A Survivor’s Thoughts on 13 Reasons Why

I’m what you’d call a survivor. I’ve lost multiple family members and friends to suicide. I’ve had three major depressive episodes in my life where I contemplated suicide. Here are my thoughts on the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

We’ve all witnessed shocking, gruesome things on television. I always turned my head during rape scenes, but I used to love gory scenes. After my first loss to suicide, these scenes began to trigger me. I first noticed this when I started crying uncontrollably during the movie “Cocktail,” after a character sliced his own throat. If someone even puts a gun to their head, I have flashbacks of my loved one putting the gun in his mouth, his final thoughts, and the mess he left in the bathroom. I wasn’t there, but as a symptom of my post-traumatic stress disorder, I imagined it, every day, for months after his suicide. The destruction of suicide loss is so encompassing, it can result in PTSD.

I was one of the many who was triggered by 13 Reasons Why, but I chose to watch both seasons. There was a time where I needed to avoid these triggers, but I am at the point in my healing where I am able to face my fears. I am attempting to examine my feelings rather than dissociate or numb them with alcohol and drugs.

I felt strong enough to watch it, and I felt even stronger after.

I thought they got a lot wrong in Season 1. They didn’t talk much about mental illness, when 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness. It’s targeted toward impressionable teens. My high school students, who are no strangers to trauma, watch this show and may not understand what they are seeing. It’s horrifyingly graphic at times, and some believe it glorifies mental illness and suicide. Many argue the show never should’ve been made because of “copycats” and suicide contagion.

If a few hours of television can raise such a high alarm, perhaps there’s a deeper problem.

We all have feelings of depression, anxiety, many of us face traumas. These experiences are especially confusing as children and teens. We might not know we need help, I didn’t know I needed help as a high schooler. I believed I wasn’t raped, I believed the rumors like everybody else. I got drunk, so it was my own fault when I woke up with two of my “friends” inside me on my fourteenth birthday.

Nobody, not even my own friends, told me what happened to me was wrong, that it wasn’t my fault. No one ever told me that it happens to others, that my feelings were normal, when it’s time to ask for help. Instead, we all suffer in silence because we’re too afraid of being judged and persecuted. Meanwhile, the person sitting next to you may be going through the same thing. Rape and domestic violence victims, mental illness and addiction sufferers, we shouldn’t feel forced into silence because we fear stigma.

We go to art and the internet for answers, then blame it for coming up short. When we are the ones, educators, families, friends, who are falling short.  

Despite its shortcomings, I think there were some improvements in season 2. Both seasons emphasized the guilt and devastation we all feel as a loss of suicide, but season 2 also showed the anger that comes with suicide loss. If you’ve lost someone to suicide, you know how deep and complicated the grief process is. You miss them and you want to talk to them but only so you can scream at them for being so selfish and leaving you behind. They spoke a little more about mental illness, especially PTSD. It reminded me that I’m not alone, that others go through worse and survive it, most of the time. If they can do it so can I.

It showed me that my feelings shouldn’t isolate me from others, but bring me closer to them, because unfortunately, these horrors are a part of humanity too.

Whether the creators’ intentions were for shock value or to start a dialogue, it did both. While parts of it were too real and others not real enough, some of it may be so nauseating that we have to turn away, these atrocities happen, in real life.

We turn our heads, in real life too, when we refuse to talk about it.

“On average, there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States,”  according to RAINN.org. Hazing is still a popular form of sexual assault in high school, college, and the military. 44,965 Americans die by suicide each year.

We might not be ready to see this, to face the disgraceful reality of humanity, but if you can, you should. You should watch it for yourself, and watch it for. the people who can’t, for the people who are imprisoned by their minds, stuck in a cycle of reliving their traumas every day. Then you should talk about it. Talk about your experiences, talk about suicide and mental illness and addiction and rape to whoever will listen. Do it for yourself, but do it also for the people who can’t, for the people who had their voices stolen from them. Hopefully one day, they’ll be able to speak again.

By talking about it we can transform our preconceived notions of a rape victim from a “drunk slut” to the prom queen, and people with mental illnesses from society’s recluses, to your neighbor, your friend, or you. The #MeToo movement and shows like 13 Reasons Why have both ignited a long overdue dialogue, and has given victims control over that dialogue. The exposure of these tragedies has empowered victims.

The road to social justice is long and winding, but it begins when we refuse to accept the current state.

“I’m the one writing this”-Amanda Palmer and Jasmine Power

Victim to Victor

Each day I get to know myself a little better, almost too well. I learn things no one wants to know about themselves.

No one wants to look into the mirror and see all your demons staring back.

I master the language of my body, every ache, every pain, every gurgle in my stomach gets acknowledged. I start to wait on her hand and foot, all day long I aim to please none but she…me.

I form a routine around pampering myself, eating right, sleeping enough, drinking plenty of water, the simple things I never gave any thought to. I take long hot showers, sorry California drought, and no one yells at me for belting opera, sorry neighbors.

Ironically, when you’re so focused on survival, you tend to ignore the basics.

I’ve spent so much of my life trying to please others, but I quickly discover pleasing yourself is just as hard. I was so focused on other’s needs, I never took the time to explore my own. Maybe I’ve distracted myself with other people’s problems so I wouldn’t have to face mine. Or maybe I thought what I needed was their love, their approval when what I really needed was my love, my approval.

