*An essay every Friday in 2016*
I sometimes go back to the Columbia University campus when I’m going through shifts in my life. I don’t do it purposely. I just end up there, sitting on the Low Library steps, or “the steps” as we called it back when I was a student in the mid 90s. I went there the day I handed in my resignation to my editing job back in 2010, and then again three months later, on May 28th, the last day of work, after too many vodka cranberries at a bar a few blocks from campus.
I went there a few days after I finished my first novel in 2005. And then not a year later when I left my daughter’s father.
I went there when I decided to create the Writing Our Lives Workshop. In fact, it was on the steps that I wrote out the first outline to the class and my mission statement.
I sit on the steps and stare (and sometimes sneer) at Butler Library across the quad, at the all white, all male names across the face of Butler. Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Demosthenes… I stare at the fountains, shut off during the winter, spouting water during the warmer months. I stare at the grass and the people who walk through and around. I remember thinking how deceiving the view was. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think CU was actually diverse. So many people from so many places, with so many different skin colors and genders and styles of dress and ways of carrying themselves, walk through College Walk. You learn quickly as a student, when you’re the one black or brown face in class, that Columbia is not diverse; that those people walking through campus are not students, perhaps they’re walking through to get to their jobs or appointments at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital on Amsterdam, or wherever it is they’re heading. I can’t count how many times I was mistaken for an employee on campus. A maintenance worker or someone working for food services. Never a student. How could I, a brown girl from Bushwick, Brooklyn, be a student at one of the most prestigious universities in the country?
I was sitting on the steps one day last spring, writing in my journal about what I don’t know when I heard a voice I hadn’t heard in well over a decade. It was my homie Joe from my CU days. So many of my memories from college include him; many of them are scandalous and reek of beer and vodka and chronic. We hugged each other tight and he introduced me to his brother in law and now teenage daughter. We caught up and talked about our lives. He’d eventually gone back to business school and now was some sort of executive in a financial firm.
“Do you still write?” I asked.
He looked down at my journal, which was now sitting face down on the steps. He smiled his enormous, signature smile, that got him so much ass at CU (except mine), and said, “Nah, that was a pipe dream, V. I have kids and a mortgage.” He pointed at his daughter. His high school sweetheart had gotten pregnant with her during their first year in college. He was on campus to give his daughter a tour as she was considering applying. “I’m giving her the insider tour,” he said.
“Do you miss it?” I asked. “The writing, I mean.”
He shrugged. “Sometimes…”
When I told him I am now a writer and writing teacher, his eyes grew wide. “You’re a writer?”
I laughed. “Quite a bit, actually.”
He nodded and smiled. “Of course you are.”
Joe was a private school scholarship kid, like me, except he did Prep for Prep and stayed in the city. We’d had many a conversation about the experience, the good and the bad, what that shit did to us. Staying in the city had fucked him up in a unique way. He had to travel every day to that wealthy, white world where privilege and old money sat at the table with him, walked the halls, reminding him constantly that he didn’t have that kind of prestige and he didn’t deserve it. He went back home every day to East Harlem where his disabled mom collected welfare and the food stamps were never enough to feed them for the entire month.
“I had to get the fuck out,” he said. When he said this, he nodded east, beyond Morningside Park toward East Harlem, where he learned the hard lessons of poverty.
He eventually moved his mom out too.
We all have very different definitions of success and what it means “to make it.”
In the Fall 1993 Paris Review The Art of Fiction edition, Toni Morrison was interviewed by Elissa Schappell. Elissa asked: You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?
Morrison responded: No one. What I needed permission to do was succeed at it.
Permission to succeed…
I thought about my mother’s text last week. She said she couldn’t support me in my decision to be with my love. She said she loves me, but can’t support me. I reeled. Then my partner brought me back, reminding me, “Look at everything you’ve done without her support.”
I applied to boarding school initially without telling her. I had made up my mind already to leave her house, with or without her permission. I was going to get out, no matter what, either the right way by going away to school, or the wrong way by running away.
I didn’t run decisions by her after I left. I was only 13 but I knew that’s what I had to do. I still marvel at that girl who saved her own life.
It was my decision to go to Columbia University. My mother was pissed. She didn’t want me to come back to NY. It didn’t matter that it was an Ivy League. She never gave me money for tuition or food or anything. At my graduation dinner, when I told her I wasn’t going to law school, she told me I wasn’t going to do shit with my life.
When I quit my job back in 2010, I was nervous to tell her. I already knew I was taking an enormous risk. I already knew it wasn’t practical or “smart” by her standards or anyone’s, really, who relies on stability and security and knowing what their lives (and bank accounts) will look like in six months. We were on the street in upper Manhattan when I told her. I was walking her to the train after dinner at my aunt’s house. It was early spring. The traffic on Broadway whizzed by.
“Ma, I quit my job.” I explained what I wanted to do—teach and write full time.
She side eyed me while I explained. Her lips pursed, forehead tight. “Y Vasia?” she asked.
“My daughter will be fine. She has insurance with her dad.”
I didn’t tell her I didn’t have a Plan B. I didn’t tell her that I had no savings, nothing to fall back on. I didn’t tell her I hadn’t lined up any work.
She looked at me then off to the traffic and the forest canopy of Fort Tryon Park. The trees were just beginning to blossom. She looked back at me. “Bueno, si yo se algo de tí, es que cuando tu dices que vas hacer algo, tu lo haces…” It was the most encouraging thing she’s ever said to me. And she’s right, when I make a decision, I do it. I don’t let anything get in my way.
