Rachel Brown-Chidsey

Rachel Brown-Chidsey

Interviewed December, 2003

 

I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, October 16, 1965. My parents had moved there within a few months before I was born because my dad got a job as a doctor up there. I was born at the hospital where he was stationed through the Public Health Service – that happened to be the hospital for native Alaskans. I was born by c-section because my mother was well past due with me. She had had a little bit of labor but not a lot. My heart rate dropped and of course back then they were doing this through just some external monitoring. But, they were concerned for my life and they did an emergency c-section. And, there was me. Otherwise, I was very healthy.

There are definitely a lot of stories told about me as a baby. They would all fall under the heading of me being very verbal and somewhat precocious. I was always trying to figure things out and then tell other people what to do.

My little brother came along eighteen months after me. Once he was around, apparently I wasn’t too happy about that. He was sleeping in the cradle that had been my cradle. Not too long before he was born for some reason my mom, I shouldn’t say that because my mom was around when I was growing up but I also had a nanny. My nanny was my primary caregiver. So, it was probably my nanny that had let me put my dolls in the cradle. There were a number of complications around my brother’s birth, but eventually he came home from the hospital. And, they put him in the cradle and I didn’t like that so I tried to dump him out of the cradle and put my dolls back in the cradle. This could explain a number of other problems he has since had. I was just not thrilled that there was going to be this other creature in the house and I wasn’t really the center of everyone’s attention.

Other stories from my childhood include that I really liked to play and do things that were creative but also I really liked to play teacher. Sort of from an early age others thought I would go onto to be a teacher, which I am. My brother and I didn’t really get along very well; that was a recurrent theme. We could be semi-amicable if we had to but we really didn’t have much in common or even play together. When I was young I read a lot, so certain stories would be how I was so engrossed in my books that I wouldn’t necessarily respond or do what I was told.

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My earliest memory is of me standing in the kitchen of the house that we lived on in Anchorage. I imagine that was probably around 2 years old, maybe somewhere between two to two-and-half because my brother had been born by that point in time. We had red-checked curtains in the kitchen and I remember that. I remember standing in the window and my mother was leaving for work. I was waving goodbye and I was sad that she was going back to work. That has just kind of stuck with me for years and years. And, it was winter time. It was a generic Alaska winter scene outside, but it was warm inside.

Learning to ride a bike was not easy for me. Everything else about school and learning just seemed to come easily. I really struggled to ride a bike because I have certain balance problems. I remember all the other kids had learned to ride a two-wheeler and I still had my training wheels on. I desperately wanted not to have training wheels on my bike anymore. So, my dad worked with me and worked with me, and worked with me one weekend. We were determined that I was gonna not have those training wheels. Eventually I managed it, but even today I get on a bike sort of differently than other people because I just don’t have quite the same balance. It’s never been quite as easy as it looks for other people.

Other struggles…there were the fights with my brother; that’s a recurrent theme. Occasionally I had run-ins with teachers. It was always sort of an episodic thing around a particular project when I wanted to do it a completely different way than the teacher wanted it done, then I would get real stubborn. In general, school went fine. Probably most of the trouble I had was when we moved and how difficult it was to integrate with a new set of friends after moving.

I had a set of very distinct neighborhoods because of how and when we moved. I was born in Alaska and we lived there until I was three. The first neighborhood we were in I didn’t play outside a whole heck of a lot because I was quite young and it was winter a lot. My nanny would do a lot of fun crafts and stuff inside, but I don’t ever remember playing with kids when I was little. I do remember some good, good friends who lived across the alley from us who we stayed in touch with over the years. All my memories from my earliest days were either from in

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our house or from their house across the way. These houses were right in the city part of old Anchorage; the part that is now kind of as a historic district with some of the early homes that were built before statehood.

When I was three we moved to Hawaii for two years because my dad got the opportunity to do a residency in pediatrics. The government paid for it, so they chose where. He did his residency at the University of Hawaii at the hospital there. I don’t remember quite as much about the neighborhood in Hawaii except we lived in a large pink house and that it got termites in it, which is very common there. The exterminators had to come and bubble wrap the house and get rid of all the termites, so we had to go somewhere else for a little while. That was really weird and freaky; it was freaky that the house was off limits and all these fumes and stuff were in it and just the precautions taken. I remember my mom being really concerned that my brother and I not chew on anything or get into anything that might cause us harm. It was kind of an old house; probably had lead paint too.

The only other thing I remember about that time in Hawaii was my brother was learning words when we were living there. Whenever when one of my parents – my mom got a Masters degree when we were there – went to the university for something, my brother called it the “lunarversity.” That’s suck with me now since I work in a university setting because it has a prophetic quality to it. I don’t really remember playing with any kids or much else about that time.

The other thing I remember about Hawaii was that I turned three when we were there. We moved just before I turned three and then I turned three. I got a wonderful red car for my birthday. It was a little peddle car. It was my favorite toy of all time. I spent every moment in that car as I possibly could. It was the best thing. It looked kind of like a little VW bug, which was big at the time – the old kind of VW bug because that was in 1968.

In 1970, we moved back to Alaska. We moved into a different neighborhood from where we were before. We were in a relatively new development that had sprung up after Alaska had become a state. It was very near to the major hospital, so there were quite a few doctors and

 

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other medical professionals that lived in our neighborhood. I remember very specific kids I used to play with, where we’d play, and the games. We lived there for a total of five years.

The school that I went to opened the year that I started going to it, which shows how new the neighborhood was. There was all of the sudden all these kids and they needed a school for them to go to. I was in the very first class of kindergarten kids who went through that school. It was mostly a fun time.

In the winter one of my favorite things was to, during lunch, go outside and go ice skating. You could do that most months during the school year. We would eat our lunches as fast as we could so we could get outside. We would spend the whole time ice skating.

