my presentation today

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Simone. I am eighteen years old, a freshman here, originally from a small suburb within Oakland, California. I like art, animals, giving massages (almost as much as I like receiving them), and running around with no shoes on in places where one really should wear shoes. Pretty much all the faces I see are new faces… if we’ve met, it’s probably been only once or twice, our fine professors included. Speaking that fact aloud is an instant and rather refreshing reminder of the sheer unorthodox nature of this class. And, that being said, I am going to tell you now about the experience I had with Heritage: Self Identity, and Ties to the Land.
In order to understand the direction I took with this program, it is important to also understand my motives behind enrolling in it. It was something of a freak coincidence, brought on by an intense, almost wild desire for personal freedom. I wanted a year of essentially unsupervised exploration of myself and the world. Honestly, at eighteen, who wouldn’t want that? But I was aching for it- gasping for air, having been suffocated by people I wasn’t sure knew what was best for me. The story starts in spring 2005, when I was just months shy of my seventeenth birthday. I had just begun vague consideration of where to go for college, school was a nightmare, I fought constantly with my mom, and I had just discovered that I like to kiss boys AND girls. It was also around the time that I had begun taking prescription medication for the depression I struggled with from time to time. I was pissed off, feeling out of control and out of sorts, when I discovered I was hungry. Stress often killed my appetite, but this feeling was new. The emptiness of my stomach was almost exciting, gratifying. The adrenaline surges and dizzy feeling that accompany malnutrition gave me a high. When you don’t eat, your brain bombards you with as much dopamine and serotonin it can. It serves to distract you not only from hunger pangs, but from the fact that your body basically eats itself to keep running. This didn’t deter me one bit. Mere days later, I was well on my way to becoming anorexic.
I think there are many misconceptions about anorexia. It always seems to be portrayed as an extreme diet for shallow, appearance-obsessed cheerleaders. This is far from the truth. Anorexia is a ruthless disease, an addiction that originates in the brain before slowly, and quite literally, devours the body. After months of depriving my body of food, I was nothing but the shell of a person. I had severed nearly all social ties, isolating myself to hide and concentrate on my eating disorder. I looked like a completely different person. I had completely lost myself to the disease; my thoughts were no longer my own, the anorexia had completely taken over. I wanted help, but I was too scared- scared to get better, scared to gain weight, scared to let go of my best friend, my whole life. Nevertheless, eventually I ended up in the hospital, having lost over 30 lbs off my already petite frame. Upon my arrival there, I was informed that I had completely destroyed my heart, shrunk my brain, and starved my muscles and bones almost to the point of no return. Had I gone just a week or two longer, I likely would have suffered a starvation-induced heart attack and died at the age of seventeen.
As is the protocol in California, I was placed in a state mental institution until I was deemed stable enough to function in the real world. That meant gaining back every single ounce I had lost. It took two months to do this- and a lot of pain, anxiety, fear and humiliation at my new status as a mental patient. Unfortunately, anorexia is just about the hardest mental illness to treat; not unlike a heroin junkie, anorexics begin to love their disease, and will often stop at nothing to preserve it. Just like all addicts, anorexics are deceitful, ashamed, and simultaneously fervent about their high of choice.
This in mind, it is no wonder I didn’t have success after I was released more than 50 days later. I was mandated to do an outpatient program, daily therapy and education instead of school, until I was ready to go back to my old life. But after another 2 months of the program, I had only lost weight and grown more depressed, so it was back in the mental ward for another month. It was during this time that I was accepted to Evergreen. I was allowed to take a phone call during a therapy group to find out that I had been accepted to the only college I had applied to. This news was a turning point. At last I had a reason to get better; there was hope for me, a future, an incentive to get my life together and move on. At the urging of my doctors and parents, I finally agreed to go to residential treatment- a rehab-like center that they (together with my school) had chosen for me in rural Utah. I knew almost immediately that it was not the right place for me. I was miserable- I had no personal freedoms, and I was being treated like a bad seed rather than a sick person that needed help. I was fairly medicated, too; at one point I was on an antidepressant, anti-psychotic, and basically a sleep tranquilizer if I had a panic attack. 95% of the staff was Mormon, and there were some really great people there, but it was nothing like what I was used to in the liberal bay area. I tried to convince everyone to let me come home, or go somewhere else but no one would budge… I was going to get better, and I was going to stay there until I did. So four months later, in June of 2006, I returned home just in time to walk at my old high school’s graduation. It was the first time I’d been to school since September- I missed my whole senior year of high school.
I had registered for a class called Heritage: Self- Identity, Ties to the Land in May, narrowly missing the end of my time ticket because of the archaic computers in Utah and chock-full programs. It was one of the only classes with space left, and it sounded pretty free-form and relaxed, so I chose it in hopes that I could have a low stress year. I knew I needed to have to some time to focus on myself without doctors breathing down my neck- some self-exploration, some getting my life back on track with as little authority input as possible. This made me even more excited about Evergreen; what a wonderful place to start the new chapter in my life, with enough academic freedom to have time for reflection and to learn how to take care of myself on my own.
