The-Sequel2

 

As a child, my two heroines were literary characters who shared two distinct commonalities—they were both teachers and both staunchly independent. One, the ever-popular and feisty Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, represented everything I wished to be when I grew up—a strong-willed, dynamic woman whose passion for and devotion to English literature reflected the romantic at heart. The other, the lesser known Christy Huddleston of Catherine Marshall’s Christy, epitomized a similar ideal of indomitable spirit manifested in a life dedicated to her students. However, it was the Anne side of me that I most vigorously pursued up until my junior year of undergraduate studies; then, my desire to teach gradually became a realization.

My early childhood prepared me for entrance into the literati; my earliest memories of literacy are tied to my grandmother, the primary person who taught me to read by age four. She had four oversized Dick and Jane books that dated to the 60s and were falling apart after decades of use by her nursery school students, her children, and my brother and me. My grandmother kept these large books under the couch, and I’d frequently read through the yellowed pages and their short declarative sentences about the idyllic lives of Dick, Jane, and Spot. Later, when I began reading more than three-word sentences, one of my favorite things to read was a Sesame Street book entitled The Monster at the End of this Book. Little did I know that my grandmother was even preparing me for note-taking in the margins, as she left valuable lessons for my brother and me on the pages where something not-so-kid-friendly was happening. Over a picture of Grover holding a hammer, for instance, she wrote: “It’s not safe to play with Daddy’s tools!” I can pinpoint the origin of my deep love for reading and my insatiable desire for books, however, to the trips my mother and I would take to a local book warehouse, which had a sale nearly every month. The warehouse had a huge selection of Great Illustrated Classics, large-print abridged versions of great literature such as A Tale of Two Cities, Little Women, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Anne of Green Gables. Reading those books convinced me that, one day, I just had to be a writer.

Fully bedecked in bloomers, a bodice, and a hoop skirt in honor of Harriet Beecher Stowe, I proclaimed to my third grade class on career day, “I’m going to be an author when I grow up.” Not a teacher—never a teacher. I wasn’t enough of a people person. Besides, every other girl in my conservative church would grow up to be a teacher, and I was too talented for that, wasn’t I? No one I knew was like me—I was a modern day Anne Shirley, my beloved heroine, sans red hair. I was a voracious reader, and throughout my childhood education, I perused literature that was well beyond my grade level: Charlotte Brontë’s Villette at age twelve, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms at fourteen. As a homeschooler, I successfully completed two intensive English courses in my last year of high school in order to graduate two years ahead of schedule, and my homeschooling supervisor, an English major herself, declared that my papers were already college material. Thus, deciding to major in English in college was a no-brainer. But what to do, where to go from there? Acquaintances and pretentious relatives consistently bothered me with the question, “And what do you plan to do with a degree in English? Teach?” Well, of course! English couldn’t possibly be good for anything but that, I’d think sarcastically, but I’d gently answer, “No, I’d like to work in editing or publishing.” Not teaching—never teaching.

I maintained my anti-teaching stance throughout most of my undergraduate studies, but in my junior year when I needed a job and was offered a tutoring position in ESL, I didn’t think twice about seizing the opportunity. For a couple of hours a week, I spent one-on-one time with English language learners, conversing with them and assisting them in vocabulary development and the advancement of their writing skills. I loved the work but not necessarily because I was working with language; rather, I enjoyed getting to know my “students.” I loved that I became their “go-to” girl, that they could understand a concept as I explained it but not as their professors did. With one year of college left to go, I began to reconsider my plan. I did not want to move closer to Philadelphia or any other city where the publishing jobs might be; I did not want to work for a newspaper or magazine (I’d already had two years of experience in the field and hated it); maybe I would just advertise myself as a private tutor.

Before fall semester of my senior year commenced, the coordinator of my school’s writing center contacted me and, based on several recommendations from professors in the English department, offered me a tutoring position. Thus, my real training as a teacher of English began. I worked interactively with students to revise and proofread their assignments, attended various training sessions with my fellow writing tutors, created posters with helpful hints to hang on the writing center walls, developed and co-led workshops, and all the while, the students caressed my ego with feedback like, “Eleisha is my favorite tutor. I wish I could always work with her because she is easygoing and makes sense.” Still, what was I going to do? I couldn’t teach high school English—I did not take a single education class and had no hope of obtaining my Pennsylvania teacher’s certification. Plus, I had terrible stage fright. I had turned down at least a half dozen invitations to present my work at collegiate conferences simply because I could not bear the idea of speaking for fifteen minutes in front of an unfamiliar audience, so how could I ever teach in a classroom? No, no. Freelancing as a private tutor it would be!

By the time I graduated with my B.A., I had presented one research paper at a Women’s Studies conference, and, in that single action, I overcame my fear of public speaking. Throughout the summer, I continued to work in the writing center, but, as a college graduate, I could not work for the school past August. In October, however, my former supervisor at the writing center informed me of a part-time tutoring position available in the writing lab at Reading Area Community College. “This is it,” I thought. “My perfect job.” I even had ties to the school already, as I had completed my first two years of college at RACC, graduating with honors and even receiving the first-ever Humanities Division award. After submitting my resume and the necessary recommendations, I received a phone call to set up an interview. I was comfortable, confident—overconfident, in fact. One of my former professors, with whom I took several classes, met me at the door of the office where I would have my interview, and I would have aced the interview if it was one-one-one. Behind door number three, however, was not the prize I was hoping for. Five pairs of eyes, some familiar and some terrifyingly foreign to me, magnetized to my face, and my stage fright returned. I stumbled through the interview like a drunk trying to walk a straight line, and I didn’t care whether or not I got the job; I just wanted the experience to be over! When it finally was, my dear old professor walked me out and said, “You know, if this doesn’t work out (hint, hint), you should contact the Humanities Division dean. She’s looking for adjuncts for the spring semester.”

