The perfect time to fall in love . . .

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by Rosemary Ruffenach, 6/9/08 • “There is someone out there for everyone,” began the essay. Yeah, yeah. “It was the perfect time to fall in love,” Emma’s memoir continued. I sighed. The memoir assignment routinely elicited tales of teen-age love lost, as well as of childhood accidents, disastrous first jobs and best friends gone missing. However, in the next sentences I realized this story was different. It was the perfect time for love to appear, said Emma, because right then her problems were so gigantic that it seemed they would never get better. Drugs? Abuse?

Emma and I first met last fall, when she came into my after-school independent study class to make up a failed English course. She was a likeable, pretty girl, with auburn hair, long eyelashes, freckles and an alto voice that carried far too well in a quiet classroom. By then she was a senior and had failed five courses and claimed English was her “worst” class. From her work, however, I could see that she hadn’t failed because her skills were abysmal. Although she worked slowly, her assignments were complete and well-written. By November, she decided she had a better chance of success at an alternative school and transferred to our day program.

Her school problems first surfaced in kindergarten, when she was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder). It was hard for her to focus both in school and on homework assignments. Soon she lost interest in schooling altogether, largely switching her attention to friendships, which had come to seem more important. Not surprisingly, as a freshman, she found her new suburban high school “overwhelming.” Her grades started to slip and “partying” became her favorite activity. Oh, oh!

Sure enough, it was drugs. “The drugs of choice were cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, alcohol and marijuana” among her group of friends. And it wasn’t just at an occasional weekend party. No, it was an EVERYDAY ROUTINE. “That’s what the day consisted of after school. We were having the time of our lives, not paying any attention to the effect it was having on us. We were falling into a hole that we would stay in for the next couple of years. I was completely lost.” This pattern continued into the middle of her sophomore year.

I stopped reading and stared at the chair where Emma normally sat when in class. How could you do that to yourself? Did you realize how many brain cells you were destroying—making your life even more difficult? And whatever were your parents doing?

I read on. Her parents seemed to be caring people who struggled financially. The family, consisting of the parents, Emma and two younger brothers, lived in apartments for as long as Emma could recall. They were a happy family, although they had little, which was especially hard when living in a wealthy suburb. She hadn’t been able “to see or do much” because of a lack of money. So how did she pay for the drugs?

Emma refused to confide in her parents because she didn’t want them to “think differently” about her. But how could they have not noticed something was off? I wondered. The mother didn’t work; surely she would have noticed that Emma wasn’t coming home after school and wasn’t doing homework. I could understand better if each parent was concerned with his/her own career and worked long hours, as is often the situation in the many instances wherein drug use goes unnoticed. But who was I to judge? Would I have understood what I was seeing had one of my children been doing drugs?

Emma’s downward spiral was halted not by a friend’s overdose, a car crash, or another tragedy, as frequently occurs, but by falling in love. An attractive fellow student seemed to notice her in the school cafeteria, as she did him. She managed to get his phone number from a friend, and after debating with herself for days, decided to text message him. They texted back and forth for three days before meeting up “to hang out.” The amazing thing was that he didn’t do drugs, although he did drink. After some months of casual dating, he invited Emma to be his “girlfriend.” She was thrilled, but first felt she had to be straight with him, admitting she had “some drug problems.” He agreed to support her as she tried to clean up, promising to be there for her “no matter what.”

There were rocky times ahead. She relapsed many times, but didn’t tell him. She pretended all was well when it wasn’t and ended up feeling guilty. Finally one day, the tale poured out, all the lies, all the sneaking around. He agreed to give Emma one more chance— soon he would be leaving for college and wanted to be able to trust her. So she finally quit for good and was able to say she was happier than she had ever been. The relationship, though, didn’t last. “Things between us weren’t healthy enough,” she explained.

I then went on to read a section of Emma’s memoir entitled, “My Dreams.” Her hope is to be the first in her family to graduate from college. Knowing what it is like to have no money, she doesn’t want her own kids to experience similar privations. A zoology major would be a good fit, she explained, for it would allow her to study animals, which she loves doing, and travel, which she’s never done. Her plan is to start at a community college next spring and do her “generals” before going on to a four-year college. I assume that she will have to pay the tuition herself, as her parents likely will be unable to help.

Will she make it? Emma seems to have good determination, at least at this early point. But she starts out with handicaps: ADHD, behind her peers, little funding. And there’s one more obstacle.

I showed Emma’s essay to a colleague. Her laconic comment was, “If she’s going to make it, she’s got to quit the drinking. That’s all she and her friends talk about on break— last week’s booze party, this week’s.” I flipped back into the essay. Yes, there it was: “I can’t say myself that I have a problem for marijuana or liquor, because that isn’t what messed me up,” she wrote.

Coming from several lines of hard-drinking ancestors, many of whom did little with their lives because of “the drink”, I can only shake my head and hope—hope that maybe little Emma will get lucky again and find a non-drinking true love her second time around.

Note: Certain details of this student’s story have been changed to protect her identity.