A few years back, after quitting my job, I was talking to a man I was seeing about the financial sacrifice I was making. I was scared and worried. I had maybe $100 in the bank and my bills were piling up. I thought he of all people would get it. He too was a writer—a poet. He too had sacrificed so much to live his dream. He’d quit college. He’d thrown himself into the poetry circuit. He too was a teaching artist. I was sure he’d understand.
He shook his head and put his glass of whiskey down and stared at me across the table. “When you quit your job, I wanted to tell you that you shouldn’t do that, but I didn’t.”
I winced and felt my stomach lurch like it does on that first huge drop on a rollercoaster ride. I fell a little out of love with him that day. It was downhill from there.
My mother never let me forget that my sister was smarter than me. “Tu hermana no tiene que estudiar,” she’d say. And my sister would look at me and smirk, knowingly. I had to stay up late into the night, studying for exams and writing papers, while my sister breezed through school. Yes, we both did well but I had to work hard for it.
The other day, my mother told me again, this time on the phone, “Tu sabes que tu hermana siempre fue la mas inteligente, pero que ha hecho con esa inteligencia? Nada.” She was referring to my sister finishing high school but never going on to college. My sister had her son at seventeen but she still graduated on time, thanks to my mom who stayed with her son while my sister went to night school. Mom later told me she quit school so my sister could go to college but my sister didn’t. She never went to college or trade school despite my mother harassing her about it. Instead my sister started working. She worked in the retail industry for years and now works as a store manager for a BJ’s type store in New Jersey. She works long, backbreaking hours, comes home to swollen feet, back pain that’s required surgery, and migraines that take her out. Still, my sister insists that she hated school. That she’s not the school type, but I remember something different. I remember the girl who wrote Harlequinnesque-type novels with a Latino flavor when she was a preteen and teen. I remember sneaking up to her top bunk to read those books. I remember the care she put into her notebooks and bookbag. I remember a girl who loved school. I wonder if my sister convinced herself that she wasn’t that to ease the sting of not having continued on with her schooling.
In a professional development training a few years ago, I learned about studies done on children who had to work hard to do well versus those who didn’t have to do so, those who were “naturally intelligent” for lack of better phrasing.
It was found that the students who studied hard went further because they learned how to study. They learned how to deal with academic challenges and how to overcome them early on, so they weren’t taken out or discouraged when they were confronted by them.
“Naturally intelligent” children are those who don’t have to study as hard. They’re the ones who get the lessons easily. Who skate through school without breaking a sweat. Who rock out exams and projects with ease. These students, when confronted with difficult projects later on in their academic careers, often face a level of discouragement that the other students do not. They do not learn the necessary skills to overcome this discouragement. They haven’t learned how to study and do the work, so they are more likely to give up.
I thought of my sister when I read about these studies. I thought about how I had to stay up nights and study hard to get the good grades that I got. I thought about how she skated through school and how I was the one that ended up going to college and on to this writing career that’s challenging and still so very fulfilling, that I bust my ass to live.
I think about my sister and how hard she works now. She owns a home and makes good money and takes pride in that, but I’m not always sure she’s really happy with her life. Content? Yes. Happy, I’m not so sure. If she was, she wouldn’t always be ready to flip out on people. I’ve seen her chase a car in a parking lot because she said he got too close to her. I’ve had to drag my sister away from people because I know her next step is to swing on that person. She’s smaller than me and feisty as fuck, and she always had more heart than me. My sister would take on Attila the Hun if he came at her. She doesn’t think about getting her ass kicked. She goes for hers and walks away with her head up, even if her face is scratched up and bloodied. Her ego remains intact because she stood up for herself.
I think about my boy Joe. Writing came easier for him back then. Me? I had to bust my ass over the years to get to a place where I believe in my work enough to share it with the world.
I think about this student I had a few years back when I worked at a high school in the South Bronx. This student was ill with the pen. He wrote poetry with an ease that I envied. Everything I read of his was riddled with metaphors and similes that would make the greatest poets tremble. The problem? The kid had too much ego. It was almost effortless how well he wrote so I don’t think he learned to value it. When I checked on him, asking how his writing was going, he’d tell me about the latest book he was writing. When I asked to read something, he told me he’d send it but he never did. It was pompous, yes, but I know this kid also suffered from serious abandonment issues. He was a crack baby and his mother left him with her mother and never returned. She died while he was in high school and he hadn’t seen her in years. He was being raised by an anciana who he felt he had to help support so he’d gone out to sell drugs to do that. I tried to show him that he had other options but that’s tough when you have these dealers around you, driving BMWs and Denalis, telling you you could have that too. The last I heard of him, he had dropped out of college and was working but wouldn’t tell me where. I’ve never seen any of his books. He unfriended me because he said I gave more love to another student who graduated with him and I had adopted as my surrogate daughter. She’s an academic struggler, like me, and she has to work her ass off to write well, to find the metaphors that capture what it is we’re trying to say.
She graduated college with a degree in English and minor in Creative Writing. She moved to Florida and is now trying to build a community for herself out there. She’s still writing.
What I’m saying is that I’ve never needed permission to write or do what I’ve done, taken the risks that I have to do this work. The permission I’ve sought to succeed didn’t come from the people I sought them from. They came from unlikely places, like my students and my daughter.
I still remember that first time I overheard my daughter telling her friend “my mom’s a writer” with such pride in her voice, I knew for sure I was her hero.
I go back to that day often. That right there was all the permission I needed…