Five days a week, I step foot on Knox’s campus and I ask myself, “Do I belong here?” Next month I turn 34. Every day I wonder how I can possibly be here. I see faces much younger than mine. People dressed differently than me. People I perceive to be much smarter and brighter than me with more productive futures than mine fill the seats around me. I remember events and pop culture references that happened before my classmates were even born. How did I get here?
I was born to a high school dropout father and alcoholic mother. We moved over and over again as her alcoholism got worse. Cheap apartments and trailer parks filled my first years until the summer when I was seven and her alcoholism exploded into a full-fledged family split. I never saw my mother again.
My dad was a cab driver when he was employed. We moved again and again. We lived with my grandma. With my dad’s friends. With another set of friends. In fifth grade, I went to four different schools in three states. Cockroaches and secondhand clothes were common.
Through it all, I remained a straight-A student. “Gifted” was a word I remember teachers using. Whatever that meant.
Junior high was a return to Galesburg and a semblance of stability. Lombard Junior High in the 1990s was a place and time where I faced constant bullying. I was called a “scurve” because I was poor, even though I was clean. I was called a “fag” and a “queer” because I was weird, even though I was heterosexual. I was pushed and I was punched. My lack of name brand clothes, my public aid glasses, my relative ineptitude at sports: all were targets.
I was 11 when I first thought about killing myself.
Still, I was mostly an A student.
High school saw everything change. I could barely force myself to go to class. I felt more alone than I ever have in my life. I attended class probably two days a week most of the time. In some classes I would get an F, but take the final, where I’d get an A, giving me a final grade of D. But that didn’t get me very far.
During sophomore year, my grandma died suddenly, just days before Christmas. She was the closest thing I had to a mom after my mom left — I was crushed. School only felt worse. I just didn’t care. I didn’t do drugs or commit crimes. I just slept, read books and listened to music.
At 16, I moved out and moved in with a friend. I soon began taking care of her mother, left wheelchair bound by multiple sclerosis. That became my life. I dropped out of high school. When I turned 18 I quickly got my GED. My high scores earned me a partial scholarship to Carl Sandburg College. I started at Sandburg when I was 19 and flopped completely. I passed nothing my first semester. I was confused and could not focus. I kept going, struggling all the while.
In 2006, I was 22. I was still struggling with school. I had no social life. No friends. I had school and the ever-increasing duties of a caregiver. I cut myself. I threw things in my room. I thought dying was the best thing for me, but I was too afraid to kill myself.
Then I met someone and fell in love. She was a couple years older than me and already had two children, who were 1 and 2 years old. Soon, she was pregnant. We hadn’t been together long, but both needed a way out of the living situations we were in. We were going to have a child together and didn’t have much money, so we rented a house together.
My life had changed completely and I didn’t know how to handle it. My moods were up and down. In July 2007, my daughter, Alyssa, was born. She, along with the two children I loved as my own, gave me a purpose. But I still struggled mentally.
A few months later, I read in the newspaper that my mother had laid down in front of a train to kill herself. I was devastated. There had been no closure. She didn’t even know she was a grandmother.
College, work, parenthood and my mom’s death brought me again to the brink of suicide. I went to Bridgeway, the family services center, for counseling, which helped for a time.
I eventually had to give up Carl Sandburg College, two classes short of a degree, due to financial reasons. I resigned myself to a life of retail work as I moved up the ranks at Walmart. The job crushed me bodily and mentally. In late 2015, after over five years there, I lost the job.
I found a new outlet which I had never undertaken: writing. I began a blog, “Galesburg’s Darkness,” telling the true crime stories of Galesburg’s past. The murders, suicides and tragedies came to life through my fingertips.
I quickly gained a following and a true enjoyment of what I was doing. A few months later, I was shown a want ad for the Galesburg Register-Mail, which was looking for a weekend reporter. No degree requirement was mentioned, so I applied. Somehow, they thought I was good enough. So, in May 2016, with no degree and no prior professional journalism experience, I began covering weekend events.
I fell in love with the job. I found what I wanted to do. Along the way, my paths crossed frequently with Knox College as I covered events such as Harry Potter Day, the Bioneers conference and commencement.
I applied to Knox and I was accepted. I received the financial help to attend, so here I am.
Some days I feel overwhelmed. When I started in Fall Term, it had been nine years since my last class of any kind. Could I keep up? Had I suffered too much learning loss? Would professors and classmates accept me?
Through ups and downs, I finished the term and am still here. I plan to stay here. I plan to walk across the stage and become the first member of my family to get a college degree.
My children are 13, 12 and 10 years old now. I don’t want them to feel like I did. I still struggle with my brain. I don’t know if I can ever change that. I don’t know if I really belong here or deserve to be here. But I’m going to do the best I can every day.