AS I STARED at the black streaks of slimy, putty-like goo that were thrown onto my bedroom ceiling during my 10th birthday celebration, I resented my living situation.
I hated the fact I shared a tiny bedroom with my older sister and mother in my grandparents’ basement.
But, because of my mother’s sickness and inability to work, moving to our own place was out of the question.
And at 14 years old, I absolutely hated that.
I hated explaining my living situation to other people. I felt ashamed, and like a charity case, compared to them. While my friends were always moving to new houses and had their own rooms, I stayed where I grew up, and always had to help. Same neighborhood, same house, same everything. When I was around my friends, I felt like they looked down on me.
Although I loved my family, being with my autistic older sister, my heavily asthmatic mother, my grandma’s home daycare children and my arguing grandparents was overwhelming.
So when my best friend, Nina, invited me to visit her family in Montana for about two weeks, I thought, “This is exactly what I need, a getaway.”
The drive to Montana was beautiful. I watched the landscape grow and mold into tall, grassy hills and huge mountains. I expected Montana to be much more beautiful than Minnesota. It seemed the farther we drove, the more beautiful the world seemed to be.
But, despite the amazing scenery, I did not expect to see so much strife.
Nina’s family lives in Lame Deer, Montana, a Cheyenne Indian reservation. I remember the old rusty cars without wheels just sitting near the border of the town. There was a group of five or six “rez-dogs” with big, blood-filled ticks that had probably been on their grimy fur for a few weeks. One dog, who caught my attention rather quickly, lost his nose from sniffing an exploding firecracker a few years back.
The struggle wasn’t any better inside.
We visited her aunt’s house. Stacks of beads, magazines and other various objects towered in her tiny house. The kitchen had stacks of old food and dirty dishes, next to an empty fridge.
The children who sometimes stayed with her aunt had faces covered with purple bruises and brown dust from the dirt roads. Her aunt would take them in if their parents never came home. One of the girls, who was 14, had the obligation of driving out to the casino or bar to find their parents. Many of the children on the reservation drank alcohol and smoked pot.
At her aunt’s, the children would sleep in a small room with one set of bunk beds. Every night, before bed, each would put cotton balls in their ears to avoid cockroaches from crawling in while they were sleeping.
There was nowhere to escape the heat or the boredom in between the thin walls of her house. Despite these negative aspects of their life and Rita’s house, it was a safe haven for a lot of children. A safe haven, with a revolving door welcoming new children to stay for the night.
The reservation had patches with gas stations and liquor stores. Most of her family members have never been to a McDonald’s or a Walmart. It was nothing to me, but it meant the world to them to take a bite out of a crunchy chicken nugget, just once. To leave the reservation just once, to see what else was out there beyond the dirt, gas stations and the liquor stores, just once. People who desperately wanted to drive out of Lame Deer, past the pine trees, away from the mountains and toward opportunities – just once.
But most of them won’t. Most will never have the opportunity to leave. While there is no written restriction about leaving the reservation, there is a fear of leaving home. It is scary to leave a community of support and family behind. This fear likely kept many away from jobs, a complete college education and whatever else may lie beyond the pine trees.
At that point, I realized while my life may have seemed unpleasant and exhausting on the surface, I was fortunate. Although little has changed, at age 16 I still have a roof over my head, a bed to sleep on every night and a family I know is always going to be home. I have had resources and multiple opportunities, for which I am now thankful.
When I got home from my trip from Montana, I fell into my family’s open loving arms. I was thankful to be home, back with my crazy family in our cramped room.
Life doesn’t magically improve when one visits a poorer area. But learning to be truly grateful for what you have in life can really change your perspective.