I was born in Chicago, Illinois in the late 1950s, the second oldest and oldest girl in what became a very large, very traditional Catholic family. It was also a chaotic, deeply troubled family. So I grew up an at-risk kid, although nobody called me that, and no one, and no school or social work program, ever intervened.
I had a dream of becoming an artist like my mother – but I never wanted to be a mother like her. Through third grade, I wanted to be a nun. In fact I fell in love with them and everything about school, especially the predictability, structure the safety of it – and the realization that I had complete control over my school accomplishments. I could do well or not, do my homework, or not, and only I could take credit for those decisions – and the consequences.
Then I lost my memory of almost everything that happened at home, including the birth of my youngest sister when I was plenty old enough to remember such a momentous event. I was as thought I fell asleep at nine years of age, started sleepwalking, and didn’t fully awaken until sometime in seventh grade when things started happening that could not be stopped by anyone, including me. I was growing up, becoming a young woman. It repelled my father, which was satisfying as hell. And that taught me that my body was a powerful tool.
So despite serious intentions otherwise, I ended up just like my mother – at first. I had a child at seventeen, married at nineteen, and had two more children by the year I turned twenty-one. Then I had a meltdown that instead of laying me low, propelled me back into one of the great loves of my life. School.
Unlike my mother, who had eight children in ten years, I avoided further pregnancies after child #3 and, when she turned three, started taking college course work. Between 1982 and 1988, and for many of those years one class at a time, I earned an Associate of Arts degree with an emphasis in studio art and in the face of fierce opposition from my husband and immediate family. I subsequently became estranged from them, divorced my first husband and moved alone to a university town to begin studies that would lead to a BFA degree. After my ex abandoned our children they watched me complete an MFA that allowed me to a achieve a once unthinkable dream and pursue another love of my life: teaching and learning, a beloved vocation that combined with my hard won education spanned almost thirty years.
But even though I was a talented artist, a good teacher, a dedicated professor, I never earned tenure. It was mystifying – and disturbing. It ultimately became horrifying.
It took the death of my brother Michael as well as my last attempt and epic failure to earn tenure to make me hit rock bottom and realize some fundamental facts about my personal and professional life.
In the almost three decades I was either a student or professor of art, teaching and learning had changed. And I could not embrace those changes because what was required was abhorrent to me.
My inability to adapt to those abhorrent changes and the subsequent “failures” to earn tenure felt terribly familiar, as if I were repeating a pattern of punishing myself with my greatest loves.
My inability to fully recover from every kind of child abuse imaginable was strongly and directly connected to my inability to thrive as an academic.
Therefore my personal and professional life were and are inexorably connected.
I was finally and cruelly expelled from Academia in 2010, and in the middle of an academic year. But I refused to resign for things I did not do. Unbeknownst to me, this made it possible to collect unemployment and spend two solid years living a creative life for the first time since graduate school. I also used a growing rage at my inability during those transformative months to secure a single job interview of any kind, let alone one for a teaching job, to propel me forward into a new career as a teaching artist and servant leader.
Since 2013, and as an AmeriCorps member, teaching artist and VISTA volunteer I have been bringing visual art as an engagement and empowerment tool to marginalized individuals including elders, at-risk youth and the homeless via innovative, collaborative, economic empowerment and public art projects that build awareness of and connections between the under-served and their communities. It is a poorly compensated yet immensely rewarding enterprise that I hope to continue with help of incredible organizations like the Kentucky Foundation For Women.