TFA Story of Self
Disclaimer: I think this is really quite awful, if anyone has any suggestions please let me know before I have to read it aloud to other humans.
When people hear the name of my town— “Ashtabula,” they tend to immediately believe that I live on a farm. In fact, the reality is almost the exact opposite. Ashtabula is a Lake Erie town, where kids spend the summer roaming Walnut Beach and walking the break wall, the fall exploring gorges and visiting apple farms, and the winter going from their homes to Walmart and back again. Contrary to the ideal reality of farm livin’, I’ve never lived farther than ten feet from the house next door, and it’s normal to hear the day-to-day business of our ever-changing neighbors. My neighborhood is far from the nicer lakeside Harbor areas of Ashtabula, located on the West Side of town, in what many consider the bad side of town. Our family has always been poor, kept afloat by the work of my single mother. But we have persevered.
My brother, Shane, is three years older than me. In most ways, Shane is the opposite of me, and a glimpse into his life is possibly the easiest way to understand how I could have been different as a 22 year old. To truly picture him, call upon images of Christopher McCandless, the famed vagrant from Into the Wild, but remove the elite education and upper middle class background. Currently, he is taking part in a program called “WWOOF,” where he volunteers his time in organic farms in return for food and shelter. He was a “C or worse” student throughout school, skipped class entirely most days, and graduated to become a serial fast-food or convenience store worker. I always thought that he was smarter than me, but he was never able to get a handle on the overbearing force called, ‘The Man.’ Where I have always been able to fall in line with society’s demands, Shane rebelled adamantly. The greatest happiness that he found was in learning a new instrument— he has been self-taught the guitar, harmonica, bass guitar, drums, and stand-up bass. Most of the past 8 years since graduating high school, Shane has traveled the country, played in multiple different punk rock bands, and fulfilled the majority of his dreams. Personally, I think that “WWOOFing” is Shane’s natural calling— exploring the wilderness, working with his hands, traveling and meeting other ‘deep souls’ who are connected with the Earth rather than with normal society, while being able to play an acoustic guitar under a sky full of stars every night. In his unlimited freedom and endless raw talent, I will always envy Shane. His story will always be more dangerously interesting than mine, but his path was never my own.
I began this through the lens of my brother because the easiest way to tell the story of my life is to tell the story of those who surrounded me as I grew to be the woman that I am today. When I look back on the primary obstacle that I overcame, poverty, I pause when trying to uncover the underlying reason that I emerged as a statistical success. The trajectory of my own fortune happened altogether subconsciously, as if I knew as a young child that certain stepping stones were necessary in order for me to reach above the expectations that society afforded me. My brother was my greatest idol, but I never followed in his footsteps, opting for stories of the honor roll rather than crazed weekends spent in pitch black woods. Yet despite my insistence on following the path of collegiate success, the call of the wild has always enraptured me. In order to quell this thirst of adventure, instead of turning to vagrancy and dangerous teenage expeditions, I developed an insatiable hunger for literature at a very young age. If I can attribute any one thing to my overall success in life, it is my love for reading that emerged at a very young age, and ultimately allowed me to participate in the gifted programs of an otherwise unsatisfactory school district.
Through my literary travels, I gained an unending love for the author Kurt Vonnegut, whose work guided me to cast aside many of the chips on my shoulder that had, in many ways, subverted my happiness. In his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut repeatedly uses the term, “So it Goes,” to punctuate the aftermath of particularly deep questions of life, death, and morality. This three word mantra has transformed my perspective and realism in life, particularly regarding the painful memories of my childhood and beyond. “So it Goes” has allowed me to fully accept the realities of the past and present, and continue looking towards a bright and distant future.
When I entered college, I was astounded by the different histories and backgrounds that all of my fellow CWRU students had experienced. Yet, it was particularly difficult to discover that the vast majority of the students that I had befriended came from upper-middle class families. One of the most poignant memories of my first few months of college comes from a time that I was with three of my friends, who were looking at a website that displayed the worth of their houses— most of which were between $500,000 and $1,000,000. One of the boys was ashamed that his family home was at the lower end of the spectrum, insisting that they were going to sell it soon. As I watched them use the website, shame engulfed me and I awkwardly fled from the room before they could ask to look up my own home, the value of which may not have reached $40,000, and worse, that my mom rented. The experience of being surrounded by highly privileged students in many ways sheltered me as an individual more than I had ever been. Speaking of my own experiences and background was often met with disbelief by my fellow students, who assumed that I also came from a two-parent, middle class background. Furthermore, the lack of shared experiences between the lives and outlooks of my fellow students continuously surprised and upset me. For example, I was one of the few students unafraid of riding the Healthline to Downtown Cleveland, because I had been accustomed to the type of unique individuals who frequented public transportation in my own neighborhood, while many of my close friends shied away in abject fear of the people that they might hypothetically encounter. Overwhelmingly, the consistency of these interactions led to a complete overhaul of my dreams and aspirations. When I entered college, I had hoped to be an anthropologist who would explore the far reaches of the world and advocate for worldwide change. By the time I left, I had become fully committed to America’s own poor, disenfranchised, undesired, and seemingly forgotten individuals. Although my increased knowledge of social inequalities was a large driver in this passion, it was also ingrained in my experiences with people who were unaccustomed to the trials and tribulations of poverty in America, and those who discounted both the struggles and beauty of the people living just across a bridge from themselves.
I have had a difficult past, and I often suffer from a very difficult present. In the words of my hero, “So it goes.” It is objectively incorrect to perceive the successes of my life as reaching a confirmed and defined conclusion, but some definite ends have come to pass that I can take pride in. I am the first person in the entire history of my family to graduate college, and I am currently on my way to becoming a teacher in a prestigious program, and to reach potentially greater heights than I was ever able to imagine. Through my acceptance of my past, I have now been able to own up to what I have experienced, and use it to fuel my commitment to the future. I realize that my story pales in comparison to many others, particularly the urban youth of Cleveland, but the shame of my shame will continue to guide me. My heart yearns to commit itself to helping students find their path through a love of education, and empower them to combat the societal inequalities which bog their hopes and dreams. I was not born on a farm, and I never had an easy life, but I hope that I can spend the next few years helping others find within them what I was able to find. A future, and an adventure, of their own.