You can probably imagine my delight when I finally arrived here- to a beautiful forest, a myriad of interesting people and causes, and a much more open-ended program than I thought possible. I immediately knew how I wanted to spend my 16 credits per quarter: learning by living, building a life in Olympia, and pursuing my passion: photography. In response to the Four Questions, I stated that along with the everyday tasks I would undertake, I would produce one photographic exhibit each quarter with the work I had produced. So, with a plan and a fresh start, I began my freshman year of college.
First Quarter was a very successful quarter. I began immediately in the black and white darkrooms in Photoland, obtaining a proficiency in both developing and printing with negatives from the summer months. Being in the darkroom was almost meditative for me… I would put on my headphones and just do art in the dark. I also applied for some work-study positions, and was accepted as an intern at the Washington State Arts Commission. It sounded like the perfect job for me- lots of writing and photography. Technically, I was the program assistant in the Folk Arts program, so much of it was about local native artists and ethnic festivals. I thought it was a good idea also I did some small writing projects, but there ended up being no photography at all, and mostly I just surfed the internet about Eastern Washington and familiarized myself with Google Earth. Granted, Google Earth is pretty cool, but I kind of wondered when I’d find something that really interested me. I began looking for a new one in December.
At the request of my doctors at home, I set up weekly visits to the health center for weigh-ins and found a therapist. I did pretty well for awhile- I was compliant, I talked about stuff to my therapist (who, oddly, was Mormon), and my weight was pretty stable. I also began seeing an acupuncturist in November, and she prescribed me herbal remedies to take. I felt great, - so great, in fact, that I did something pretty radical: I defied everyone who was watching over me and stopped taking my medication. I had started thinking about it differently… I felt like they were stifling me, making me pleasant and complacent. It felt so unnatural. Even that was fine for awhile- the herbs I took seemed to sustain my good mood, I had tons of energy and was very productive. When my first exhibit arrived, with handmade mats with only my best photographs lining the Longhouse walls, I was ecstatic. I had survived my first quarter here, stuck to my plan exactly, and I felt pretty good about myself. I had an inkling that I’d lost some weight, but I wasn’t too worried about it. They always weighed me with my clothes on at the health center, and I knew that wasn’t really the right way, but I always felt okay and they seemed fine with everything. Plus, it wasn’t like I wasn’t eating- it was hard sometimes, but I was trying.
When I went home for winter break, my therapist in Oakland took one look at me and made me an doctor’s appointment. She said I looked thin and miserable and she thought I might have to be medically hospitalized. All I could think was, well, shit. Sure enough, my vital signs were 40 points below where they should be- grounds enough for the doctor to send me across the street to the real hospital. I was to have bed rest, tons of IV fluids and bloodwork. I cursed the health center over and over again, for not paying closer attention, but the truth was it was my fault- how could I expect them to look after me if I couldn’t look after myself?
Winter quarter brought more complications. I began by starting my next exhibit development with negatives I had shot over winter break, so my project was on track, but life was getting considerably more difficult. I had wanted to continue my acupuncture and herb regimen here in Olympia, but between school and work I had trouble finding time. Eventually I ran out of a lot of the herbs I was supposed to take. Aside from that, The stress of looking for a new job while I hated my current one took its toll on me; I began to be socially isolative, extremely lethargic, and pessimistic; all too familiar feelings that my medicine was designed to eradicate. I finally found a new job as a kindergarten teacher’s aide that I was excited about, but the feeling lingered. My appetite was dulled, which can be pretty dangerous for me, as my weight was still hovering just under where it was supposed to be. I gradually lost interest in everything- I hadn’t been in the darkroom for what felt like forever, I avoided nearly everyone I knew, and I slept more and more until eventually I didn’t get out of bed for nearly 2 weeks. I knew I was spiraling downward again. Around week five my mom and my doctors finally convinced me to go back on my medication. I knew that not taking my meds was mostly to blame for how I felt, but I hated taking them so much that I was reluctant.
It was around this time that I contacted Raul about the way my project was going. I had done hardly any work- I slept most of my days away. I had applied for a grant to continue my project, and was turned down, so poverty was added to my plight. My mom and I had talked about me coming home and finishing my freshman year next year, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. Raul was incredibly supportive, citing that things rarely unfolds how we plan them, and life is such a learning experience in itself that I could basically take my project and run with it. I decided that instead of giving up, I would tweak the project to mold to my life better. I had taken a position at the Cooper Point Journal as the see page coordinator, so I basically collected student art for showcase in the paper. I decided to incorporate this into my project, since it was art- related and I was trying something new. I opted to continue working in the darkroom, but to produce an exhibit at my leisure, not give myself a deadline of the quarter’s end (it would be unrealistic).
