- Photo Blogs
- Special Reports
— Avantika Khatri, Jack Schoelz and Shivangi Singh
Maria Kalaitzandonakes stayed in a wheelchair for a week. At no point did she abandon her wheelchair for both legs, even when encountering stairs.
Lauren Puckett meditated for an hour every day in her busy week. The time allowed her to cool down, reflect and reenter her life with more energy.
Nomin Jagdagdorj forwent her Mongolian diet, consisting primarily of meat and dairy, for a vegan diet to appreciate the difficult life choice.
Daphne Yu operated on a limited budget. She attempted to simulate the lifestyle of those below the poverty line.
Kirsten Buchanan normally never wears make-up, nor does she ever dress up. And she rarely straightens her hair. Yet, for one week she dressed up in the morning to gauge how people would treat her differently.
Mahogany Thomas wore a hijab and practiced tenets of the Islamic faith for one week. Now not only a racial minority, as an African-American, but as a religious minority, Thomas faced the world with two strikes against her.
Jackie Nichols and Avantika Khatri switched households. Both come from vastly different backgrounds with different rules and family traditions to abide by.
Adam Schoelz attempted to emulate the lifestyle of a couchsurfer. He stayed at different friends’ houses over the course of the week and relied on these friends for sustenance.
The muscles in my arms strained. “Just one more inch,” I thought, “and then I can open the door.” My red painted fingernails brushed the wooden edge of the door. As my other hand let go of the wheels on my chair, I began to roll backward. A kid inside the commons sort of chuckled and opened the door.
Thus began my journey every day for a week. Each morning started with the inability to open a door for myself; this frustration with my lack of independence ate away at my stomach as I tried to calm myself down.
A week in a wheelchair, though, showed me a new perspective — to see how others dealt with the same issue. I couldn’t fully appreciate the flooring humbleness, however, because in the corner of my mind I knew I could simply stand up if I needed to.
But math teacher Travis Martin could not get up. He was riding on a motorcycle when a deer hit him, he said. If the deer had hit him at a slightly different angle, though, Martin could have been in the wheelchair for much longer or even permanently paralyzed.
This possibility scared him the most because he had just become a father; he was worried he would never be able to play baseball with his son, not be able to drive him to dances or just carry him from his crib in the morning.
After only a few screws in his leg, he counted himself lucky not to be in the wheelchair for life.
Unlike Martin, whose time in the chair started because of an accident, sophomore Sarah Poor had prior notice. Her experience came from a planned invasive knee surgery. Even though she acknowledged the implications, Poor did not realize just how difficult her time in the chair would be or how blessed she felt for simply being able to walk four weeks later.
The flip side of the situation was how she had to ask others to do everything for her. And after only one week in the chair I found my good attitude crumbling, as I became a completely dependent person.
Pushing past the pain
Velma. That’s what they called me. My cover story for the wheelchair was I fell down a flight of stairs because of my awful vision, breaking my left leg and twisting my right, previously injured knee. The “Scooby Doo” reference offered humor in this tragic tale, and the name stuck.
After one week in a wheelchair, my hands became stained. Pushing myself around and grabbing at the wheels had transferred the wheelchair’s grimy color to my now black palms, even after at least 20 scrubs. Worse than the color though was the ache, mostly in my upper arms and newly callused hands.
The pain came from straining new muscles — never before had I pushed 130 pounds of me from class to class. I used to complain about the extra 20 pounds my Paul Frank backpack added. By the time I would get to my class in my wheelchair, I would be out of breath and need a drink. By the time I’d return from the water fountain, I’d be panting again.
For Martin, too, each day in the chair was a physical struggle. He couldn’t get around to students in his classes because of the wheelchair’s weight and bulkiness.
“Everything takes just that much effort to do,” Martin said. “You don’t really want to go anywhere. If anyone wanted to see me, then they’d have to come to my classroom. When I’d get home, I’d sit on the couch and ice my leg. … It’s exhausting to be in the chair.”
Adding to the simple tiredness of my body, the needed skills of maneuvering through chairs and doorways made the trek from class to class even more of a challenge. On my second day in the chair, I mustered up the courage to venture into the cafeteria.
It was like rush hour traffic, except no one could see me; I was at the waist of most kids and at the knees of some of the basketball players.
But true to RBHS spirit, when the students did glance down, they were all courteous: offering to carry my tray, getting my strawberry milk from the way-too-high-to-reach container and even yelling over my head, “Move out of the way, wheelchair comin’ through.” However, my experience of helpful individuals did not exemplify what Poor went through.
“One time when I fell outside, in my transition phase between the chair and crutches, it took people five minutes to come and see if I was all right,” Poor said. “Because of that fall, I had to go back into the wheelchair. People treated me as best they could, but if you haven’t been disabled, you can’t really sympathize with what we go through.”
I acted in a similar way before I experienced life — albeit briefly — in a wheelchair. I remember a montage of moments in the grocery stores of my past when an automatic wheelchair would whiz by me, dropping something from the cart. If I was alone in the aisle with them, I would feel obligated to pick it up and put it in their cart. If, however, there were others shopping too, I would simply look down and walk on.
Now, after my week in the chair, I’ve rethought my grocery store etiquette and happily help out the chair-bound strangers.
Poor and Martin, too, described the helpfulness of individuals when they were alone, for example holding doors, but when it came to the masses, like in the hallways or at football games, people seemed not to see the chair.
The reactions of high school kids, however, pleasantly surprised me. Except for the good-natured name calling of “cripple” or laying their TV-preacher hands on my legs and crying out that I was indeed “healed!” RBHS students met my disability with helpfulness and understanding. They offered to push me to class, even — to my horror — popping wheelies on the way.
Emotionally fractured mind
Only after a week, even with all the help I received, I began to feel depressed in the wheelchair. According to a study by Dr. Karla Thompson, a Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist at the Univerisy of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, those living with a disability are two to 10 times more likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts. This is mostly due to lack of mobility, loneliness and health issues or pain.
For me the sadness came from the inability to do normal things: to storm out of a room to prove a point, to hug my friends tightly, to jump up and down when I got an A in math or even be included in conversations as I was a few feet below them.
My new height made simple things difficult. Conversations took place over my head, rather than with me. When trying to drive myself around, the store racks were often right at my face level. When rolling through the juniors’ section, I couldn’t reach the hangers, and as I passed through the aisles, the long dresses caught in my wheels. At home, I couldn’t get a plate down to eat, and even if I could, I was unable to use the stove or microwave to heat up any food. In the morning I would pull down all my clothes off the hangers, which were out of my reach, and leave the clothes in a pile on the floor to choose the day’s dressing.
I couldn’t open a door myself. I couldn’t go in my front door. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t even take a shower, only baths where I could sit. I was constantly changing my routine or depending on other people.