Thankfully, I was not surprised when I heard that “after a lot of consideration,” the panel had chosen another candidate for the tutoring job. I was almost relieved and immediately wrote an e-mail to the Humanities Division dean, who wrote back to me a day later to set up an interview. This time, I was prepared; after that horrible inquisition by the five-fold panel, I had something to prove. After inviting me into her office, the Humanities dean told me, “Well, I didn’t ask for recommendations because I already have them from your former professors. All I want to know if what kind of classes you’re interested in teaching.” Teaching. The career I had wanted to avoid was now embracing me. I even got to choose what I wanted to teach: Basic Writing I, a developmental writing course with a heavy focus on grammar and paragraph and essay structure, and Composition and Literature. Two days before Thanksgiving, I got a job as a teacher, a job that has proven to be more exciting and rewarding than any I had ever dreamed of. And it made sense, because Anne Shirley was a teacher, too.

When I finally began teaching, I honestly did not give much thought to what kind of instructor I wanted to be or what teaching style I wanted to employ. Years spent with various educators had already molded a teaching persona that revealed herself during my first semester. Undoubtedly, I was influenced by my mother, who homeschooled me off and on from age four to sixteen. Early in my homeschooling years, my mom trashed the A Beka curriculum, which essentially professed that Europeans were so benevolent in their conversion of Native Americans to Christianity, and drilled students in the diagramming of sentences. Instead, my mother and I built our own interdisciplinary curriculum. To learn about the Middle Ages, I built a model of a monastery, we cooked a family dinner from a medieval cookery recipe book, I created my own versions of illuminated texts, and we read relevant historical fiction from the Royal Diaries series. To learn vocabulary and spelling, we used Reader’s Digest vocabulary lists; to learn parts of speech, we played Mad Libs, a game I now bring into the classroom to reinforce parts of speech with my developmental writing students. Since students seem to learn best in a hands-on environment, as I did, I have tried to keep my students active in writing class. Besides being active in-class writers, however, my students are participants in discussions and group activities, such as games that emphasize writing in complete sentences and those that encourage both creative and critical thinking.

What I learned most about being a good teacher, however, I learned from my favorite literature professor—a friend, mother figure, and real-life heroine—in college. Dr. Gilliams frequently digressed from the day’s agenda; our class would get lost in deep discussions about education, marriage, power, common sense, love, prejudice, and hypocrisy, and not necessarily in relation to our assigned readings. She constantly welcomed students into her office just to talk. One could often see multiple students in there at once, some even sitting on the floor or on her desk. Dr. Gilliams was real with her students. She admonished us when necessary; she challenged us to take our thinking and our writing one step further, always prompting us with the simple question “Why?” She treated us like adults and forced us to take responsibility; she loved us, but she never held our hands. My friends and I still write to her and talk about her; when we have positive classroom experiences, we refer to them as “TG” (Teresa Gilliams) moments. In true TG manner, I treat my students like the adults they are, or should be, and if in the end they fail the class, I know that they will respect me enough, for the respect I showed them, to still greet me with a “Hi! How are you? It’s good to see you!” and a smile when I pass them in the hallway.

Despite her digression in the classroom, my peers and I learned more from Dr. Gilliams than from any other professor. She exemplified that teaching is not always about the literature or the writing; it’s about the people—the students. So yes, I teach writing, and I try to make it exciting and interactive; I let my students choose their own essay topics and write multiple drafts. But to me, teaching is about being there for my students. It’s about working extra with Darryl, the disabled father of three, who had only one more chance to pass Basic Writing I to move forward toward his dream of opening a bakery. It’s about encouraging Marshall, the recovering drug addict, to keep coming back because he is a sensitive writer with great potential. It’s about being a friend and mentor to Alice, the nearly friendless but overwhelmingly compassionate teen who wants to dedicate herself as an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing. It’s about Jonathan, the fabulously gifted 68-year-old narrative writer who wants to create documentaries. It’s about A.J., the struggling Christian who wanted to know how to find the love of his life. And it’s about Joshua, the perspicacious, cynical, and incredibly creative young man who couldn’t tell his parents he was gay.

How strange that I never wanted to be a teacher, that I did not think I was enough of a “people person.” I would not want to be or do anything else, as long as I maintain my perspective and do not become jaded like so many teachers I have known; in other words, I do not want to overlook a truth my vulnerable student is finally revealing because I am too appalled by a misspelled word. To teach someone to write is to teach someone to express him- or herself. I do not want my red pen to stifle that expression. Thanks to my teaching role-models, both literary and living, my goal in every class is to gain my students’ respect and trust to provide them with an outlet, writing, through which they can finally, finally communicate honestly with someone who will not judge them.