by Paola Mathe' at FindingPaola.com
Everything I have, I've earned. I was born in Haiti and raised by a young mother who was figuring out what life was all about. Although we didn't have much, we were lucky to live in a nice house built by my greatgrandmother and uncle, and I was privileged enough to attend a good school. When I think about it now, many sacrifices were made for me in order for me to live the life I had in Haiti. But everything changed when we moved to the states. We went from living in a two story house with over five bedrooms to a one-bedroom apartment in Newark. Life was tough.
I was a teenager at that point. Being "fresh off the boat" and being inserted into American culture without a lick of English was one of the most difficult things I've ever endured. Kids are cruel. They say mean things without understanding how and why. And just like they're cruel, they're also sensitive. So when you're on the receiving end of being told cruel things, these things enter your soul, and they don't ever really disappear. But with growth, love and hard work, you can start to erase them.
It was culture shock in every sense of the expression. I was raised with the notion that I had to be obedient to my elders no matter who they were, and that I would be disciplined if I ever stepped out of line. In Haiti, teachers are able to pull out a ruler and hit students as hard as they choose. I once witnessed a teacher breaking a ruler on a classmate's hand, to the point at which the student's fingers got bruised and began to bleed. And yet it was the complete opposite in Newark. My first week of school, a student threw a desk at a teacher during a big fight.The teacher's arm was broken and she had to take the whole semester off. I went to a school where I had to go through a metal detector everyday. Students got shot in front of my school.
The first time I decided to take the plunge and do something I really wanted to do (and not what everyone thought I should do), everything in my body tried to stop me. I had nearly convinced myself that I was not good enough. That people wouldn't be interested in what I had to say. That my role in life was just to be quiet and observe. Every time I thought of the thing I really wanted, my heart raced beyond control and I would try to forget about it. But one morning, I decided to give it a try. I applied to be president of the student council. This required me to stand in front of the entire school to give a speech, in addition to campaigning for weeks before the big day. I was the girl who wanted to be invisible, so why did I want this so much? Why did I cry and make myself do it?
It was that same intuition that made me apply to the university I attended. I thought: How would a poor girl from Haiti, who lived in Newark, fit in at that school? Did it even make sense? But I took the plunge anyway. Something just told me. And I wanted change. I was curious. I was looking for answers, and I was convinced college is where I'd find them.
Years later I found myself living in New York City. When I packed my bags and looked for that apartment on Craigslist I was terrified. And yet I had made so many decisions in my life that scared the shit out of me. I told myself each time that if I didn't try, I'd never know what would be on the other side. So once again, I took the plunge and lived with two roommates and a giant cat in a tiny apartment in Washington Heights. At one point I had three jobs and worked 60 hours/week after I graduated with my bachelor in Economics and French literature with tons of student loans. I've had many jobs in my short life, but that's for another post.
A few years later, after a few promotions, I was able to move to my very first apartment without roommates all by myself. Many tears and panic attacks in the shower happened in between. The last time I made a big decision that brought my heart to the bottom of my feet was when I quit my well-paying job to become my own boss. I remember announcing it on social media and a woman commented: "That's nice and all. But you need a job."Instead of letting her comment deter me, I used her advice as motivation every day. At first I was frustrated and angry that she didn't believe in me and thought that I needed to work for someone else to make a living. And so I worked even harder. It's the best risk I've ever taken in my life.
To this day, I still wake up afraid because the struggle is real. But it's also worth it. My dreams have shifted since I've moved to New York. And they include providing opportunities for women who look like me to take the plunge. I want to not only tell them, but show them that their passion should not only be a hobby. That their passion can make a difference. And with hard work, there are rewards and opportunities.