Category Archives: Mental Illness

Checking In: Fall 2017

We just passed the midterm of the semester, and I’ve written here exactly once since school began. “Where have you been, Henderson?” would not be an inappropriate question, and I do have some pretty good answers.

First, for much of the fall semester, I was a member of the hiring committee for the President of the University of Montana; an honor beyond my status in most ways, I was fortunate enough to represent Helena College in the process. I can say with complete confidence, I’m excited about our new President, Seth Bodnar. I think he’s going to bring a lot to the university and a diversity of thought that we need. I can’t wait for him to take over, and I know a lot of people feel that way.

Secondly, I’ve been in Missoula for not only meetings of the committee but also for football games! Mark is a Grizzly fan from way back and holds season tickets. As a hanger-on, I get to attend the home games when he’s going, which has been most of the time. I think we’ve missed one. It’s been fun; I’d never been to a live college football game before, having been a nontraditional, studies-focused student when I attended MSU and not one who made football a priority, except when Adam played in high school.

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Speaking of Adam, we met up a couple times this semester in Missoula, and I got to meet my grand-dog, Virgil, who has been challenging Adam in his parenting skills and patience. He’s a cute little guy, though—Virgil, that is—and reminded me why babies are so cute: otherwise, they’d never live to the teen years, and by then we’ve invested so much into them that we have to see it all play out.

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I also met up with my bestie, June, one time when I was there for committee meetings. She proudly showed me that I have been elevated to the status of having my photo on her mantle, not an insignificant feat, and I had to take a picture—of our picture—to prove it. We had a great visit and since had many phone conversations about school, work, families, and boyfriends, real and imagined.

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It won’t surprise anyone to know I’ve been working a lot, too. Work involves a variety of facets, above and beyond daily classroom activities. My clubs, specifically, demand a lot of my time and energy but also motivate and energize me by our accomplishments. The Helena Helm published its fourth and fifth editions this fall (sixth edition coming next week, God willing and the creeks don’t rise), and its FIRST EVER print edition the beginning of October. Considering that we started out with a ragtag group of journalist-wannabes (including and especially me!) who had no idea where to begin, to now having both online and print editions of quality news and entertainment and the collaboration of the Helena College Tech Club, which is helping us set up a new web-presence and domain, I think we have made amazing progress, and I could not be prouder of the students behind it. Joy, our editor, was also the inspiration behind the newspaper, but we’ve got some new blood this year who promise to add intrigue and levity to our otherwise scholarly publication. Here’s our new site:

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TRIO Club S2S has already accomplished a significant amount of work this fall. We partnered with the Helena College Psych/Soc Club for the NAMI Walk and had good fun doing it. We have several projects we’re working on for the future, including the first ever CAT/GRIZ Face-Off on November 18th. A family-friendly event, it will be an alcohol-free (hey, you can’t have everything!) event on the Helena College campus, open to faculty, staff, students, families, and friends of Helena College. Potluck will be the menu, with TRIO S2S providing dessert and drinks and featuring our “world-famous” photo booth, complete with swag generously donated by the MSU and UM Alumni Associations. During the event (and prior to, for a few weeks), we will also hold a food-drive for the Helena Food Bank, placing bins around campus for food donations dedicated to a specific team. No matter who wins the game, the winner of the food drive will retain bragging rights on HC campus, and the ultimate winner will be Helena Food Bank and those who need food donations during the Thanksgiving season.

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TRIO S2S has another event in the coming weeks: a dedication of our memorial trees (one on each campus) to students who’ve attended Helena College and died during or soon after they left the college. In my five and a half, almost six years, I know of at least six students who’ve been in my classes at some point (two of them at the time of their deaths) who have died. Last fall, with the death of Joe, I asked TRIO S2S to take on some kind of memorial for those students, and they did. It was not a project without challenges and obstacles, sometimes daunting ones, but through persistence, resilience, and determination, we managed to plant two trees and order two very heavy bronze plaques (“these will last 200 hundred years!” said the man at Crown Trophy) dedicated to the memory of students we’ve lost. Wherever I go, whatever I do in the future, this is something meaningful, tangible, honest, and important that I had a hand in. Doesn’t get much better than that.

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The rest of the semester is likely to whiz by just like the first part has. Next week will offer up some difficult memories for me from last year, as we will mark one year since my dad has passed and nearly one year since I began a new life as an unmarried woman. I’m optimistic that 2018 will be a good year, and I’m fairly confident that I will be busy. There’s that. 😊

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Seven More Days

Almost always, at midterm of the semester, I develop a bad attitude: I start grousing about students, complaining that they’re not performing to caliber, noting the many who are not attending class, wondering what other kind of work I’m qualified to do (?) because I’m so tired of this teaching gig. Like the monthly cycle I used to dread, I can almost predict it to the day, but then before I realize it, we’re about two weeks away from the end, and miraculously, the rainbow appears.

