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On Being Reminded of Who You Are

When I was a sophomore in high school I was hospitalized. Three days of intense medication and they couldn’t break my headache, so they gave up, sent me home and told me it would take a long time for me to be rehabilitated. At the time I was class president, I was in all honors classes, and I had the kind of social life that most of my peers at Stanford envied in high school. Underneath all of this, however, I was breaking apart and that was clear to the few friends who watched me issue orders from my bed and bath, which happened right around the same time I discovered John Paul Marat.

So one day, I got up and forged my mom’s signature, she had taught me to do this because she worked nights and needed someone to remember to sign school documents. I forged her signature on a document that gave permission to my illiterate sister’s boyfriend to enroll me in school. My mom was at work and besides; she didn’t want me on independent study (how would that look to Berkeley?). I got on the bus, in torrential downpour, got lost and walked in the rain to the charter I ultimately graduated from. And over two and a half years, I recovered. I was never fully felt well, I was always sick, but I reached a point where my good days outnumbered my bad days.

I found out I got into Berkeley from my grandmother’s couch where I was recovering from a bout of pleurisy, the next day I found out that I got into Stanford, still bed-ridden. This was the healthiest I had ever been and I had learned how to maintain my health with relatively few interventions. I worked when I could work and I slept when I could sleep and the work I produced was by all accounts brilliant, or at least good enough to get me into Stanford without any help. I wrote my essays about the old man on bus who was missing an arm and leg and who wheeled himself onto the bus and spread good cheer. I wrote how I had overcome abuse. I wrote about how I loved the intersection of philosophy and history and about the influence of the Hegelian dialectic. I talked about my love of science and astronomy. I wrote about how sick I was but about how much I loved learning. I wrote about how my community was beautiful in all its diversity.

And I never once questioned if I could do the work at Stanford. Indeed, there was no reason to do so, I graduated with an incredibly high GPA, nearly fluent in Chinese and the President of a student group that I was instrumental in founding that has fundamentally changed the way class is talked about at Stanford. I produced theater projects, had become known for being a particularly delightful dinner guest and wrote research. I was never any healthier than I was in high school. Senior year of college, three deaths came in rapid succession and not long after the stress got to me and I began suffering from horrific headaches that left me bedridden for a good portion of the year. I was burnt out, frustrated, and too sick to be motivated. My undergraduate advisor, the same one who had told me as a wide-eyed sophomore that he was only interested in being my advisor if that meant research, told me to go home and stop worrying about my honors thesis. I stayed because my mom needed me to finish that year, but I dropped my honors thesis.

I sometimes think about the way that my health and education held me back. Would I have done science if my math background hadn’t been so poor? Would I have done more if I weren’t so sick? These questions haunted me as I entered my masters. The dean of the school of Ed asked why I was there, when the head of STEP tried to kick me out for my illnesses. “You should be doing research. Why aren’t you in a PhD? You are an intellectual.” I thought I had a good practical answer but I didn’t. I wasn’t in my PhD because I had stopped believing in myself. I wasn’t doing research because I had been unwilling to take the time to mourn and grieve and heal. I wasn’t because I had somehow lost all sense of who I was. My time in teaching only served to reinforce that.

I had been isolated from my home for so long that I forgot one of the most important lessons my stepdad had taught me. When we were kids chores were divided by ability. I watched the kids, my older sister kept the house clean. I got straight As and was sick so I was excused from chores except childcare. Once this happened, my health improved. For each of us there was a place, and a role. My mom reminded me that every member of the community is needed to function. Each of our parents acted in different capacities. My friend’s mom took me to the SATs and did my hair for every dance. My mom threw fits in front of the people with authority when she the authority figures were trying to oppress us. My fiancé’s mom made sure people could get where they needed go. Each of us in a place; each of us had an essential and valued role.

It is always interesting to me when people ask if my family somehow treats me better than my siblings because I’m the accomplished one. I’ve tried to explain to people why that could never be the case, but I often fail. My parents are incredibly proud of me, but they don’t treat me as though I am more worthy as a human being and I don’t treat my siblings that way either. When I got to Stanford I heard people tell me horrible stories about students bullying the special education students in high school. This was foreign to me. We would have never done that. We saw those students as part of our community. Just as I see my friends who have worked hard and raised their kids in jobs most Stanford students would be embarrassed to hold as part of the community. Each of us is equally valuable and worthy. Each of us is a human being.

And so, in the last few years as my health has deteriorated, I’ve had to come back to a lesson I already knew. Teaching is just not the way I can contribute. It is not the way I NEED to contribute. This doesn’t make me better or worse and I am grateful for those who can contribute in this way because we need them. But it is not the way I need to contribute. And that is ok, beautiful even, because the really beautiful thing about humanity, about existence, is all the incredible ways of being.

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