Either way, it took me 25 years to realize that my thoughts, my feelings, they matter.

I follow the cracks in my relationships and they all lead back to me. I’m not the easiest person to be intimate with if I’m intimate at all. My moods consist of high highs, low lows, and very little in between. I’m a victim of my biology, as are we all. Each month I fall prey to my womanhood. My hormones, like the tide, roll in and out in accordance with the moon. I am merely a vessel, trying to make my way in one piece. With no one else to argue with, I drive myself mad. Forced to walk the earth in tandem for the rest of our life, we agree to make peace. I notice the warning signs.

Every cramp, every crave, every mood swing, calls for extra tenderness.

It’s not just my hormones out to get me and everyone in my wake, it’s my nerves too. I’m always on edge, prepared for the villain lurking around every corner. I trust no one. I pace back and forth, I tap my fingers on my knees, TA-TA-TA-TA-TA. My teeth chatter when I’m not cold, and sometimes an invisible horse sits on my chest. I didn’t know that was called anxiety until I moved to LA, and started showing myself the attention I deserve. For the first time, I can describe my emotions, put names on my feelings, speak my thoughts without breaking down.

I was in denial for many years that I had a mental illness. Even as I type those words, I feel there must be some mistake. When I was 11 I got my first diagnosis, Major Depressive Disorder. They medicated me and when the medication didn’t work, they piled diagnoses on me, drug atop drug. They took a kid with little to no self-worth, told her she is crazy, and that she’ll have to take pills for the rest of her life to feel even halfway human. After years of psychiatrist appointments, adverse reactions, and hospitalizations, I got off the medication.

Ever since that experience, I’ve been desperately trying to convince myself that “I’M FINE,” as I slowly suffocate under the weight of my shame. In order to protect myself from the side effects of labels and stigma, I’d fooled myself into believing I had healed my traumas, and that all of my problems were external.

But there’s no one to blame 3,000 miles from home.

I still have PTSD, I still have depression. It’s not something you just “get over,” despite the rumors you might’ve heard. Everything I do is motivated by fear and self-doubt.

The scars of my past, both physical and mental, are visible in every aspect of my personality.

I read an article before I moved to LA, called “Moving to California Won’t Make You Happy,” and now I finally understand it. Living in paradise is a blessing, but true happiness comes from within.

I came out here to escape my past, but you can’t run from yourself. Your past is a part of you, embedded in your DNA. The story of your life is written in your physiology. You can’t escape it, but you can overcome it. Not by running from it, but by facing it head-on. Instead of pretending they don’t exist or hiding from them in the dark, stare those demons down. Stand up to them, let them know you are the force to be feared.

Send them running for their lives, so you can start to live yours.

Black Painting I by Cecily Brown

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

City of Misfits

It’s a stereotypical Southern California day, not a single cloud blemishes an electric blue sky. Her intoxicating beauty seems to stretch infinitely in all directions. I try to capture this moment with a selfie, but the wind keeps whipping my hair and slapping me in the face. I step into the icy water and it burns my feet. I sink into the ground with each wave, the coarse sand massages and exfoliates my feet. I walk deeper and deeper into the water and leap in.

I get sucked under, flip upside down, and sometime while my knees are dragging along the bottom of the ocean, I get de-pantsed. She doesn’t ask, she just takes what she wants. I surrender my control, and she lets me up for air. I watch kids conquer with ease the same vicious sea that so effortlessly had their way with me.

I see two large fins appear and disappear into the water a few feet from me. I scream and start racing back to shore. “SHARKS!” I yell to my friend and to other swimmers.

“They’re dolphins,” she says, “Sharks don’t swim in packs.”

Everyone can tell I’m an outsider, but no one cares.

I navigate my way through the city. I walk fast, even though I have no idea where I’m going, and start cursing out the slow walkers ahead of me, in my mind of course. I get so impatient with this city. I want her to speed up, but she needs me to slow down. In New York, everyone walks like they know exactly where they’re going. In LA, they walk like drifters, destinations unknown. Their eyes gaze in all directions, soaking up her beauty.  

I am chronically lost, but it’s okay. We’re all lost here.

I learn the rules of this strange and foreign land. I learn there are no rules. You don’t have to fit inside any boxes in order to be accepted here. In fact, they seem to prefer you spill out of every border. The more you stand out, the better.

It’s a place for the misfits.

The people out here are a strange breed indeed. Beautiful creatures, crafted by the hands of God and plastic surgeons. I go from a NY 9 to an LA 5. In NY, I was rarely the smartest person in the room, but often the prettiest. In LA, I am usually the smartest, but never the prettiest. I’m not saying people here are ignorant, I’m just saying they value different subject areas. Californians paid strict attention in health class, New Yorkers in history and English. Your LA friends tell you about this spiritual experience they had while meditating over some exotic superfood you’ve never heard of. Your NY friends will get into a philosophical debate with you, as you split a bottle of whiskey.  

In NY, I could get away with being reserved and awkward because no one talked to me but here people are different. People ask me how my day is going, they try to pry into my private life. When strangers talk to me, my natural reaction is to pretend I don’t hear them.

