When I spotted the flyer in the student center, I eagerly copied the contact info onto my hand. Babysitting a kid at a halfway house so his mom could focus on a philosophy class seemed like a real step up from my work in the call center (which required me to force banter with alumni and then awkwardly ask for their credit card information). A week later, I was walking a toddler with deep black eyes and masses of tight corkscrew curls around the cozy, cluttered, living room of Hope House. I examined the laminated chore chart on the fridge, studied the paper plate wall accents hand labeled with the 12 Steps: “1. We admitted that we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Life unmanageable. Ha! Not a Stanford sentiment. My fellow students had their shit together to a degree I found deeply depressing. If my classmate hadn’t started a non-profit to restore Snowy Plover habitats, she had recently discovered a nano-particle, or at least negotiated a peace accord. 5 year plans involved JDs, MBAs, and PHDs. 50 year plans involved the presidency.
I was working on my 5 day plan. It generally involved an existential crisis. Hemmed in by uber-achievers, I had to do something really impressive and perfect to justify my existence. Also, I had to stop having an existential crisis all the time. My cynicism made this difficult: I didn’t believe people could change.
Each week, I returned to Hope House. The baby batted his black eyelashes at me. I smelled soup cooking in the kitchen. Scattered bits of stories fell on my ears: stories of living for drugs, stealing from loved ones, selling bodies on the street. And yet: the women of Hope House laughed loudly. Patted each other on the back. There was a sense—in this place where no one had discovered a nano-particle—that everyone is deeply wounded and everyone needs a great deal of love. The women of Hope House accepted a premise: any woman—with any past—could grow and flourish and do good. She could change.
On drives to and from Hope House, elite and intimidating professors overlooked my unkempt hair and strange homemade bell-bottoms to invite me (the babysitter) to share my thoughts on teaching. They acted like my input (“You should draw Plato’s cave!”) was valuable. When a babysitter was no longer needed, I became a research assistant for the program, interviewing graduates about their experience with the class. Over burritos, a woman with crimped, honey-colored hair shared that the Stanford class taught her she could think—and she was now taking courses at a community college. During my junior year, I served as a writing tutor. In a lively and discordant room of invigorating voices, I compared a 5 paragraph essay to a Big Mac, and distributed multi-colored highlighters as tools for revising papers. By my senior year, I was interviewing and training new writing tutors.
I was kind of a different person by then. Hope House was so compelling that I spent the second half of my college career seeking other service opportunities, and continued to do so after graduating. Ten years after writing that contact info on my hand, I’ve found a vocational home as a community college English instructor. For an adjunct like myself, the pay is peanuts, the benefits are nil, and my alumni magazine update looks a little marginal next to the gleaming MBAs in the adjoining column. But I don’t care. I get to laugh with and learn from a diverse classroom of non-traditional students, a classroom that reminds me of Hope House—the place that changed my heart.
This essay is part of the collection, What I Know Now, an anthology of writing about prison.
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