It’s often the hard times in life that influence, if not define, who we are in life. We get the lesson through perseverance – pushing through a challenging struggle until we overcome, stronger and wiser. I know I’m not alone in having one of my biggest lessons in perseverance as a young teenager, an age known for making mistakes. While time may heal old wounds, our past forever impacts who we are in the present.
Why is it, though, that some people don’t seem to make any consequential mistakes at a young age? Why do they persevere, while others give up when the going gets tough? They will make it through their teenage years in pretty good shape, going on to be self-sufficient, productive members of society. Their moral character is strongly embedded from a young age, and serves them well during adolescence; they have a strong support system, and all of the resources they need to be whatever it is they dream of.
Others, meanwhile, may struggle with depression, drug use, and self-destructive behaviors during their teenage years. Surely, genes play a big role in our general temperament, but our environments shape us as well – the classic Nature vs. Nurture debate. This topic proves endlessly intriguing because it is so complex and evolving, and I enjoy learning all I can about it. How much of our ability to persevere is innate, and how much is shaped by our environment? I’m not sure, but I do know a thing or two about perseverance. It all started in 1992.
I was a gawky eleven year old in sixth grade at Burton Valley Elementary School, in the beautiful East Bay suburb of Lafayette, California. I was generally a happy kid who did well in school; I was energetic, and played lots of sports. I also loved spending time outside, no matter the occasion: climbing trees; exploring Las Trampas Creek with my sisters; watching the birds in the garden birdbath. I was the youngest of three girls, with wonderful parents who worked hard to provide for us. I was born into privilege, admittedly. I was at that age, though, when kids hit puberty. I was struggling with bad acne, and I was more physically developed than most of the girls my age; I had a 13mm overbite to top it all off. Someone told me I looked like Freddie Mercury.
How many of us were teased or bullied when we were kids? It seems like it was the norm in the ten to thirteen year old age range, until everyone starts to grow up and mature. The name-calling toward me started out on the playground when I was in the fifth grade: Pizzaface! one would yell, laughing. Silicone! Mr. Ed! Another would neigh, like a horse. It was tough. There were only a few of them doing the teasing, but their words were as loud as a stadium booing. I had a group of good friends, though, and they often stood up for me and came to my defense. Without them, my fifth and sixth grade years would have been a lot harder. I’m lucky to have had such awesome friends. But it was hard enough on me that it really took a toll on my self-esteem. I felt ugly, like I had no confidence in myself anymore.
I normalized the name-calling because it seemed like everyone got their turn at some point. How sad is it that this is what kids are used to? I still see it in today’s youth, although there seems to be some progress with awareness, viral PSA’s online, and anti-bullying campaigns growing at schools across the US. I wish everyone would understand how much impact their words can have on others, and choose to be positive instead of negative. The names I was called acted as demotions to my self-esteem, each barb chopping me down lower, until I just believed them. Their words felt like punishment for physical qualities I couldn’t help. Worse, their words expanded into vicious rumors.
That Summer before starting at Stanley Junior High in the Seventh Grade, a group of friends and I played a truly innocent game of a not-so-innocent version of poker. Word got out, and we started our seventh grade year facing awful rumors exaggerating what had happened, and were called the word that I think every woman is, sadly, called at one point in her life: slut. Now, that word has no power over me. But as a young girl starting out Junior High, I felt like I was damaged goods. That word took the last wind out of my sails, denigrating me further than Pizzaface or Silicone ever did. I was mortified, especially with the outlandish rumors going around. It set a bad tone for the school-year.
I still had my friends, though, and life went on. By mid-year, though, I had slipped in my grades for the first time ever; I just didn’t care about school anymore. Math was getting harder. I was so distracted by how ugly I felt in my own skin – with braces now, and still awkward as ever. I was still struggling with bad acne. I felt claustrophobic at times. My two older sisters were in High School, beautiful and popular. I felt nothing like them. It was precisely in this time when I could have used someone reminding me that the awkwardness of adolescence was temporary, but hindsight is 20/20.
By the end of my seventh-grade year, a storm was brewing. Talks of drinking from parents’ liquor cabinets, and scoring weed from so-and-so’s older brother were escalating. The temptation was presenting itself to those most vulnerable: people feeling down about themselves, like me.