It’s my first time at Griffith Observatory. I admire the statues of history’s favorite misfits: Einstein, Copernicus, Galileo. I think about how it must have felt with so much to say and no one who wants to listen, hell-bent on changing a world who’d prefer to stay the same. I look through a telescope and see Saturn’s rings and they whisper,

Anything is possible.

I’m staring down into the city, mesmerized by her twinkling lights. I hear a man’s voice utter something and snap out of my trance. The handsome young man next to me is smiling at me.  I look back at him puzzled, then walk away. Was he talking to me? I turn around and extend my hand to him. “I’m Vera,” I say, then walk away again.

Griffith Observatory September 2015

After several months I learn the tongue of the natives, the slang, the social etiquette.  I meet people everywhere, I get their Instagram and never see them again. We might make plans a few times but every time they bail at the last minute.

I get invited to a birthday party and the girl cancels her own party at the last minute. She tells me as I’m on my way to her house. She says it’s because she barbequed earlier today and she’s exhausted. I’m like, you’re a yoga teacher, can’t you just balance your chakras or something? Also, I’m drinking your birthday present!

I wonder why this keeps happening, so naturally, I ask Google. I only type, “Why are people flakey…” and Google asks if I mean

“Why are people flakey in Los Angeles?”

I find a ton of literature on the matter! Most of the articles blamed traffic and distance, or simply the fact that with endless options, how can you possibly choose one.

So you tell Valorie you’ll go out in Santa Monica Friday night but then Chad invites you to a show in Hollywood that same night, so you just bail on Valorie like an hour before, because Santa Monica is too far and the show will be way more fun anyways. And it’s totally socially acceptable! If you did that shit in NY, you’d have no friends.

But this is what I came here for…

 

I wanted to get away, be alone. Utter loneliness forces you to get better acquainted with yourself, allowing you to heal your own wounds. Perhaps the reason people seem so selfish here is that they are trying to heal, and part of healing is putting yourself first.

Life has a way of giving you what you need, not necessarily what you want. I came out here to chase my dreams, but I found myself.

Like leaping into fierce waters, I learn to surrender my control. I learn to embrace her pace. I stop to soak in the scenery, I study the colorful flowers blossoming all around me. I start to enjoy the present, I’m safe.  I belong. At last, I’m home.

‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’–Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.-Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Self Reliance

 

High School

I found a home at a really great charter high school in Los Angeles and spent two years working there alongside many passionate teachers and administrators. We didn’t necessarily get the highest test scores, but between picking up the remnants of a decade of poor education and combatting all of the symptoms of poverty, we had one hell of a job to do.

We did our best, but all the love in the world can’t fix the broken system.

The school was huge, with close to 3,000 students, 92% minorities, mostly Hispanic. It’s a Title 1 school, meaning at least 40% of students live under the poverty level. They were a tough group, to say the least… how do i reech these keeds

As I mentioned in Elementary and Middle School, (internal link) many of them lived in broken homes or were in foster care or group homes. We had students who didn’t have homes at all and lived on the streets of LA. We had drug dealers, we had drug addicts. We had gang rivalries and race wars. It was black versus brown, and everybody picked on the few white or even white looking kids the worst. We had kids with kids. We had three students who were victims of sex trafficking and were forced to do pornography as minors.

As if high school wasn’t bad enough on its own, throw in all of the problems that come with poverty. Crime, abuse, hunger, mental illness, violence, and more all conveniently bundled into one unbounded life of poverty!

Eldar Shafir says in an NPR interview,

“When humans don’t have enough of something, that fact dominates our consciousness.”

Do you even have to ask yourself why they can’t pass your tests when they have to worry about what they will eat, where they will sleep, and whether their fathers will come home drunk again tonight?

Half of them haven’t had a clue what’s been going on in class since the first grade. We passed them on from one grade to the next, knowing damn well they didn’t understand. How could they learn to multiply if they haven’t mastered adding? How could we expect them to learn to write a paragraph when they can’t write a simple word? I had high school students who were reading at a first-grade level. How is this even possible?

Many teachers working in impoverished schools blame the common core. There is space for individuality in these blatantly biased standards. Why are we teaching in English to non-English speakers? Some schools in California have started instructing in both English and Spanish. Why are students whose parents all graduated college and students whose parents are second-grade dropouts expected to learn the same material? The common core is geared towards college preparedness, but most of my students won’t go to college.

So what should we prepare them for?

If we were to level the playing field, we would go to a school in a wealthy neighborhood and start teaching in Spanish, after only giving a few highly confusing Spanish lessons. We’d get frustrated with them for not understanding and label them stupid and incapable, and they’d believe us, and they’d give up dreaming, they’d give up trying by the fourth grade.

…But some of them won’t give up. No matter how hard we beat them down.

We asked my students to write an essay on what it means to be an American. Many of them wrote passionately about opportunity, freedom, and safety. The world looks so beautiful through a child’s eyes, the same world who robbed them of every opportunity.

To all the teachers who devote their lives to helping these kids climb over the hurdles society has built just for them, you are appreciated. To all the students who stand strong each morning, bravely facing a day of adversity and disadvantage, and proudly salute a flag which doesn’t salute you back, never sit down, never give up, and one day you’ll show them.

Larissa Martinez
Larissa Martinez, a high school senior who made headlines when she revealed her undocumented immigrant status during her valedictorian speech.