In the spring of the year, in the season that the Alaskans call “breakup” because the ice melts and there’s seasonal flooding, the thing that the kids lived for was to wear the tallest boots you could find and see the deepest puddle you could go walking in without getting wet and getting in trouble. Every year the kids would want to get what we called “breakup boots,” which were the boots that you wore during the flood or that season. They needed to go at least to your knees to be of any use whatsoever. If they didn’t go to your knees, then they weren’t any fun. The bigger kids would either get or borrow their dads’ or older brothers’ wadding or fishing boots because then of course they could go in. We’d just literally go walking through mud puddles for a good part of the afternoon or on the weekends. We thought that was the best thing in the world.

My family did not own a television set I think the whole time that we were living in that neighborhood. So, I don’t have any memories of watching TV except if we went to someone else’s house. But, my parents tried to make sure that we didn’t go to the people’s houses who’d let us watch TV.

We played outside a ton. We ran. We had a nice big backyard. My dad had put up a swing set and it was fenced in so it was very safe. Our property and the property of all the houses on our street adjoined a large parcel of land owned by the university that was just forest. So, if you had some sort of supervision or babysitter, then we’d take little trips and go back through that land. In the winter we could go sledding. It was nice to have such open space to go

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out in and explore. I know that that space doesn’t even exist today because everything in Anchorage has been built up.

The thing I remember about the summers from that part of my childhood is that my parents of course both worked and I had the same nanny until I was six. She decided to retire and that was really hard on me because she had been the major primary caregiver in my life. I was so sad and disappointed when she decided to retire and move back outside of Alaska.

My dad’s sister came to live with us from New York City. That was really interesting because I don’t think that she was really ready for Alaska. It was just major culture shock. My brother, I think I can safely say, was quite of a handful by then. My brother has ADHD and we went through many babysitters and other caregivers because he was a huge handful. He’s very bright, but the trouble he can get into is unbelievable. As it turned out, my aunt only lasted for year.

I had just turned seven and my brother was going into kindergarten the following year, so my parents decided that they no longer needed to have a regular nanny for us who lived with us but instead we would make due with babysitters and other programs. From then on I was in summer programs that I hated because they weren’t with any kids that lived in my neighborhood; they were with kids that were from other parts of the city. I did not enjoy any of the activities that we did. It really bugged and frustrated me that I was stuck all day in the summer with kids I didn’t know or didn’t like. I couldn’t go do things with other kids from my school. At some point each summer my family did take trips outside of Alaska. We would go visit our relatives and that was kind of fun because it wasn’t in the “Summer Fun Programs” that I was required to attend. I didn’t care a lot for what we did in the summer.

The only thing from the summer within the neighborhoods that I do remember, and I guess my brother must have done this on the weekends or when we got home, every year there are huge potholes and cracks and messes in the pavement in the spring and summer in Alaska just like there is Maine because of the big frost heaves. So, every year they would have to do road work in the summer, one of which involved using tar to fill cracks and holes. My brother just

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loved stepping in warm or hot tar. He thought this was the height of enjoyment. As soon as the tar truck came down the street he would get so excited because it meant that in a couple of hours he could go put his fingers and toes in the tar. It’s almost impossible to get off tar unless you actually take a bath in turpentine to get it off. He was six or seven at the time and not a child with any sense of forethought or consequences of his actions. He would do this and then he would go rushing into the house and get tar all over the carpeting. I remember how angry my mother was and how many spankings he got. I also remember thinking “doesn’t he get it when he does this he is going to be in a lot of trouble?” Also, I remember being sad and frightened for him because I knew how painful it was going to be to get spanked. I quickly learned not do things that led to spankings, but he just didn’t get that. It was this ritual every summer that he was gonna play in the tar and get in trouble for it.

We moved, in 1975, back to Hawaii because my mother decided that she wanted to do a residency; partly because of all the contacts they’d had in Hawaii from our previous time there and partly because my dad was able to transfer his commission in the Public Health Service to a posting in Hawaii. We went back to Hawaii for three years. That’s probably the three most unhappiest years of my childhood. I was so sad that we were moving away from our neighborhood because I loved my neighborhood and I loved my friends. I’d been in school with them from the beginning. There was this sense of ritual, tradition, and comradery. I was involved in Girl Scouts and I liked my Girl Scout troop. And, we were very involved in our church. So, I was very upset about it. I don’t remember my brother being as upset because he was younger and of course he’d made a lot of enemies along the way.

One of the biggest differences about where we lived in Hawaii was that it was an apartment building in the city. It was totally different from any place I remember we’d lived in before; of course we lived in Hawaii before, but we were in a house not an apartment building. This time, we lived in an apartment building that was very close to the hospital that my mother was working and not too far from where my dad was working. It was cramped. In comparison to the freedom I felt in our neighborhood in Anchorage where there were big yards (everybody’s

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house was on about an acre plus all the other space we had), lots of kids, and very family oriented. We moved into this space where there were very few kids, even living in the apartments in that area. We couldn’t go anywhere; we couldn’t play anywhere. My parents had very strict rules and you couldn’t pretty much step outside the apartment without a grownup. There were no toys or swing sets or anything of interest nearby. We had to go a substantial walk to get to a park. It felt like the opposite of everything that Anchorage had felt like, plus I didn’t have any friends.

Just when I thought my life couldn’t get any worse, my parents took us for our first day of school. The way the boundary fell was that my brother and I were placed in a public school that was predominately non-Caucasians. It was predominately people of different Asian Pacific backgrounds so there were Hawaiians, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Samoans, anything non-White except there were not that many African Americans. We were each the only White kids in our classrooms; there were a few other White kids enrolled in the school, but they were not in our classes. There were a few per grade. That is partly because in Hawaii the public school system is not very good by the standards of White families. Most White families who have the means put their children in private schools. My parents did not want to do that because they wanted us to have this very multicultural diverse experience, which now I really value because I experienced what it is like not to be in the majority and not to exercise any White privilege. In fact, I can remember being very much stigmatized and ostracized for being white. The kids would literally tease me and say “you’re skin is too white, you look sick.”