Pushing myself around those nook-entrances for bathrooms at school was impossible. Often, between classes I had to ask random people, of both sexes, to push me into the restroom. Once I was in the bathroom, getting to the wheelchair stall — which half the time was in use by walking people — was difficult. I came to the gross realization that I had to touch my wheels with dirty hands until I could get myself to the sink and wash them, now a waste of time as my wheels were contaminated.
Such struggles happened every day; dependence on others became the only way I could function in the chair. I had to ask people to grab a book from a high shelf in the media center or push me to my next class when my arms started shaking from exhaustion.
Martin said this dependence was the most difficult thing to deal with. He became a father recently, and he takes pride in being able to be a part of his son’s life. After becoming wheelchair-bound, he had to leave most of the work and play with the baby up to his wife.
“I could pick him up in the morning, but then I’d have to hand him off to my wife,” Martin said. “I couldn’t get him ready or change him or anything. … I always had to be careful that he wasn’t touching my leg, and I couldn’t get down on the floor to play with him.”
When put at wheelchair level, Martin was unable to help his wife with baby Rhys, help around the house or drive his manual transmission car.
I, too, felt this dependence, which for me transformed into pity, probably the most frustrating emotion that comes with disability. People who had not talked to me in class before this year were suddenly worried about me and even good friends used the sympathetic excuse of a task’s difficulty to separate me from an activity.
The wheelchair put both parties in a difficult emotional position. Poor said that the practical aspect of the constant accommodations that she needed made normal school life difficult.
Martin said being unable to do the dishes, play with his baby or get around his classroom to help kids on a more one-on-one level made the emotional side of the chair quite trying.
Even with my friends’ best intentions, being in a chair was very lonely. The height I lost sitting in the chair gave me a new perspective.
Pretending to be disabled let me witness the miscommunication that happens in a disability. Although others were trying to be kind and not make me do anything too hard, I felt incapable and weak. The help they offered came off as pity, but the lack of help came off as snobbish.
A week of reflections
I tried to believe I was in a wheelchair the whole time, but I messed up a lot. At one point my friend hit my leg that was supposedly broken but I had no reaction. He yelled out, “Why aren’t you screaming?” and I tried to cover my mistake with the excuse of painkillers. But he didn’t buy it.
Once he found out the truth and pinkie swore to secrecy, he was hopping mad. Why didn’t I tell one of my best friends? He wanted to know. But after a while, and a few assurances that I was OK, he forgave me.
Then he was curious as to how I even kept the secret. I admit I am an awful secret keeper and an awful liar. I cried more than once that week because I felt dreadful for lying to my friends, peers and teachers. My two-legged secret was eating me alive with guilt.
I spent a week in a wheelchair. And I learned a few things: the location of all the ramps around town, the shapeliness of many people’s butts, the ability of sunscreen to get the blackness out of the lines in hands, the frustration that comes with needing other’s constant help, the difficulty of lying to a whole school and how glad I am to be able to walk.
As I left the school the final day, I pushed the door open with my left hand, backed up and navigated with my right hand and slid successfully through the doorway on my own. When I finally left my chair, I did a cartwheel then stretched out my legs, happily aware, perhaps for the first time, how much I had taken them for granted.
I was pushing against an immovable barrier, sitting cross-legged on my bed listening to spa music. I tried to meditate, pushing aside all of my thoughts — homework, rehearsals and teenage drama. I’d heard story after story about how wonderful meditation was, about its healing powers and focusing techniques. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking long enough to get a deep breath in. School, friends and life poked at the surface, snatching away the calm feelings I attempted to grab. I couldn’t find any center, let alone “my” center.
Guidance counselor Leslie Kersha experienced a similar problem when she began learning yoga and meditation. Watching Madonna on her home television, Kersha had seen celebrities practicing yoga as a fitness exercise and meditation as a calming one. Kersha eagerly stepped into the routine, reading books and watching videos for yoga movements, happy she had found a new way to get in shape and relaxed.
It didn’t take long, however, for her thoughts to get in the way. Soon she realized yoga and meditation were far less bodily processes than they were journeys within the mind.
“We’re in our minds a lot, and all the time we’re thinking, thinking, thinking,” said Kersha, who teaches yoga and meditation classes at a local gym. “But when we meditate, we’re able to tune in to an inner stillness, so we can notice our true voice and our intuition and listen more to our heart than our head.”
Understanding this concept took far longer than I expected. For the first few days, I viewed my meditation practice as a burden. It was a task I had forced myself into, another job for newspaper. It was an extra 20-30 minutes I had to spend with my eyes closed, when I could have been studying lines or reworking a U.S. Studies thesis. I would fall asleep in the middle of some meditations, trying to imagine cliché Hawaiian calendar scenes, exhausted and frustrated with myself. Every time a new thought entered my mind, I would aggressively try to push it away, and every time it just came drifting back to the surface, as if to mock me.
Something was obviously wrong if I was the one person in the world who didn’t feel good after meditating. It was supposed to be all sunsets and rainbows and pretty violin music, not caffeine, droopy eyes and chemistry equations.
Senior Olivia Zhang, who took several of Kersha’s classes while also practicing yoga and meditation on her own, had the same initial difficulty with focus during meditation.
“I think meditating can be really hard because you can’t help but think about a whole bunch of things at once,” Zhang said. “Like, ‘Oh, I have a test tomorrow. Oh, I have to study,’ or, ‘Oh, I need to go pick somebody up.’ It’s really difficult that way, so [when meditating] I usually sit there and take a whole bunch of deep breaths. Then you just wind down and get into this state where you finally feel calm and relaxed.”
It was not until Wednesday of that week that I reached the same point as Zhang, where meditation sparked something more than stifled groans.
Fed up with lying across my bed and finding no peace in guided meditation videos, I headed back behind my house, seeking a little rendezvous with nature. I settled myself by a backyard pond, turned on piano music, sat down and closed my eyes. I leaned back and tried to notice everything around me — not what I thought about it, but simply how it felt.
I was aware of everything — the crickets chirping, the wind blowing back my hair, the gooseflesh running down my legs. I didn’t judge and didn’t question — just felt and observed.
And, in the process of observing everything, I noticed nothing. Nothing about my normal life. I felt like I could spread wings and dive into anything with zeal, when only minutes ago I’d been complaining about tedious busywork.
After meditating I went upstairs and helped my mom cook dinner, not saying much. Instead, I danced across the hardwood floors in my socks, twirling like a ballerina every time I rounded a corner. It was more than a little weird, but I couldn’t help myself.
I’d figured out what I wanted. For all of Monday and Tuesday I was wallowing in self-pity, desperately trying to figure out what it was I wanted. All my schoolwork seemed pointless, the drama between my friends and me was overwhelming and I couldn’t keep any memorization locked in my head.
But as I focused more, it all started to click. Meditation started making sense, just like it eventually did for Zhang.
“If I ever wanted to really think about something, I would probably just sit there and meditate,” Zhang said. “You put yourself in a very quiet room just so you can think about things and go into a deeper level of thought without any disturbances. You can analyze your relationship with friends or think about a topic for an essay. You can just sit there, and go through it all in your head.”