Middle School

I left my job at the elementary school for a temp job that sent me to different schools, still doing behavioral intervention. My first assignment was in South Los Angeles, not far from Compton.

After I checked in with the office, I had to walk past a security guard and through a metal detector to get on campus. There were many bungalows, each one guarded by a burly security guard. Nearly all of the students were African American, many were in foster care, on probation, or both They were the property of a broken system. 

I have worked in many impoverished elementary schools in New York, I worked with a branch of the Harlem Children Zone for a period, but this was something else.

This was middle school.

My student was a thirteen-year-old young man. He was small for his age but had a big personality. He skipped his first class, so security was trying to find him. Eventually, they found him after he got into a fight.

He walked into the dean’s office with a gait like Tupac, and two security guards behind him. They told him I’d be working with him today. He looked me up and down, gave me this repulsed look, and said, “Who is she? I ain’t working with her! I don’t know her! She could be a rapist!”

The dean chuckled a little and said, “We do background checks. She’s okay.”

I tried to talk to him and he ignored me, but let me follow him to class. The whole way to his classroom, he stopped and talked to everyone he saw. All of the security guards knew him. Most of the kids, who were twice his size, did not want to talk to him.

We got to his class and they were watching the movie, “Ruby Bridges,” about the first African American child to attend an integrated school in Louisiana. At one point, the actress who played Ruby was crying and this female student started laughing and said, “What a little bitch.”

My student, who I’ll call Marshall, instantly snapped, “Don’t laugh at her!”

“What you gonna do about it?”

Marshall kicked her desk over and she went down with it. He leaped on top of her and started waving his fist in her face saying, “I will sock you bitch!”

Security came in and he got up and walked out with them. They talk to him for a minute and allow him to cool off outside the classroom. To try and connect with him, and break the awkward silence, I said to him, “I just want to say that I admired you standing up for the girl in the movie, I just didn’t admire the way you did it.” He looked at me, probably for the second time all day but didn’t say anything. “Anyways,” I said, “You seem like a very bright young man, what do you want to be when you’re older?”

He said, “A rapper…or a lawyer.”

I laughed and said, “Oh, you’d definitely be a good lawyer. Who’s your favorite rapper?”

He said, “Biggie.”

“Wooo! East Coast!” I said, nodding my head, “Nothing like that old school. My favorite is Wu-Tang.”

His eyes got bigger, “What you know about Wu-Tang?!”

I said, “I used to live in the Slums of Shaolin, man, I know Wu-Tang.”

He looked confused, but he suddenly opened up to me and we started talking about music and then started talking about all kinds of things.

He was telling me about a rumor that Los Angeles gangs were killing 100 people in 100 days. I said, “Oh, maybe that’s why there has been a lot of shootings in my neighborhood lately.”

He cocked his head to one side, like a confused puppy,

“Wait…You’re not rich?…But you’re white?”

I laughed, “Not all white people are rich. I grew up poor, and I’m still poor. I’ve lived in many bad neighborhoods.” You could see the gears turning in his head. His eyes suddenly softened as he looked at me.

At the end of the day, I had to say bye to my new buddy. Fighting back tears, I told him how impressed I am with his brain and his heart, and that I hope he gets to become a rapper…or a lawyer. I put out my hand to give him a handshake and he pushed my hand down and gave me the biggest hug.

He said, “You alright Miss. You better be careful out there, people might think you’re rich and try to rob you. But don’t worry, I got your back,” patting me on the back.

This was one of the most difficult days of my career, and also possibly the single most rewarding. I could have had an easier day if I gave up on him as soon as he called me a rapist and refused to talk to me. If I labeled him as a violent young man, as a lost cause, rather than an intelligent, caring individual who has been handed a raw deal in life. But I didn’t give up, I kept trying to connect with him, and eventually, I penetrated his walls, and he let me in. Maybe I even taught him something. Ironically enough, I rarely had days where I felt like I taught anyone anything during my time teaching in LA schools.

“Teen expert” and foster care survivor Josh Shipp says,

“Every kid is one caring adult away from a success story.”

His foster parent told him, “I don’t see you as a problem, I see you as an opportunity.” That always stuck with me. I truly hope Marshall becomes a success story and not a statistic. All it takes is his foster parents, educators, and all of the people he meets to put a little effort in, to see his value and his strengths, to form a connection with someone who’s been deeply scarred by a brutal society.

Ruby Bridges with her teacher
Ruby Bridges and her teacher

Elementary

My first job in LA was as a behavioral therapist in an elementary school near Van Nuys. It was a small school, consisting of a few bungalows scattered on a concrete slab, along with a basketball hoop, a jungle gym, and a little grassy area we called a track. There was a gymnasium, although we rarely had a gym teacher so we walked the “track” every day to compensate. We had a puny library only containing a few books that have mostly been donated.  

Students ate their microwaved lunches on picnic tables under a concrete awning. There was one guy who seemed to do everything from security to maintenance. After lunch he would “clean” the lunch area by spraying it down with a hose, washing the food and garbage down the gutter. Teachers were responsible for keeping their classrooms neat, which in our classroom was a big task. After a day of “teaching,” you would find broken crayons, pencil shavings, used tissues, food, and other fun surprises everywhere.