Summer vacation began with a family boating trip to Lake Berryessa. I was to ride in my sister and her boyfriend’s car up to the lake, and I was so excited to be in the “cool car”. We stopped at Payless to get some candy and snacks for the drive. I had gotten away recently with stealing some candy from a 7-11; I felt bad about it, but I kind of got a rush from it, too. I’m not sure why, but on this day I chose to steal not only candy, but some make-up as well. I made my way to the store exit, walking quickly outside, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Excuse me Miss, do you have something you need to pay for?” she asked sternly.
I was stunned. It was a plain-clothed woman who had busted me, someone I’d noticed out of the corner of my eye earlier. She led me to the back room of the store where the police were called. I sat dejectedly, crying quietly, as they questioned me and explained they would be pressing charges. They told me to call my parents to come get me, but they were already up at the lake, about three hours away. The next option? Even worse: call your Grandmother, the Matriarch on my father’s side of the family.
I will never forget the sound of her voice when she said she was coming down there to get me. By the time she’d arrived, a couple of officers were there. She scolded me like any loving, wise grandmother ought to do to a misbehaving young lady. I felt so bad about myself. I would ultimately have to serve 40-hours of community service that Summer, at my own Junior High school, as sentencing. I was fortunate to never get formally charged with stealing, but the lesson was learned: I didn’t steal after that, and I felt awfully guilty about doing it, especially because I’d let down my grandmother. My sister, her boyfriend, and I still drove up to Lake Berryessa that afternoon, only I had a story I wish I didn’t have to tell my parents.
I was grounded; I served my community service at my school soon after. I had the fortunate experience that Summer of going to Stanford Sierra Camp at Fallen Leaf Lake with my maternal grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins. It was one of the best weeks I’d had in months – wakeboarding, hiking, games, lots of happy families having fun. It was also one of the last quality one-on-one times I would have with my grandmother.
Later that Summer, some friends and I tried drinking; we snuck out of our houses and met at our local park. When I started my eighth grade year, pot was suddenly appearing at parties. I tried it, and immediately loved it. I’ll never forget listening to Tupac Shakur’s “I Get Around” on Wild 107.7 FM, and laughing for what felt like hours. I had found an escape from feeling bad about myself.
Then, on September 26, 1993, tragedy struck: my aunt and uncle died in a tragic, heartbreaking way, leaving behind three young, beautiful daughters. I will never know the pain they felt surviving and persevering through that experience. My mother was devastated by losing her sister, and each family member seemed to retract into their own shells to heal. It was, undoubtedly, one of the saddest times. I didn’t know how to cope in a healthy way, so I just kept on smoking weed and drinking. School was the last thing on my mind.
My grades were slipping, and any form of structure was unraveling. After years of playing soccer, softball, and basketball, I quit all three sports within my eighth grade year, starting with soccer in the Fall; I will always regret quitting soccer at this age. I was failing many classes by Winter Break, and starting to get into trouble at school. My self-esteem was falling even more, and I wasn’t excited about anything except partying, it seemed.
The year spiraled into a blur of drinking, smoking weed, and eventually experimenting with mushrooms, LCD, and speed. By the end of the year, I was caught with weed at school by a yard duty, who confiscated my stash (and likely kept it) without reporting me. I failed many classes, and would have to do Summer School to make up the credits before starting my freshman year of high school in the fall. I felt depressed about everything in my life. My parents were doing the best they could to cope, working hard to keep us all afloat. But we were all having a hard time after the sudden loss of our loved ones.
Then, in the Summer of 1994, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. My mother was devastated, naturally, and spent much of the last few months at her bedside. It was so hard to watch my mother face the loss of her own mother; to see how strong their bond was after so many years together. It was a hard time in our family; my beloved grandmother passed away on November 5, 1994. I wish I’d had more time with her, to know her as an adult; I wish I’d spent more time with her that Summer before she passed away.
Instead, regrettably, I found myself escaping into partying more and more with my raucous group of friends. We were a gang of bratty teenaged grommets – boys and girls – with skateboards, attitude, and more energy than we knew what to do with. A few had been diagnosed with ADHD, and had Ritalin that we would take for fun. We were no longer experimenting with drugs and alcohol; we were in full-on abuse mode. My bedroom morphed into a chaotic mix of art and graffiti.