At the time it was not a lot of fun. In starting with, I couldn’t understand what they said because many of these kids were recent immigrants; thus, there English was still developing. The major everyday dialect in Hawaii isn’t standard English, it’s pigeon English. It uses different vocabulary as well as different syntax. So, at least for me at the time, I couldn’t understand them very well. It took many months for me to understand what the kids were saying. The teachers I think could understand pretty well. They were good about making sure that they spoke in a way

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that I could understand. I think they knew how hard it was. It took me a very long time for me to feel like I was accepted in any way. As a result, I spent almost every time I wasn’t supposed to be doing something else in the library. I must have read every book they had because I just needed an outlet. I needed something to do. I was just so miserable.

I didn’t hide my misery from my parents and eventually they had mercy on me. For the last year in Hawaii, for my seventh grade year, I was allowed to attend a private school. They let me help decide the school, which was nice. There was a very large prestigious private school across the street or near to where we live, but it was huge. I didn’t want to go there because I didn’t know any of the kids there. But, many of the kids that went to my church went to a school called the Hawaii Baptist Academy. We are Baptist. And, because I knew those kids and because we were friends from church, I thought “oh, it would be so cool to go to school with the kids I know and the kids who speak my language.” I got my parents to agree. I had an interview and I was accepted; for my seventh grade year, I went to Hawaii Baptist Academy. It was still hard because the curriculum was different from what I’d had in the public school. I hadn’t worked for a couple of years, then all of the sudden I was being expected to perform. It was really valuable and I admired the teachers who made me work. I think that they got me back on track academically in nice way.

By the time I left Hawaii, I was sad to leave some of those friends from school. I have no contact with the kids from my fifth and sixth grade years. The kids at my seventh grade at least I have some memory of.

My brother didn’t go through the same experience of feeling quite so miserable at the public school. My brother is quite the comedian. He does get into a lot of trouble, but he somehow found his niche there. Interestingly, he picked up pigeon English much more quickly than I did. He picks up languages in general very quickly. I think he was able to assimilate more quickly than I was, so he stayed at that school the whole time. I don’t remember him having any friends that came home or anything, but he seemed to have a good time there.

 

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At the time that we moved to Hawaii in ’75 we knew that we were going to come back to Alaska because my parents knew they really wanted to continue to live in Alaska. All throughout my seventh grade year I knew it was my last year there. We went to Alaska and we moved to a different town that I’d lived before, out in an area not too far from Anchorage. That’s where I went to eighth grade and all of high school. That proved to be a very nice place, but again very different because it was in a rural agricultural community. Most houses were well outside the city, some houses were in the town. Town is too big a term. A few people lived in the town itself – 2,000 is probably a high number. But, then most people lived out in the larger geographic area, which is called a borough. A borough is the equivalent of a county in Maine terms. We were in the middle of wooded forest area. Our particular house was situated on five acres, but there were predominately woods all around us because there were other lots that had not been built on. If you wanted to go play at anyone else’s house, you had to drive there; you couldn’t walk to a neighbor’s house since it was too far away. That was again very different and it meant that we were at the mercy of our parents or someone to drive us to do something.

I really enjoyed being back in Alaska. I felt very much at home there. I had stayed in contact with some of my friends I’d had before I left. As it turns out, some of those kids also moved to the same town that I did because there families were interested in being outside of the city and they wanted what was considered to be a really good school district in that town of Palmer. I reconnected with them and dove into being back in Alaska as if I’d never been gone.

I think I mostly enjoyed my high school years. Eighth grade was a little quirky because going in half way into the middle school years with a group of kids that had already bonded was a little weird. But, I even got in and made friends with that group pretty quickly. Some of those friends are my best friends still today. I got re-involved in Girl Scouts. I didn’t do any athletics in junior high. There really wasn’t much by way of athletics for girls then. There was so little unless you wanted to be a cheerleader.

In high school, things began to change. I entered a high school the first year that Title IX went into effect with regard to women in athletics. So, they created a cross country team and I

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participated in that. I stayed in cross country all four years of high school. I really enjoyed that because it was something that I had never been able to participate in before; I had never found a real link for myself in sports. I also did track for my first two years, but then I got an Achilles injury that abruptly ended track my sophomore year. I only ran the later part of the season for junior year cross country. By then, I was on the back field of the team because my ankle was still recovering. I still was considered part of the team and I helped in management duties when I couldn’t actually run.

High school was a lot of fun. I probably didn’t have to work at as much as I should have. But, I had a good time.

My parents are both wacko. But, there are some interesting things about them. My parents are physicians, which of course today it’s not uncommon to have a mom that’s a doctor. But, when I was growing up it was definitely considered weird. It kind of stuck out as a defining characteristic about my family that was different, partly because my mom was a doctor and partly because my mom worked outside of the home and wasn’t around very much.

My parents met in medical school. What’s a little interesting is that they have the exact same birthday. They were born a few hours a part, but went through elementary and high school in different grades. What happened was that my mother entered elementary school at the right time age wise, meaning that – they didn’t have kindergarten back then – she started first grade when she was six. My dad was home schooled until either first or second grade because his mom was a teacher. My dad’s a twin, so he and his brother were home schooled because his mom was very particular about learning some early stuff. Then she said “okay, I think you are ready. I want to enroll you in elementary school.” She went in and looked at the curriculum and said “look, these boys have already learned all of this stuff.” So, she got them placed a grade higher than they would have been for their age. As it turned out, my dad graduated from high school a full year before my mother did.

They both went off to college. My mother’s from Texas, my dad’s from North Carolina. My mom went to college in Texas but decided that she wanted to get out of Texas and go to

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medical school. So, she applied to medical schools in the south and decided to go to one in North Carolina, which is where my dad was from. My dad chose to go to an in-state medical school, but he did not start college with the intention of going to medical school. He was an engineering major. The second half of his junior year of college he decided that he really wanted to go to medical school, so he had to spend an extra year in college doing all those pre-med courses. As a result, he entered med. school the same year as my mom. I think they met freshman year. They started dating somewhere in sophomore/junior year.

They got married three days before they graduated from medical school, which I personally think was stupid. But, my mother’s rational was that she wanted her diploma to be in her married name not her maiden name. So, she specifically did it for that purpose. In hindsight, we all agreed that she should have kept her maiden name as her professional name because growing up in household with two doctor Brown’s was just a royal pain. But, back then that wasn’t what you did, so she took my dad’s name. They both went on and did their internship in Virginia.