The teacher was a down to earth surfer, who used to work at an “upscale” school on the westside of LA. We both had freckles, long chestnut blonde hair, and a love for classical music. The students would ask if we were brother and sister, even though he was about twenty years older than me. I would joke, “We’re the only two white people he knows, so we must be related!”

We had to laugh to keep from going mad. During our lunch breaks, we would vent about the horror stories that took place in the classroom and reflected on tragedies in our own lives. We would listen to classical music or he would play guitar. He always kept his guitar and surfboard in the classroom, I think as a coping mechanism.

Someone at the school must have disliked him very much. They gave him a class of thirty-five fourth graders. As if nine years olds weren’t already the most awkward people you’ve ever met, throw in that they were almost all impoverished, first generation, English learners. One of them literally didn’t speak a word of English. Everyone knows there’s always one or two kids who act out in the classroom, but in this classroom, there were one or two students who could behave. I had to considerably lower my expectations. I pretty much threw the bar on the ground and gave myself a pat on the back for simply surviving a day in that classroom.

They threw us in a bungalow on the corner of the campus, far enough away from other classes to not disrupt them, but close enough to the road to listen to sirens and engines revving all day. The heat in our room was broken. (Yes I know it’s LA, but these kids would be bundled up in their parkas and hats and gloves on. Not going to lie, I was also bundled up after recently getting accustomed to LA summers.)

So many distractions, so many obstacles, and this is only the beginning. Most of them will be forced to carry the weight of inequality for the rest of their lives.

I was there to help one student who had severe aggression and defiance, but I ended up working with them all. They had no respect whatsoever for us. Why would they? We didn’t do anything for them. We couldn’t teach them anything. How could we possibly understand what they’re going through? We couldn’t help them at all. I felt so bad for the few students who wanted to learn. Once a student started crying, telling his peers, “Can you just stop? I’m trying to learn.”

A few kids were severely troubled. Many of them saw social workers regularly, they were abused and neglected. They lived in tiny apartments with several siblings. Many of them slept in living rooms on couches or floors.

They would come to school looking strung out, saying they haven’t slept because they were kept awake all night by their sister’s crying baby. They looked and acted so much like children sometimes, but they’ve experienced lifetimes of pain in their short lives. They were so pure and innocent, but too knowledgeable of the evils of the world.

The Los Angeles Police Department conducted an assembly about gun safety and not bringing guns to school. The officer was saying how you can go to jail if you do this. One student yelled out, “Cool!” So the officer asked to see a show of hands of everyone who know someone in jail. From the sea of black silky hair sitting cross-legged on the floor, a third of their little hands went up. My heart ached.

One boy in particular, so filled with rage, gave me chills whenever he was around. Because I love irony, I’ll call him Angel. He was about four feet tall with these black, dead eyes. All day long he would instigate his peers. He would throw erasers at my head and laugh maniacally. One day at “gym,” he picked up a stick, made a shiv out of it, and told me he wanted to stab someone in the heart with it. I thought it might have been me.

We were reading Miss Frisby and the Rats of Nihm to the students. We asked them to answer the question, “What was the plan the rats had for Miss Frisby?” I saw Angel writing something, which was immediately suspicious since he never did any work. When I walked by he hid the paper inside his desk. I tried to get the paper in a professional manner, but he kept laughing at me and hiding the paper deeper inside his desk. I may have lost my temper a bit and started pulling things out of his desk and throwing them on the floor. Eventually, I ripped the paper out of his clenched fist. For some reason, I felt that paper had something horrible on it, and I was right.

On the top of the torn and crumpled piece of paper, it said, “They are going to rape Ms. Frisby.” Underneath that, he drew a picture of Miss Frisby the mouse getting gang raped by multiple rats. I don’t know what was more disturbing, the illustration or the creepy, “HA HA HA” written under it. Not only did he know what rape was, but he thought it was funny! On a positive note, he answered the question and he even spelled everything correctly! I didn’t even know he could write until that point!

Recreation of the “Mousey Rape Illustration”

I took the note to the principal. I’m pretty sure they called his dad, he probably got his ass beat, but afterward, he was still the same unruly asshole. It’s like no one cares what happens to these kids. It’s like they don’t come to school to be taught anything, but to check off boxes, and keep them off the streets until they’re old enough to hurt someone and go to jail. No one cares if they live in poverty or get abused. It’s just an endless cycle of disadvantaged, “throwaway” kids.

If America is supposed to be land of the free, then why are chances being robbed of these children before they even finish elementary school? It is certainly the home of the brave though, they have to be brave to withstand what comes next.

 

Letter to My Students

Dear class,

You were the bane of my existence for the first few months of the school year, but over time you transformed my thoughts of you from a bunch of disrespectful, rude little jerks, who think rape is funny and going to jail is cool, to a bunch of innocent children who are simply victims of their environments and society’s neglect. You’ve taught me a lesson in life. You’ve shown me a despicable reality of the world. To the people in charge, the ones who make the rules, we are not equal. You’ve shown me the simplicity of people, how easily we mold, simply do what we’re told. All we know is all we’ve been shown. I hope I’ve taught you that we’re not all the same. Some of us think you deserve a chance. Some of us truly care what happens to you. Some of us will dedicate their whole lives to stand up for you. I love you all, and sincerely hope you make it. Best of luck, you’re going to need it.

