Aug 122011
 

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What It’s Like Living Here,

by Allison Kaufman in Connecticut

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Living by the Numbers 

Seven days.  You check your watch constantly.  You live and die by the ping of the calendar on your phone.  Realize that there is slight irony in the fact that you are writing of this place with only seven days left before there are seven states between you and this desk.  Seven being the magic number, not in the lucky sort of way.  Seven being the number of days that you work twenty-four hours.  Seven being the number of blocks there are in the daily schedule.
It’s only been three years.  You’ve done everything you can.  You repeat this mantra.

You’ve been a parent now for three years.  Not biologically, but in dorms.  You sleep in an apartment that is likely larger than any you will ever own.  There are 10-foot ceilings, a handrail that snakes around the living room, and a kitchen whose appliances and cabinetry are older than you are.  You install pendant lighting.  You paint (Nantucket Grey).

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Your charges in your first year were 16 junior and senior girls.  Your toughest disciplinary issue was dealing with a girl who left a douchebag (literally) with a bow on it in front of a neighbor’s room.  You fought laughter while scolding the seventeen-year-olds.  You noted that there were only 4 years separating you from them.  You wished you had thought of the douchebag gift your senior year of college; a roommate of yours, the one you and your friends called Sandy Vagina, could have used a wakeup call.

Now, there are 40 sophomores that call you mom.  Your apartment is much larger, but also much louder.   You write a tongue in cheek list of how they should behave.  You call them savages when they can’t hear you.  The screaming never ends.  You connect with a few.  You break down when one of your students takes medical leave to mend the self-inflicted wounds on her arms.  You wonder how often she called home before the self-hatred began.

You realize that the brightness that has kept you in this place for so long lies in the students.  You work in the “off-hours” to remind the girls that strength isn’t derived from environment.  You try to practice what you preach.  The thought of surviving without friends for a few years seemed implausible before.  You assure yourself you are fine with the phone.  Fine with hearing from Dad a few times a day, checking in with Mom nightly.  This has helped.  You wonder if this closeness to home is unusual.

You’ve lived in three places for most of your life.  From the time you were five you’ve called Northport, NY (Long Island) your home.  There is a level of shame that you carry being from New York.  You hide your accent reasonably well, you’ve dodged questions about where you’re from through your college years at Holy Cross, and you’ve landed your first job as a Renaissance woman at a private school in Connecticut.  A place where you often thought you should have been as a high schooler.  You know from your time at this small rural high school that Long Island isn’t so bad, though you still wouldn’t go back, and that for you, personal connections and activities make all the difference.

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Siblings

A senior worms her way into your family.

You’ve never had siblings, even though you tell people you have a sister (the best friend you rowed with in college).  You’ve struggled to cope with your solitude for your 25 years.  You welcome your senior charge, the boldest of your advisees.  You take your assignment to lead and protect her with more severity than anything.  She takes to you as well.  There is a thread of mistaken indecency that ties you to her.  A small blip on the radar of each of your high school reputations.  A spot that has hardened your interior.  You bond over the seemingly impossible challenge of rebuilding her from the ground up.  You encourage her to take new roles in the community, to lead.  She thrives.  Together, you will sob uncontrollably on graduation day.  Six days until the breakdown.  You feel a thread knot between you.  You acknowledge the addition of a sibling.  You feel the recognition of something in her; you identify your reflection.

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You meet her parents.  You’ve met tons of parents before, faceless names in black and white across your email account, or voices slightly muffled across the lines to your cell phone.  This is different.  They reflect a quirkiness that your parents embody.  There is love, deep, tangible love that you can feel in the 8 foot dorm room.  You wonder how they could let her live three hours from home at seventeen.  She explains she wanted to.  She needed the space.  She has no regrets.

You are tempted to count the hours, though smile at the guilt you feel from having the impulse.  You search for the deeper meaning to all of this, you become existential in your nostalgia.  This was your first job.  Your first true disappointment.  The first time your optimism failed you.  The first time you failed to see good in everything.  You recognize that you’ve been sheltered forever.

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Location, Location, Location 

There was a time that you would laugh when people said that they lived in a town with more cows than people.  You couldn’t picture this as a reality.  Thought, perhaps, that living in such a place would be like living at your family’s cabin at Great Lake Sacandaga, with dirt roads and wild blueberries, and bacon fresh off the griddle every morning.  You flirted with an interest in this cow country.

You discover that it’s true.  That around the school, on this main route for bikers of all kinds, this scenic road, there truly are more cows than people.  You note that you are living in a town with, count it, one stoplight.  It’s not a town.  You have to drive fifteen minutes to Target (which, THANK GOD was put in the summer you arrived) and 35 minutes to get to a movie.  You eat at each restaurant in town over, and over.  Thai, Chinese, greasy American, gourmet sushi, The 99.  The dining hall only serves chicken, which you despise.  You ache for Long Island in a way that you swore you never would.  You realize you are actually aching for college.  For Worcester.  For Shrewsbury Street with the cash only pizza joint that was featured on the Food Network where you had your first college date.

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It’s true that there is a vastness that surrounds the school.  From the hilltop, rolling fields of green coat a small valley before climbing a golf course to a row of ostentatious farmhouses.  The big sky stars and heavy moon are ethereal.  You think of Montana while walking the campus as night.  When you made this “quiet corner” of Northeastern Connecticut your home, you cringed.  Not because you were working for one of those elusive prestigious prep schools in New England as a former public high school attendee, but because you weren’t teaching, and what else does anyone do at a school besides teach.  You accept the title of “Library Assistant.” You even accept “Yearbook Advisor.” You harbor a quiet ache for the English department.  You miss Shakespeare and Chaucer.  You wanted to share your love of writing.  You were told the department was full, maybe next year.  Next year never came.  And so you go.  The boxes fill nearly an entire wall in your living room.  The movers come tomorrow.  Day count down to 5.  The empty apartment echoes and reminds you of being the only player in two player games as a kid.  You consider that this might be the root of your issues, hope for the acquisition of a husband, four kids, and a house in the near future.  You flee loneliness.

