Keep Your Head Up and Survive

Updated on December 4, 2016
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I am a freelance writer who is a lover of learning, and an admirer of beauty. Staying healthy is also a daily pursuit.

California State University
California State University

My Last Semester in College

It was spring and my last semester in college. What a relief it was to know that my four-year journey was almost over. Unfortunately, things had got off to an unexpectedly shaky start. I had overlooked a class in my minor that I needed to graduate. How had I let this happen? I had followed my advisor’s recommendations, as well as the course curriculum. However, now, instead of four classes, I needed five to graduate. This came as a total surprise to me. And my choices were on a very short list: Don’t take the class and stay in school another semester (that would require more financial aid), or add the class and work harder than I had expected to. After thoughtful deliberation, I chose the latter.

The thought of quitting tried to take hold, but I refused to accept defeat. Although I needed money, getting a part-time job was out of the question. I had to keep my grade point average up. Besides, there was just no time. Could I ask for help from my family, I pondered? That was absolutely not an option, I concluded. I just couldn’t handle the criticism. There was no other choice. I had waited for almost a decade to return to school and finish what I had started years before, and I wasn’t going to wait any longer, no matter what. My mind was resolute, but the reality of it all was slower to sink in. With much reluctance, I realized that my struggles had led me to embrace the unacceptable thought of life on the streets. And with open arms, they had been waiting patiently to initiate me, and winter was only an arms-length away.

Lingering Questions

To make matters even worse, there was barely enough money left from my financial aid to buy my books, let alone pay my rent and buy food. But what I lacked in financial resources, I made up for by my sheer determination to succeed. To say that it was a challenge is an understatement, but there was no going back. Failure was not an option.

So, I focused intently on my studies. My senior thesis required the most work: meeting with my professor on a weekly basis, doing research for countless hours, making graphs and pie charts, and typing drafts until my fingers were sore. Regardless of my all-consuming efforts, my fears remained, just below the surface, and regularly surfaced, disguised as lingering questions that jockeyed in my head: Where would I sleep? What would I eat? How would I survive? Would I succeed? I was mortified by the weight of it all.

University-students-using-computer lab
University-students-using-computer lab | Source

My Biggest Challenge

My biggest challenge came at night, after my classes were over, and I had no place to go. My best option was to ride different city buses in the hopes of finding a safe place to close my eyes and fall asleep, for hours or even minutes, whatever was feasible at the time. After I boarded a bus, I sat in the back, where it was warm and quiet, and I was hidden from the bus driver’s view, in case I decided to remain onboard for the return trip back to the terminal. After midnight, my options to either find a bus running or a place to seek shelter from the cold diminished substantially, or disappeared completely.

Campus at Nightfall
Campus at Nightfall | Source

Sometimes, I rode the shuttle bus to the airport and got off at a different terminal each night, pretending to be a frequent flier with an early morning flight. My small, black suitcase on wheels, filled with all my belongings, including school textbooks, came in handy and helped me to fit in. Once I arrived, I diligently scouted for empty chairs in half-empty terminals. And when I found a vacant seat, it was a relief to finally shut my tired, weary eyes. But I could never really fall asleep because of the oceans of bright light and the constant parade of foot traffic from airline employees, airport security or a multitude of anxious travelers who were waiting for their late night or early morning flights.

Interior Airport Bathroom
Interior Airport Bathroom

How I Coped

At daybreak, I would quickly clean myself up in an airport restroom. I had a regular routine that I followed in order to get to class on time: brush my teeth, fix my hair, wash up in an empty stall, change clothes, and catch the next city bus leaving the closest airport bus terminal.

Although my process was efficient, each day, I became just a little more self-conscious about my cleanliness, and the possibility of any lingering body odor that I might have. I was especially concerned when I stood next to a classmate during a presentation or was in close proximity to a teammate during a class project, so I always kept my frequently worn leather jacket ready to put on, in case I needed it.

No Relief in Sight

Sometimes, after my last class, I waited on campus until nightfall, and then caught the next bus and headed in the direction of the airport, but I got off in the affluent hotel district and spent time walking past the beautifully landscaped, neatly manicured grounds of elegantly furnished high-rise lodgings, lined up like row-houses on several quiet side streets. Naturally, when I looked up, I saw the dark spaces of seemingly empty rooms among those that were brightly lit. Instantly, my mind conjured up an image of me sleeping in a comfortable bed with plush, warm blankets and soft pillows. The vivid image was almost unbearable to embrace, because it was a very painful reminder that I had no place to sleep at night. My anguish was almost unbearable. But I had to go on.