As my project took on a new direction, I began to feel better. The medication is at least in part why, but as my academics unfolded, so did my life here. Much of my time and energy was being dedicated to my new job at Garfield Elementary school, which I was slowly beginning to love. I had done a lot of babysitting in high school- in fact, in was my principal source of income for about five years. I got so attached to the families I sat for, and I truly enjoyed spending time with the kids, but I never considered it as a real career path. But I can see myself doing this for a long time- possibly the rest of college. I’m a teacher’s aide for two kindergarten classes and one first grade class, and the more comfortable and confident I became at work, the more I realized how much I genuinely love kids. Their thought processes are so simple, so logical, and at the same time so creative and uninhibited. On top of that, they are very honest and forthcoming with their thoughts and feelings, something you see less and less as people age. But my environment, a public elementary school, was an ideal vantage point to see Pedagogy of the Oppressed in action. Coupled with the fun I was having with the little kids was the realization that Freire was right. For the most part, these children are regarded as a parts of a group that must be meticulously controlled. Teachers tell kids all the time to “hold your body still” and to be in a straight, thin line. Anyone who’s ever been around a five year old can see that it is not in a five year old’s nature to sit still, quietly, focusing their eyes on one thing for a prolonged period of time. They are so inclined to explore the world around them, learning through sensory stimulation. A five year old has no interest in learning letters and numbers- they’re not tangible, they’re not real. Certainly this must be taken into account when teaching a kindergarten class. The teachers and aides that I work alongside all seem to enjoy children, but it seems that years of this career have jaded many of them. Most of them are young to middle-aged women who have all dealt with children forever. I’m often surprised at the rigidity with which these classes are run. It makes me kind of uncomfortable when adults raise their voices to children- it’s scary to a little kid. There are very strict “hands off” rules that restrict the physical contact the kids have with each other and the adults. Kids are watched when they hug or even touch each other, never allowed to hang on or lean on the adults and srtrictly prohibited from sitting in laps.That’s one I also have trouble with. These kids haven’t learned yet the social implications of intimate physical contact. That’s how they express that they love and trust people- by being close to them. I find it extremely complimentary when a child hugs me and shows interest in me. Stifling an unguarded urge to show someone love them can’t be good.
Nevertheless, the few negative aspects of my job pale in comparison to the amazing positive aspects. I love what I do. One of the kindergarten classes I help out is half special needs kids- some of them have learning disabilities, one boy is autistic, and one boy is severely mentally disabled- his brain functions have not developed past infancy and he is in a wheelchair. I have particularly taken interest in the kids of this class. Even though he can’t walk or speak, Aidan’s smile totally lights up his face and makes him the center of attention much of the time. The autistic boy, Cole, can’t function socially, but is incredibly sensitive and intelligent, full of simple, blunt wisdom. All the other kids are very accepting of each other. Someone will occasionally come kiss Aidan’s cheeks and play with his hair, or do a puzzle for him. They’re all just happy to hang out with each other. I’m proud to say that when I go to work, I feel like I make a difference.
Spring quarter has been a breeze. I’ve kept really busy with work, being in the darkroom, and planning my summer. I was fortunate enough to land a photographic exhibit in early May at the Sem II Café. Though the limits of the space didn’t allow me to showcase nearly as many photos as I would have liked, I am pleased with the finished product. There are a few images from a series I did of tattoos- one of my personal favorite modes of artistic self-expression. Some others are nature shots from California, and some photograms, created when there is no negative in the enlarger and objects are placed on the photo paper during exposure. I think that if I could align myself with any particular style, it would have something to do with seeing beauty in every day objects. Part of the beauty of black and white photography is the aesthetic created with interesting lines and angles. Often times, shots of unusual things can create a really visually appealing image, and it makes the mind think more critically about the picture in order to make sense of it. I really think that I have had success this year unfolding as an artist. My styles of painting and photography are more readily recognizable, and it’s cool to notice themes and common figures and likenesses across my artwork.
I think I had a very successful year. My academics took a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and the road was not without trials and hardship. But I did some real emotional growing. I am planning to go off my medication for good come summer under the careful supervision of my acupuncturist in Oakland. I am preparing now by keeping up an herbal regimen to help my digestion, mood, and general energy during the day. It’s going to be hard work but I think I feel ready. I am no longer seeing a therapist or the practitioners at the health center- I’m at the highest weight I’ve been at in two years, I really enjoy food and I feel amazing. I’m planning on staying in Washington for a few weeks after school lets out to finish out the elementary school year until I go home to do acupuncture and visit my old friends. And, if I raise enough money, I’ll go then to South Africa, volunteering with orphaned and disabled children for a month. It’s always been a dream of mine to go to Africa, and with my rekindled love for children, I know I can help make a difference down there.
I want to thank Raul Nakasone, Yvonne Peterson and David Rutledge for teaching this incredible class. Without the constant support, freedom and unconditional trust offered to the student of this course, I definitely would not have had such a relaxing, nurturing and simultaneously productive freshman year. I achieved exactly what I wanted to this year and much more. I am looking forward to my next few years at Evergreen with hope and confidence, holding fast to the tools I’ve acquired through this class and my exploration of its limits. Heritage was exactly what I needed to rebuild and rejuvenate myself, and I’m proud to call myself a student of this course and the incredible institution that is Evergreen. Thank you for listening to my presentation today and…