You are split between feeling bitter or sweet about the time here.  More teenagers use your cellphone number than adults.  You fight darkness.  You love those around you, as you always do, with every fiber within you, but realize that this love for the kids isn’t enough.  Compassion won’t earn friends here.  You wonder how you can be lonely in a community of 400.  You rescue a dog against the wishes of your parents.  This helps.  The distraction of a mouth to feed, walks to take, and the unconditional love of an animal warms you.  You feel thankful for the heat of a body next to you in bed…even if it’s a furry one.

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 Playing the Game

You reflect upon your years at your public high school.  The sharp wail of the modem dialing up to the Internet at two A.M. is still a familiar echo.  You recall round bruising on your knees and forearms from hours on the court.  You feel old when you try to explain to your students that they don’t know what hard work is.  You want to quit coaching.

The volleyball team you assist makes it to the semi-finals for the second year in a row.  The girls meltdown emotionally under the pressure.

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You prepare a team to understand blood, sweat, and tears, and push them to take 8th in the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association Championships out of 24 boats.  You get migraines everyday while watching the same team one year later not even qualify for the race.  You wish you could compete instead of them.  There is no fire here.  You wonder if the kids are so forced to pursue a multitude of activities that there is no passion.  Everything is subdivided.  Your job is cheerleader, they remind you not to push the students too hard, they do pay to be at the school after all.  You wonder if they think of home?  If they call their parents.  You wish they could know what it’s like to have your Dad come to every sporting event you’ve ever competed in—even if it was three states away.  You want them to have parents who would drive across the country.  You wish you could gift the love you’ve felt forever.  The way your childhood bedroom didn’t change until you were 25, and only because you were finally too long for the twin sized sleigh bed.

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You pull at the drive within yourself.  The competitive impulse that you wish you could gift to your athletes.  Volleyball Junior Olympics at 15, captain of the varsity basketball team at states, and medals from your D1 rowing experience lining your walls.  All products of the same thing.  Mom and Dad.  The list of achievements, the deep passion you foster for everything you do, and a firm unwillingness to end any project without a satisfactory completion—all of it—leads home.  The parental leading by example changed you in some way, made you whole, and was the only palpable difference between you and the students.

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The Countdown

The mountains are waiting on the other side of these seven days.  You’ve fallen deeply into the majesty that lies West.  You learn to snowboard.  You watch videos of national parks.  You are grateful to the students.  Emily told you of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) a year ago.  Sorrell did an Outward Bound.  You bonded over wilderness.

You take advantage of the opportunity to chaperone a camping trip.  109 seniors and 12 adults under the stars of Rhode Island.  You approach the weekend with some trepidation, but remain optimistic.  The trip will change you.  You will remember why you chose the hilltop to begin with.  You fall in love with the experience.  You show the students how to set up tents.  With each click of a pole into tent body, you feel a growth inside of you.  A familiar bubbling of a passion freshly tapped.

You traveled first to Montana, lapped up the Beartooth Wilderness with your jaw dropped and a sixty-pound pack for a month before making the decision.  You will be an outdoor educator.  You will work in a college.  You set your sights on Patagonia, you learn to fly fish, you fall in love with fourteen new people on each trip.  You fall in love with the newness, the simplicity, the presence of being you feel outside.  Your instructors told you that you’d found your calling.  You recognize that you never would have had the time to taste the wild without working at a school, without spring break or summer vacation, or students to tell you of such trips.  You realize that in all of the loneliness, you no longer have a deep fear of being alone.  You begin to see that your lack of connection with your colleagues wasn’t you.

You’ve made plans.  Again and again.  You become determined that Colorado Springs is your destiny.  You push for it.  You begin to pay rent on an apartment before you’ve crossed a state line.  The empty balcony holes your view of Pike’s Peak in real HD.  You realize that you’ll be alone.  That along with the vast wilderness, there are no built in friends.  You embrace fear, but refuse to be paralyzed.  You keep forward movement, find a gym to join in Colorado, and leave the rest up to luck.

At the last of the seven days ahead, your body will betray you.  Standing in the office of the headmaster, you will cry.  You will fumble your thank you, as he shares his appreciation for the best yearbook he’s seen in his 18 years at the school (your creation).  In the tears, you picture the drive you took in his trustee-donated red truck with your advisee to her senior camping trip.  You hear country music.  You know your phone is riddled with messages from Dad.  This makes you fear for the kids you leave behind.  You have the impulse to write massive amounts of letters to the families you know.  You want to send a mass email pleading parents to do something different.  To be present.  You will tell Dad when you leave campus for the final time.  You will cry into the phone.  You hope that amidst the change ahead that some things won’t change.

You stop wearing your watch.

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–By Allison Kaufman

post layout by Natalia Sarkissian

  7 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Allison Kaufman in Connecticut”

  1. Like the edge of loneliness and learning to trust who you are. Very nice. Thanks for taking it on.

  2. Allison — Beautifully revealing. Good work.

  3. What a journey!

  4. This is beautiful and it made me think of social class differences and how they play themselves out. Where are you these days?

  5. I really enjoyed reading this and getting another glimpse into you, Allison. Nice post!

  6. Thanks, everyone! Happy to share, this was a great experience to write.

  7. Great essay! You really captured the immediate and moving challenges that come with making your own way as a powerful woman, and the courage it takes to find your true place. Welcome west Allison! It won’t disappoint…

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