In 1997, I was unabashedly enjoying the resurgence of swing music, dealing with the nuclear family fall-out of being gay, and trying to apply to college.
My parents stopped at a high school education, and we were all at sea about how to apply, what forms to fill out for scholarships, and all that horrible stuff. We also weren’t getting along…because I’d come out. Not “getting along” is a very nice way of saying that they threatened to kick me out, told me I was going to hell, sent me to a therapist to fix me, so we barely spoke and when we did it was shouting. I cried every day. I stayed in my room and tried to work a shift at the video store whenever I wasn’t doing some school activity. Before my gayness reared its head, I was hoping for softball scholarships. (Yes, I see the humor now). I remember several Missouri colleges calling me with offers, but those phone calls lasted less than a minute. I’d say I’d already made up my mind on going to Houston and I’d hang up that rotary phone before they finished their pitch (pun intended). I knew I had to leave Missouri. I had to get to a big city. I had to be with my girlfriend. And all of the other people like us, or at least the people who didn’t care.
My parents were prepared to pay if I went somewhere in Missouri, somewhere close to them, but I ordered an application from the University of Houston and had it sent to my friend’s address. I filled it out secretly at school and secretly mailed it back. When my acceptance letter came, that started another huge fight, but I was 18 and I could do whatever I damn well pleased, I told them.
After a lot of screaming, they agreed to pay for my education despite their disdain for me. U of H was very affordable, comparatively, so that helped my argument.
But, because I lived off campus and did not want to rely on my parents for anything more than tuition, I had a full time job. I worked 32-40 hours every week, alternating long days at school with long days selling hiking boots. I went to some of my classes most of the time. I never missed a class in anthropology or anything pertaining to literature, since I actually cared about those things. I was a terrible student, really. I barely passed a stats course and had to hire a tutor for logic. I made it out with a D and was so proud that I had proven I knew more than half of what was taught. Like most students, I stayed up all night pounding out some poorly formatted papers about literature, history, and even science. I did this on a diet of angel hair pasta, butter, and garlic powder and while living in apartments infested with mold, flying Texan roaches, and gaps so large between the window and frame that I’d stuffed them with rugby socks.
College was a great mystery to me, like it is to most first generation college students. What I knew about it came from movies and my girlfriend–who had just started a graduate program. (I had never heard the term before). No one forced me or expected me to go. I wouldn’t be letting anyone down if I didn’t. It was a strange and foreign idea in a far off land. And, as one who’d always wanted to see the world, I knew I had to find my way there.
I had an advisor as an undergrad, but he was more interested in talking about gay things with me. I know it might seem strange to younger people, but there weren’t that many out queers around unless you were in a gay bar. I managed to figure out which classes I had to take, how to register, how to pass, how to find my way across the city, across the campus, how to use the computer lab and the library and how to refill my printing card. I had to figure out how to sleep at night with sirens and music vibrating my bedroom windows and where to go if I didn’t want to see any other humans.
One of the toughest parts was figuring out who I was when no one knew me as that Holzhauser who played sports. And no one cared.
I managed it all, somehow. And I managed to graduate in three years.
My college graduation was May 13, 2001. I remember because I didn’t go. And my parents were pissed because they wanted to see me walk across that stage. I had to work that day. I mean, of course they would’ve let me off, but I didn’t ask. I was trying out this new idea my very smart girlfriend had told me about a college degree really not mattering. She said, you know, when you get your masters, then you should walk.
Honestly, I don’t remember if that’s what she said. Or if that’s just what it felt like. Or if, after learning about the possibility of next steps, I’d come to that idea all by myself.
I told my parents I’d walk for my masters. And I did in 2007 when I got an MFA in Fairbanks, and they came to Alaska, but, for some reason, that’s not what this is about.
It was the year of our Lord 2020, when we bought a house, I had breast cancer, the pandemic hit, and I was also accepted into a PhD program. I was 40 years old.
For the first year and half (or maybe two) I worked full time, at home, with a teenager and a 10 year old, trying to persuade them to “go to school” on their computers and iPads. There were times we were all in the same room doing school work or attending classes or I was working my actual job. Those were very long days followed by even more time together since we were under lockdown. It felt endless and I wondered if anyone could survive it. We did, though.
Last year after the pandemic died down and the vaccines were everywhere, I yearned for more time outside, to myself, for myself. The only reason I was able to go to grad school this time was because my job paid for 75% of my tuition, which means I had to keep working, of course. To get the Ph.D., which I’ve wanted to do since I’d first heard the letters, would’ve taken me many, many more years. So, I decided to stop, to spend time with myself and my family. To not spend so much time in my head, wondering what I was going to do with that Ph.D or what I was even going to research and write about for the next three years.
After deciding to stop at my masters, I was haunted by dreams of being a failure. And a quitter. And a lot of sports metaphors you can come up with on your own. I wanted to be called Dr. Holzhauser. I wanted to be the first Portland kid to do something like that. I wanted to be known for something other than my last name or my queerness. I wanted to prove myself. To whom, I never quite understood.
Despite not making it to a Ph.D., a few weeks ago, I put on my old square hat and wizard robe and walked across the stage to hear my name in a microphone and for people to clap at me. It’s not what I was hoping for when I started this journey three years ago, or even when I started college. I wanted the roundish hat and velvet striped sleeves and for someone to say, “Please recognize Dr. Holzhauser.” But I walked anyway. I did it so our kids could see that learning isn’t just something we do in our youth. I did it for my parents who are so very proud of me.
I also walked for myself. Not necessarily for me, right now. Not for 43 year old Christina with a loving partner and family, stable job and support system, but for 18 year old Christina. The one with the shaved head and baggy pants. The one who grew up eating squirrels. For the one who felt out of place in the country and the city at the same time. For the one who had to navigate it all alone. You figured it out. You kept learning, despite and because of it all.
You did it.
I did it.