Back to School

Photo by Robert Ashworth.

Winding through busy aisles, my mother and I pushed the red shopping cart around dizzying displays labelled “college essentials” and “back to school in style.” We were not alone; the store was filled with mothers and their young adult children, packing overflowing carts with household goods for dorm rooms and apartments all over the county. While I was likely the only middle-aged woman college shopping with my mother at the Target store that day, I still experienced solidarity, a feeling of stepping into a new experience with some trepidation and excitement.

I first began college classes last year, finally relenting after being laid off and with job prospects shattered by the pandemic. I hadn’t been to school since 1995, the year I dropped out after finishing my freshman year of high school. My parents were also high school dropouts, each of them finishing their GEDs years later. While a few of my first cousins did continue to college, that was never an option in my family. I was expected to work and pay my own way, something I’ve been doing since buying my first car, a rusted out ’63 Dodge Dart.

Our lives have their own momentum; our pathways laid out before we are born by the circumstances of our births and the families we are born into. It’s easy to believe what we’ve been told about our options and what is available to us. And for too many people, the options to choose another pathway are far too limited by poverty, the pressures of family obligations, and the demands of a capitalist economy.

I meditate often on my grandmothers and their lives. My Bodewadmi grandmother, Wanda, left the reservation for Kansas to marry a farmhand toward the end of the Dust Bowl. She birthed 15 children, and after many years of working at a local café, purchased the restaurant which she operated until her death from cancer at age 57. My other grandmother, Deloris, was the granddaughter of homesteading immigrants, who married the son of German homesteading immigrants at the tender age of 15. She birthed four children and kept house for her sons and husband. That grandmother also died at age 57, of heart problems. Like so many women of their time, they had neither education nor wealth of their own. And while there is no doubt that these women loved their children immensely, and dutifully cared for their husbands (even when they didn’t deserve it), I wonder what else they were interested in. Did they secretly write poetry to the flowers they each grew? Did they imagine traveling to Paris, or have a passion for music?

It is possible, given more options, that they may have still chosen the lives they led. Simplicity and domesticity are not inherently negative. And we all have to do what needs to be done. Women, especially, shoulder this burden despite whatever dreams or passions we might nurture.

In my family, everything is a means to an end, and that end is usually about survival. We do what we must to feed the children and get up the next day. This was the path laid out for us.

While pursuing higher education was not an option as a young person, over time it became more of a possibility. I managed to move from laborious jobs to office-based work in my early twenties. For the longest time, I imagined that justifying higher education would require me to have a “calling,” to only go to school if I was going to be a lawyer or a doctor. And since I couldn’t imagine being a lawyer or a doctor, I was stuck.

It’s true that we need more Native lawyers and doctors, and we should do everything in our power to support our young people pursuing those professions. It’s also true that sometimes we aren’t sure exactly what we want to be doing, only we know that it isn’t what we’ve already done. And for some of us, the process of learning is, itself, a worthwhile venture, a source of interconnection and contentment. It has taken me over 20 years to be able to think beyond the intense pressure of survival, and to embrace that I’m not certain what my next job will be. Stepping into a future with options—that is a privilege that few of us get to experience.

In two weeks, I’ll be moving nearly 300 miles to student housing at Northwest Indian College for in-person classes. While I’m already more than a year into my degree program, I’ve not been in a physical classroom since I was 15 years old. And while perhaps some folks check off “graduate college” like it’s the next obvious step in a life of obvious steps, for many of us, this experience cannot be taken for granted. We’re stepping far off the pathway laid out for us, the lives lived by our ancestors. As we begin the next term, may we remember the strength that is required, and support one another in walking an unfamiliar road.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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