By Rick Perloff
This is part two of a two part piece. For part one click here.
On a glorious Saturday morning, Erika Harrison pulled up to her house in East Cleveland, bounced out of a sparkling red Chevy Equinox minivan, and walked briskly to her front door, looking confident and comfortable, almost buoyant at the prospect of giving a visitor a tour of her abode. She proudly moved into the house a year ago, and it is located near vacant lots and foreclosed properties, but no matter, it’s home, a few short blocks from where she grew up, and more importantly it’s in the neighborhood – the village, as she calls it – the repository of so many joys, sorrows, and bountiful dreams for the future.
I am the one slated to tour the house. It’s pleasant to behold: a standard yellow, blonde-brick house, three stories, almost quaint, with a small porthole third-floor window.
We walk up the front steps, into a living room bereft of furniture but filled with big cardboard boxes, electrical wires dangling, like praying mantises, from cracks in the ceiling that Harrison plans to repair, past a comparably spotless kitchen with a new stove and shiny black table, and up the winding staircase to her study, a bare-bones room with a large computer and pictures of her 15-year-old daughter when she was younger, and her mother, a force of nature who exerted an outsize impact on her in life and as well in death, through memories of her aphorisms and unshakeable determination.
Her mother’s big goal was to complete her undergraduate degree, initiated years earlier at Ohio University but interrupted by marriage, children, and the struggles of adult life. She completed it too, in 1996, at age 43, serving as a role model for her daughter. Yet Erika has fitfully pursued her undergraduate education, only finding her academic niche at the age of 36. Her experiences parallel those of other young adults in the Rust Belt, who must balance the passion to learn and procure the undergraduate sheepskin with the pragmatics of everyday life. Like Jerry Schlueter, Harrison faced a host of economic –and social – obstacles that impeded her efforts to obtain a college degree.
While Schlueter toiled in the traditionally masculine profession of grinding steel in a storied Cleveland industrial company, Harrison labored in the vineyards of clerical and administrative work, never feeling entirely respected, faced with the challenge of finding work in the Rust Belt economy. All the while, she supported herself, her daughter, Trinity, and, later, her mother’s two adopted children, Jada and Arnayjah, her foster sisters. Harrison assumed legal guardianship for the two girls when her mother passed away in 2013.
Even more than her father (who struggled after losing his job at a downtown graphic design company when Harrison was a child), her mother was a role model for the virtues of hard work in life. For many years she managed a nursing home division at Cuyahoga County Health and Human Services, and insisted that her kids help out family members at home or at work.
When she was 12, Harrison received marching orders to clean her grandmother’s house, while her brothers did yard work for other family members. Around this time, her dad launched a new graphic design company. But his business never got off the ground, and the troubles hit him hard, pushing him to drink. At the end of her freshman year in high school, the pressures and family arguments were too much to handle, and her mom and dad split. Erika and her brothers stayed with their mom, but were bereft of a male role model.
Except suddenly – though, given the family’s dynamics, not unexpectedly – one appeared: Uncle Tony, as he was known, her grandmother’s brother, the stern, yet stylish neighborhood attorney who had swag – Uncle Tony, with the wavy silver-gray hair sleekly covering a bright red undertone, who owned property and, with his characteristic braggadocio, would take on other family members as apprentices in his real estate business.
Harrison worked for Uncle Tony for two summers while in high school: eight to nine hours a day in a quaint building next to a bar he owned and abutting brownstones, in an office with pale gray walls, the smell of law books, and the constant buzzing of lights. Harrison sat behind a desk, logged rent receipts and eviction notices, learning to type them in different fonts, proudly showing off the $125 she made each week to her envious girlfriends.
She saved some money, having internalized her mother’s motto that you must attend to what you need, not what you want. Needs, not wants, became her mantra – until it met temptation in the shape of a desirable older boy from the neighborhood.
“He was everything I wasn’t allowed to do,” she recalled. The girls in high school liked him and he conferred popularity on Harrison, who, in high school, was a couple steps removed from the cool kids’ crowd.
Her mother, always the pragmatist with an eye toward embellishing the college portfolio, did not relish the time her daughter spent with her boyfriend. Mother and daughter argued. It was a difficult time. Although East Cleveland is a village where everyone seems to know each other, Harrison said, it can also be a hard place to grow up. “You find yourself extremely distracted,” she recalled. “You see different things. You’re not around everyone who is like you. Here you are, coming out humble with values, and then you see these other ones who are selling drugs, getting quick money and you’ve got the girls who are hooked up with the drug dealers because they have to get money and they bring them things.”
Perhaps she herself became a little distracted, Harrison acknowledged, reflecting on her teenage years. Perhaps the East Cleveland milieu gave off cues that didn’t cultivate the pursuit of academic excellence.
She had gotten all “A”s in high school, she said, and her friends thought she should go to college. Some of her friends were college freshmen, and others were talking “Bearcats,” hoping to attend the University of Cincinnati. Her mother had graduated from Cleveland State with a political science major, and was pushing Erika to apply to college. But Harrison saw red when she heard her mother’s college rap.
At the beginning of her senior year, she had to transfer from the Catholic girls’ school she attended in Cleveland to a nearby public school, partly because her mother ran out of funds. When her mother began pushing her to go to college, she became incensed. “I told her, ‘You couldn’t afford my senior year in high school. How can you pay for me to go to college? I’m tired of struggling. I’m tired of feeling poor.’” She was also tired of her mother’s advice and wanted to try something different, anything that would get her away from the stresses of home.
