Two weeks ago, I take the toe stops off my roller skates. I dig the toolbag out from under the free weights and board games in the built-in bin in the entryway, just to get to the right size Phillips screwdriver. Gripping one skate at a time between my thighs, I loose the large screws and spinning washers holding each toe stop in place. Now when I skate the only thing stopping me from busting my ass is my imperfect balance.
As a kid, I learn the basics of skating on my suburban neighborhood street on custom pink and purple rollerblades. I don’t know which parent is responsible for a matching bag with Danielle stitched down the side to tote them to and from the rink up the street from my childhood home. Come high school, I am far less graceful on roller skates, slowly teaching myself the little I already know on a different configuration of wheels at a Christian youth skate party in full view of the first boy I decide I love.
I am grown and a much better roller skater and I make it a habit to visit the rink as often as I can, usually by myself. I spend my 31st birthday a little high at the rink on the west side, alone among a small crowd of black folks, weaving between a few goofy boys celebrating a birthday, smooth old heads donning their own tailor-made skates, and two teen girls holding hands and practicing synchronized tricks to early ‘90s R&B hits. Mary croons, real love… I’m searching for a real love and I close my eyes and sing it to myself as I round the bend.
Months later, the global pandemic unfolds in the U.S. and I am ordering my first pair of roller skates online -- all black faux leather, sleek black wheels, black laces up the ankles. When they arrive at my doorstep, I skate in celebration from wall to wall on the hardwood floors in the living room. It feels reminiscent of the rink I can’t go to for the foreseeable future.
Roller skating on uncertain terrain requires me to yet again teach myself the little I already know on my downtown street, at the empty high school parking lot, on the basketball court at the closest park when not occupied by neighbors shooting around. I’m newborn Bambi wobble-walking in my tightly laced up skates from the sidewalk stoop in front of my house, awkwardly pausing in a patch of grass to regain my balance, then cautiously stepping over the curb. I carefully weave between collected debris and cracked concrete and slight slopes. I avoid moseying walkers, zipping bicyclists, and speeding drivers forcing me to swerve in and out of the narrow space between parked cars. I am winded and my knees and thighs are aching long before I make it to a recently paved surface.
I can’t remember the last time I let myself do something I am categorically not good at. Maybe it’s my Virgo moon or a significant fear of failing (or maybe those are one in the same), but regardless of arena, I tend toward measuring twice, taking low risk options by drawing on long-term self-reflection and research. I desperately want to be good at what I do to the breaking point of only doing things I am good at or I am confident I will be in relatively little time.
It is difficult for me to exercise patience, learn slowly, and make deliberate moves one step at a time. I am accustomed to picking up knowledge and skills quickly, achieving proficiency and edging toward my own sense of mastery. I often say to my stepdaughter, practice makes practice to remind her that perfection isn’t a realistic or ultimate goal, but this is a way of living I am still continuously learning and modeling.
I wonder if this is why I haven’t fallen while skating and learning new tricks yet. Perhaps I haven’t taken a big enough risk.
In late spring, I finally decide to apply to grad school after years of declaring plans and waffling. Due to the pandemic, universities scramble to shut down campuses, send students home, and move to virtual classes mid-semester. To maintain adequate recruitment levels, admins waive the application fees at my school of choice. I am accepted to the full-time social work program less than a week after submission.
I write in my entrance essay about being a self-led student of black feminist theory since earning my bachelor’s degree in 2010, voraciously studying academic papers and thinkpieces and political essays on Tumblr and Twitter, buying and reading a library of mostly black women artists and thinkers, creating an entire grassroots organization to do it alongside other people. A decade later, I am preparing to be a formal student again. I am ready to take the work I love to the next level, to sharpen my tools, to kick down doors and hold them open, to keep thinking and feeling and writing.
I choose the sections of my six foundational classes, fill out my FAFSA form - this time listing my own financial information, and google the cost of required textbooks in preparation for the fall semester. As the start of classes draws close, my financial aid package is still in limbo, so I spend days on end playing phone tag with my student loan servicer and the financial aid office, sending documents back and forth to get my tuition and fees covered as soon as possible.
Two weeks ago, I learn my undergraduate loans are in default, much to my surprise. The process I start and carve out steep payments for over a year ago to consolidate my two public loans is not submitted by my servicer to the U.S. Department of Education. I am paying for this egregious oversight that renders me unable to access public student loans until my current ones are back in good standing. I am forced to complete the same consolidation process again on top of figuring out how to pay for school in the meantime. I feel like a failure before my program even begins.
I do my homework: I send a message to a black woman friend that teaches skate lessons in my city -- first class is at the end of the month. I follow a bunch of fly black women skaters on Instagram from LA and the Bay Area and watch tutorials and skate videos back to back. I crowd-search public tennis courts near me, the best places to skate outdoors. I set aside time to skate once a week, encouraged by sweet summer weather. I start my own skating playlist and work my legs and hips in rhythm. I get a little better at holding my own each time, and I finally put protective gear on my wish list.
I don’t drop out.
I do think about it.
Instead I scale back to a part-time course plan with the help of my incredibly helpful advisor. The cost of two classes a semester is far more manageable than six. I double check all of my paperwork with my student loan servicer, getting on track to reinstate my previous loans by mid-Spring. I figure out my very tight budget and sign up for a payment plan through the bursar’s office and apply for a small private loan and rent my textbooks.
I take a step and stumble and get back up and ask for help and work at it and and and.
I’m learning to spin. The first step is to remove my toe stops and practice balancing on my front wheels before I do anything else. The goal is to build muscle and memory, to stand steady and then turn freely. I might fall. I probably will. But I already know what to do when that happens.
My first $1000 installment of my $3500 total tuition is due and I am fundraising to cover a portion of the payment until my private loan is approved and processed. If you would like to donate or share, feel free to use PayPal, Cash App, or Venmo at elleiswrite. Any amount, good thoughts and prayers are appreciated. Thank you for reading and sharing.
Update: My deepest thanks to 24 friends and comrades who donated a total of $1011 over the last two days. I sent my payment to the bursar's office on Friday, September 11 as soon as I crossed the threshold. I appreciate everyone who shared the essay and shared what they could financially. I am so grateful.