Hotels at Night
Hotels at Night | Source

Months passed and I eventually became exhausted by my lack of sleep. Stressed by fatigue, I urgently needed to rest and rejuvenate my mind and body, but there was no relief in sight. How was I able to endure the agony for such a long period of time? I cannot really say definitively. It was probably because I had eventually resigned myself to the reality of how things were, in order to cope with my circumstances. And because I made this necessary shift in my thinking, I believe I was able to survive.

A Soothing Place Is Few and Far Between

One evening after my classes, using my usual mode of transportation, I headed in the direction of one of a few of my carefully selected destinations. The familiar aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans greeted me as I arrived and slowly opened the tinted glass door. The warm, soothing atmosphere and soft mix of music comforted me, while I sat at a sturdy wooden table in a quiet corner and finished my homework. Sometimes, when the lights were dimmed late in the evening, I sank into one of the deep-cushioned arm-chairs and closed my eyes for a brief respite. I cherished those moments because they were few and far between.

After my hangout closed at midnight, I caught the last bus leaving the half-empty terminal across the street. By now, the cold night air had become brutal. It stung my skin and ran chills up my spine, because I was under-dressed for the cold weather. So, I quickly paid the fare, got on board, and made a bee-line to my usual warm spot in the back.

City Bus Center
City Bus Center | Source

No Place to Call Home

From my seat, I gazed out the sizable, graffiti-sprayed window into the vast ocean of darkness. At dusk, the city lights illuminated the forest of tall buildings and brought them from the dark shadows of trees and signage. The scene was electrifying, and it lit up the night sky. The hustle and flow of hectic, unending traffic stretched for miles on the freeway below me. Warm, welcoming lights glowed from the windows of single-family dwellings where people lived who had places to call home, but I was not one of them.

Los Angeles Skyline at Night
Los Angeles Skyline at Night | Source

An Unexpected Event

I relaxed and briefly dozed off as the bus cruised steadily on its long route to a destination on the other side of town. The driver made a left turn and, suddenly, I felt a jolt as the bus quickly picked up speed. At that very same moment, the traffic light turned red. Almost instantly, I was thrown from my seat, abruptly, into mid-air, like a Frisbee. As my body floated through space, toward a metal pole further down the aisle, unexplainably, it felt as if time slowed down dramatically. It was uncanny, because I was able to see the action unfold in front of me, as if I was a bystander, and to experience it, all at the same time. Luckily, a male passenger on the bus managed to grab me and pull me in his direction, before my head-on collision. In a matter of seconds, my immediate distress was over, but the final results were chaotic. The few passengers that were on the bus, including myself, resembled a pile of clothes that had been tossed randomly on the bus floor.

Interior of City Bus
Interior of City Bus | Source
Bus Accident
Bus Accident | Source

The bus driver had tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid hitting a swiftly turning vehicle and had crashed the bus straight through a chain-link fence and into a small concrete wall on one side of an empty automobile lot. Miraculously, everyone had survived. But some of us were badly bruised and frantically shaken up, including the bus driver. What exactly had happened? Had the bus driver ran a red light? Had he been speeding? He had almost collided with a small vehicle. Had he hit it or had he tried to dodge it, and lost control? From where I was sitting, I couldn’t tell.

Police Car Siren
Police Car Siren | Source

Police car sirens loudly whirled and fire engines bells incessantly clanged to alert all in the vicinity of the unwelcome traffic accident. As help arrived, a haphazard triage area was set up in the cold lightlessness of the empty automobile lot. Hurriedly, a trail of rapidly moving ambulances arrived to whisk away the injured survivors to nearby hospitals. I was scrapped and badly bruised and my left knee felt wobbly, so I boarded the next ambulance in route to the ER. Once examined, my X-rays revealed some contusions on my back and left hip, but I had no broken bones. Consequently, I was released and I returned to the scene of the accident, to join those who were left, and to await a replacement bus and driver.

Time Wore On and My Circumstances Worsened

As time wore on my circumstances worsened, especially my hygiene. Although I had tried my best to keep clean, it had become an almost impossible task. Day after day, the dirt on my body became more and more visible and would flake off, like dandruff, whenever I scratched because of my incessant itching. And the longer I went without food, the more my relentless hunger pangs tortured me, almost like an addiction. My mind and body commanded me to eat at all cost! And I did.