And as the week progressed, as my thoughts slowed and developed, I changed. I meditated in everything I did, through stillness and the calm movements of everyday life. Kersha told me meditation could be anything from “brushing your teeth to taking a walk” because it wasn’t an absence of thinking; it was an absence of stress, distraction and anything that could set a nerve on end.
Meditation is when you’re “really getting still enough that you start to know yourself well,” Kersha said. “We are ourselves, so you think we would know ourselves, but a lot of times we don’t. And that’s because we’re taking in so much external stimuli. … Everyone else is telling us who we are and what we should be and how we should live. And if we take all that in, if we’re not conscious and reflective … you get to a point in your life and it’s like, ‘How did I get here? This isn’t even what I wanted. What happened?’”
I started to reflect on my decisions every day, giving me time to relax without someone talking in my ear or pushing me to work. And as that happened, I was more positive in everything I did. Friend drama was easy to solve, and my musical lines solidified in my mind changing work to play. I was overall more awake and more agreeable.
I didn’t realize all this until now, but I was happy with meditation, even in the midst of business and stress.
“I do think that’s part of what meditation is about,” Kersha said. “Getting still, drowning out the noise of daily life. … Then you can really start to … live according to your true purpose and desire. And while that might come across as sounding really selfish, it’s actually the most unselfish thing a person can do. Because if they’re truly using their gifts and talents and passions and love and living the authentic life, they’re going to be so much more helpful and beneficial to the world and others than they would if they’re living a life that, to them, is almost fake.”
On a typical morning, I ignore breakfast as I try to get through the higher teenage priorities of sunrise: 20 more minutes of sleep, one more coat of mascara, a few pages of the book assigned by the teacher who seems to require analysis of even the simplest of plot turns.
So this particular morning, when I sliced a ripe white peach and daintily used a shrimp fork to eat it, I should have been quite pleased with myself for fitting in a breakfast — one that had actual nutritional value and wasn’t skillfully snatched up in large bites somewhere between Forum Boulevard and Providence Road on my way to early morning band practices.
Instead, my mind revolved only around the thought that I’d be eating similar foods all day.
Healthy foods. Healthy foods could not eat me into comfort or out of boredom. I needed meat to satiate my starved stomach and ice cream to beguile me to better days. Fruit just was not cut out for such large responsibilities.
Vegan Extraordinaire day one: wishing I could eat the tantalizing fried-egg-on-toast meal my mom had prepared, a luxury for any teenager awake at the early pre-dawn hours, sitting right next to my suddenly paltry peach.
Approximately one percent of American teenagers are vegans, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. This statistic would account for approximately 18 vegans at RBHS.
I pestered everyone I felt reasonably acquainted with through text, over Facebook and in person. I found no one.
It wasn’t entirely unbelievable, either. Veganism is just too extreme. The closest I came to finding someone who had ventured into such a lifestyle was senior Jeanne Quinn, who had experimented with veganism for three months in ninth grade, just “to see what it was like.”
But she said veganism became too difficult for her to stay away from non-vegan food, to balance her diet and to resist dining with her friends and family, so she eagerly returned to her meat-eating ways.
Other students willingly suffered through similar but slightly lesser difficulties. Students surrendered to this lifestyle because of both personal taste and moral grounds. Junior Nina Parker chose vegetarianism because she originally preferred only chicken, but eventially switched to no meat because of her ethical judgement on the matter.
“I felt really guilty because I was eating something that was alive,” Parker said. “I just felt like I was eating a helpless, defenseless, poorly treated creature.”
Fifty-four percent of vegetarians, according to a Harris Interactive Service Bureau survey on behalf of “Vegetarian Times,” say concern for animal welfare causes them to give up meat.
According to www.farmsanctuary.org, just four corporations are responsible for 80 percent of the 35 million cows slaughtered annually—four corporations that generally leave cattle to fend for themselves in the face of inclement weather and disease, such as “cancer eye,” an ailment that eats a crater into the side of the cattle’s head.
For Parker this principle has been enough to prevent her from returning to her unethical ways.
“It’s another characteristic that does define me,” Parker said. “Even thinking about [eating meat again] makes me sick.”
On my end I had no idealistic fervor. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about animal cruelty; meat-eating defined me just as much as vegetarianism defined Parker.
First, it went against my way of life. Without beef, stir fry was not complete. Soup was missing a crucial element and dumplings were meaningless. I ate meat regularly. I enjoyed it regularly.
Also, I really enjoy ice cream.
And so, with this not-so-inspired attitude, I found myself in my second day of vegan-living. More than my impressive willpower, making it to day two better marked how much I failed at planning. Day two was conveniently my birthday.
But I was easily reconciled when I came out of band; I found a box of frosted chocolate chip cupcakes waiting for me. The card started out, “To my little VEGAN.” My best friend had baked me the birthday cupcakes — Vegan Double Chocolate Chip cupcakes with vegan frosting.
That night, my family ordered pizza from Shakespeare’s: one cheese on white and one veggie on wheat. I love Shakespeare’s cheese and veggie pizzas on white and wheat. But I ate a repeat of lunch — peanut butter and jelly on egg-free bread.
This substitution of meals was the hardest part of veganism for Quinn.
“I couldn’t eat with my friends or family that easily,” Quinn said. “If I went over to a friend’s house, I felt really bad because I usually couldn’t eat what their parents were cooking.”
Veganism was also difficult at home, where Quinn’s mother had to prepare special dinners for her. Junior Bess Goodfellow faced similar difficulties as a vegetarian but said vegetarianism can become even more frustrating when only vegan meal choices are available.
“On airplanes, they just give you vegan meals if you order vegetarian meals,” Goodfellow said. Airline vegan meals are “grosser than regular airplane food.”
Accommodating meals for vegetarians is also a challenge when no vegetarian choice is available. Parker referred to misleading soups that use chicken broth, and Goodfellow cited a similar deception in chili. But the real trouble is with ordered food.
Goodfellow once ordered a vegetarian platter in Germany, but communication blunders presented her with a plate of meat. Similar mistakes happened even when both parties were speaking the same language.
“One time, they got my order wrong at Taco Bell, and I bit into it,” Parker said, recalling her bite of beef. “I spit it out. I felt like I was going to cry.”
To avoid any accidental ingestion of animal products, I ate almost entirely food I brought from home.
But on the third day, I committed vegan felony. The charge? Consumption of illegal substances. Illegal substance? Honey, disguised in iced tea.
If, however, a vegan court did actually exist, I would not have been immediately condemned. After all, post-transgression, the trusty Internet told me that not all vegans agree on whether honey is forbidden. If people could cheat vegetariansim by becoming flexitarians (omnivores who only occasionally eat small animals) or pollotarians (chicken-consumers, but no red meat) or pescetarians (fish, hold the chicken and red stuff), then surely, a self-declared, unrighteous vegan could consume the trace amounts of honey in an iced green tea. Still, I shot my dad a look for luring me into taking a sip, although I knew I should have checked before I (nearly) chugged.