Sneaking out, partying all night, and sleeping in until noon, I sunk deeper that Summer into my self-destructive ways. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but for once I finally felt like I had a big group of friends; that I was “popular”. Really, I had some unhealthy relationships. Some of my good friends’ parents wouldn’t let them hang out with me anymore because I was a “bad influence”. My self-esteem was in the tank, and I relished any attention I could get, even if it wasn’t always positive.
Some of it was pure fun. But it was insidious. Speed and mushrooms became more prominent, and I nearly crawled out of a two-story window high on acid because I “wanted to go outside”. We sat under the BART train tracks as it roared inches over our heads; we walked miles on bike trails and suburban streets in the night, meeting questionable people to buy drugs. We rode BART into Berkeley and San Francisco, going to Telegraph and the Haight. We took our parents’ cars for a joyride in the middle of the night once, and by some grace we never hurt anyone. We went to concerts, including one of the last Grateful Dead parking lots, where we scored acid and opium. It was far too easy for a group of thirteen and fourteen year olds to get drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. A lot more happened that I won’t get into here. At the end of the day, though, we were basically just spoiled, bored suburbanites desperate to escape the bubble of Lafayette.
I started Acalanes High School with my precocious group of friends, now expanding grade-levels since my older sister was there. Within the first week of school, I was cutting class to get high. If I didn’t care about school as an eighth grader, I had pretty much surrendered to doing nothing beyond the classroom as a freshman. I was failing three classes by October, with numerous unexcused absences. It was basically one big party, but in retrospect, it was anything but celebratory.
By the end of my freshman year, I had been dropped from three of my classes for cutting and failing for so long. I was tuned out on school, towel thrown in. I was burning the candle at both ends. I was depressed, feeling like I didn’t matter, and that nothing really mattered at all. I did have one class called Peer Support where I was able to talk about my feelings, and it was one of my favorite classes for that reason; we kept a journal and wrote back and forth with our teacher, who, in retrospect, provided some keen insights for me at the time. I also loved my Art class – Mrs. Karen Carbone was the best art teacher I ever had. I knew I wasn’t doing well overall, but I didn’t yet believe I could do any better. There were some things going on at home as well, which I won’t expand upon here, but things were tense. The innocence of a simpler childhood was long gone.
Then one day at school, a fork in the road presented itself: my Vice Principal called me into his office. Brian McKibben was his name; one of the nicest guys at my high school, who played guitar with students, and always had a smile on his face. He knew my two older sisters, Mary and Bonnie, and cousins Terra and Heather as well; collectively, we were The Craig Girls, for our shared surname. It wasn’t my first time in his office, and I was expecting to get in trouble for something. Instead, he looked at me with a serious, concerned stare.
“Katie, you’ve been dropped from three of your classes, and your unexcused absences are off the chart. Legally, I’m supposed to send you to continuation school, because you haven’t done enough to merit completing your freshman year.”
I felt like I was about to get what I deserved: transferring to continuation school, where I would join all of the other misfits who couldn’t seem to manage traditional school – basically, the druggies and the losers. I was getting what I’d earned, and I knew it. I remember my stomach dropping like lead weight, feeling two-inches tall. What a loser I’d become; what a complete and total fuck-up.
He looked me squarely in the eyes, noticing my brimming emotion and deep disappointment.
“Technically, I’m supposed to transfer you immediately. But Katie, I can see that you’re better than this. I know you; going to Del Oro isn’t where you belong. I’m not going to kick you out of here. Here’s what’s going to happen instead: you’re going to finish out the school-year strong; no more cutting classes. This Summer, you’re going to get yourself together, and take Summer School to make up the credits you lost this year. Then, you’re going to come back in the Fall, starting Sophomore year with a clean slate, ready to rock and roll. That’s your path. So take care of yourself this Summer, come back in the Fall, and prove me right.”
I felt wide awake. That lead weight in my stomach had evaporated into thin air. I was floored by his grace and compassion; at this point, I was used to being scolded by adults for always being in trouble. He spoke to me with genuine concern, and finally, I felt like someone had taken the time to stand up for me. I had so clearly lost the will to stand up for myself. For the first time in a really long time, someone demanded more from me. I could tell that he believed what he was saying; he wasn’t just giving me lip service.
