Many good people live and work at the intersections, and I occasionally invite someone to tell a story from where they stand. Today’s piece comes from Leah Fortner, who is a senior at Illinois College with a major in Psychology and a minor in Gender & Women’s Studies. She plans to move to Oregon and become a Child & Family Psychologist after graduation and currently spends most of her time outside of class working in Child Welfare, providing services to various disadvantaged groups and individuals. In her free time, Leah likes to wind down by writing and recording songs with her fiance.
Leah is a student in my feminist theory class this semester, and this is the first of two pieces I will feature here written by students in that class. We began the semester discussing a range of feminist theories, including the work of Chandra Mohanty and Audre Lorde. After working through This Bridge We Call Home, I invited the students to write a creative essay synthesizing theory with their own experience, as if they were invited to contribute to another Bridge anthology.
Here’s Leah’s story.
I remember being six years old and begging my mother for the life-sized Barbie in the toy aisle of Walmart. My mother examined the price tag, winced, and said “Maybe for Christmas.” When I continued to beg her, this is the first time I heard my mom utter the phrase, “Listen. You might not get everything you want in life. But you will always have what you need.”
I continued to beg her relentlessly, all the way to check out. Mom turned on her heel before the cashier and threatened to spank me if I did not stop asking right this instant. I bit my lip to stop myself from crying.
I was far too young to notice the humiliated look on Mom’s face as she tried to hide her Link card from the unwanted attention that my pleading had brought.
I did not see my mom much over the next eight months. I remember waking up at three in the morning and seeing that she had already left for work. I would cry myself back to sleep.
Nevertheless, when Christmas came around, I found my life-size Barbie underneath the tree.
I remember being nine years old and seeing my Dad on the weekends. I remember mom becoming increasingly angry with the upper-middle class women in our town who would shake their heads sympathetically and whisper with faux-concern about how difficult it must be for a divorced woman to get by on a waitress’s salary. I remember my mother suddenly being excluded from friendly outings and get-togethers.
I remember being nine years old and my mother telling me I would no longer be seeing my Dad on the weekends. She would not tell me why, but a few days later, I was taken to a room in an office with more toys than I could ever dream of. I spoke to a nice lady with a name tag who picked up a Barbie and played with me. She casually asked about my “private parts” and if anyone had ever touched them. Of course, I said “Nope.”
When I later asked my mom, “Why don’t I have a Dad like everyone else?” she told me again, “You might not get everything you want, but you’ll always have everything you need.” Shortly after, she married a man named Mike, who liked to live lavishly.
I remember being ten years old and beginning to notice that the most popular girls at school were wearing Aeropostale and Hollister, while I was wearing hand-me-downs and “Walmart Chic.” They would take breaks from their conversations to point out a hole in my shirt or a stain on my pants.
I remember arguments between mom and Mike about finances and his spending habits. He was used to having everything he wanted, and she was not used to telling her husband “No.”
I remember being twelve, when Mom was very much pregnant with her fourth child at the age of forty-six. I remember her beaming face when announcing that I would be having a little sister, and the way her face fell when she discovered that Mike was cheating on her. I remember a nasty divorce in the month of December that left the two of us in an expensive home with no heat in January.
I remember the shame my mother felt when telling me about how one of her wealthiest customers at the cafe had left her a $100 tip upon hearing about her struggles. When I reassured her that this was not a large amount of money for someone like him, she became angry and told me that he worked hard for his money and it was not his responsibility to give her handouts.
I remember being fourteen and moving into a real house, moving to a new school with nicer teachers and Smartboards. I remember my mom giving up on ever meeting a man, and finding empowerment in that decision, not shame. I remember her independence continuing to blossom until she finally met a man who wanted to be her partner, not her oppressor. I remember for the first time in my life seeing a healthy, functioning relationship and realizing how overrated submission to your husband was, the Bible be damned.
I remember approaching age sixteen and bracing myself to work hard to earn my first car. You could imagine my surprise upon finding a 2001 Chevrolet Malibu in our driveway the morning of my birthday, as I had long ago learned to never ask for, nor expect help from anyone. As my mother handed me the keys, she reminded me that I would be paying the car insurance myself, and that she had gotten me a job with her at the cafe.
I remember my mother’s customers being utterly disappointed in my quality of work, and I realized how much pride my mother had in hers. Customers would complain, “Sheree always has a newspaper waiting at my seat,” “Sheree already has my order memorized.” They were a testament to the sheer amount of effort my mother had put into a job that paid less than minimum wage. Her work ethic was beyond admirable, and yet it left a bitter taste in my mouth to know that her seven years of dedicated and excruciatingly tiring labor amounted to a broken down home next to the railroad tracks and a decade-old vehicle.
I remember being eighteen and preparing for college. I had been told throughout my four years of high school that my mother would not be helping me pay for college, that I would need to work hard, get good grades, and earn it myself.
I remember trying to figure out how to fill out a FAFSA and crying in frustration.
I remember the intimidated look in my mother’s eyes when I asked for help, and realizing that she had never been to college and was just as confused as I was.
I remember the fear I felt when speaking to colleges and trying to convince them that I was worth their time. I remember setting foot on Illinois College’s campus for the first time as a student and feeling as though I had not worked hard enough to earn my place there.
I remember being convinced that people like me were a drain on the college system and that I did not deserve the handouts I was being given by both the school and the government.
I remember deciding to stick it out after seeing how proud my mother was when I earned my spot on the Dean’s list for the first time, and I remembered all that she had done as a mother to help me get there.
I remember learning about my own privilege for the first time, though it was a difficult concept to swallow, given my experiences. I had been taught to strive for the American Dream, in which those that work hard are rewarded and those that do not will scrape by. But then I began to notice all of the things I did not remember.
While begging my mother for toys in Walmart, I do not remember ever being followed by store employees for fear that we would shoplift after paying with our Link card. While I felt disadvantaged by not having a father figure in my life, I do not remember being a victim of his perversions. While I remember being shamed and outcasted by my peers for what I wore, I do not remember facing discrimination for who I was.
While I spent much of my adolescence without internet, television, or sometimes even heat or a roof over my head, I do not remember me or my mother ever having been denied employment due to the color of our skin.
And so, I find myself on a bridge. Privileged with an education built upon my mother’s back.
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