A few days later, I thought I had accidentally added another vegan atrocity to my record. Watching a friend dabble in the delights of saving the red Skittles for last, I couldn’t resist asking him to spare a few of the orange ones (to help him get rid of the excess, I argued). Out of the sympathy in his heart for a supposedly starved vegan, he obligingly gave me another Skittle a few minutes later —a red one.
And then I ran to the trash can to spit it out and thought of any possible way I could spite that stupid creation called gelatin.
But apparently, Skittles recently stopped using gelatin. “Gluten-Free, Gelatin-Free.” was supposedly written on the back of the bag. Too bad I still hadn’t learned to read labels. My remorse from spitting out that savory Skittle was unsurpassed, until I remembered a website I had found years ago, declaring that Mars Candy tested on animals (www.marscandykills.com). How a candy company tests on animals, I didn’t know (but actually, it’s really horrendous what they do—forcing tubes down rats’ throats and then cutting open their legs to see the effect of chocolate on artery vessels, followed by the extermination of their unwilling test subjects). My trusty sidekick in all vegan-related questions, commonly known as Google, confirmed the fact: Skittles were a part of Mars Candy.
I found comfort in knowing that my red Skittle incident had not been in vain.
At the end of the week, I donned my leather shoes and felt much better eating my more hardy breakfast.
I had transitioned from sixteen to seventeen, suffered through the toils of a band competition with no funnel cake or other fried goods to compensate and found that even vegan protein bars can taste pretty appealing after hours of refraining from nearly every food I encountered.
So, for one week, I walked carefully to make sure I didn’t accidentally go against my vegan ways. Although, as a vegan, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to be walking around on eggshells.
I can’t afford it,” I said Monday morning when my friend asked to take me out to lunch. Even though I had spent an hour the night before cooking my economized meal, all the work seemed wasted: it was sitting on the kitchen counter.
After calculating my monetary restriction of $10 total for all 21 meals that week, I was lunch-less.
“Oh, don’t worry,” my friend said, sparing me the humiliation of begging, “I’ll pay for you.”
The feeling that I couldn’t repay monetary kindness was 10 times worse than the embarrassment of forgetting money to pay.
In the 1960s, the fight was for human rights. In the ‘70s, focus shifted to world peace. The ‘80s featured hippies. The ‘90s saw the rise of the digital age. America’s ‘Lost Decade’ came next.
Between 2000 and 2010, the poverty level in America reached 46.2 million people — the highest since the census bureau began keeping records 52 years ago.
Nowadays, one in seven Americans lives below the poverty line. Poverty seems like just a word, but there is no set definition. Each situation is different, and my experience was just a fraction of a fraction of what living in poverty looks like.
When my week began, my immediate thought was, “Oh, my gosh, no Internet for a week?” But with the cost of the mortgage, insurance and utility bills, simple luxuries like Internet, texting and television had to go. The resulting loss of entertainment and social media was detrimental to my mental health.
Stress syndrome hit Wednesday night, a day before the week ended. I was grumpy, virtually hungry, wanting to eat things around the house that I couldn’t afford and knew there was so much I could be doing but didn’t have the means to.
The Internet is my lifeline. It is my source for news, entertainment and knowledge. Without Internet for a week, I felt cut-off from the world. Without my social connections, I felt restless, non-existent and frustrated.
But these are just surface inconveniences. There is more to poverty than not being able to do things and having to re-develop patience, without internet.
My week made me realize that even though I missed out on some things before the project — my family is not wealthy, but we do not live from paycheck to paycheck — what I had was good enough.
Junior Tasha Brooks’s family barely has enough to pay for amenities since both of her parents lost their jobs during the recession. Her uncle and her mother’s unemployment check support the family of four.
Because she has no Internet or Microsoft software, she completes all her school assignments at school except for geometry, which she can do at home with a $15 calculator. Her family relies on government assistance for everyday life, but Brooks feels neither ashamed nor embarrassed of her situation. The only thing she shows is appreciation.
“I feel grateful for the government,” Brooks said. They “can’t afford much, but they give us what they can, and it helps us pay our bills. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to eat every day.”
The government and charity organizations support those who need financial help with food, such as food stamps and the food bank, but knowing where to shop also helps save money.
The majority of the meals I consumed were sale items and totaled less than a dollar each and $6.94 total, compared to the average American expenditure, according to Forbes magazine, of $32.55 a week.
I had the same thing —Chon’s Microwavable chow mien or my own concoction of Clam and Chowder, rice, and one pound of potatoes — for lunch and dinner on multiple days not because they were delicious, but because they were inexpensive.
Senior Andy Belzer said money management is key to handling financial problems. Belzer comes from a family of 14. His mother homeschools half of his siblings, and his father is a pastor.
His family still has food to eat, clothes to wear and a house to sleep in. His mother shops at garage sales, Goodwill and Aldi instead of mega stores to save money.
Belzer’s father does not earn a lot, but his family values hard work. He believes “just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you don’t work harder than anybody else.”
Columbia Public Schools does not employ students but instead tries to help those in need through other ways. RBHS has a fund to help students pay for certain things, like the ACT and SAT, and maybe even a winter coat during the frigid months.
“We do everything we can to support our students so they have an opportunity to excel like everybody else does,” said guidance counselor Jane Piester, a former social worker. “I think it’s an atmosphere where students that don’t have the resources that others do are singled out” and assisted.
It is stressful and hard to live in poverty. But my week taught me something more valuable than what life is like without Internet.
With attention-demanding grabbers like grades, standardized tests and college on the horizon, I haven’t really stopped to think about what I have. And I have realized life isn’t about the college I end up going to, the job I’ll have when I graduate or my monthly paycheck.
It is the simple things that make life exciting, which during this week I was able to appriciate. Because no matter how dismal everything seems, there are still those who have less.
“I see a lot of people at school who … waste their money and take it for granted, but with the money I have, I don’t take it for granted. I really appreciate the money we get and the things that we can have,” Brooks said. “I can’t do everything that everybody else does, but it doesn’t bother me that much.”
Around 900 girls stroll the hallways of RBHS each day, and about 78 percent – or 700 of them – are unhappy with their bodies, according to a study conducted by the National Institute on Media and the Family.
A similar study conducted by the NPD group found 47 percent of girls aged 13-17 try to fix their appearance by using makeup.Sophomore Allison Baker is one of them.
“I wear makeup because it makes you prettier. For me it brings out my eyes. I just think certain people – me included – need makeup,” Baker said. “I think I am more attractive with makeup on because it covers up my freckles. Anything on your face you don’t like you can cover up” with makeup.
Sophomore Sarah Moore believes makeup is simply a cultural custom instead of a way to mask imperfections.