I committed enthusiastically, thanking him for letting me stay and giving me another chance. The truth was I enjoyed most of my classes at school, and I didn’t want to leave. I loved learning, even if I wasn’t doing much work. And all of my friends were here. I was inspired for the first time in years. I didn’t feel like such a loser anymore. Maybe I actually had a future to be excited about.
But old habits are hard to change, especially when you’re an immature fourteen year old. Summer of 1995 began with the same old partying, except some of our friends weren’t around anymore. One was at a boarding school on the East Coast; a few had already transferred to continuation school. Another didn’t hang out with us anymore because his parents had intervened, sent him to rehab, and were keeping him on the straight and narrow. Deep down, I wished someone would have done that with me. But maybe it means more when you have to learn to save yourself.
My parents expressed concern to me, of course. They could see I was having a hard time, but I put up a wall against their efforts; I was obstinate, and sneaky. More influential was the concern expressed by a couple of my friends; one phone call with a particular girlfriend proved to be pivotal. I was at home in our half-bathroom, looking in the mirror at myself, as we spoke over the phone. She sounded worried, and said, “Katie, you’ve got to stop with the speed. You’re getting super skinny; you don’t look good. You need to take care of yourself, honey. You don’t seem happy anymore”.
Her caring concern resonated with me as I looked at my hollow reflection in the mirror – tired eyes, weak and burned out. I could see what she was talking about. Who was this girl I was looking at? I almost didn’t recognize myself. She was right, and I knew it was time to look seriously at what I was doing to my body. When we got off the phone, I stood and stared at myself in the mirror for minutes that felt like hours as the tears streamed down my face in a silent, defeated cry.
Shortly after that phone call, I had a moment when I truly realized how much better I deserved for myself; that my future was so much brighter than the horizon I was painting on my canvas. I was at a friend’s house, sitting inside on a beautiful, sunny June day. Instead of being outside, we spent the day getting high, watching TV, and chain-smoking cigarettes for hours on end. I was watching the smoke move in the filtered sunlight coming in through the kitchen window; like an invisible death-cloak, surrounding every inch of the house, it was poisoning our young bodies.
I can do so much better than this, I thought to myself. I want more.
I never touched speed again after that day.
That was a start. Then, there was a serendipitous “dry-spell” in town for ten days – no weed anywhere. It was forced sobriety, and it was the first time in two years that I’d been sober for that long. My parents took me to Lake Tahoe for a few days, where I had some quality family time with them. I was bouncing off the walls with energy; I went for my first run outside of PE class in months. I was eating better. And I saw a pretty girl in the mirror looking back at me, finally. Maybe this being sober thing wasn’t so bad after all. I started reading again. I was playing guitar more. I felt happier, most importantly. I completed my Summer School classes, actually enjoying them.
It wasn’t a clean break from partying, though, and I still had some lessons to learn.
That Summer, I snuck out in the night and was partying with a group of friends when a couple of us started joking around with kitchen knives. In an instant of drunken playfighting, my right middle finger was cut so deep at the base knuckle that it didn’t even start bleeding. It was a gaping hole, white bones and tendons exposed. My middle finger lay limp, hanging down powerlessly.
My friends washed up my hand and splinted it with a full-size Jolly Rancher candy bar and tape. We took a cab home, and slept a couple of hours before waking up at dawn with pulsing, unbearable pain in my finger, and a wrenching hangover to boot. I went upstairs and awoke my father, telling him what had happened the night before. He took me to the Emergency Room, and I ultimately had a plastic surgeon sew my severed tendon back together. I would not have the use of my right hand for six weeks, and I was right-handed; school was starting in only a week.
Only three days after the knife accident, I was drinking and partying with friends again. With my right hand wrapped up, I was clumsily learning to use my left hand. We made some Top Ramen soup, and I took the hot soup back to a spinning Lazy-Boy chair. I sat down on the edge of it, and the chair took a quick spin, leaving me falling to the floor, spilling the scalding hot soup all over my neck and chest. It felt like hell had exploded on me.
