In today’s edition of Schoolin’ Life, we meet writer and professor Ernestine Hayes.
Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?
I am a great-grandmother, a Tlingit woman. I teach composition and creative writing at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
I was born in 1945, so I was in my 20s from July 1965 to June 1975.
Since it has been so long, at first I couldn’t really remember having expectations, or what expectations they must have been. After some thought, though, I remembered that it was the 1960s in San Francisco, so of course, I expected to be part of a beautiful, peaceful, new world full of love, free spirits, and organic gardens.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
I was born at the end of the Second World War in the territory of Alaska to a single woman who was Tlingit. Alaska then rested – and still does, truth be told – on a foundation of colonial attitudes and systems. As an Alaska Native child in the mid twentieth century, my expectations were shaped by those circumstances.
What was your first job like?
My first job at the age of fourteen was at a printer, where I mangled reams and reams of printed work while the print shop owner watched in horror, no doubt regretting whatever social guilt moved him to hire me in the first place.
What was your first apartment like?
My first apartment was in San Francisco, near the Panhandle, an old estate house that had been remodeled into apartments. Each apartment was different, and the one I lived in had one of the fireplaces, although I never tried to use it.
Did you experience any big life changes?
Two of my sons were born in San Francisco in the sixties, and at the end of the decade I moved to the Sierra Nevada Foothills, having transferred my faith from a beautiful new world of peace and love to the back-to-the-land movement.
In what ways did your friendships change?
All the friendships I had after leaving my home in Alaska at the age of fifteen were shaped by the understanding that one day I would go home again, so the friendships I developed in my twenties were temporary.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
Nothing. I never knew my father and in my memory, my mother had no relationships with men, so I had no idea what constituted a romantic relationship. I was unfortunate in that regard.
How did your relationships with your family change?
Everyone in my extended family was still back in Alaska, and we hadn’t kept in touch. My mother moved to the East Coast not many years after we moved to California. We spoke weekly, and she came to visit once or twice a year, but we were not involved in each other’s day to day lives.
How do you feel society viewed you?
I’d never fit into any sort of role that society would consider conventional, so I imagine the dominant society viewed me as an outsider.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for several years, and I suffered his tantrums and anger and criticism until my emotions were raw metal. It would be decades before I felt whole again, but I survived those years any way I could.
How did you change intellectually?
I searched for ways to survive and tried everything I could believe in. I tried to find reason everywhere.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
I became someone else for a while.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
Parts of my worldview changed with every new hope that I had found an answer, but the fundamental beliefs that I’d received from my grandmother didn’t change.
What was the most embarrassing moment?
We were out of food and I took my sons to a park so we could forget that all we had to eat was squash and tomatoes from the garden. Everyone at the park had barbecue and picnic lunches. I wasn’t so much embarrassed as I was ashamed that I hadn’t thought about that aspect and that I had put my sons in an even worse situation for them.
What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?
My relationship with my sons’ father; it almost killed me. When I decided to leave, it uncovered a deep capacity for determination.
Who was your biggest influence and why?
The man I lived with, who did everything to beat me down emotionally. He reinforced my lack of confidence by belittling and criticizing me at every turn. In those days before there was widespread organized effort to make information available, with the isolation that is part of abuse, and with my inexperience with healthy relationships, I allowed myself to be a victim.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
The sixties, peace marches, the back-to-the-land movement, the Jesus movement, all those.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
My life is full of regrets, but all those choices led me home.
Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
The sixties turned into the seventies, then the eighties and on and on, and capitalism was the only thing that profited.