It’s been almost 2 months now of national stillness (relatively), and I can’t help but feel like I’ve discovered something new about myself everyday. In the quiet of this moment in my life, I have found that I’m suddenly able to reach behind the veil of my conscious thoughts to look deeper into their origins. I left home almost exactly 7 years ago to go to college in Connecticut, seeking out new, different opportunities to grow and learn about myself. Like so many of us, I moved away from home as a way to find myself and understand more about who I am in this great, confusing world we’re living in. I was absolutely positive that I could never flourish so close to home, that Texas was much too small a pond for this big fish. Growing up in San Antonio, I grew up with the sense that, in order to find success, I needed to move to a larger (whiter) urban center. So, I set my sights on Wesleyan University, and, eventually, New York City. Although I didn’t recognize the shift at the time, the moment I moved away from Texas I was forever changed.
I learned early on that the best way to survive socially was to learn to observe other people, take in their mannerisms and language, and then attempt to translate it into actionable concepts. When you’re always the weird one, it’s nearly impossible to have an internalized understanding of healthy, genuine behavior. I learned early on that my attempts to set boundaries with my family and friends were never going to be taken seriously, so I learned to accept it and move on. Looking back with this perspective, it becomes easier and easier to pick out “rules” I enforced on myself entirely based on unspoken social cues, never realizing the boundaries and restrictions I was placing on myself more generally in the process. Most importantly, it taught me to doubt my instincts and dismiss my own ideas before I even had the chance to explore the possibilities.
When I was in elementary and middle school, I struggled for year after year with math — the systems that my teachers were using to teach geometry, algebra, and even basic counting simply didn’t make sense to me at the time. However, instead of searching out different ways to introduce basic math and algebra skills, my teachers simply gave me bad grades. I have such a clear memory of bringing one of my first failed tests to my parents, desperate to understand why I was so stupid that I couldn’t understand basic math. Both my mom and my dad were so supportive in their responses, my Dad even took it upon himself to tutor me himself. After just a couple hours of talking through it, we figured out a method that made more sense. However, after the following exam, I still returned with poor marks — my teacher’s notes covering the papers in red, with a note in the corner reading, “Incorrect Methods”. I was stunned. I had put in all this work to try to find a way that worked better for my brain and way of thinking, and again it was thrown in my face. Although I definitely didn’t fully realize it at the time, that’s when I started to learn how to play the game in order to get better grades, setting aside my previous interests in learning for the sake of it. From then on, productivity was directed towards an outcome of better grades and increased earning potential, rather than any sort of internal motivation system.
Reflecting back upon the person I thought myself to be in high school, I am infinitely grateful for the opportunities I’ve been offered since then, and even more so for the resources that I was able to draw upon in order to make that lifestyle work for me. I’m a very different person than I was then — the person I was in high school had stronger opinions about the facts of life, knew so much more than I do now. My entire childhood, I always felt like such an outsider; always attempting to shoehorn myself into the black and white learning models I was offered throughout my primary education in Texas. Although I didn’t quite know how to articulate that discomfort at the time, I see now how limiting it was for me to be forced into an education that simply was never going to fit me.
Since joining the professional workforce 3 years ago, I have felt constantly at odds with the standards and realities of the modern career life. From Wesleyan’s liberal bubble, I moved straight into a tiny Bed Stuy apartment with 5 roommates and started work at an international tech consulting company as Executive Assistant to the CEO — a role I was wildly under-qualified and underpaid for. Although I knew I was never going to be pursuing a career in technology nor the private sector, I stuck it out for almost 2 years because it offered professional development and a reliable salary. I was never really interested in the job, but knew that I needed to prioritize financial independence over short-term happiness. That’s the thing about New York: I bought into the idea that, as long as I had the strength and intelligence to grin and bear it, I would eventually find financial security. 3 years later, it never once got any easier — it was always a game of prioritizing financial security above all else, and, after realizing what the rules are, I knew I needed to leave.
I studied the sociology of labor throughout my entire 4 years of Wesleyan; we spent months upon months talking through Marx’s Das Kapital and Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and I never once really grasped what all that heady theory meant. However, plop me down in a cubicle for a month and you’ve got yourself an instant working class consciousness. I had worked in service and childcare for so much of my formative years, but this was the first time where I finally saw how my economic background would play into my future career. As a student of sociology, I understand social capital intellectually, but, once I was thrown out into the real world, all that heady theory I’d never quite understood immediately started to crystalize. After 3 years of pushing myself towards an ever-receding horizon of success in New York, I realized that my end goal has never honestly included a home in a city where my every life decision revolves around managing my debt and resulting mental instability.
In hindsight, it’s no wonder that I was so drawn to Sociology as an academic focus, I had spent my entire life observing and trying to understand other people, finally I could use that interest for academic success. Throughout this quarantine, I’ve finally had the opportunity to look closer at what I was looking for when I decided to return to Texas, and, more interestingly, what I wanted to escape in New York City. My time living and working in New York City was largely spent trying to reconcile my intense unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the romance of my life in New York City and my coworkers and peers’ dedication to New York’s fast-paced work environments. After 7 years of being surrounded by non-Texans, I have finally realized that the thing I was really missing the most was the wide open spaces and supportive familial community that I grew up and flourished in as a child.
Since being back, I can’t help but notice how much more confident and happy I am with myself. With two months of distance from the glamour and romance of spending my wild 20’s in the Big Apple, I realized that it’s New York City that is the real small pond. The thing about the romance of New York City is that it attracts the biggest fishes from all over the world, and the overpopulation is stifling to individual joy and expression. Now, living in San Antonio, I have the space (literally and mentally) to stretch and grow into the community leader and advocate for social change who I envision myself to become. I can finally see that, although I love New York City dearly and loved my life there in so many ways, the productivity and success I’m seeking are incompatible with that life.
Just as I had tried to shoehorn myself into the mainstream (read: cis white male) ideals of academic success throughout my time as a student, the last 3 years of my life were spent trying to fold myself into all sorts of different shapes, each time hoping that I’d found the final form that would be successful and satisfied at work as well as fit in with my work colleagues. Now that I’ve had the time to recover from the Quarantine Blues, I’m finally, blissfully realizing that I was never going to find a comfortable place in New York City because I am, and always have been, a Texan at heart. There’s a reason there are so few cacti in Brooklyn, we just need the desert climate to find our roots.
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