Throughout my high school years, and a college education deemed mandatory by my father, I was merely surviving the issues of poor parenting in a neighborhood that reinforced bad behavior on the part of the adults as much as the children. Having never mastered making healthy choices or managing my own time, I was ill equipped for college. Self image, esteem and drive were at an all-time low, reflected by falling grades in subjects that were chosen for me, not by me. I rebelled against every class beyond English, the only common interest I shared with my father. He saw it as part of a traditional educational structure along with math, social studies, and science. I saw it as a form of artistic expression and thrived in this area, as my transcripts illustrate. This was my only college success, echoing the love for books and writing that I had discovered in high school, but even that was short lived. Campus life promoted disconnect for the frightened and socially damaged child I had become. By the spring of 1992, I had failed both academically and socially. My father removed me from school altogether. I had fulfilled his prophecy, becoming the failure I had always been perceived to be.
Sensing freedom for the first time, I worked toward a fresh start that fall. Following my own dream opened the door to the field of design. Forever drawn toward and denied the creativity of writing and art, I chose the latter as my new focus and my grades improved greatly. I would have preferred fine art but I had not yet developed enough faith in myself to embark on such a risky endeavor. This was an acceptable compromise.
Sadly, Erie Community College was not the most current school in the field, resistant to the world of computers and image editing software. I learned to manipulate horizontal and vertical cameras, use a darkroom, and produce print using archaic methods no longer recognized by today’s industry. Technology blazed forward before the curriculum could catch up. At graduation my education had already fallen behind. For four years I worked at an older, smaller printing company run by a member of the ECC faculty as the largest graphics company in Buffalo pulled up it’s stakes and left town. Without furthering my education again, I saw myself trapped there indefinitely.
In a bold move to break out, I interviewed with several airlines from Cleveland, Chicago and Houston. Interestingly, this suggestion came from my father. Graduating from Continental’s training program in October of 1997, I moved to New Jersey to fly as an International Flight Attendant. It was this job that underscored the adventure and exhilaration of learning. While other flight attendants were shopping and bar hopping, I was viewing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, Rome’s Colosseum, or attending Much Ado About Nothing at the Swan Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I toured Limerick, Ireland with a friend of Frank McCourt who pointed out all the places mentioned in Angela’s Ashes. While sharing a hotel with the President of Ecuador in 2000, I researched the reasons for the riots that ensued. Each experience, however great or small, was captured forever in my dog eared journals, complete with my first reaction to the taste of blood pudding and haggis.
This life suited me well until September 11, 2001. Having driven from my new Albany apartment that morning to Manhattan for annual FAA re-certification, I was reviewing my hijacking procedures when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. As my classmates and I stared at the billowing smoke, the second plane hit. People were desperately calling family members trapped in the towers as we watched people jump from the roof. I needed to get away from the tremendous sense of pain and ran for the parking garage. As the buildings collapsed, I crouched rocking back and forth behind a green pickup truck. The enormity of what was happening only scratched the surface.
I manned only one flight after that tragic day. It was on September 18th. Families who had been stranded in Halifax, Nova Scotia for a week boarded my flight to Birmingham, UK, as unsettled eyes searched my face for reassurance during boarding. I had none to offer. Tears streamed down the cheeks of several passengers as I mourned with them over a way of life that had changed forever. That evening, as the plane went dark on take-off, I imagined those flight attendants who had their hands wired behind their back and their throats slit. It took all my strength to hold back my panic.
Upon my return to the US, Continental had granted my requested leave of absence for the following year. Unable to handle the number of returning employees in 2002 and 2003, unpaid leaves were extended company wide again and again. I took advantage of every one.
To sustain myself, I became resourceful. I downsized apartments twice, gained roommates, and worked a range of jobs from farming to bug counting, handling and presenting birds of prey, and assisting at summer science camp. I also taught myself the technology of web design as a hobby during my Continental years and took it to the next level by securing several clients in the entertainment industry. One client, a publicist, taught me to pitch stories to the media and I freelanced for him, representing members of Frank Zappa’s entourage, Paul Green’s School of Rock, and other high profile musicians. Another national client from Albany, the Ominous Seapods, secured my design services through their record label, Rykodisk. At the time, I was unaware of my ability to learn so many varied activities with such ease and complete understanding. I merely enjoyed what I viewed as sustainable frivolity, always believing I’d fly again.
In the summer of 2004, I attended Continental’s recurrent training for re-certification. I had studied the new FAA standards and prepared for several months with a therapist specializing in post traumatic stress disorder. Still, I felt unsure. I focused on the financial aspect of returning, feeling pressured to pay down the debt I had incurred during my leave. I pushed aside the sleepless nights and anxiety attacks, emotional signs telling me to move on.
The first question I faced at training was, “As the last layer of defense between a terrorist and the cockpit, what are seven items on board the aircraft that can be used as a weapon?” To be sure, this was no longer the dream job it had been. Although I passed the training course, I was not interested in morning bomb sweeps and passenger profiling, holding the thought of terrorism close at hand every working day. I was not afraid to fly, having done so several times since 9/11, I simply felt deceptive taking on the responsibility of wearing the stripes. Up until 9/11, there had always been the belief that any situation could be handled. I understood the new reality. I could no longer provide safety for passengers who would look to me for help should certain situations arise. I resigned before my first returning flight.
Designing websites is the only marketable skill I’m left with that is backed by a degree, and again, I am left playing catch-up in the field. If I were still interested in the work, perhaps I would continue down that path, but I’m not. Having worked since last February for Communications Technology Analysis Corporation, a government software developer in Virginia, I interface solely with my computer. I’ve lost the will to solve the technical puzzle of cold-hearted code. I crave interaction with people. I want to talk with them. I want to write about them. I want to share knowledge, experiences, to touch their hearts, have them touch mine, to communicate.
December 13, 2003, my grandfather passed away and life took one more turn. On his death bed, my biggest literary fan told me where to find several cassettes and notebook pages on which he recorded his life’s memories. As I perched myself on the edge of his bed, I promised I would write his story. His hand weakly patted me on the head and said without question, “I know you will.”
I have spent the past two years researching our family history, interviewing relatives, exploring the census, and ship manifests. I have learned so much about research and the thrill of finding that missing piece. Copious notes fill labeled cardboard boxes. Several thousand documents and photos are scanned and cataloged. This is my new passion. It has healed distanced relationships and drawn even my father close. I plan to keep my promise to write that book, sharing not only the insight of the great, wise man who trusted me to do the job, but my new respect for a family I never fully understood.
Like many writers, I want to write that novel, but my desire doesn’t end there. I also want to write compelling papers and persuasive pieces on environmental conservation, organic farming, educating the public on matters close to my heart. I can envision myself heading publicity for a company that sells whole foods, organic and genetically unmodified. If I was more inclined toward math and biology, I’d probably choose a degree in environmental science, but I know my strengths lie in writing and I can adapt my skills in the workforce to satisfy my desire of involvement with these issues.
Completing my English degree represents possibility, personal discovery, and my ability to hold a place of value in society. It gives me the credentials to succeed and be taken seriously. I need this degree to hone my talents, sharpen my competitive edge and reach my full potential.