Friends have asked what I would do differently if I could go back in time. First of all, I would never want to relive my first twenty years of life.
My early years with my family were emotional bombshells. My dad’s explosive temper often resulted in physical punishments and humiliation. My mother preferred my siblings (yes, I am a middle child.) I had been overwhelmed and intimidated so thoroughly that I preferred to sit in a corner and hide.
Elementary school amplified my feelings of inferiority as I was the dumbest kid in whatever class I was in: I couldn’t read and my teachers didn’t help.
Middle school added new torments. Previously I had attended Catholic schools, but now I was in the public school. Because of the size differential, it was easier for me to hide. Except from the Home Ec teacher who must have seen something in my demeanor that triggered all her alarms. After a rather awful day at home the evening before, I was still suffering when I entered her class. She called me aside and asked if everything was okay at home. I lied. After that she never asked again even though I wished she had.
High school was more of the same socially, but by now my talent for math and learning languages had begun to shine. I joined the basketball team, and although I wasn’t the best player, it allowed me to stay late after school and travel to away games, thereby reducing the amount of time I could be abused at home.
My first year of college my parents made me attend the local community college. The highlight of that year was learning that my Spanish skills were beyond the course offerings! I beamed with pride. But, because it was a commuter college and I was still terribly shy, I made no friends.
My euphoria regarding Spanish didn’t last long because I struggled so badly in my English class that I had to drop it. Back to feeling stupid.
My next three years at USC were a mixed bag. I developed friends who were like me. Somehow, we found each other in the cafeteria. None of us were in the popular group, which might have been what united us. While we never did anything together outside of school, at least it was a safe place to eat.
Unfortunately, I just have been sending out “I want you” vibes because several of the guys hit on me. One was a prince in whatever country he hailed from. He handed me a multipage love letter detailing how well he would treat me and what my life would be in his country. First of all, I liked him as a friend. Secondly, I knew how women were restricted in his country and wanted no part of that. He accepted my refusal with grace.
Another young man, Jorge, wooed me by asking a lot of questions about what I thought about this and that. He took me out to lunch and occasionally to a movie. I liked him because he was soft-spoken and gentle.
A break came up and he had nowhere to go. I invited him home with me.
My parents were not welcoming. First of all, I failed to tell them he was Hispanic. When they learned his name, saw the gorgeous hue of his skin and heard his charming accent, it was over. They were polite, but not welcoming.
Jorge ceased being my boyfriend after that. I couldn’t blame him: he understood that my parents were prejudiced.
My next boyfriend was a hippie, like I had become. He was easy to be with, had a car, and enjoyed camping as much as I did. I figured we would get married. And then he transferred to a college in Minnesota. During winter break I flew out to see him.
His family there were warm and welcoming. They drove us around to see many of the lakes and treated us to a tasty meal. They laughed easily and seemed comfortable in their own skins.
I pictured myself as part of that family and it felt right.
And then John told a group of his grad school friends that what he liked about me was that I never had an opinion. To his credit, I did keep my opinions to myself, but it didn’t mean that I was a blank slate! That was the end of that relationship.
When college ended, I had no choice but to return home, back to being bullied emotionally and physically. It took me a while to find a job. The most embarrassing interview was when I found out that the phone company was hiring. My mother insisted on driving me, then went in and applied for the same job! She got hired, but I did not.
The best choice I made was taking the test that could lead to a job with the federal government. Imagine my surprise when it led to a job, a good job with benefits. My first post was in SF, a city with huge hills and limited parking. I was a field agent, so I traveled all over the city, up and down those hills, going in and out of businesses and homes.
It wasn’t the kind of working environment where you made friends. People came in, worked, went home. I transferred to the Oakland office which was much the same. I was given the cases the furthest from the office, so I drove all over the area. That was the best part of the job.
I did meet someone. A very pleasant man asked me out. We got along quite well. We even went skiing and few times. It was going smoothly until he invited me to his apartment. That’s where I discovered that he was married with children, but currently on a trial separation. He had virtually no furniture: only a mattress on the floor. I broke up with him shortly thereafter.
My next posting was back to SF, then to San Mateo. I loved the people at the new detail. They were kind and helpful. They welcomed me into their “family” and truly cared about my welfare. It’s also where I met my future husband.
My coworkers encouraged me to speak up. They listened to my opinions and, in time, asked me to consult on cases.
It was thanks to them and to my future husband that I developed a voice.