On July 18, 2000, my boyfriend and first love, Michael Moran, died in a car accident.
The details of Michael’s death are unnecessary to recount here. However, one thing stands out in my mind about that day: Strange though it may seem, during those first moments of learning of his death, I remember clearly thinking to myself, “I cannot return to school.”
I had attended the University School of Nashville ever since being enrolled there as a first-grader in January 1991. USN is a magical place, especially in the elementary grades. It had always been a home away from home for me. I had literally grown up with my classmates, and when we looked toward the future, toward all the upcoming transitions and milestones of high school, we always took comfort in the certainty that we would make these transitions together. I could never imagine leaving USN, leaving my friends, leaving those halls for another school. But isn’t it always those things that you think are so secure and sure in your life that seem to flip upside down and change completely?
During my first three days of class that fall, I broke down regularly, leaving my classmates and teachers with no idea how to comfort me. If someone didn’t know what had happened to Michael, if we had to discuss our summer vacation in class, if I had to walk down the hall aloneanything could set me off. I did not go back to class the fourth day, Thursday. Nor did I return that Friday, Sept. 1, which would have been Michael’s 18th birthday. I stayed at home, and tried to forget about everything in my life.
The psychiatrist I’d been seeing after Michael’s death recommended to my parents that I leave USN temporarily, so my parents withdrew me with the option to return for the second semester. For those first few weeks, I slept late and woke up tired; I watched TV without seeing a thing; I went for long drives. I was deeply depressed, still in mourning, and there were times I thought this would be my permanent state of mind.
But by November, I felt up to working again. I began taking classes through the University of Nebraska, which has the oldest home school and correspondence school programs in the nation. I enrolled in four courses, two of which were correspondence classes on the Internet.
I soon discovered that education without a classroom wasn’t for me. I missed lectures, taking notes, the dynamics of discussions. The self-discipline home schooling required, along with the isolation and long stretches of boredom, were more demanding than I’d imagined. But when my mom suggested I go back to USN, I shuddered. I had only returned to campus four times since I’d withdrawn, mainly to visit friends at lunchtime. USN was no longer the same to me: The friendly hallways seemed foreboding, smiling faces seemed hollow. Even though Michael had graduated from Brentwood High School, the sense of security I associated with USN had been completely destroyed. During each visit, without fail, I had a panic attack.
My friend Scott had mentioned that Nashville State Technical Institute offered high school credits for their courses in their dual enrollment program, and this sparked my interest. Perhaps I was drawn to the anonymity of the place, the fact that no one there knew about what I was dealing with. For reasons not completely known to me, I enrolled that winter.
Ironically, my first class at Tech was entitled “Psychology of Adjustment.” I felt terribly uncomfortable and out of place when I entered the classroom that first day. Not only was I significantly younger than my classmates, but our backgrounds were worlds apart. Half the students were white (as am I), but the rest were a mix of African American, Laotian, Chinese, and Hispanic. It was scary for a kid who assumed that someone who lives outside the 37205 zip code was poor. And if they were from a different socio-economic background than me, I assumed that they were dangerous, or uncultured, or stupid, or failures, or all of the above.
While we waited for the teacher to arrive, I began to take notes about my surroundings and classmates. I still have those notes; they read like a laundry list of biases and assumptions that I made about the kind of people who went to Tech, as well as the place itself. “These people are at least 15 years older than me, but they think like a group of 10-year-olds.” “They have children.” “They live in Dickson and drag race their cars for fun.”
I sat down next to a rotund, balding man in his mid-30s with a baby face. He smiled and offered me a Starburst. I tried to imagine why he was here. After all, he looked normal and kind. (My biases were at work againsomething had to be wrong with him.) He turned, reached out to shake my hand, and introduced himself as Michael. I told him it was my favorite name, and I shook his hand back, but meeting him only added to my misery and discomfort. I had come here hoping to put Michael’s death behind me, and right off the bat I met someone who reminded me of the whole experience. I went home that day uncertain whether I’d made a good decision enrolling.
For the next day’s class, the teacher had asked us to bring in an object that represented us and the reason we were at Nashville Tech. I sat in my room that night, pondering what to bring. I finally decided on my boyfriend Michael’s old Puma shoe, which he had been wearing in the accident.
Class the next day was structured around people telling their stories about their objects. Anita, a black woman with a gold tooth, went first. She wore a shirt that said “My daughter is a Navy Seal.” She was my parents’ age. “This,” she said, “is a medallion. I got it when I finished rehab a year ago. I have been clean since then, and I hold this medallion with pride. Cocaine took half my life away from me, and I’m here to take it back.”
Michael stood up next. “I, too, have my medallion from rehab. It is a long battle, and I’m not sure if it is over yet, but I have the strength to keep going. I’ve gotten this far.” As the class proceeded, I learned that most of my classmates shared the same story: Most were older, married, or divorced with children, but returning to college or enrolling for the first time. Just like me, they had plans in life. They had dreams and ideas. They didn’t want to work the night shift at UPS after working all day somewhere else. They had to, so that they could pay for their children’s food and save for their college education. As each person stood up and told their story and explained why their object represented them, I started to feel smaller and smaller. I wasn’t the only one with problems. As different as we looked, talked, and lived, I realized that I wasn’t the only one whose life hadn’t gone according to plan.
Over the course of the semester, this psychology class opened my eyes to experiences and people I never would have encountered otherwise. With the help of Michael, Anita, and the other students, I experienced something that had been preached to us at USN for years: You learn through diversity. And yet at the same time, I saw USN from an entirely new perspective. It was a private school of predominantly white kids who could only proclaim the beauty of diversity. At bottom, we were all from the same general background. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my education had been profoundly lacking in this regard. And yet ironically, here at Nashville Tech, a place I had prejudged, a place that the culture of achievement at USN had made me feel I should look down on, I was getting the greatest education of my life.
I finished my classes at Tech in May and said goodbye to Michael, Anita, and our professor. The anniversary of Michael’s death has come and gone, and my journey continues. My friend Scott, who originally told me about Nashville Tech’s high school program, is now my new boyfriend. I will be returning to USN this fall for my senior year, and I am already thinking of which outfit I should wear for my senior portraits.
Admittedly, not every loose end has been tied up. I still have to finish some home school classes, and I’m occasionally ambushed by my grief. Although I have changed considerably, I am still adjusting to my “new” life without Michael.
But I finally understand why my first thought after his death was that I couldn’t return to school. I had always believed USN was a safe haven. But no place is safe; no plans are secure. Once we recognize this uncertainty, what matters is how we respond to it.
As much as I miss Michael and desperately wish that he were still here with us, I consider this past 12 months to be the greatest year of my life. I am a better person than I was. I am transformed because of the new places and people I’ve encountered. From a terrible loss, I gained a great deal. Like that loss, the gain was utterly unexpected.
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