School Offered Me A Break

By Mary Louise Speer

Homelessness is a term that brings images of people sleeping on doorsteps or holding up cardboard signs saying “Hungry. Need help.”

I am homeless – although you wouldn’t know it to look at me. I appear much like any other student, although I’m not among the 20-somethings who make up the majority here at Whatcom Community College.

My goal in attending Whatcom is to create a fresh start for myself after a dead-end marriage and struggling to hold down two jobs and raise my children.

However, staying fixed on my goal proved challenging. During my first full quarter at Whatcom, I spent my nights at a local homeless shelter, dealt with a leg injury, and my dad’s eroding fight against cancer.
Quitting school seemed like a great solution at times.

My non-school reality involved sleeping on a mat in a partition-divided, snore-filled room of 25-30 men and 12-15 women. Each day began at 5:30 a.m., limping down stairs to the shelter’s cafeteria for a hot breakfast. We were required to leave the shelter by 6 a.m. The shelter staff were caring and trying to help many people. I would walk uptown and shower at the YMCA before catching Bus 232 to get to school.

School offered me a break and I was grateful that I had someplace to go. Studying geology and working on stories for the Horizon allowed me to feel like a “normal” person for part of the day. Even though I couldn’t completely dust away the gritty realities of my other life.

I figured I was lucky. And in some ways I was. When you have to leave the shelter early, there’s a lot of time to kill. Nothing much is open beyond coffee shops — provided one has money for a cup of java. The Bellingham Public Library opens at 10 a.m. There’s a long day to fill in between lunch and dinner at the shelter and checking in late afternoon.

I missed a few classes and attempted to catch up, when reality got too stinking much for me. The leg hurt. I wondered if I’d ever make it to the upper level of care offered for long term stays at the shelter. And then my brother called me toward the end of the quarter and told me Dad had nearly died the night before.

I hadn’t spoken with my dad in a few years due to some bone-deep differences. But I couldn’t ignore the need to talk to him one last time and maybe give both of us closure.

He began crying at the end of the phone call. That knocked me into an emotional loop. Once again I couldn’t face going to class. But how could I hide in a world that offered no privacy? Would anything ever get better? Or should I have stayed married, desperate and overworked? No.

So I dug in and got back to class.

During spring break things started getting better. A judge pronounced my marriage over – and I moved into the second care level living arrangements at the shelter. No more mat, I sleep in a real bed now. My leg has healed and my grades, considering all the obstacles, were decent.

Spring quarter is unrolling. Each day I’m in class, determined to learn and participate. If this path leads to a better life for myself, I don’t plan to stop walking it.

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