Crying hysterically in pain, my sister and friends started pouring cold water on me in the bathroom. My sister soon realized how bad my burns were and took me to the emergency room, where doctors treated my first and second degree burns. It was awful.
My nickname was “E.R.” after that. It brought some humility to an otherwise depressing situation, but clearly things had gotten really bad. I felt like such an idiot. Maybe it was time to stop drinking and smoking weed, too. I felt humbled. I wasn’t invincible anymore; I had scars to show for my actions now.
I started Sophomore year of high school with a spirited, clean slate, despite my healing wounds. Mr. McKibben warmly welcomed me back, and encouraged me to heal up quickly. I had gotten pretty good at writing with my left hand, keeping up with my homework and classwork. I was excited about school for the first time in years. Everything was interesting again; I was fascinated, engaging in ways I’d never before.
I still had my friends, but we were slowly growing apart as they were partying more and I was partying less. By Winter, I was getting A’s and B’s in all my classes, running, and taking good care of myself. I felt like I’d grown up, finally, and was taking my life seriously. Thankfully, my burns healed completely within the year. I was excited about the future again, and all the possibilities that lay ahead.
I remember a couple of my friends telling me what a snob I’d become since I’d gone sober. “You think you’re better than us now”, they said. It wasn’t true; I didn’t think I was better. I felt lonely, actually. I’d gone from being the “bad girl” to Miss Goodie Two Shoes, and I felt like I fit in nowhere anymore. I didn’t belong with the partiers smoking on the field at lunch anymore, but I didn’t know where else to go. I started spending lunches by myself in the library or a sunny, quiet spot, simply because I didn’t know what “clique” I was part of anymore. I started making some new friends by the end of the year. I was still friends with many of the people from my old crew, but we naturally didn’t hang out together as often anymore. It should be noted, though, that there were a solid crew of people I remained friends with throughout the ups and downs, and their genuine kindness and friendship over the years is golden to me. My parents were going through a divorce by the end of Sophomore year, and I moved out of the house I’d grown up in all of my life that Summer. It seemed that everything about that time in my life had come to a full close.
By Junior Year, I was a straight-A student, and chose to participate in a youth drug and alcohol prevention program called Youth Educators. We signed a six-month sobriety contract, which I relished since it gave me even more reason to keep up with my own sobriety. We spent hours in training, sharing stories and growing closer as a group, and learning about drug and alcohol addiction. That was the first time I’d learned there was a genetic factor to addiction, which gave me some comfort to know. I made some really good friends during this experience, too.
The capstone of the program was the most rewarding part of all: going back to my old Junior High school to talk to students about drugs and alcohol. I could not believe, after all the trouble I’d gotten into there, that I was going back. I’ll never forget seeing my old Vice Principals, Mr. Larry Sheppard and Fred Brill, who proudly introduced me to the students. I spoke with them about my own experience with drugs and alcohol, and how much more there is out there in life to enjoy. We broke off into small groups where they asked questions, and I tried to be insightful with my responses. I made sure to focus on the link between self-esteem and drug use; how keeping a strong network of friends, hobbies, and interests can help pull you through the challenges of adolescence. I am not sure if any of what I said sunk in with those students, but I do know that it did a world of healing for me. I felt like I’d redeemed myself in a way, especially to my old VP who was used to seeing me in his office as a bratty eighth grader.
Things kept on keeping up. Senior year started off with an awesome group of friends, and plans for college on the horizon. I was jazzed on life, and still sober. I had one of my favorite teachers for the second time, Mr. Michael McAlister. He’d first known me as an eighth grader before he transferred to the high school, and had written a great quote in my yearbook that has always stuck with me: “Knowledge is power. Be powerful.” It was an enriching Senior year, and I could feel myself getting ready to launch.
When I graduated high school in June of 1998, I had a 3.7 cumulative GPA and had been accepted to UC Santa Cruz. The icing on the cake was being recognized by my teachers and peers for a couple of scholarships: the first, the Physical Education award from my teacher Mr. Dave Girsch. He had me as a freshman, when I failed and was a pain in the neck to him. I had to make up that PE class in my later years, having him almost every trimester. By the time Senior year had come around, we were friends. Can I run another lap, Mr. Girsch? I’d ask, feeling dissatisfied after the half-mile warm-up. Go get ‘em, he’d encourage me. He could see that I’d finally grown up, and I could finally see what a cool, nice guy he was. To get that PE award from him just about made me cry.