My dad had gone through medical school on a Navy scholarship, so a military scholarship. He knew he had to take a commission in order to pay back his scholarship years. Obviously, he was a commissioned officer because he was an M.D. But, he explored the various options. Both he and my mom liked to travel. And, it being 1964-5, he was somewhat concerned where he might get posted because of the war in Vietnam. He found out that he could take his commission with the United States Public Health Service, which is not an armed branch but a service branch in the United States government. They have commissioned officers just like the military service branches. He chose that as his option for several interesting things. One, at the time Alaska was considered a hardship posting – not that many people wanted to go there. So, he got extra pay and he could do that lieu of any potential of having to go to Vietnam. When all the decision making came down to it, my mom found out that she was pregnant with me. They ended up moving to Alaska.

 

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They have always had a close professional career together and have been in practice together various times. When I was growing up it was always made known to me that it was unusual to have not one but two doctors for parents. I remember as a child being asked constantly what’s it like. Sometimes people were very critical of my mom because she worked outside the home. It was very obvious that she wasn’t around a lot. I truthfully don’t remember my mother when I was a tiny child because she really wasn’t around. One of the reasons that kept her out of the picture, that isn’t so much related to her profession but to other events, is that when my brother was born it was discovered that my mother had ovarian cancer. At the same time she was dealing with my brother as a newborn (thank goodness we had my nanny to take care of me) she was trying to survive cancer. She did survive. She’s alive today. But, the kind of cancer that she had meant that it wasn’t an easy battle and she had to undergo what at the time were some pretty difficult treatments. I think that probably had a big effect on some of my toddler and preschool years because not only did my mom have her work commitment, but she was trying to survive cancer too.

I wouldn’t say that we are a particularly close family. We get along, but not in the way that I see other families be close. My parents currently live in Alaska, so they are a long way away from here. They did live in Vermont, in New England, for eight years. My mom taught at the University of Vermont medical school for five years because she had gotten tired of private practice. Pretty quickly she learned that academic medicine is much worse than private practice. It took a few years for them to decide that they wanted to move back to Alaska, which is what they eventually did. But, I don’t obviously see then very often because they are so far away.

The other thing that comes to mind when I think of my family is how disconnected I was from any grandparents; that probably created certain assumptions about the role of grandparents. My dad’s dad died when he was fourteen, so I never knew him. He died of diabetes. It’s sad to me now that I never knew him because I am a lot like my grandfather. He was an academic, like myself. He never finished his Doctorate because of the Great Depression, but he did serve as a superintendent of schools and was a college professor of education until complications from

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Diabetes prevented him from working at all. I think that I would have really liked to have known my grandfather.

I didn’t get to know my grandmother that well either because she lived in North Carolina the whole time I was growing up in Alaska and Hawaii. The notion of visiting frequently back then was very impossible. They literally just didn’t have the flights very often. I’m sad that I didn’t get to know her better either. I ended up naming my daughter after her because I wanted that family connection. She was a teacher and I think that I would have enjoyed spending more time with her.

My mom’s family is considerably more screwed up and dysfunctional. Her mother, whom I never met, abandoned my mom and her older brother when my mom was four, during World War II. She ran off and left the kids with her mother, my mother’s grandmother, who ultimately raised both the kids for a little while. My uncle didn’t get along with his grandmother very well. He ran away from home and did a little of this and a little of that and went into the Navy. But, my mom was raised by her grandmother then her grandmother died when my mom was seventeen and my mom was on her own.

My grandfather, who had been serving in the war when his wife ran off, had an intermittent disconnected role with his two kids when he came back from the war. He came back as a disabled veteran and had to go through a lot of rehab. My mother virtually had no relationship with either of her parents. It explains her absence of talking about family and a sense of family or connection to other generations during my childhood because I don’t think that she ever really had that experience the way that my dad had some of that experience.

I have virtually no communication with my mother’s family because of the fact that it was so broken. I have some communication with my dad’s side of the family, but it is still pretty limited because we never grew up together or really knew each other. I really wish I could have more contact. I hope my daughter will get more contact. I’ve tried to make sure that she has good access to her grandparents before they pass away. My husband’s parents are both a lot older

 

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than mine. They won’t be around for too much more of my daughter’s life, so I’m trying to make sure that there’s some kind of memory there for her that is positive.

College was mostly fun for me, but it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t necessarily academics that weren’t easy. I was very excited to go away to college. I was very ready for independence because of some problems in my family that I was really tired of dealing with. But, as much as I was ready to get away from home, I wasn’t ready to get away from home. My brother developed some very serious drug and alcohol problems when he was in high school that started in his ninth grade year. I had a lot of difficult emotions around that partly because I knew that he was drinking and eventually knew that he was doing drugs. But, in the culture of the time you didn’t tell on other kids; you didn’t rat each other out. And, I also felt like my parents were too disconnected from what we were doing anyway to know or care. So, I had watched him get involved in some activities that were very unhealthy. Part of me just wanted to get out, but part of me felt guilty because in my absence of being there I didn’t know who was going to care for my brother. I took him to school everyday because I had my driver’s license my last two years of high school. I was responsible for getting him there and getting him home. My parents fully expected that of me everyday. So, going away to college was bittersweet for me because it meant I wouldn’t have to deal with that everyday, but in my mind I was still dealing with it everyday.

When I got to college, I was really distracted. I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about my family and in particular my brother. Things for him ultimately got worse before things got better. He was arrested for drunk driving and had to go to juvenile hall. It was just very unpleasant. I could never fully concentrate the years that I was away at college. One time, I seriously considered moving back to Alaska to finish my Bachelor’s degree there, but most everybody said I should stick it out where I was. I was in Washington State at a small liberal arts college. Ultimately, I did stick it out. By the end of college, it’s interesting as I reflect on it now, I really felt like I hadn’t learned all that much because I’d been preoccupied. I finally figured out why I was preoccupied, but I wanted to learn some more. I finally was able to get focused, so I

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decided to go to graduate school mostly because I felt like I hadn’t got much out of college. I had not done academically as well in college as I should of. It was somewhat like high school in that the teachers and professors were on my case because they knew I could be doing better but I wasn’t. But, I wouldn’t tell them why. It all had to do with the fact that my brother was in conflict and that I felt a sense of responsibility and powerlessness.