In the spring of 1997, after finishing high school, she found a part-time job as a telemarketer, but wasn’t very good at it, especially compared to several of the master telephone persuaders in her office. On weekends, she worked a second job at an East Cleveland health care facility that housed and served the mentally disabled.
In the midst of all this, tragedy struck. Her dad died in September, 1997. It felt like a giant punch to the stomach, because she had no idea he had suffered for years from alcoholism, the unemployment gnawing at him, and by the time he reached out to get help, it was too late.
“This can’t be life,” she thought during this period, but it was of course – dark, wrenching, and unforgiving.
Through it all, she remained her mother’s daughter, who knew that you had to work, and responsibility meant that you took care of your needs, not your wants. So, she started looking for better jobs. After first working at the Case Western Reserve University bookstore, which was not far from her home – stocking books and feeling pretty much “like a peasant” – she found work at the university and gradually took on day-to-day managerial tasks.
In late 1999, she and her boyfriend learned she was pregnant; in July, 2000, Trinity was born, all 7 pounds and 20 ounces of her, with a pudgy, adorably cute Eskimo face. They both hoped Trinity would save their relationship, but she just postponed the inevitable, and they broke up in 2001.
She tried to turn over a new leaf, taking the real estate exam – those summers working with Uncle Tony left their mark – but failed twice. “I felt like I wasn’t doing anything,” she said. “I felt like I was wasting away, like I wasn’t advancing.”
She wanted to get her undergraduate degree, but needed a steady income to support her family. So, Harrison just put full-time education on hold, took part-time classes free of charge at Case Western, feeling sometimes like the professors didn’t appreciate her life experiences, but trucking on, raising Trinity with her mother, taking on more responsibility in her job at another CWRU staff office, and feeling resentful in 2004 when she was passed up for a promotion, partly because she didn’t have her B.A.
The colleague who got the job didn’t extend her much of an olive branch – in fact, quite the contrary, she says – so she adapted. She let him “go ahead and do his manager thing and beat on his little rooster chest,” telling herself, “it’s not your time yet; work on your degree in your down time.” She did exactly that, taking online courses at Ashford University, a for-profit educational institution that offers online baccalaureate degrees.
Around 2013, she recalled, CWRU launched a way-finding initiative to make it easier to navigate the burgeoning university space. Offices had to be clearly identified and employees needed to have name-plates identifying them by name and role. Harrison did not have an office, so she faced a double whammy: not only did she lack an office, she had no sign identifying her by name and position.
At this moment, in spring, 2013, she had an “ah-ha” moment, what Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams calls a “turning point.” She had matriculated to Cleveland State and was enthralled by a “Women, Art, and Society” class, which examined how a male-dominated society had shunted aside the work of talented female artists, forcing them to demand recognition of their paintings in other venues.
Harrison made an unorthodox, but creative, connection between the marginalization of women artists in the early 20th century and her own treatment at Case. And she saw the humor in it too, reflecting that, “This is Erika, taking this Women, Art and Society class and now I’m in this feminist mode, right now, raising sin about signage!” But knowledge was empowering.
Unwilling to be marginalized, she developed her own nameplate and affixed it to the wall outside her cubicle. She could not get a perfect typographical match between her homemade signage and the official university nameplates, but she matched the font as closely as she could. Just like the women artists made their aesthetic statement in their time, Harrison had done the same for herself. She looked at her name and inhaled. Yes!
After posting the nameplate, she began to feel her oats. She enrolled in Cleveland State University courses in communication and urban studies – communication because she had done so much everyday organizational communication in her work at Case, and urban studies because she felt an attachment to her urban village.
She understood why people wanted to leave East Cleveland and move to other suburbs. “But I look at it – I’m not going to run away from it. I’m not going to take my girls out of it because another thing I learned in Urban (Studies courses) is that you need to have certain people with that optimistic attitude. I look at some of these boarded-up houses and I think, ’Man, this is beautiful. It’s actually really beautiful.’ Look at the architecture. This can be developed. It can thrive.”
Standing in the living room of her house on that sunny Saturday morning, she told me she was majoring in a CSU interdisciplinary program in organizational leadership and planned to get a masters degree in urban studies or legal studies. “It’s exciting. I want to be able write proposals. I want to be able to amend policies. I’m a one-person army.” She envisioned ways to improve the health of the community by opening up accessible grocery stores that sold healthy food and employed city residents. “I mean there’s so much opportunity. I see it as rebirth,” she said.
Her realization was tempered with sadness. Her mother was not there to appreciate how far she had come – she died of cancer in 2013. Although they had fought over the years – about her boyfriend and her academic trajectory – her mother had been her soul mate, her mentor, the one who offered love and dispensed wisdom, even if the message, as in needs not wants, could be endlessly repeated.
Her mother was 43 when she graduated from college. Harrison will be 38. She will have beaten her by five years! And now her daughter, Trinity, was approaching college and Harrison saw a way to grow the academic seeds her mother had planted. “I’m going to walk (at graduation) with Trinity,” she said. “I’m going to finish in fall of ’17. She’s going to start (college) in the fall of ’18 and I’m going to start (graduate school) in the fall of ’18, and she’s going to go four years and I’m going to go four years, and we’re going to walk again together.”
It had taken two decades, but Harrison had finally arrived at a place where she wanted to be professionally, and the future glimmered ahead, a shaft of sunlight suggesting tomorrow might be just a little bit better than today.
Rick Perloff is a professor of communication and psychology at Cleveland State University. He writes feature stories for newspapers and magazines.
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