• Aloe-Nichelle

Homeward: First Entry

Content Warning (CW): academic trauma, suicide, hospitalization

Parsons School of Design was the only school I applied to. At 17 I knew I wanted a career in art and was passionate about an idea I had for a brand of t-shirts I wanted to design. Parsons was the only school I could find that had an integrated design and business program. I also felt like I would be safer there -- as a black queer kid -- in the middle of New York City at a school that boasted of its inclusivity and innovative thought. First-year wasn't great but I persevered. Second-year had some pretty great highlights but I also realized that I hated it there.

I began to see myself clearly for the kind of artist I was but got little to no respect from peers and faculty. In one of the first infuriating critiques I received, I presented houses. Most were folded origami made of origami paper or pages from journals and planners. One was roughly hewn of cardboard which I painted white with a red roof. I spoke of all the ways a home can look and my imaginings of who lived inside them. I was told they didn't look like anyone lived there and that they looked like barns rather than houses. I was encouraged to add more to the houses or look up proper house proportions. I thought my face got hot out of the embarrassment and because I struggle with criticism. But after more thought, I was angry because they saw my work for exactly what it was and then asked it to change. The work was born out of seeing people live under tin roofs or seemingly dilapidated wooden shacks. The work was about this longing I had always had to "go home" even when I was in the apartment where I lived with my family for ten years. It was about homes that didn't look or feel like homes. Somehow they were able to understand exactly that and still tell me it wasn't good enough.

I thought it wasn't a big deal. I thought if I hadn't been so upset I could've clarified to them and maybe gotten more relevant feedback. Nevertheless, I was over Parsons. I went to London for a semester abroad at UAL - Chelsea. The Fine Arts program there

was completely self-directed and with even more creative facilities. I loved it and my work flourished. Upon my reluctant term, I told myself I was a more self-assured artist and wouldn't face those challenges of not being able to stand up for my work, but soon standing up for my work became the problem. I fought with my studio instructor about taking up our work time (my only studio time in the semester) with presentations and meetings during which she often wouldn't allow us to continue our work. I lost my temper with the program director who called my work "scraps" he didn't have time to go through. After another infuriating midterm review, I received an email in which I was called disrespectful and antagonistic. I was criticized for poor attendance even after requesting disability accommodation and never hearing back from the school about it. Then I was vaguely threatened with disciplinary action. Seething with rage, I was unable to sleep that night. I was ready to drop out.

Nobody but one instructor truly supported the decision. Everyone else called me self-centered and entitled. They cultivated fear of regret, joblessness, discrimination, and low self-worth. They told me I'd have the same problems in real life. I felt trapped. Wasn't it worth it to divest from institutions that didn't respect me? Wasn't my love for self, taking myself out of harm's way, more important than "succeeding," even if it was out of spite. My mental health was in speedy decline. What would resilience be worth if I wasn't even alive to reach graduation. After hospitalization for a suicide attempt, I finished out the semester and took a leave of absence.

I know I'm not the only one. I know that there are so many ways in which the structures at play in so many of our lives seek to force us to assimilate and punish us when we refuse. I know that there are far too many ways in which this violence is enforced, empowered, and perpetuated even by those being actively harmed. But out of all the people enduring this abuse, so few are willing or able to self advocate and divest.

I want to be one of the voices telling those people that there is another way. Success shouldn't require the sacrifice of health or self-worth. You should not be punished for standing up for yourself. Enduring cruelty, injustice, disrespect is not the key to fulfillment. I believe in the power of imagination, rest and love. I believe if I can imagine it, than it can be. I don't have to run myself ragged and make myself miserable to make it so. If I let myself be guided by love -- care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust -- for and from myself and others, I know I will get where I need to go.

In future entries I might write about other experiences I've had in the workplace, in seeking therapy, in relationships, as well as the voices, like Bell Hooks and Audre Lorde, that have been important, grounding, and affirming for me. Hopefully, it helps someone somehow.

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