I did make some really great friends there that are lifelong friends; one woman in particular, who identified herself as the person who was going to look after me. We became roommates the second half of our freshman year when the initial housing groupings the college had put us in changed because a bunch of the girls had gone off to sororities. She has gone on to be one of my very best friends. She intuited that I was not very happy at college and she worked very hard to help me be integrated with activities there. She also welcomed me into her home. I went to her family’s house for Thanksgiving, for every break. Flying back to Alaska was something that either was cost prohibitive or I just didn’t want to do because of logistics. I did make some great friends at college. It wasn’t like it was a total loss. It just wasn’t as academically fulfilling as it might have been if I had not had some other things hanging over me.

I made the choice to go off to graduate school when I finally decided that I wasn’t going to be able to solve my brother’s problems. And, that’s how I landed on the east coast. It was this pure desire, drive to learn the stuff I hadn’t really learned in college. So, I got a Master’s degree in history at the University of Massachusetts.

I also got my first taste of teaching at the college level. As with many large research institutions, the graduate students do a lot of the undergraduate teaching. I got a teaching fellowship. I taught a lot of people who were older than I am. That was a major experience because I’m sure they were wondering how someone as young as me got to be in a position of teaching them. I look young now, but imagine how young I looked then. People thought I was sixteen. It was a trial by fire because they just put you in the room with the undergraduate students and it was sink or swim. There was not a lot of guidance in how you were expected to

 

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teach. You were expected to know the material better than the undergraduates did so you could tell it to them.

I kept wanting to get better at that, so I sought out opportunities to improve my teaching skills. I discovered how much I love teaching. I got my Master’s in history, but didn’t realize that what I really wanted to do was teach. I wasn’t at the time thinking of teaching at the college level; teach at the K-12 level, particularly teach middle or high school. Right after finishing my degree in history, I enrolled for a second Masters in teaching. That also facilitated the process of getting a certificate to teach. I taught middle and high school history. I have continued to love and enjoy teaching.

Along the way I met my husband, who is also a teacher. We met on April Fools Day because he came to church with a mutual friend of ours, a woman he used to date but they had stopped dating by that time. He actually offered to store all my belongings for the summer because I was going back to Alaska that summer on a grant I had received. I was shocked that this person that I met that day wanted to store my stuff without really seeing my stuff or knowing me very well. I said “well, that’s very nice of you but that’s okay.” But, then in the month and half left before I left for my trip, I discovered that my initial plan for how I was going to store my stuff wasn’t gonna work. And, I took him up on it. And, partly because when I got back from my trip I needed access to my stuff, we stayed in communication. Then, eventually started dating. Within a couple of years we got married.

I went to teach at the school where he was teaching, which was a private boarding school. I continued my passion for teaching, but was drawn to the kids that weren’t being successful. Within a couple of years of working there, I started taking course work and becoming interested in working with kids with special needs. I took the courses I needed to become certified in special education and eventually ran the program for kids with learning disabilities in that school. In the process of taking the classes and trying to learn more about helping kids who were struggling, I found out about the profession of school psychology and how it tied in with special education and yet was it’s own unique branch.

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Mostly through encouragement from the professors I had, I made the choice to do Doctorate level work. I didn’t go back into graduate school with the thought of getting a Doctorate. I just really wanted to become more skilled at helping kids in need. But, some professor said “I’d like to encourage you to do this. I think you’d be good at it.” So, I applied and was accepted and seven years later I got my Doctorate. It wasn’t necessarily a completely linear path. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a teacher and other people around me knew that probably made sense. I didn’t come straight out of college knowing that it was the career path for me. It sort of evolved.

From college, I learned that I tried to hard to help others. I needed to set clearer boundaries because I let too much of my own time in college be lost to my brother’s problems and my family’s problems. Very near the end of college I realized that I probably was not going to solve those problems because I started taking some psych classes. One of my other very dear friends from college is a clinical psychologist. It is kind of interesting that many of my dearest friends from college were psych majors and went into either teaching or psychology as a profession, as I did. And, recognizing that I just really had to let go of those family problems, that I couldn’t be the savior anymore, not that I ever was. I needed to focus on my own needs. I think that the decision to go far away to graduate school was partly because it was a geographic break. As much as being in Washington State separated me from my family in logistical ways, being on the east coast really separated me from them. It made me less accessible to them and much more on my own. The symbolic of my need to be on my own and do something for me for a change. I felt that most of my high school years had been consumed by taking care of my family, particularly with the absence of my mother who continued not to be around very much.

I definitely think I realized I was an adult before my parents did. I would say that it was something that was part of my identity by senior year of college. When I was making steps toward deciding what I was going to do after college, I remember very clearly having an argument with my mother who was frustrating me because I wouldn’t commit to what my plans were going to be. This was probably in April or May of that year. Finally, I said to her “look, I don’t know

Life Story         19

what I’m going to do yet. When I know I will probably let you know. But, it’s my decision, it’s my life. Leave me alone.” I think that probably summarized my articulation as an adult because she had no legal hold over me. They had paid for a chunk of my education, but without any strings attached that I was aware of. I still had half of my education to pay back from loans. There wasn’t any rule that said that I had to do what they were telling me to do. There wasn’t any rule that said that I had to move back to Alaska to be near them. I was fully capable of exploring what I wanted to do next. I won’t say that I always had that conviction in the next few months or years, but it serves as a good turning point.

I definitely feel older and it feels older every day. I didn’t anticipate feeling middle aged by now. I am definitely identifying myself as middle-aged I think earlier than initially I thought it would hit. I’m thirty-eight. I’ve always thought of forty as that major transition. Maybe partly because my husband has already turned forty and he is extremely youthful and exuberant. He has no medical problems, health problems. He’s very youthful. I use him as my measuring stick of what getting older is like. I feel older than he seems. Keeping up with the challenges of being a mom, doing my work at the university, and other things it feels very tiring. I remember as a young person thinking why is it that older people say that they are tired all the time and they don’t have energy. I totally relate to that now. I wish I had more energy. I look at people in their twenties and what they can do and I think I used to be able to do that but I can’t anymore. That makes me think I’m middle-aged. I don’t know if I think of it in a negative term, it just feels different than I thought it would.