Always,

Ms. Vonn

Liberty and Justice for Some

I’ve worked in many schools in different cities, with various ages and diverse populations, of disparate amounts of luck and chances. They all shared one thing. Every morning, every school recites the Pledge of Allegiance, in unity.

The longer I work in education, the more students I meet, all the stories I hear, the variances in pasts, presents, and futures that I witness, the more bitterness flows through my veins every morning as I recite this patriotic declaration.

Every morning I stand up in front of my students, with their brave, hopeful faces. Together we salute the flag, hands on hearts. When I say “with liberty and justice for all,” I feel my heart start pumping harder. A more honest, American motto would be with liberty and justice for some.”

Over the next week, I will share some of my experiences working in impoverished schools in Los Angeles.

Down and Out in LA

When you think of California, what comes to mind? Beaches of blue crashing against a jagged cliffside, long legged, big breasted blondes in bikinis scattered across the white sand? Playing volleyball, surfing killer waves, skating down the boardwalk without a care in the world? Do you think Los Angeles is just like the movies? Valley girls sipping mimosas, gossipping through their noses over brunch, under cat-eyed shades? Driving into a sunset in a convertible, one hand on the wheel, one hand on your hat, hair flowing in the wind?

The movies don’t show you her dark side, they don’t show you the city of fallen angels. Her poverty plagued streets, where junkies toss themselves at the foot of a tall palm and sleep as the sun shines on them. At night a small group of friends set up camp on the sidewalk, the outhouse is the street behind someone’s parked car. They roast up some crack and pass it around, talking and laughing. You see an abandoned shoe, a torn teddy bear, an upside-down baby stroller in the grass, you wonder how they all got there. Everything, everyone down here has a story. Down here in the underground, where people who shoot for the stars and miss land. People who never stood a chance. How are some people that terribly unfortunate?

homeless la
Photo Courtesy of @homeless_sofas

I arrived in LA with a car full of belongings, without a job or home, but with a heart full of dreams. My plan was to stay in the valley with my friend Fluffy for a few days until I found an apartment. The next few days, or weeks or months, I’m not really sure, all became a blur of driving around in circles, or getting acquainted with my new home. Endless freeways leading in every direction stacked to the sky encircled me, disoriented me. Cars roared past me on every side. I felt like a rat learning my way around a new maze, only a rat might have adapted faster.

I had to learn the city’s strange rules, driving and otherwise. Here, red light means turn left. The term “pull and pray” has a whole new meaning here. I pull out into traffic and pray I don’t get hit. I have no idea how I didn’t crash. I must have had an angel looking over me. When people would honk at me or flip me off, I’d say through a fake smile, “I’m sorry! I don’t know what I’m doing!” Once I was driving the wrong way in a parking lot, and this older Mexican woman yelled, “Fucking gringo! Learn how to drive!”

The roads in the valley sometimes work in a grid, sometimes the road just ends abruptly, and other times it leads you to a juvenile detention center. Never assume you know where you’re going, how you’ll get there, or when.

No matter how close you think you are to your destination, you can still hit a dead end.

Traffic, time, and people here all moved so much slower than I was used to. People took forever to call you back. During my job and apartment search, some people took a few days to respond, others never did. One woman called me back about a job two months later, then called me back to hire me another month after my interview. I became impatient and agitated with the amount of unprofessionalism. I’d arrive on time to my interviews and still had to wait. I felt overdressed with my blazers, dress pants, and heels, while everyone else was wearing shorts and sandals.

Of the people I met with rooms for rent, some chose other roommates, some I couldn’t live with, and others were just downright crazy. One guy, who I never met, begged me to move in and told me the world was ending. Another guy seemed to be looking for a live-in sex-maid kind of deal. I couldn’t really afford to be picky, but part of the reason I moved here was to escape unsafe living situations. I needed a good home base if I was going to have a chance out here.

After four or five days, which was much longer than I’d planned on staying, Fluffy couldn’t have me anymore because of a gig which would require all of his time over the next few weeks. I called my friend who lived in San Diego but she was out of town.

Longing for home, any home, I went to a pizza place called Brooklyn Pizza. The waitress brought me the most depressing piece of pizza I’ve ever encountered. “This is not Brooklyn pizza! This isn’t even real pizza! This is a burnt-to-a-crisp crust, some tasteless sauce, with a dash of dried cheese for decoration!” I thought while making angry hand gestures in my head.

Fighting back tears, I took out my journal and poured desperation onto a page. I begged God to grant me strength, to aid and protect me on this challenging journey. That night, as I was falling asleep, I imagined myself lying limp and hopeless on the ground. He lifted me up in his arms and carried me to safety.

I knew one other person in the entire state, I called her my Peruvian princess, like Yma Sumac. She had moved from Harlem a few months earlier and was living with her family in Santa Clarita, a small desert community just outside of LA. Her family agreed to take me for the time being. They were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They were so warm and welcoming and cooked the most delicious dinners. How did I get so lucky? As the richest man in the world in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan would say,

“I guess somebody up there likes me.”