Discarded Hamburger and Fries
Discarded Hamburger and Fries | Source

At first, I would approach strangers and ask for spare change. When that was fruitless, I shamelessly took food from the trash at fast-food restaurants I frequented, carefully searching close to the top looking for the best looking discarded items, while making sure that no one saw me. Within seconds, I had grabbed some discarded french fries or parts of an uneaten burger. It was undignified and humiliating, but a commonplace activity for a homeless person like me. And I was only one among many. I was humbled by my circumstances, and I learned an unforgettable lesson. Hunger is a tortuous master, one that can break even the strongest among us.

A Dilemma Resolved

Meanwhile, at school, the semester progressed. The senior class list for commencement was finally posted on campus in the student union. I hastily scanned it for my name, elated when I finally found it, but I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my cap and gown. My dilemma was quickly solved when a close friend came to my aid. And I was deeply grateful.

At the end of the Spring semester, the day that I had dreamed of and worked so hard for finally arrived, albeit with very little fanfare. The sky was overcast with dark clouds that threatened rain. The sun never appeared and, later, rain fell just long enough to lightly wet the ground and, then, stopped.

I was dressed in a pleated red dress that was hidden beneath my gold and burgundy graduation gown. It had been purchased long before I knew that I would need it for this occasion, but it came in handy, now. Amid the boisterous excitement, I was one among hundreds of other seniors who were anxiously lined up behind a myriad of banners with the names of our majors, as we impatiently waited to hear the signal that would begin the commencement ceremony


The Sweet Taste of Victory

I was subdued, considering the surreal activities that were going on around me, but I was also very excited, at the same time, because the very next day was my birthday, so I had two different occasions to celebrate. I took a deep breath and pondered the importance of the moment, certain that it had all been worth it, even the struggles and sacrifices I had endured for several months before.

As the procession of students and faculty finally marched forward, l took my seat in one of several metal chairs arranged in perfectly laid-out rows on the grassy field of the large, over-flowing soccer stadium, filled with countless well-wishers, family and friends. As the ceremony progressed, my emotions built up and I was overwhelmed by the sense of accomplishment I felt. Was this anywhere near the kinds of jubilation that “rock stars” felt after the cheers and applause from a stadium packed with thousands of their loyal, screaming fans? Maybe not on that scale, but It was close.

Cal State Graduation
Cal State Graduation | Source

Finally, a continuous round of thunderous applause began, as the name of every graduating senior was called, one-by-one. I nervously awaited the sound of my own name being called from the alphabetical list. When I finally heard it, it felt like I was dreaming, as I glided down the long grassy, frequently traveled path up the wooden stairs of the makeshift stage to shake the hands of the university president, and the distinguished professors who were waiting for me there. I graduated with honors in my major, as a magna cum laude, the next-to-highest of three special honors. I had finally earned my baccalaureate in Communications. Now, I was a college graduate. At the end of the ceremony, our tassels, which had been worn on the right side of our caps when we marched in, were moved, in unison, to the left side. And it was done.

End of Graduation
End of Graduation | Source

A Higher Source Came to My Rescue

Afterward, I allowed my accomplishment to seek in, but in hindsight, I knew that I should have been better prepared. But having made it through, I acknowledged to myself that I had survived one of the toughest challenges that I had faced in my life, up until that point, and I felt stronger because of it. My path had not been straight and narrow. The road had been rough, and bumpy, filled with twists and turns, and unexpected potholes, but I had succeeded, regardless.

And what I knew for sure then, at that very moment, was that victory is much sweeter when you go through so much to attain it.

Ultimately, I know now, as I knew then, that the praise goes to the One who had strengthened me throughout my trials and tribulations, an omniscient, awesome, and loving God. He had been beside me and He had carried me in those painful moments when I felt like I could not go on. His footsteps had begun where mine had left off. He had rescued me from the depths of despair, wiped my tears, and lifted me up into the brilliance of His omnipotent, omnipresent light.

He Taught Me an Important Lesson

He had witnessed my misfortune and suffered right beside me and He had taught me an important lesson, one that I will never forget. No matter what happens to you in life, no matter how “crooked the path,” no matter how challenging the ordeal, no matter how long the journey, no matter how many times it takes to succeed, when your struggles knock you down, you must get back up, “keep your head up and survive!”

Thank you for reading this hub. If you enjoyed it, or have any questions or concerns, please leave a comment below or contact me anytime. I look forward to hearing from you.


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