“What everyone else thinks makes you look prettier [is] our view of what ‘pretty’ is. Like bigger eyes [are prettier] and eyeliner makes your eyes look bigger, so that’s what we do,” Moore said. “Everyone started wearing makeup back in, like, sixth grade, and you slowly build up to what you want to do every day. It gets to a point where you don’t really want to go without makeup, or at least mascara or something, and that’s just what happens.”
I missed the sixth grade cutoff. Until this year, I had never worn makeup to school. I rarely dressed up or put too much effort into my appearance. However, for this article, I decided to spend a week “being pretty.”
Being pretty, apparently, consisted of wearing a dress and layering my makeup-virgin eyes in eyeliner and mascara daily.
I didn’t expect people to snicker the first time I dressed up for school. Surely my appearance wouldn’t matter that much. Frankly, I was under the impression my friends didn’t care what I looked like – that the only thing that mattered was my personality.
Stepping out into the hallway the first day, I had never been more self-conscious. I felt naked, embarrassed that my peers would see me with my hair curled and my face all made up. Would they believe I had changed overnight, that all my values – the belief that the outside hardly mattered and that it was the inside that counted – had suddenly changed?
Horrifyingly, that was exactly what happened. The first person to comment on my new looks was senior Alex Sun, who rushed into my A.P. Latin class tardy. He interrupted the teacher and squealed, “Kirsten, you look so pretty today!”
“Thanks,” I sighed, embarrassed because the other two students in the class – and the teacher — were now staring at me.
When my teacher released us to the library to work, Alex looked at me again and laughed. He grilled me about my appearance: why was I dressed up? Why was I wearing makeup?
Because I felt ridiculous already, I decided to say something absurd to see if he would buy it.
“I just wanted to look pretty today,” I proclaimed, pairing the shallow statement with a fake smile.
“Huh,” he said — totally believing me – and then paused for a second. “Maybe you’re just trying to attract a mate.”
“A mate,” I repeated. “A mate. I’m 17. I don’t need a mate.”
Alex, however, was right. People, especially boys, would identify me differently with makeup on. Research by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School show makeup has a significant impact on the way people perceive women. The study found when a woman is wearing makeup, she “seems more attractive, competent, likable and trustworthy.”
This turned out to be true. I was absolutely stunned at my friend senior Ashley Hong’s reaction to me wearing makeup. Her grandpa had died the day before, and I expected to see her in a solemn mood, but Ashley took one look at my made-up face and burst out laughing. She literally did not stop laughing for at least two minutes — and when she did, she had nothing to say about her grandfather.
“Kirsten,” she exclaimed. “You just made my day. You look so beautiful.”
“Thanks,” I said with no heart in it.
“Why are you all dressed up?” she asked.
I delivered my soon-to-be mantra: “I just wanted to look pretty today.”
She studied me and then lowered her voice. “For someone to see?” she asked, referencing a junior boy we both found attractive.
I wanted to scream. But I wasn’t sure that would fly with Mr. Murphy, so I just shook my head. Surely Ashley – one of my best friends – would see through my act and realize this wasn’t really me.
“When you put on a bunch of makeup, it’s like you’re putting on a mask. I don’t wear makeup because I think if people don’t like what I look like without makeup on, then I don’t really care what they think about me,” senior Meganne Eaton agreed. “I’m not going to put makeup on just so people can like me.”
As the days slipped by, people gradually stopped laughing when they saw my face; they instead began to treat me differently. It was a subtle change, but it was there.
I stopped having serious conversations. Instead, friends talked about what they thought I wanted to talk about: makeup, beauty and boys. I didn’t want to drone on about shallow things, but apparently the way I was dressing suggested I did.
One morning my neighbor, sophomore Kira Kirk, eyed me as we walked up to the bus stop.
“So I’m liking this whole dress thing you have going on,” she told me, clearly proud that her older neighbor had begun to show some fashion sense.
“I’m not really a big fan of dresses,” I replied, shivering. A spaghetti strap dress in 40 degree weather was not a great idea. “I’m going to go back to dressing normal soon.”
“Normal?” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Normal” for me meant jeans and T-shirts – clearly a downgrade. “You should keep dressing up, Kirsten. You look so pretty!” She lowered her voice. “Oh, and by the way, I met the cutest guy at FFA yesterday…”
Conversations like this happened often during the week. Before dressing up and wearing makeup, my friends and I would discuses a variety of topics: school, puns, God and boys, among other things. But after I started wearing makeup, most of my conversations centered around one thing – boys.
And not only were people treating me differently when I wore makeup, but I also began to view myself in another way. When I got up in the morning and stared at myself in the mirror, I noticed my flaws.
I was falling into the trap of being “beautiful,” and I realized the only way I could climb out of hole of perfection was to stop wearing makeup.
These days, now that I have a choice, I don’t wear makeup. People laughed at me and treated me differently during my week; a big reason why, however, is because my looks had differed. It wasn’t the change that mattered, but the fact that I had made a change. Moore said this is why many girls, herself included, wear makeup daily – they are afraid of the reactions they will get if they suddenly stop wearing makeup.
“People can look pretty without makeup; it’s all about what you’re used to. I feel like I won’t look as good without makeup on. Not that I think I’ll look ugly, but I think [not wearing makeup] would be a big change – I could, but I’d have to slowly transition into that,” Moore said. “Makeup should be used to accent your face if [you] want to, and I don’t really judge people on whether they’re wearing makeup or not because it really doesn’t matter that much to me.”
Eyes followed me as I walked through the back door of my church. I was a stranger in my own place of worship, an outsider in a place I’d joined years ago. No loving arms surrounded me. The phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself” meant absolutely nothing to my congregation.
“I hope you have fun trying to read the Quran from right to left and living with that thing on your head,” a church member said as I entered.
He walked away, laughing, and as I trailed him and took my seat in a pew, the jokes didn’t stop.
No one tried to convert me back to Christianity or accept me for my new faith. Instead, I became the target on everyone’s dartboard.
However, this was not the first place I’d experienced hatred. Detestation had surrounded me since day one of my new appearance.
For a week I followed Islamic ideals, studying and practicing the Muslim faith.
I excluded pork from my menu, covered myself from head to toe in loosely fit clothes and even wore a hijab to illustrate my modesty.
Nothing painful, or so I thought. But my peers’ reactions were wounding.
On the first day I went to my second hour, where we started the class divided into groups discussing the New World’s opinion of Britain in the 17th and 18th century. Our task was to form arguments expressing why the New World must remain one with Britain.
Group work that day became torture. I tried to speak, but my opinion was suddenly not valid. My classmates just kept talking over me. And if they said anything at all to me, it was just about how ignorant my thoughts may be because of my hijab.
When I suggested an argument for our assignment, they ignored me. I repeated myself, but they ignored me again.