My second week in LA, there was a record-breaking heat wave that lasted a week, with temperatures as high as 114 degrees Fahrenheit in Santa Clarita. I have never experienced such a heat in my life. I literally felt like I was burning in an oven. I could feel my skin drying up and breaking off like petals on a dead flower. I drank and drank and never quenched my thirst. Probably because I instantly sweat it out. I sweat from places I didn’t even know you could sweat, like behind your knees. And it didn’t get cold at night, it just got slightly less smoldering. Yma’s family didn’t have air conditioning, so we slept with one fan blowing on us both. I would lay awake at night sweating buckets of anxiety and self-doubt.

Uprooting my entire life thousands of miles across the country was proving slightly more difficult than I had anticipated. How on earth do people move here? Unless you have 10,000 in savings, or have a co-signer that makes 100,000 a year. I don’t even know anyone who makes 100,000 a year. You need a job to qualify for an apartment, you need an apartment for a job. Endless barriers and constant dead ends,

I guess that’s why most people just stay put.

dead end
North Hollywood, CA

I was offered a job as a behavioral therapist, and a few landlords accepted that as proof of income. I applied to those apartments and waited to hear back from them. I kept calling and getting a voicemail. I felt like stalking these landlords, following them around with a wad of cash saying, “Please take my money. Please!” I withdrew cash to give to one landlord, but the process took so long I ended up driving around with $1,200 in my glove box for two weeks. In New York, I’ve broken up with a boyfriend and moved into a new apartment in two days. Everything moved so slowly out here. People are so laid back, a little too laid back. I hoped that I too could be so carefree one day, but for now…

I’m fucking homeless. Take my money.

I needed a haircut and found a place on Yelp in Panorama City, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the valley. I drove around trying to find it and eventually came upon a little outdoor mall called Plaza Del Valle. When you enter from the parking lot there’s a painted roundabout with a statue in the middle. There are little buildings on either side, one has a mural painted on it. You can walk down a path of stores whose names are all in Spanish on both sides, under hanging lights.

I found a hair salon. When I walked in the woman said something to me in Spanish. I tried to read prices, but all of the signs were in Spanish. All of the women were talking in Spanish. I felt rude for not knowing Spanish and just felt incredibly out of place. Feeling embarrassed, I awkwardly walked out.

Incredibly stressed out, I found a park nearby, called Lake Balboa, where I could relax. I watched the people, riding their bikes, skateboarding, wearing jeans when it was 100 degrees out. I longed to be one of them. I called my Godmother and she reassured me it would take time to get settled. She reminded me, “The greatest gift of all is to wake up in California.” For a moment, I slowed down and just enjoyed the moment, watching birds dance in the water. As I was getting in my car, someone came up to me and asked if I was living in my car. I laughed nervously, scratching my head, “I actually am looking for a place, I mean I found one, I think, I’m just waiting, but I’m okay” and quickly got into my car.

I spent most of my time in my car and I felt suffocated by all of my things. I like things neat, everything in its place. Everything was a mess. Also, when I took a sip of my water I had left in my car, and I think it actually started to boil, I was reminded about the propane tanks that I’d been driving around with,  in million degree weather. So I went to Walmart to try and return the propane tanks and some other things I bought but didn’t use for my road trip.

The cashier said I couldn’t return the propane tanks. I asked him if he could just dispose of them for me then. He said he had to ask his manager. The manager was wearing a nice suit, he came over to me, crossed his arms, and told me he couldn’t dispose of them for me like he was insulted I would even ask. I felt a rage and panic come over me. I asked him as calmly as possible, “Do you know where I can dispose of them because I really don’t know.” I left out the part about me being afraid my car was going to explode with everything I own inside of it. He ignored me and walked away.

I was so mad, I walked outside boorishly, panting heavily, and one by one, I shoved the tanks into the garbage, about twenty feet from where I just talked to the manager. I got into my car, started crying, and called my best friend for the first time in weeks. “I’m having a mental breakdown. I’ve reached my breaking point, in a fucking Walmart. It was a nice Walmart too.” I told her the story. She told me that’s really not that bad, and reminded me of the much crazier shit she’d have done. But that she wouldn’t have ever gotten that far. She wouldn’t have had the balls to leave. That the hardest part is to get in your car and leave, to believe in yourself that much.

I felt so numb. I told her I couldn’t call her earlier because I didn’t want her to worry. I also couldn’t admit out loud that I was still technically homeless close to a month after I left New York. I couldn’t admit that I was terrified. I felt my fear winning, and faith leaving me.

I feel like God always tests me, sees how much I can take before I break. If this was a test of my faith, I failed that test. I started to doubt that He would always take care of me, as He always has. Just when I stopped believing in myself completely, my new roommates let me move in illegally, the day before I started my job.

It was a tiny room in the corner of a townhouse. It had a private entrance through a sliding glass door, which I never used since I’d have to climb over my bed, which took up most of the room. The townhouse was two stories, had two balconies overlooking the pool, we had central air.

I soon found out that in LA, looks are deceiving. We got a notice on our door the next day that we had a bedbug infestation. The neighborhood, North Hills, was notorious for gang violence, which deemed its nickname, “Little Mexico.” There were several shootings the first few months I was living there. Twice my building was barricaded off, no one could come or go. Once as I left my parking garage, an officer in full swat gear, carrying an automatic rifle asked me to look in my trunk. Now in any other situation I would have been a smart ass and said “I know my rights, you need a warrant,” but when the guy with the big ass gun asks you to do something, you tend to listen.