I wonder about what I’ll be like when I’m older. If I’ll just be an older version of me or if I will have changed. I went to my high school reunion this past summer. It was really interesting to see how people had aged over that twenty years, how many of them really looked the exact same as they did when we graduated from school, and others were totally changed people. I think that got me thinking and wondering about that process of change. A lot of people said to me “you still look the same,” but I know everybody has had so many life changing experiences. I haven’t had nearly as many crises as some of them have. I haven’t endured a major life illness, I haven’t lost

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a family member, I haven’t had to deal with the tragedies that some of them had to deal with. But, I think we’ve all gotten older certainly. It made me wonder what the next twenty years will be like. What will the world be like then? The world’s changed quite a bit in twenty years.

Having Ellie has been a real delight to me. She is four-and-a-half now. She likes to point out that she’s not plain four; she’s four-and-a-half. Getting pregnant was not easy, so it was a huge delight to us when I discovered I had conceived. I was scheduled to start infertility treatments the week that I discovered that I was pregnant with Ellie. I had been into the doctor’s office on either Monday or Tuesday of that week and they had run a pregnancy test because I was going in on a regular basis. They said “no, you’re not pregnant.” I had done a couple at home in the prior week and they were negative. Some inner instinct inside me made me do another one the day before I was scheduled to start on the treatment. It came back as positive, which was really confusing because the doctor’s office had said that I was not pregnant and we couldn’t figure anything out from the dates. Then, we went in and I did reconfirm that indeed I was pregnant with Eleanor.

I had an early very strong instinct that it was going to be a girl. I didn’t necessarily want a girl per se, but just had this instinct it was going to be a girl. It was confirmed either the ninth or the tenth week, early on, that it was a girl. It’s kind of an interesting story because I wanted to know the sex of the child from the beginning. I’m the kind of person who likes to know everything out in advance. My husband did not. So, we had determined that when I found out that I would not tell him. I was the one person beside my doctor who knew this. It was a very weird thing. I had to remind myself not to disclose that information. I was walking around knowing that I was going to have a little girl. I should have said that I did not know the sex and that would have been easier, but we had told people that I knew and David didn’t. When we told them that, a lot of people had leapt to the assumption that it was a boy because many times if it’s diagnosed through ultrasound they can tell if it’s a boy easier than if it’s a girl. What people didn’t know is that I didn’t have it diagnosed through ultra sound. I had another blood test done because my husband’s family has a history of mental retardation. We went through extra screening

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measures. I had conclusive evidence that it was a female, but virtually everybody in our family until a month before this child was born thought it was going to be a boy because they assumed it was based on the ultrasound method. I guess it really threw them for a loop when we had a nice healthy little girl.

She was born in a snow storm on the very last day of two weeks past term, the last day they’d let her stay inside of me. So, she was definitely a full term baby. I had been in labor for two days, which started on a Thursday. I got almost to five second interval contractions and then labor went away, which was really frustrating. As a result, I hadn’t slept in two days and I was really grumpy. People kept calling me on Friday and checking on me. I was just so tired of dealing with it, I said “I don’t want to take anymore phone calls. I haven’t slept in two days.” I had pretty much given up. The doctor on Friday afternoon had said “I’m gonna schedule to admit you on Sunday night to induce you because you’ll be at 42-weeks and at some point it’s just unhealthy for the baby to be inside.” I was mentally expecting that I would get through the weekend and we would go to the hospital Sunday night. My main goal and hope was that I wouldn’t have to have a c-section. At 6 o’clock on Saturday night all of the sudden I had regular five-minute interval contractions; this was exactly at the time that the snow storm got to be its worse. So, I called my doctor and she said “yes, you’d better come in.” I told my husband. I wasn’t too freaked out about driving because I grew up in Alaska, except I wasn’t driving.

On the way to the hospital, we had rented the movie Primary Colors and we were half way through it when my contractions were really active. David was trying to do anything that he could to distract me from the fact that I was uncomfortable and hadn’t slept. The place where we rented the video was literally right in the road of where we were going, so he said “I’m gonna return the video.” I said “no, we might have to come back from the hospital. I wanna finish watching it.” He just looked at me like forget it I need to return the video. Then we get on the highway and he very narrowly missed the exit because the town we were living in was about six miles of the highway from North Hampton where Ellie was born. I happened to look up between

 

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contractions because I was timing them and I’m like “TURN!” He gets me to the hospital; that worked out fine.

While I continued to have some pretty active labor and good duration, I did not progress at all. Eventually, they had to break my water and that activated more advanced labor. Ellie was born quite healthily Sunday morning at nine-something in the morning. I avoided a c-section and having to be induced, which is very painful. She was a great little kid from the minute she was born. They were concerned at birth because the umbilical cord was around her neck twice, but they had an on-call pediatrician present at birth. There were no major concerns, even though she had a very low initial Apgar, her second Apgar went up to nine.

I stayed at the hospital as long as I could because I didn’t have any family ready to come visit and I didn’t want to go home to an empty house with nobody there. And, my insurance company let me stay for 48-hours, so I stayed for 48-hours. It was a really nice unit. They had the nice big double beds so the dads could sleep in. So, David stayed with me. I remember when we drove home from the hospital thinking “and there letting us take her home.” I was like “what, are they crazy? We’ve never done this before.” I know a lot of parents are like that. It was kind of this wild thing. It was very cold; snow was still on the ground. We drove her home and started putting stuff away. It was kind of weird. She has been a good healthy little kid ever since.