Ten minutes later they took my exact words and claimed them as their own. Apparently, I was too dumb to have a good idea worthy enough to be presented to the group. Their actions, however, showed my thoughts were too inventive to pass up.
As the group gushed over how creative it was, I shook my head in disbelief. That was my suggestion, and those were my words. My peers had just ignored every word that came from my mouth, only to take and present them as their work.
“Excuse me,” I said.
Once again, they ignored me.
Outnumbered, I went through the rest of my first day, only to be mistreated the more I continued to wear my hijab.
My self-confidence dropped as they laughed. My heart stopped when they judged me, and tears streamed as they haunted me. Every day I began to dread my new appearance because of those around me who snickered.
I didn’t understand.
My peers weren’t the only ones with preconceived notions; teachers had their own thoughts on my new ways.
As I took my seat in class, classmates had already begun questioning me, but not in a sympathetic way. A teacher’s comment five minutes into class only made things more complex.
“Must be having a bad day,” he said jokingly.
His comments had comical intentions, but they only increased the questioning and uncertainty from my peers.
I felt awful and didn’t know what to do. Was my whole day going to be like this?
After first block I’d cry. After second block I’d cry. During lunch I’d hang my head low because I just wanted to be invisible. At home I couldn’t relax as my only focus was on fearing the next day.
At age 10 senior Belquis Elhadi experienced a similar situation when she displayed her faith by wearing a hijab in public for the first time.
Elhadi said her mom was apprehensive about the whole situation, advising her not to wear it until she was completely ready. When Elhadi insisted, her mother called her teachers the night before to advise them of Elhadi’s decision. However, nothing was enough to prepare Elhadi for her friends’ extreme curiosity in gym the next morning.
Elhadi said the first three days were the hardest; she pushed those memories to the back of her mind, hoping never to relive them.
“One thing I do remember is being so overwhelmed by the looks and question[s]; all I could do was cry,” Elhadi said. “I remember my mom saying the quicker kids put the hijab on, the quicker they are to take it [off]. She just wanted to make sure I was ready.”
The purpose of a hijab is not to objectify people based on their looks, but to maintain modesty and to treat them based on their characters and personalities. However, Elhadi experienced the opposite result.
“There were so many questions, so many glances and so many uncertainties about whether I had changed as a person on the inside as well as on the outside,” Elhadi said.
The power of words coming from a fifth grader were just as bad coming from juniors and adults in my congregation.
Coming from a religion that is supposed to bring people closer to Christ, I never saw the work of a missionary, nor did I ever feel the abundant love my brothers and sisters in Christ should have given me. Instead, I was their doormat.
“You look so ugly with that thing on,” one girl said. “It’s quite a look, Mahogany.”
As I lowered my head and kept walking, the most common question was, “Why Islam?”
I tried to explain my curiosity, but my classmates couldn’t understand why I’d do such a thing. They thought I was compromising my beauty for a religion unworthy of my time.
“You were so pretty before you put that thing on. Now you just look stupid,” someone said as I walked past him in the hall. “I would never talk to you now.”
On the verge of tears, I just kept walking. I hoped his hurtful words were just a result of ignorance, not how he really felt.
Elhadi could remember the same hurtful words from her so-called friends.
“People were super curious. Sometimes in a genuine way and sometimes in an accusatory way, like, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ ” Elhadi said. “I understand that people weren’t used to it, but I myself wasn’t used to that much attention.”
While Elhadi drowned from extra attention in the fifth grade, being noticed had never been a big deal for me. But this limelight was completely different, one I soon found I couldn’t handle.
As long as my community saw me as a Muslim woman with an unknown past and unknown life, I was fine. But the minute my community saw me as someone who just converted or made the first step to publicly display it, all eyes became judgmental. Not only was I black, but now I was a Muslim, giving me two strikes in the world of my peers. In their eyes I was trying to separate myself from them even more, and they couldn’t understand why.
“I felt like I had landed in a spotlight,” Elhadi said.
This was way more than I’d bargained for going into this experiment. I’d never known my friends to be so cold. When I walked by them in the halls and made eye contact, they wouldn’t speak. School was unbearable, church was unlivable and life was undesirable.
I desperately wanted to be finished with this assignment for newspaper so that everyone would go back to seeing me as the young woman they saw before. But as I covered my head with fabric and dressed modestly from head to toe, my friends put on their cultural blinders and no longer wished to know me.
I couldn’t find my friends; I couldn’t find comfort in those I used to seek.
Elhadi sympathized with me as my understanding of the experiences of American Muslim women grew.
“I noticed people becoming more distant and becoming more reserved with me,” Elhadi said. They “thought I had not only changed the way I dressed, but my personality as well, which wasn’t true.”
Perception became everything to the outside world, as Elhadi and I desperately wanted to show people that we hadn’t changed.
I saw hatred through my eyes. I lived desertion through my experiences. I couldn’t understand why no one would support me.
At the end of the week I took off the hijab. The minute I removed it, someone who walked past me five seconds earlier without acknowledging my existence suddenly spoke up.
“Hey, what’s up?” he asked with a smile.
It was as if I wasn’t present before, as if my beauty was invisible in my appearance. I just kept walking, knowing when he previously saw me, he looked me in the eyes and couldn’t speak.
The truth hurts – I found out. As I saw out of all the people around me, only a handful were supportive in my change. The hijab wasn’t just an experiment for me anymore; it was a tutorial which will last a lifetime.
Elhadi and others of the Muslim community could relate. They would never forget the lessons they learned from wearing a hijab for the first time.
“It taught me a lot about myself and about other people,” Elhadi said. “Some of them were hard lessons to learn. For one, it taught me who my real friends were.”
It took no time to realize there’s no place like home
Of all we experienced, we found meals exposed family dynamics. Differences in whether or not we sit down together at meals reveal family interactions.
RBHS senior Stephen Turban, who is studying in Taiwan, has lived with three host families. All have been different. His own family eats dinner together, but while with one of his host families, he ate dinner on his own.
In another family the mother was heavily involved in her 12-year-old son’s life.
“He didn’t do anything for himself and the mom would yell at him,” Turban said. “Sometimes she would pick up his breakfast and shove it in his mouth, like, literally feed him.”
The meals also revolved around the mom. She “would wake up, she would, like, somehow run directly to the kitchen, make a meal for me and my little host brother and my older host sister, and she’d probably pack us lunch at the same time. Then she’d go off to work and then make dinner for us and clean. It’s, like, insane.”
When Turban was 12, he had a lot of independence: making breakfast, going to school and whether or not he chose to do homework. It was all his choice.
We experienced similar situations in our switch. Where parent cooked more meals and prepared breakfast or lunches indicated a level of dependence.
Senior Annika Moisio, a foreign exchange student, learned mealtimes are different than expected. Her family in Finland doesn’t eat together. Sometimes she ate with her mom, and her brother took food with him and left. The main difference between her native home and the one in Columbia is she has many more snacks here.