But that’s my home. That’s my neighborhood chicken crossing the road, holding up traffic. That’s my trash on the graffitied sidewalk, that’s my toilet on the sidewalk filled with newspapers. Those are my people getting dressed outside their RV. That’s my taco truck man, my fruit cart lady, my neighbors pushing their baby in a shopping cart.

Art by Kim Kyne
Toilet Vase by Kim Kyne

In my tiny room, from an air mattress on the ground, I listen to the music my new city makes, the mariachi bands, the guy preaching into a megaphone in Spanish, cars crashing on the freeway not far from my doo. I live in Los Angeles, I came here alone with nothing, and I made it. I think about my journey and all the challenges I’ve overcome. A wide smile rests on my face, as the helicopters gently hum me to sleep.

“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”-George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Real Life Lessons from Science Fiction

I desperately needed a night of deep relaxation and reflection. A friend and I went to the dispensary to help relieve the tension. On the walk home, I was saying how lucky we are to walk into a store and walk out with bags full of marijuana, even with his fake looking North Carolina ID.

Just a minute after saying “I love LA,” I screamed in panic. My PTSD sent an army of electrical impulses through my body with the message, “SOMETHING IS TRYING TO FUCKING KILL YOU.” This time, it was this tiny little dog that came out of nowhere and started barking at us. Still shaking a few houses down I almost jumped again at the sight of this old woman wearing a nightcap and gown, staring at us while she smoked her cigarette. I fought myself from screaming because I didn’t want to offend her. Then my friend jumped and said “OH MY GOD!…WHY?!” We started cracking up. “We aren’t even high yet and already we’re in the Twilight Zone,” I said.

We took some edibles and started searching for something to watch. I told him I wanted to watch some science fiction that makes you rethink your purpose in life. Finally, we stumbled upon this show, called Electric Dreams, based upon Philip K. Dick’s stories. Other film adaptations of his writing include Total Recall and Blade Runner. We knew we made the right choice after the opening, which shows trippy images such as a flying robot stingray and a pregnant man. The high commenced and we started to sink into the couch. Feeling detached from our bodies, our consciousness stared at the screen, our minds wide open to the universe’s messages.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams Poster

The first episode, “Real Life”, is broadly based on Dick’s short story Exhibit Piece, which begs the question what is reality? “Real Life” imparts a lesson much deeper and more personal than I was mentally prepared for.

The episode has you trying to figure out which character is real and who is a subconscious creation stemmed from a new virtual reality device, which allows you to “vacation” from your troubles. In one reality, Sarah, played by Anna Paquin, is a lesbian supercop suffering from PTSD ever since her colleague was killed. In the other reality, George, brilliantly portrayed by Terrence Howard, is also tormented by trauma and sorrow after the brutal murder of his wife.

The show was only 50 minutes but it felt like hours we were consumed by attempts to differentiate reality from delusion. George and Sarah both doubt their realities and start to wonder if the “vacation” is real life. When Sarah’s girlfriend starts talking about guilt and what she thinks she deserves, I said “Oh God, are they really going there. Is this going to be about self-abuse and victim mentality? I just can’t handle that right now.” Then Sarah lays down and slowly puts on the virtual reality device. I start to cry somewhere deep inside.

“Is she gonna off herself?” my friend says in an overdramatic voice, “What the hell is going on?!”

I pretend to scream, “I don’t know what’s real anymore!”

*Spoilers Ahead*

We then find out George was having an affair on his wife when she was murdered, and therefore decides to destroy the headset that would allow him to go into his virtual reality. He says he deserves to be punished. After he crushes the headset, the screen shows Sarah flatlining in a hospital. In the alternate reality, she justified her guilt by making up the affair. Her girlfriend says,

“We all want to be punished, even if our sins don’t exist.”

Suddenly I felt overcome with guilt for my guilt. We all do this to some extent, some more than others. This message has been coming to me in many forms lately, STOP PUNISHING YOURSELF. I have suffered countless traumas in my life, but THEY ARE OVER. No one is hurting me now, no one but myself. I survived those voices telling me I’m not worth the air I breathe, and I escaped them, but they follow me, and now those voices have become my own.

I have this overwhelming fear that things will never get better, that others will always sore above me and leave me rotting in ashes.

The only one who wants me to fail is me. I am getting what I think I deserve.

I do deserve happiness. I deserve success, I deserve to reach my highest potential. I deserve to be recognized for my attributes. I deserve love, true love. I deserve to be loved the way I love others, with my entire being. I deserve a family, a family who deserves me. I deserve wealth and I deserve my health.

We always make things so complicated. We make excuses for our failure, “It’s because I have no money, it’s because I have no support. I can’t do that until this happens.”

All you need to get what you deserve is truly believe you deserve it. The virtual reality system in “Real Life” is a symbol for the power of the mind.

So push every negative thought out, let go of every lie you’ve been told about yourself and continue to tell:

You can’t.

You aren’t.

You won’t.

And replace it with the truth:

You can

You are.

You will.

Because they are the things holding you back, more than society, inequality, your health, or your finances. They and they alone are what divides you from your destiny. They are what will destroy you if you give them that power.

You are your worst enemy, you are the only one holding you captive from your dreams, from living a life you a proud of. The life you deserve.

“Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all -”

-Emily Dickinson