She was named after my grandmother, Ellie Wall Brown, who is my dad’s mom. Who I did not know well, but who I really respected. My grandma was a teacher and I liked that fact. David and I really wanted to pick a family name for her. What I also find to be fascinating was that two days before Ellie was born, my cousin’s wife had a little boy. So, he was born March 5th and they named him Joshua. Joshua was our boy name, so these two kids were born very close to each other, having picked family names from the same side of the family. The two second cousins have not yet met, but they certainly know that story.

Being a mom has certainly been stressful. My biggest worry when she was a newborn was how to manage all the demands. I had finished my dissertation, so I was in a place in my

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Doctoral program where I knew I could manage things. But, the day to day of it was not easy, particularly because our families weren’t around or interested in helping. My husband hired someone to be a nanny to Ellie. He hired her as much for me as he did for Ellie because I was so worried about how I was going to handle my work responsibilities as well as taking care of her. That proved to be a really nice thing. Christiana was a fabulous caregiver and took good care of her. She met all of her milestones on time.

It’s interesting in that I wonder how she feels about being an only child. Due to some other health problems that I have, I have a liver condition which is part of the reason that conception was so hard, I’ve been advised not to try to have anymore kids. I don’t feel bad about that for myself per se because I am very happy with one child. But, sometimes I wonder how Ellie feels. She seems completely content being an only child. She’s not someone who’s come home and said “mommy, I want a baby brother” or one of those kids who think you can pick one up at the pound.

She is a very happy person. I find that she gets a lot of her temperament from her dad because I’m far more anxious and far more picky about things. David is much more low key. Ellie has always been low key. But, that doesn’t mean that she can’t have her temper tantrums, which she does.

I think that David and I try to not create an environment where she will become a spoiled brat. Sometimes that’s hard though because she’s not only an only child, but she’s an only grandchild on both sides – and probably will never have cousins. My brother is gay and my husband’s brother may be gay. We don’t know, but he lives in San Francisco and doesn’t want to have any communication with the family. The likelihood is that she is the only of her generation. Even when we say to the grandparents “please don’t send too many presents,” it doesn’t work. It’s the challenge of having her be connected to the real world when her grandparents want to spoil her rotten. We kind of try to balance against that and help her understand that there are a lot people in this world who don’t have all of the things that she has and that she is very lucky and there are going to be certain expectations placed on her because she’s got resources.

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There are certainly a lot of times that my parents and my husband’s parents have said “oh, you were just like that as a child.” I know that many of my students are fond of calling her Mini-Me because she has the same haircut as I do. She has certain behaviors that David swears are just like me. The other day she was upset about something and she put her hands on her hips just like I do when I’m mad at her. David’s like “oh, I’m in so much trouble.” He already feels really outnumbered as the only male in the household. On other levels, I don’t think she’s like me as much as she’s like him. I’m really glad that she reflects both of her parents.

Trying to keep up with the demands of parenting is continuing to be challenging. I miss having a nanny. It’s something that was an indulgence or a gift that David gave me when she was an infant. On a certain level, finically, it just reached a certain point of not being cost effective. We’ve looked for other places for her to be in childcare. I think that’s been good for her to be in some quality centers because as an only child she wouldn’t have any contact with other kids. I know I had a nanny when I was young, other than my brother, I had no kids to play with. And, my brother and I didn’t get along, so I really didn’t play with other kids. Ellie really seems to like playing with other kids, so it’s good to see her having that social enrichment that she might not get otherwise.

It is sometimes interesting to be an educator and a parent. I remember when I was a young teacher and I always felt like it was weird when I would talk to parents who would look to me for advice about their kids. I would think “you’re the parents; you’re supposed to know that stuff.” And, now of course I know that parents don’t get a user’s manual. I would feel as if I didn’t know the answers to their questions. I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to be a teacher before I was a parent and after because it’s a different experience. If I had not had the chance to teach before I had a child of my own, I would not have understood how it has affected my teaching. It makes teaching a lot more personal. It takes away some of your objectivity. I think that I so quickly think of Ellie when I talk about certain things. But, on the other angle of it, I can sympathize with my students who are parents or who have parents, depending on what context I’m working in, in a completely different way that I didn’t have available to me when I wasn’t a

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parent. I wish that every teacher could have that opportunity and experience what it’s like from both sides because I don’t know if one is better, they are just different.

I would not want to comprise integrity; that there be an authenticity to what I do. I’m someone who does not tolerate hypocrisy well. If I say I’m going to do something, I try very hard to do it. I more or less expect the same from everyone else. I have found that sometimes that’s hard because not everybody else makes that same assumption that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do or meet certain deadlines and then they try to get out of it. That has proven to be challenging for me. But, I don’t want to give in on that because then I feel as if it is very hard to know how to operate and you lose a sense of honesty with the world. I think it’s better if we can set realistic goals and boundaries rather than set unrealistic goals and boundaries and pretend like we are going to meet them.

I think I see myself still teaching at USM in ten years and hopefully I’ll have tenure by then. If I don’t, I won’t be teaching at USM. I hope that our program will have evolved so I don’t feel quite so caught up in certain little minutia that I don’t mind doing but it wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t have to do it. Part of it is that right now we are a pretty small program, my strong hope being that by offering the Doctorate program and getting another person that we will offer a capacity that’s not there because there’s kind of an additive effect or an exponential effect that you get with three that you don’t have with two. My hope being that professionally I’ll be better able to work on some of the pieces of my research that slip by the way side when I’m dealing with program management issues.

Also, that I will have more time for my family and be involved in their activities, particularly as Ellie gets older. Ten years from now, she’ll be fourteen and a half. If things go as they seem to be, I imagine that she’ll be involved in sports. She has loved sports from the beginning. She watches baseball games with her dad. I like athletics but more for my own fitness and enjoyment. I’m not a group game person. I don’t get that much from watching baseball on television. But, she loves it and loves to go see the Seadogs. So, I wanna be able to go to her games. My

 

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parents never came to any of my stuff. I wanna be there for her. I hope that my professional situation will have unfolded in a way that I can do that more.

