Finding My Niche

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I am the product of a dysfunctional family (aren’t we all?). I grew up in a home with a sometimes abusive alcoholic father, a long-suffering mother, two juvenile delinquent brothers and a book-smart but socially awkward sister. My youngest brother, 2 ½ years my senior, was my primary companion. We drew comic book superheroes, hunted night crawlers, climbed trees and played board games together.

Admittedly, I was a tomboy, spending much of my time playing football and baseball with my brother and his friends. That worked out well for me until I hit puberty and my brother’s friends began to view me a little differently. I remember well my mother’s admonishment. “You don’t need to be playing with all those boys.”  Luckily for me, I had one close female friend who is still my friend to this day, some 40 years later.

Developing friendships was never easy for me. I wasn’t “popular” either by way of my looks (today I often joke that dark-skinned girls were not in style when I was growing up) nor by reputation. I was bookish and a bit shy; I didn’t readily fit in with the normal school cliques. I had a handful of friends, but stayed mostly to myself concentrating on my studies.

I suppose that worked out to my benefit, as I was granted a scholarship to a well-known New England preparatory school. At 15, I was away from my family for the first time, and thrust into an unfamiliar environment. It was a classic case of culture shock. Here I was, coming from a predominantly black school in a predominantly black neighborhood and now I found myself in a small New Hampshire town where practically NOBODY looked like me. I found myself surrounded by people who knew nothing about my background or my culture and, quite frankly, didn’t care to. They would seldom have to deal with people like me in their social circles.

Once again, I found myself associating with the handful of African American and Latino students, many of which were scholarship students as well. We were the ones who knew what it was like to be discriminated against; we knew what is what like to struggle financially; we knew we weren’t going to get a new Lamborghini for our 16thbirthday. I also found myself writing; poems and journals that helped me to vent my fears and frustrations.

I managed to get through high school relatively unscathed, with scholarship offers to several Ivy League universities. I passed those up for a chance to go to an Engineering school with a co-op program. I needed to earn some cash, as my family was not in a position to supply me with spending money for the next four years.

In the middle of my sophomore year, I found myself pregnant. (Well, not really FOUND myself… I know how it happened!) I dropped out of college when the school year was over and wondered what would become of me now. By this time, my parents had divorced and I went back home to my mother. I gave birth to my first daughter 3 months later. Her father (now my husband) was in and out of my life for the next two years until we decided to marry. I also decided that I needed to finish my degree if I wanted to build a secure future for my child. It was my experience from watching my own father that men could not be counted on.

I fought my way through 3 more years while attending college full-time, working part-time and being a wife and mother. I lived on 3 to 4 hours of sleep per night. I had little support or encouragement from my husband, who was busy living as if he were still single; staying out late with friends and leaving me to care for our child while I was juggling 6 hours of homework each night. No one, and I mean NO ONE, was happier than I was to finally walk the stage and receive my diploma.

I look back now and wonder how I made it through. I have had so many financial struggles, problems in my marriage, trouble on my job, rebellion in my home. I credit my church home, which allowed me a place to sing for the last 40 years. Singing spiritual songs was always a means of escape and a source of joy for me. At no time did I feel freer than when I was giving praise to God for bringing me through safely thus far. What made it even better was how many others were touched by my singing. Even if my heart was still hurting when the song was over, someone else felt better about their own situation.

A couple of years ago when I was going through some boxes in my home, I came across a couple of notebooks that contained the poems I wrote in high school. I read them and reminisced about the events that inspired me to write them. I remembered how putting things down on paper allowed me to heal. I asked myself why I stopped doing that. I started writing again and sharing some of my work with friends. They encouraged me to find a place to share it with others, so I started posting my poems online. I soon found myself with quite a collection.

I knew it was time to broaden my horizons and my sphere of influence. I decided to self publish my work for the entire world to see if they so desired. I compiled all my poems into a book called More Than Words: A Life Journey In Poems, which is currently available at online retailers.

I often lamented my life. I wondered why I had gone through so much heartache and disappointment. I wondered why everything had to be a struggle. After all, I was a Christian woman trying to be a decent and upstanding human being. What more was expected of me? I’ve come to realize that all my suffering has not been in vain. I endured all these things so that I could write about them. My writing has been the mechanism for my healing. More so, as others read my book and give me their gut reaction, I realize that it is touching people and helping them to heal as well. When someone says to me, “Oh, my God! I couldn’t put it down!”, “I could totally relate to so many of your poems” or “I am going to share this with my sister/husband/daughter/wife”, I am elated. 

These comments serve to reinforce and confirm my true calling; my purpose in life. I suffered so that others may not have to. I write not only to heal myself, but to heal others also. I have FINALLY found my niche.

©2011 – Andrea J. Shannon

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