“I’m struggling with the temptations of American food,” Moisio said. “We have lots of snacks here, like cookies and ice-cream and chips. The house is full of temptations.”
The lights are on but nobody’s home
After school I endured three hours of unbroken silence until someone else came home: Mike (little brother) after soccer practice and Michael (dad) or Denise (Michael’s girlfriend) picked Mike up. Even Belle and Rags, the dogs, adhered to the code of silence.
Such were my evenings until, like clockwork, Mike returned with Denise or Michael at 7:30 p.m. Then we ate.
In a family as busy as this one, everyone still pulled an hour out of their schedules to enjoy a meal together.
Michael raised his kids to be independent. Anyone who knows Jackie even the slightest could tell, but she still is very close to her family, and at least part of it seems to be the handiwork of the dinners.
We ate out Monday, had frozen, processed food and leftovers Tuesday, Pizza Hut pasta Wednesday and tacos cooked by Michael on Thursday.
My parents have a very restricted palate, so in spite of my health concerns with eating processed foods several times a week, I enjoyed it.
My family used to eat together, but when school started killing me with stress and work, I started taking my food with me to my room.
Interactions with my parents hyper-evolved into spurts of conversation: after school, when I emerge for dinner, once every two weeks for an intense scream-off with my dad. It’s not ideal, but it’s the trade-off my family makes for my sanity.
How to survive meatless meals
Living in a single parent house with your dad means dinner is not a for sure thing.
Some nights you fend for yourself and cook a frozen pizza, and when you dad is feeling crafty, he constructs something out of the five main food groups (a name my brother and I gave our assortment of meals) of what he can cook.
Living at Avantika’s house was a treat. Every night when I returned home from work, I could immediately smell the spices of the meal she was preparing that night. Everything was made from scratch or prepared freshly in front of me, very different from the frozen processed food I was accustomed to.
Every night I ate until I was stuffed full of warm traditional Indian meals, and each night (mom) tried to force more food into me.
One thing I was not accustomed to was eating like a vegetarian. In my house meat — chicken, steak, pork — is a large portion of every meal. Avantika’s parents were raised vegetarian, and they continue to cook without meat.
At first I was a little nervous; could I even function without meat? To my surprise I learned I was not missing it. At night I didn’t go to sleep craving a hamburger or dreaming of steak.
I didn’t feel more tired at school or hungry during classes (hungrier than normal at least). Instead, it was a refreshing alternative to traditional American cuisine, if you can call it that.
She watched me eat: Dinner never brought togetherness
Moving to Avantika’s house meant quiet, alone time. For the week I would be rid of the stress of my younger teenage brother and trading it in for the title of an “only child.”
Coming from a fairly broken American family — think single dad dating around trying to raise two teenagers — I was excited to live in a stable household for a week.
Every day when I got home from work around 5:30, Kusum was in the kitchen ready to greet me. Naresh was relaxing in the living room and usually offered a goofy high-five to try to add a smile to my day.
On deciding when dinner would be ready, it was my choice — if I was ready to eat, dinner could be prepared within seconds as it was freshly cooked over the stove when I wanted more.
Each night I would be stuffed even before she started her meal, and she would insist that she sit alone to finish. I placed my dishes in the sink for her to clean up, and I thanked her for the meal.
I then retreated to Avantika’s room to start my homework and where I would hide for the rest of the night.
In my house if you eat dinner, you help prepare it, and you stay to clean up the mess. Dinner is not like eating in a restaurant with someone waiting on you; occasionally my 15-year-old brother cooks for the family.
It is another place where we can bond and share doing something together.
I could have killed someone
I had been away from home weeks at a time, but had never been homesick until I screwed up in Jackie’s house.
While I don’t enjoy my mom’s constant nagging, it’s second nature now. So on Thursday when I committed a deadly mistake, I expected some repurcussions.
In a frenzy over my psychology brain project, I ran downstairs to grab my pencil bag from my car, sprinted back, desperate for every extra second to work on my project (turns out it wasn’t due until the next week) and reached Jackie’s room in time to pick up my ringing phone.
A few minutes later Denise and Michael called out, “Your car is on.”
I must have hit the button on my remote in my rush back. I threw myself down the stairs, hoping to prevent anything happening. But nothing did. The garage door is always cracked for the dogs, and Michael heard the engine immediately.
But the reaction I received was brief — a mild admonition against repeating the mistake. Nothing else.
In my house I would have spent two hours in a screaming feud with my dad and subsequent days in nasty awkwardness.
So the reaction was uncomfortable, and I pulled away quickly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling all evening.
I also couldn’t help but think Jackie would have incited a greater reaction.
Home is where the heart is
We grow accustomed to our own lives, our families. Even though we don’t always get along with our families, their presence is comforting — quirks and annoyances included.
More importantly, they treat us as their own. As much as our families tried to accept the new teenager as their own, there are many differences.
Though each of Turban’s host families tried to assimilate him into the family, he wasn’t their kid, and they had no investment in his future.
“No matter how much they like you, how much you’re in the family — you live with them; you eat every dang meal; you’re still not quite their kid, and you probably won’t ever be their kid,” Turban said. “Even my little sister who’s super honest, she asks questions like, ‘Why don’t you yell at Stephen? You yell at the other brothers, but you don’t yell at Stephen.’”
Moisio’s difficulties involved more of the cultural differences. She found American culture more social.
In Finland her family usually relaxes on weekends after an arduous week in work or school. This isn’t so in the U.S.
“I sometimes miss the weekends where you can just … [rest] and actually have time for your homework and stuff,” Moisio said. “But now that you have things to do every weekend, you don’t even have time to think, ‘What about my geo[graphy] project?’ or whatever. I don’t miss them, but it would be nice to have every other weekend would be your time.”
The experience didn’t show us people are deeper than they appear on the surface. That’s obvious.
Instead, it gave us insight into our own lives, the meaning of independence and dependence for each of us. We discovered how it has shaped each of us, and how, ultimately, we need our families for the comfort they provide.
Throughout our lifetimes, our families have been there when nothing else has. We need them for everything they inadvertently provide us.
New exploits are wonderful. The week was interesting and fun, but when we seek comfort, nothing replaces the home.
By Jackie Nichols and Avantika Khatri
The MKT trail is not the friendliest of places, not at night. As I walked down the steadily darkening trail near Stewart Road, things scurried about in the dark, and streetlamps from across Hinkson Creek cast off a cold orange light. Walkers became suspicious figures in the dark, and I was more than aware that I was one of them.
It was an eerie experience, one that might have sent me back toward home. But I had no home — this was my first night of couch surfing.
For couch surfers every day is a struggle, every class a burden and every meal an uncertainty. These ‘couch surfers,’ who have homes that are either nonexistent or too unstable to be livable, depend on themselves and their friends for food, travel and a place to sleep — on a bed, or more commonly, couch.
I became one of them for a week, completely separated from home, dependent on the kindness of those around me to survive.
