Pomp and Circumstances

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. 

I don’t want to pay for the actual picture, so here’s one of me, there in the white hood.

Here’s a pic my mom took at my defense.

Letter to the Principal

Dear Principal

Last Thursday at the parent teacher conference you mentioned trying to look at the bullying situation through a parent’s lens. From everything you said to me, I’m certain you weren’t quite able to do that. Let me help you see:

Cyrus was born at 25 weeks and 3 days. He was a half-baked fetus who weighed as much as a bottle of ketchup. When he was born, he had no nipples or lips, and his ears were just little flaps of skin easily rolled up if his head was positioned the wrong way. His eyes were closed, like a newborn puppy. It was seven hours after he was born that we, his parents, were finally allowed to see him and touch him. His hand was barely large enough to grip the tip of my pinky. His skin was red and shiny, all the pieces of skull visible through his scalp.

He died several times in the first weeks of his life and had seizures which made his right arm move like he was pumping his fist at a concert. It was then that I started calling him a rock star. He lived in a plastic cube attached to a thousand multicolored cables. He looked something like a motherboard, or like a fuse box, or a large sweet potato decorated with silly string.

His stay in the hospital was 134 days. Over that time, his eyes opened, his lips and ears filled out, he started smiling, but he never learned to eat. After two surgeries: one to reattach his retinas and one to insert a feeding tube and close off his esophagus so he can’t vomit or get heartburn, he came home. And home is where he stayed for a full year, hooked to a feeding pump every three hours for 45 minutes. Home is where the therapists came three times a week, and sometimes the nurses, and sometimes a social worker smelling of stale perfume.

His doctors said he’d never walk and would probably never talk. He had appointments with cardiologists, pediatricians, gastroenterologists, speech language pathologists, ophthalmologists, neurologisists. He wore a helmet for more than six months. He wore braces on his legs for three years.

He learned to walk when he was two and a half, though he never rolled over or crawled. He talked before that, a lot before that.

That pretty much brings us up to the present. Feeding tubes, appointments, seizures,  discussion of milestones, the word delay, the use of the word miracle.  

As you might be able to imagine, this was and can still sometimes be pretty traumatic. There is constant worry of what happens next. There comes a feeling of calm, that things might finally be okay, then something awful happens: a seizure, a black bean stuck in his esophagus, a broken arm which requires surgery. A broken arm. A broken arm which requires surgery. A broken arm which requires surgery now and a year from now.

Now that I’ve adjusted the prescription, let me say some more.

I admit that I’m very protective of my child. I admit that sometimes I let him get away with things because I’m so thankful he’s alive or walking or talking or able to button his pajamas. I admit that I still cry tears of joy when he picks up a pencil and writes a letter. Any letter at all. I am still in awe that he’s able to attend a regular public school at all.However, this does not cloud my judgment or opinion of what is right and wrong in a public school environment.

During the conference you made it a point to tell the story of the pencil, that Cyrus accidentally stabbed someone while they were playing. You then said if someone would’ve done it to him, I would’ve thought it was bullying. You made it clear, once again, that bullying requires an imbalance of power, and that one must feel afraid, that it must be repeated. That is the legal definition of bullying, you said on the phone not too long ago.

I am clever enough to understand the implication of the pencil incident, and it’s offensive. You seem to think I’m incapable of grasping the difference between bullying and accidents that happen during play. I understand you don’t believe anyone is doing anything bad to him because you don’t see it, that he still hangs out with them, that he might be making it up, that I’m over reacting. I understand you don’t know that decisions I make are based on logical, rational thinking, not emotion, as you have implied while trying to see through my parent lens.

I find your tone to be condescending and dismissive.

Here is what I know: Cyrus comes home daily to say he’s being bullied. He has said this since the beginning of the school year. Like you, I wasn’t sure if it was true, and he was unable to communicate the details, so I said nothing to the school or teachers because it wasn’t clear to me what was happening, and I am not one to start drama. Then he broke his arm again, for the third time, at school. It was conveyed to me that adults reported how it happened, that he was chasing a ball and fell. When I asked for more information, to see the accident report, everyone became silent. No one knew the protocol. As you know, it took 9 days to get a copy of the accident report which does not list a witness, as it is required to do. When I asked for a meeting and spoke with everyone, I was told, in fact, no adult saw it happen and that the report was based on what the kids playing said they saw. The group he was playing with includes two of the kid he calls his bullies. It’s interesting that the one day the para (yes, who isn’t his) wasn’t there, this happened. I find this suspect, and I hope you would, too, were you in my situation. I am not upset that an adult wasn’t there, I am upset that the information was hazy. If someone would’ve said, “no adult saw it,” I would’ve have understood. But what ensued was a battle for me to find out the truth.

That alone was upsetting and led me to wonder about what’s happening at school. When he breaks his arm, people are quick to ask what’s wrong with him, what’s wrong with his bones. Poor, fragile, premature Cyrus. Poor Cyrus with the feeding tube. And there are people around him who feed on this energy and attention; It’s not me. The orthopaedic surgeons have said repeatedly that his bones are normal. Yes, he is a little clumsy because he is delayed. He has poor motor skills, as most premature kids do. He has a thick set of glasses. A bully would know that and could easily take advantage.    

Beside the broken arm, there is more and it is most disturbing. Cyrus has said that his bullies have told him to suck his nuts. To be honest, I don’t care that a kid told him to suck his nuts. As I write it, it’s humorous (though I wonder about the environment a kid who would say this comes from). And, if this were the only thing that was said to him, whatever. I heard so much worse when I was his age. What is distressing is someone telling him to kill himself and to break his arm again. The “suck my nuts” I used as an example to prove a specific situation occurred; this is not something Cyrus would say and heard it from someone else. I filled out the bullying report based on this. The school did the investigation and found nothing, of course, so it didn’t happen, though I’m told with what feels like little sincerity that if he perceives someone as bullying, then it’s true.

A seven year old told my seven year old to kill himself.  


What is important for you to know is this: I’ve been lied to. I’ve been talked down to. There is a real or perceived imbalance of power. It has been repeated or has the potential to repeat.