Personal Essay: Generation of Orphans
The third, or fifth, or maybe tenth time I ran away from home, it was raining. I walked out of my high school at the end of a sleepy New England autumn with my belongings tucked in my backpack, all the money I owned (about $76), and my headphones in. Didn’t have a plan for where I’d end up or how I’d get there. I just started walking and didn’t stop.
Every time I took that first step outside, I always thought I’d be the next boxcar kid with a mysterious, rich grandpa returning to find me, the next Annie to be adopted by some other sad, rich gentleman (man, where are they all hiding?). In every breath I drew was the implicit hope that I would be the Matilda of my own story — that if I just kept on going and not looking back, I’d get to give my own Ms. Trunchbull a piece of my mind and run into the arms of a sweet teacher who wanted to protect me.
That’s probably what I was thinking when I dialed my study hall supervisor, Mrs. Simler, after falling asleep in the cathedral downtown for about seven hours. Maybe, I must’ve thought, maybe this is the part where she realizes I’m the kid she always wanted and whisks me away to a garden-walled house by the sea.
When the cops rooted me out with flashlights, they told me “it still counts as breaking and entering even if you don’t break the door”. How was I supposed to know that? I walked in carefully, didn’t smash any glass like they do in the movies. I played by the rules, I thought.
A few hours later I was back in the top bunk of my bed at home, crying into my pillow. Mom and Dad were screaming at each other in the next room.
That’s the reality of growing up with abusive parents. The very laws in place to protect you, the rules that exist supposedly in your favor, they’re all designed to put you back at home and in the hands of your tormentors. For a society that puts so much value in these heartwarming tales of sad orphans being adopted by good parents, we severely fail our children when we don’t take their needs and their stories seriously. When I laid down on the hard, cold floor of that cathedral in the shadow of the pipe organ upstairs, I thought I could break that cycle — I thought that if I stuck it out long enough and just hid there, I’d be declared missing or dead and be able to rewrite my previous life into something better. I thought I’d finally be taken seriously. I thought the law couldn’t catch me, couldn’t stop me if my heart was in the right place.
I left my body in that cathedral. It’s been sleeping there ever since.
With or without explicitly abusive parents, Millennials have been hiding out in our own cathedrals for years, now. We’ve been taking those first steps out our back doors and off of cliffs without parachutes. We can’t make plans — we’re nearsighted by force, unable to see a future for ourselves while we are blamed by adults for their past mistakes. If we weren’t on our phones so much, society wouldn’t be in the decline. If we just went out to Applebee’s more, the restaurant industry would still be thriving. If we only stopped furiously shoveling avocados into our mouths, we too could afford mcmansions and Lamborghinis in the Hollywood Hills.
But the playbooks of the past can’t help us. There are no guides for us that lead to the same places our parents went. As society begins to reconcile with the massive economic crisis devouring it whole, we are left in the dust; when they finally realize that none of the advice that worked for them will work for us, so many of us will already be broke, homeless, without insurance, or dead. We’ll join the others among us who are already gone.
Our guardians, our leaders, the ones who were supposed to protect us — our parents turned their backs on us. We are Boxcar Children without rich grandpas, we are Annies without adoptive fathers, we are Matildas who never learned how to fight back against Ms. Trunchbull. We are a generation of orphans with nobody to show us the way.
On my lowest days, the quiet ones, I slip through the crack in that back door again — I lay down on the creaky wooden floor, I curl up in the shadow of the pipe organ. Stained glass washes over me, blue and gold and rosy light streaked with rain falling softly outside. It’s my cold, dark home; it’s where my bones are buried. Every time I hear a bell ring, it reverberates down to the marrow of my soul.
I left my body in that cathedral, and I’m still waiting to wake up in that garden-walled house by the sea.