At first, the plan seemed simple. I had all my items: a duffel bag of clothes — enough for about half a week — my backpack with school supplies and a Toshiba Laptop that I had luckily bought with my own money and could therefore keep. I would jump from friend to friend, catching rides and food along the way.
And since I couldn’t get a ride to my first house, I was on the trail at night. With more than a mile to go under swiftly darkening skies, it was not the most warming prospect. I was staring down the trail when a cold wind cut through my thin shirt and set me to shivering. With a little apprehension, I set my sights on my first house and started walking.
I won’t say I was comatose with homesickness, but there was definitely an element of sadness to my first day as a couch surfer. I think it comes from what could be — watching people who are comfortably at home, while I was struggling in the guest room of life. As a couch surfer, I was a nomad. I didn’t really belong anywhere.
That I was surfing in the lap of luxury exacerbated this feeling. My friend that night had Wi-Fi, a comfy bean bag and a free continental breakfast. But I couldn’t shake the sense that the whole stay was like sand — the more I grabbed at it, the faster it slipped through my fingers.
Senior Shaun Carr, who couch surfs with senior Grant Murdock, knows this feeling with certainty. He has a kind of double jeopardy, as Murdock’s parents are separated. Carr says the extra weight of himself on top of Murdock’s journey from house to house does not make things any easier.
“It’s a second load, but he does it. Christian heart, you know,” Carr said. “Going from house to house, always having to pack his bag, and Mom could be yelling at the kids or Dad could not be home to cook dinner, but we got to fend for ourselves and stuff. It’s kind of a different scenario for him than for me.”
It became apparent that my greatest enemy over the course of the week would be exhaustion. After my first day I was tired, because of the usual suspects of not enough sleep and cross country.
But not that tired, I thought—until I got to the second house and essentially slept through the evening, watching “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” reruns on my laptop.
Although there is little drama associated with couch surfing—after all, it’s not exactly something one broadcasts at school—a low undercurrent of stress still cuts through every situation, every action and nearly every word, and it got to me.
Carr is used to this tension, this stress, or else he doesn’t feel it at all. To him, couch surfing is normal, the lifestyle more repetitiously boring than stressful. Though he falls asleep in classes occasionally—who doesn’t—for Carr school is quite important. It’s a chance to escape the less-than-ideal circumstances of his upbringing, to prove to the world that even someone who doesn’t have a permanent home can survive and thrive in the world.
“I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to be a failure,” Carr said. “I want to graduate, make some money, get the high school diploma.”
On my third day I realized something quite frightening. While I do not lead what one would call a rough-and-tumble lifestyle, I am on cross country and thus run a lot. This puts some stress on my body, and on day three, following a hard workout in practice, I was feeling that stress. My hip had decided to lead a small rebellion in the middle of my body, and so occasionally when walking I would feel a sharp, stabbing pain.
First I thought I might want to go to the doctor. But then it struck me. I have no doctor. I have no parents to pay said doctor or health insurance to cover those costs. I am alone, dangling on a trapeze with no safety nets, but rather spikes waiting to impale me.
Ever the stoic, Carr admitted he wouldn’t really know what to do should the worst happen, but would rather deal with the pain and just go with the flow.
As ‘deal with it’ was not my preferred healthcare plan, I turned to RBHS guidance director Betsy Jones for answers on how the district helps the couch surfer deal with their health issues.
“University Hospital takes anyone who doesn’t have insurance, but there’s another service that we provide right away for the student if it’s in need,” Jones said. “And that’s through the MC+ program through the school nurse. All school age Missouri students can get health insurance through MC+.”
In addition to health care, because of the McKinney-Vento act of 1987 the district must provide transportation, free/ reduced lunch and emergency shelter to teens in need.
Though I felt reassured by MC+ and its promises of health care, I wasn’t sure anyone had ever heard of it. Carr certainly hadn’t — and a program is only as effective as the public’s knowledge of it, and if the public has no idea that a program exists, it’s hard for them to use it.
Hip aching and eyes drooping, I turned toward my second to last day as a couch surfer. I was tired, hungry and grumpy, and sick to death of sleeping on things that were not beds. It had only been four short days, but I felt rather defeated. Honestly, I was a little disappointed in myself for doing as poorly as I did.
One place where I was rock-solid was finances, or so I thought. During the summer I had worked, with the recalcitrance only a teenager can muster, as a lifeguard for city and private pools and had built up savings that could carry me for quite some time I believed, if I lived primarily off of ramen noodles and water. When that money failed, I was confident I could land a job—or as confident as a sleep-deprived homeless kid could be. However, I was a sleep-deprived homeless kid, and the economy is bad, and the winter is coming and if I couldn’t find a job, the money would have to hold. In fact, it wasn’t really that much.
But that’s how Carr does it — going out of town in the summer to work with family to sell clothes and landscape. When he runs out of money, he gets help from Murdock, or sometimes goes hungry at lunch or breakfast. To this end, Carr’s stoicism shines through.
“I’ve been hungry. It’s been a while,” Carr said. “I can deal with it.”
He gets no help from the place once called home. The last time he went ‘home’, to his mother’s house, an argument escalated and was kicked out. He spent the rest of the day at parks or friends’ houses, temporary places to stay while he waited to go to his impermanent home.
“My mom says, ‘You’re 18, you can take care of yourself,’” Carr said. “Maybe I can.”
I relished how quickly the last day went by. Couch surfing wasn’t hard in the traditional sense of hard, with sweat and turmoil, but there is a unique sort of challenge about it. Moving from day to day, house to house, it gets old fast. Combine this with a busy school schedule and one quickly just becomes a drone, doing what is necessary for school and survival.
I reflected on the importance of friends. For a couch surfer, there is no group more important. They sheltered me, fed me and transported me to and from school. Without their kindness, I would have been on the street, shivering beneath cold stars.
One thing that surprised me was the lack of reaction to my couch surfing. Though I proudly carried the duffel bag that marked me as not living at home, I got little comment on it from other than my close friends. People treated me just the same—couch surfing is more of a personal problem than a public one. Sometimes I wondered if I was disappearing—one set of parents didn’t know I was at their house until I left it the next morning.
I wondered what motivation couch surfers have. It isn’t just a hike in a meadow; couch surfing is a huge burden, both on the surfer and on the provider. It’s a tiring, adruous task; no real fun at all.
For Carr’s part, he’s been forced to grow up fast, determined to get ahead in a world that’s trying to weigh him down. For my part, I’m just glad it’s over, happy to go home and rest. There is no such consolation for Carr, only a life away from home. He just has to concentrate on school, and hope for the best.
“I guess it depends on the background you come from,” Carr said. “Take like a rich white kid. They’re kind of relaxed, just chill. Hey go to a party, like, ‘Hey, let’s go, dude, yeah!’ For me it’s different. Like I go to school, don’t worry about anything else, just different things I need to do and get done, and pretty much just chill.”
By Adam Schoelz