It is really hard for me to identify just one awe-inspiring experience, but one that I think that might fit that definition pretty well is visiting the cemeteries for the soldiers who died on D-Day at Normandy. My parents graciously made it possible for me to go to Europe when I graduated high school. We lucked out because a very dear friend of our family was studying at the Savant, so I was able to go stay with her and her kids. I was very interested in history at that time, still am. We visited a lot of the very interesting famous places in France. I remember being struck at the time how present, and this was in 1983, the vestiges for World War II were still for the French people. The war had been over for a long time, but it was still part of their consciousness in a way that I don’t think that it ever was in the United States because we were, except for Hawaii and Pearl Harbor, never invaded. That’s even not the same – I’ve lived in Hawaii and been to Pearl Harbor and it’s just different in France because of the occupation.

We went to visit the beaches at Normandy. It was an interesting cultural experience because you’ve got the graveyards, which blew my mind because you look and in every direction you can see gravestones. It reinforces the sheer volume of death that came about because of that war and particularly that one week period. And, because my grandfather was wounded in World War II and most every generation of my family has participated in the wars of this country, I was really awe-struck by the sacrifice primarily those young men had made to the point that I could not finish watching Saving Private Ryan when it came out because it was too overwhelming to me.

The other piece about it that was so amazing is as part of that same tour or trip, when we went up to Normandy and Brittany, we also visited other really important historical places in that part of France that represented completely different epochs in European history. Anything from the invasions between England and France, monasteries and cathedrals which every time I visit the cathedrals of Europe I’m just awe-struck because they built all that without technology. I’m amazed that some of that stuff survived the war because I know how devastating the war was.

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I’m amazed of the pride that people took in those places. I’m impressed and amazed how they’ve gotten on with their lives despite how terrible a war that was. I probably feel it more personally because my grandfather was wounded and I have a sense of family connection to it. I just remember looking at those crosses, it was primarily crosses but some Stars of David, and thinking nobody should ever have to do this again.

I feel really lucky because I’ve gotten to see places in the world that most people never get to see that I lived in Hawaii and Alaska. Waking up and seeing Mount McKinley in four in the morning when it has no clouds over it, which only happens like 20% of the time, is an amazing experience. All the sudden this mountain that wasn’t there when you went to bed because it was completely shrouded in clouds, is there. It’s so high that you just can’t comprehend. That kind of stuff is awe-inspiring too.

I am someone who has already written my funeral directions because I like to plan things in advance; that way people don’t have to struggle over that. I have a very clear sense of what I want my funeral to be like. It’s more focused on a celebration than a sad event with the hope that people will celebrate the joy of discovery and the joy of learning because my whole life is pretty much about learning of myself and teaching others. I think the major theme would be the joy of learning and how learning can transform your life. I know most people struggle with that question, but it’s not too tough.

 

Part III. Personal Responses to the Life Story

I went into this interview with the perception that even though I would be learning about Rachel’s life that there would still be this student-teacher divide. And, there was that awkwardness to the interview at first for me. However, once her life story unfolded, I found that it was much like my own; it “studentized” her in a way. Nonetheless, by nature of the interview, she was a teacher, a teacher of her experiences, and I was the student learning about her life. But, that student-teacher divide dissipated.

 

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The lesson was long and engaging. Rachel felt that the interview was energy absorbing because in telling her story she mentally went to those places. But, she also felt that the interview was nice because she got to talk about her life, which does not occur that often. I agree with her sentiments of the interview, it was a treat for me to get to hear her life story. For that reason, I decided to not only type her story the way she told it, but also I will not cut it short to fit within the page limits for the assignment. I feel that her life story is so fascinating and educating that all of it needs to be included in this paper.

With that said, the central theme of Rachel’s life story was that of education and learning. She very systematically moved through her life story by using moving and education as her focal points. Further, she noted that from an early age that most knew she would be a teacher, which she is. Also, I think that her disclosure of how she envisions her funeral to be a celebration of the “discovery of learning” speaks volumes about how central education and learning are to her life

I found that there are many similarities in our experiences, both in a macro- and micro- sense. For instance, having that connection of running is both general and focal. We were/are both runners, we started running at the same time (ninth grade), and we had injuries that sidelined us for a season or two (her Achilles and my back). Also, we both have/had medical issues – her liver and my brain. Further, we are headed towards the same profession, school psychology, but in different capacities (teaching and practice). Further still, we are both mothers of young children. I found these particular similarities, that could be seen as semi-unlikely (i.e. not everyone is a runner, etc.), to be important in connecting with her life story. These events or experiences are important in my life and huge learning experiences that have shaped who I am; and, I could see that with Rachel as well. It validates many of my experiences, but we still manage to retain our own uniqueness to these experiences that make them our own.

I see myself in Rachel’s life story. I see myself as that person striving for knowledge and teaching others. I see myself as that happy and overwhelmed mother. I see myself as that person getting caught up in other’s problems until I finally break free from that cycle. I see myself

 

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as that anxious, picky person. I see myself as that shrewd woman who analyzes experiences and learns from them. I see many aspects of my life story in Rachel’s life story.

Conversely, I found that many of Rachel’s life experiences were dissimilar to mine. For example, a major difference revolved around family. I come from a close family (not perfect, but close) and by her own admission her family is not necessarily close. Another difference was that she moved around a lot and I have not; I lack that cultural experience or background that she gained from moving. Conversely, our dissimilarities create different life experiences and learning lessons; one is not better than the other, they are just different. Importantly, I can learn from the lessons and experiences she had that I have not encountered.

I have many things to learn from this experience. I gained a lot from this interview, despite the awkwardness toward the beginning of it. I learned a lot about Rachel – where she’s coming from, her experiences, her fears and hopes, and so on. I was able to step over that divide and see that Rachel is just like any one of her students. She’s funny, intelligent, and intuitive as a result of her life experiences. Thus, I learned that there does not have to be these divisions society set out for us to follow that inhibit us from learning about others. In conclusion, I will carry with me the knowledge of her life experiences and learn from them as they relate to my own life experiences. I have gained a lot!

 

 

Life Story         1

Running Head: LIFE STORY INTERVIEW

 

Hollie Corbett

Autobiographical Exercise #3

HRD 643: Multicultural Adult Development

Professor Atkinson

December 8, 2003

 

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