Y’all have my permission to slap me silly the next time I start; I mean it.

Today, a good day, I remembered why I do this work. It isn’t for everyone; let me be clear, but for me, I cannot imagine how I could possibly love an occupation more, and it’s not just those damn students who make it so great.

I woke at 5:45 a.m., the usual time when my alarm sounds. It annoys me, usually, but I rise and start my day. By 6:30, earbuds in, gloves on, and well-worn sneakers laced up, I’m on my way up the hill with a little Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora. I hike up the asphalt trail, warming up and breathing hard. About 20 minutes into the hike, I turn around and pick up the pace. Downhill is not quite a sprint but neither a jog, somewhere in between as I try to keep the pace slow enough that I don’t jar anything too drastically or trip over my own feet. At about the 30-minute mark, I turn around and walk/jog the last few minutes back to my house, and when I arrive, I feel energized and ready to take on the world. After showering and dressing for work, I eat breakfast and visit with Leo the bird, filling his water and food dish, giving him a special piece of lettuce or some millet. Then, I leave for work.

The best thing about that whole scenario is that I don’t have to worry about the time. Sometimes I leave home at 8:05 a.m., other times 8:30. Sometimes I’m really slow and it might be 8:45, but rarely is it later than that. The flexibility that my job offers is incredibly valuable to me; it gives me great peace-of-mind to have the leisure in the morning to treat my body the way I should and attend to Leo. After all, he is 20 years old.

My colleagues: you’d have to experience it to completely understand, but I’ll try to put it in perspective. We’re something like a family. We bicker and barter and sometimes we really step up in support of each other but more often we’re commiserating or teasing each other. Most of the faculty share one huge office divided by cubicles. The lack of privacy, especially when working with students, can be problematic, but the camaraderie at other times reminds me of the television show The Waltons and their nightly ritual of saying good-night. Good night, John-boy. Add to that a group of highly educated stand-up wannabes, and we have some really hilarious pseudo-conversations sometimes, so funny that I’ll be laughing about it hours later. Yeah, and I’m being paid for that, sort of.

Make no mistake: I make up for the late arrivals and collegiality during evenings and weekends, and I haven’t had a true lunch break in a couple years, but those things are important in my life, to the quality of my life, and really help me wake up at 5:45 with a little less crankiness.

Nonetheless, it’s the students (you knew this was coming) who remind me why I love this job. It’s not all students and it’s not even some students all the time, but it’s most of the students, and sometimes it doesn’t even have much to do with school work. You’ve heard, I’m sure, that we’re headed to hell in a handbasket? Ask any teacher who’s been doing this work for any number of years, and you’ll find out that’s not true. Teachers who teach, those who love their work and their students, will be the first to tell you that students haven’t really changed over the years. Society changes, and culture changes, and sometimes it does seem that values weaken some, but I can say with complete certainty that we are in good, capable hands. Here’s why:

Meet “M”. I met him last semester in my class, a young man who struggles with mental illness, who lives with a woman who also struggles with mental illness. They support each other and both contribute to the conversation about mental illness, going so far as to be participants on panels and informational venues. “M” is in my class, again, this semester and told me about his early mornings, 4:00 or 4:30, when he rides his bicycle to work several miles, riding home later to prepare for school. This is all in addition to school. But what struck me most about “M” was last semester when he and his partner were both in my class. I knew the challenges they were facing, and one day, I felt compelled to hug his girlfriend; I felt she needed some support. It wasn’t her response that surprised me, but his: he came to me later and thanked me for the gesture. It was important to her, he said, and the love in his voice, the tenderness and concern for her, touched me deeply. More concerned with her suffering than his own, his empathy for her responded to my hug. See what I mean? No hell in his future, none other than mental illness and the costs of healthcare.

Then there’s “B.” I met him last semester, too, and I was impressed immediately. A nontraditional student and irrepressible perfectionist, he soon stood out as a class leader, and I sought his advice and help. This semester, he’s in two of my classes, so I see him every day; I remind him, frequently, of his good luck, and he responds that he had no other choice, or something equally dismissive, but our friendship has grown this semester and my respect for him is immense. A committed father and husband, his priorities in life are clear, but he’s involved in many groups and activities beyond school. His humor, his leadership among students, his stellar academic work, and his kind heart endear him to me more all the time. The only questionable association he has is his personal friendship with Donald Jr., and I’m going to cut him some slack there. He also doesn’t drink, and that might be his problem, for I have found that a couple glasses of wine will take the edges off.

There’s so many students like these; I could write about them, each one, and people would think I was making it up, but I’m not. These are our students: they are parents, children, spouses, employees, friends, veterans, young, old, male, female and confused. They struggle, and they’re trying their best to better their lives while working and managing dysfunctional vehicles and relationships. If you want to see and experience the best that Montana has to offer, I invite you to visit your local community college, where you will find instructors who are doing their best to help students, citizens, who are also doing their best.

But take my advice: don’t do it at midterm.