Then, I got the award that did make me cry: the Perseverance and Overcoming Adversity Scholarship. They introduced me as a girl who started high school on the road to dropping out; this was a girl who had some real challenges to overcome. People weren’t sure she was going to find her way. And then they called me up. I felt recognized for something I had underestimated. I didn’t realize how powerful the evolution from freshman to senior year had been; how much growth and character development had happened in that time. I had persevered; I had overcome.
I would go on to have some of the funnest four years of my life in college at UC Santa Cruz, where I fell in love with the area and the people, and have lived ever since. I was going by my real name finally after years of being stuck with my childhood nickname of “Katie”; I am Katrin. I graduated in 2002 with a BA in Environmental Studies, and worked a short stint in environmental consulting before going back to school at San Jose State University for my teaching credential. I’ve been teaching ever since 2006, the same year I fell in love with my husband, Ron.
Of course, a lot more has happened in those years, but basically that’s the gist. I didn’t maintain sobriety through college, but I approached it with a completely different perspective than when I was a teen. Eventually, my body started physically rejecting alcohol – I literally couldn’t stomach it anymore and would get sick. I would try to have a beer socially, and would soonafter get sick. It was a blessing in disguise, really. It’s been over four and a half years since I stopped drinking alcohol, and I don’t miss it at all.
I sit here today, some twenty-odd years after my adolescence, still aware of the ways those years shaped me. Just writing about this experience has been therapeutic for me. Though it was a long time ago now, the imprint of perseverance was made clear during that time, and has been part of my identity ever since. I don’t focus on fault-finding, blaming others, or regretting the experience; instead, I think of that time as an early lesson in self-reliance. I take responsibility for my experience, and have no interest in focusing on all of the hypotheticals of that time. I know I was loved, and that everyone was doing the best they could under difficult circumstances.
The bottom line was I learned to trust myself like the sunrise, counting on myself to pull up my bootstraps and rise to the occasion. In the end, it was me who decided to stop doing drugs and partying, and it was me who had to work hard to redeem myself. Nobody held my hand or forced me through that. I had to find my own inner compass. People today often describe me as tenacious, sure-footed, and independent, and I know where I get it from.
I think part of me will always feel like I’m making up for lost time; it’s hard to think there was a time when I didn’t want to live life passionately, pursuing my hobbies and growing everyday. I am a goal-oriented person who takes my activities and interests to heart. While I know how to relax and kick my feet up, I am pretty active most of the time. Sometimes I still feel like I have to prove myself; to prove that I’m successful.
Ultimately, I am proud of where I am today. I’m at a point now where I can look back from a distance, with some objectivity. Admittedly, I know I’m not unique in my experience – there are plenty of other people who’ve had a party-hard teenage experience, and stories far worse than mine. I don’t think my story is exceptionally special, but it is particularly meaningful to me. It was my lesson in finding perseverance.
When I look back on that time, I see an insecure, depressed girl, “Katie”, who needs to be loved and comforted; to be told she is worthy of achieving more than she’s doing. When I am feeling down, I try to be compassionate and forgiving to myself, as I would want to treat “Katie”. I remind myself to be proud of how far I’ve come, but I’ll always be sensitive to that little girl inside of me. As a seventh grade Math and Science teacher, I try to look out for the “Katies” in the crowd and reach out to them, because I know that one person can make a monumental impact in another’s life. You can’t make anyone do anything, but you may be able to guide them in the right direction. When I find myself getting frustrated with a student’s slip in behavior or academic performance, I remind myself to focus on my relationship with them. After all the rules, procedures, and lessons are practiced, it all comes down to human connection; everything in life is, really, about human connection.
One person can forever alter the course of a wayward ship lost at sea, so that she may someday find her way back to safe harbor. Mr. McKibben had the power to influence my life negatively or positively, and his warm guidance confirmed that one person can indeed make a huge difference in someone else’s life. To this day, I am grateful for his mercy.
Remember that you may be that person for someone someday. Every moment matters. Your grace may allow someone to find their flow. And that may be the greatest gift of all.
Katrin Elizabeth Deetz (Craig)