Building Steam

Photo by Giovanni Randisi on Unsplash

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…Ali is back and stronger than ever!  Or just different.  It seems as time goes on, life does get better ever-so-slightly every day in new and interesting ways.  

Here is my back story:

I grew up in Scranton,Pennsylvania, which is a small city in NEPA (Northeast Pennsylvania). I was lucky enough to have a stay-home-mom and a dad, who worked his ass off with his high school education to pay for our beautiful middle-class home set back from a lot of trees, a lake to fish in, and kids to play with in the neighborhood: Typical white suburban neighborhood. I also attended a private Catholic school with some of the elite Scrantonians (children of politicians, lawyers, doctors, that sort of thing). I had everything I could have asked for, except I was tortured by my peers, daily.  Every day it was: “big nose” (my nose was large for my face), “retard” or “freak” (a neighborhood favorite—I didn’t talk until I was about four), or some reference to my ugly curly hair. Turns out I was actually gifted, my nose grew into my face as I got older, and my curly hair straightened on its own:  A Christmas miracle!  Now, I don’t shut up, either.  Too bad.

I had a lot of coping skills to deal with being bullied. I would blast Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on our turntable in the living room and dance on the marble end tables—okay, it happened once before I got caught. I grew up in the late 80’s and 90’s and watched MTV constantly. I listened to mostly hip-hop artists and pop stars when I was little, particularly Paula Abdul. I was so obsessed with being her, learning her dance moves, that I watched her music videos thousands of times and practiced her moves over and over again. When that wasn’t enough, I sought out dance instruction videos:  props to anyone who remembers “Doin’ the Barbie” and no it’s not an innuendo. Subsequently, I would take my walkman and go to my parents’ bedroom by myself (with permission of course), close the door and practice for hours in front of the full length mirrors until I would almost pass out. Consequently, I took dance lessons for several years.

Music became an integral part of my life: I discovered my own musical tastes, which my parents had absolutely none, but Kenny G. I stumbled upon Jazz on Temple radio when I was ten (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, David Brubeck, not Weather Channel crap if you remember that). I also taught myself how to sing, which was my saving grace from being bullied in middle school, somewhat. When I started writing at eight-years-old, I listened to music. I know I said this in the last article, that life has a “soundtrack.” I believe music intertwines us with others and life experiences—if you think about it, there is probably a song you can think of for every major life experience you had.

About two years ago I moved back from Goose Creek, South Carolina after a three year stint in what felt like I was escaping from a cult. I was engaged to man, who brainwashed me into isolating everyone I love and hating myself, which was easy to do. After I had the courage to leave, I got a sweet pad—to my standards— reasonable. I worked my ass off like my dad would, only I had to take out additional student loans to pay for it, too. I didn’t have any friends to live with and if I paid less for my place, that meant I was living at least an hour away from school and work and most likely living in a sketchy (the shooting/stabbing kind) neighborhood.  If you know anything about the Charleston metro area, you would understand what I am talking about. Gentrification is alive and well.  I failed to mention there was a meth lab explosion across the street a week before my ex and I moved to our place and when I moved out, I actually moved across the parking lot: It wasn’t that bad.

I did some crazy things and discovered a lot about myself. Being down South was a fun, yet scary experience.  After my ex and I broke up, I slowly taught myself not to tolerate abuse. Thanks to many strange encounters with OK Cupid and stumbling upon a neighborhood called “Park Circle,” I made friends.  It was an alternate universe of my hometown with a bar called “The Sparrow.” I would go to the Sparrow to play pool, hear the clang of an old pinball machine, and listen to my friend’s band or DJ set. My friends teased me mercilessly for living in “Gooooooose Creek” (insert voice of an obnoxious Southern used car salesman booming on the radio). If y’all don’t know, Goose Creek is a town 20 some miles outside of the Charleston area, with a fancy water tower, Naval base, and one of those big Wal Marts. Oh yeah, and the sleepy alligator I met one night. I promised myself I would never use the word “y’all,” but I finally did it on purpose.  Bless your hearts for reading this. If you want to know what the saying “Bless your heart,” really means, send me a message. At least the way I was told, it wasn’t so nice.

It took me a long time to get over the culture shock of being in the South, probably longer than it should have. I can’t say my nasaly accent, sharp facial features, black hair, and darker skin made me made me afloat in a sea of pale skinned, light haired soft-spoken people. I was asked repeatedly why do I “tan so easily” and “What are you?” (referring to my race) by children and adults alike. Some people had the nerve to tell me I wasn’t the “right kind of white person.” I got weird stares in stores and stopped in airport security a bit.

However, I noticed some positive things, too. I was lucky enough to teach in Title I schools. If you don’t know, in Title I schools, about 90% of students are at or below poverty level and come from predominantly African American and Latino backgrounds. I had the most life-changing experience being the only white person (the teacher) in my classroom. I quickly bonded with some of my students in time, particularly over music. When I came back home, I eventually landed a temporary teaching job as an English teacher in another Title I school. I played music for my students while we wrote (appropriate instrumental music of their choosing) and I saw a world of difference. My kids would come to my classroom to talk me about their day and didn’t want to leave. Maybe it was me showing interest in writing and in them, but I felt music, in part, brought us together. Consequently, I found it interesting my students still asked me similar questions about my background like they did back in South Carolina.

So, this summer I decided to take an Ancestry DNA test: I found that I have a chunk of Middle Eastern background that I did not know about. I am guessing this came from my mother’s father’s side from the research I conducted. There are some Ancestry DNA haters out there, but this put some puzzle pieces of my life together.

There you have it. I am looking forward to teaching again in the Fall and I hope someday to land a permanent teaching job.

By the way, I want to you to listen to the song I heard as I literally turned the bend to my new home in South Carolina for the first time:

This is: “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt” from DJ Shadow’s album Endtroducing.  


A. Dawn

Just in case you wanted to watch, “Doin’ the Barbie,” here you go:


Author: Ali Pica

I am an avid writer and eclectic artist. I have spent years harnessing my skills of observation in my writing and embellish the ordinary in my work. I created my blog to share my unusual and interesting experiences with the world, to inspire people, or simply to make them laugh.

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