Another great guest post from my amazing friend Liz.
I visited New Mexico for the first time when I was transferred to live there for a job to work at the university. I was sent there to revive a student internship program that had been stagnant for 20 years and was told that I would have 3 months to win funding (and a position for myself to stay). I was also told that I had about a 10% chance of winning this funding. So, I found myself a casita on this little old lady’s piece of desert land and bought myself an air mattress.
Every day I walked to the University of New Mexico campus with a backpack filled with teaching materials in tow ready to recruit eager, idealist students for my internship program. I knew I had to find students with a passion for the content, so I invested a lot of time asking the right questions and spending time with students to find the ones who cared. Once I had 20 interns and over 100 student volunteers, we worked every day to talk to other students, faculty, and administrators about the program in order to get our funding. On the day of the final funding vote, we won 2 years worth of funding after only 3 months of me being on campus. That very same night I traded in my air mattress for a real one.
Because of this huge win, I requested to stay in New Mexico so I could continue to build support for the program. Every day I recruited even more students, and the more successes we had on campus, the less I paid attention to the passion students had and the more I paid to hitting bigger and bigger national recruitment numbers. It got to the point that I had very few personal relationships with many of the students (there were hundreds, okay?!) yet they knew where I worked and lived since I was putting in so many hours each day and night. They knew where I hung my hat and parked my car, and they knew when I finally got the chance to sleep, I slept well and like the dead.
One morning, on any seemingly normal day, I woke up to discover my car had been stolen. By one of my students. I also learned that he was a felon wanted in several states for drug possession and aggravated assault charges. How this had been unknown to me the entire time he was a volunteer still plagues me. Not a week after I reported it stolen did I receive a call from Mexico; it was him. He said, “I have enough heroin with me right now to kill myself. But if you forgive me, I’ll turn myself in at the border tomorrow.” He called himself Walter White. Just kidding – this wasn’t the actual Breaking Bad story. But it sure felt like it. I told him I forgave him even though I didn’t, and as promised, he turned himself in to the San Diego police department the very next day.
With my trust broken and my world altered, I decided almost immediately that I hated New Mexico and everything about it. I wished that I hadn’t traded the air mattress for the real one. New Mexico was as unappealing as states come: It was dryer than an extended airplane ride, had harsh, blinding sunlight beating down on you every day, and the poverty and crime was in your face. It was as Breaking Bad as Vince Gilligan imagined it, and I wasn’t having any of it. Coincidentally, this was also the time that I got invited to everything New Mexico. I was invited out to ancient Pueblo ruins in northern New Mexico; I was invited skiing in Taos. I was invited to eat massive quantities of hatch chile on just about every food item. I did participate in many of these events, but I pretended to hate all of it. I even refused to enjoy Breaking Bad despite its growing popularity, convinced that the show was simply romanticizing the devastating drug and crime problem I had experienced to the nth degree since moving here.
In addition to hating all of the extracurricular New Mexico activities I was being invited to, I also inadvertently lost passion for the program I was running. It was hard to believe that the students really believed they could make a difference in the world when I didn’t. While I actively hated New Mexico, I passively glided through my days with the students in an autopilot haze. I floated through campus like a ghost of pain, and I was convinced I was so smooth that no one noticed this difference in me.
Finally, one day one of my students noticed. And by that I mean that one of my students got the balls to ask me what the hell my problem was and where my passion had gone. She said, “Do you hate New Mexico because it’s so different from the places you’ve lived before? Because there’s a lot to love here.” For a minute, I was rendered speechless. How had I been so obvious? What I thought I had masterfully hidden was painfully obvious to my students: I was hurt and had become very narrow minded because of it. I realized that I had been so busy actively hating New Mexico because of what one student did, I was missing out on the opportunity to see the good in New Mexico through the eyes of the rest of my students.
From that day on, I made a significant effort to see the beauty of New Mexico from my students’ point of view. I ate green chile on pizza, burgers, and even cake, I mused about the aliens in Roswell; I smelled the pine trees in the north and explored the desert red hues that haunted Georgia O’Keefe. I even watched Breaking Bad from start to finish, and was surprised to find that the producers managed to capture the paradoxical beauty of New Mexico. Yes, there is immense poverty and crime, but there is also Technicolor, cultural diversity, flamenco, ancient ruins, and green chile.
I learned that when people get hurt, it could be easy to see things in black and white. I took my experience with one student and applied it to the rest. I took my experience with one New Mexican to influence how I felt about all. If it weren’t for my student challenging me that day, I never would’ve been able to see the Technicolor, adobe dream world that New Mexico is. And I never would’ve been able to answer “Yes,” to the question, “Is Albuquerque really like Breaking Bad?” with a knowing smile, chuckling to myself about the fact that this person has no idea the beauty he is missing if he thinks all New Mexico is is crystal meth, Walter White, and pizzas on a roof.