Choosing the Light, Part 1: Junior Erin Kalwa endures the darker side of life

Sitting hunched forward, shoulders with a slight roll, she slowly mixes around the noodles in the half-empty cup of ramen. Erin Kalwa brings the forkful to her mouth while surveying the monitor of the laptop in front of her. She squints at the essay, probably due a week prior to now and adjusts the bracelets against her wrist — one light green and the other silver. The Monday afternoon is tranquil. The sun still shines a bright ray, reflecting off her screen and into her large, light brown eyes, creating an illusion of amber. The freckles plastered across her cheeks crease as her nose scrunches up. Chloe — her male cat, mind you — is making himself comfortable against her hip.

“You know, it wasn’t until a year ago that I decided that I can choose to be happy. I can decide to surround myself with positive things and say ‘Hey I’m going to have a good day because I’m going to give an optimistic filter on what’s going on today,’” Erin says, a smile gracing her pink lips. It makes sense. Her bed is positioned in the center of her room, backed up against the wall that holds a large window, blinds drawn all the way up to invite the scenery in. To her right, the corner of her bedroom possesses a ukulele, guitar, and a camera complete with polaroids on a wooden shelf. Her bed rests on a white wood platform accompanied with lights underneath. The positivity radiates–well, aside from the fact that her blanket is designed as a Oujia board.

Erin sits on her bed with her cat, Chloe to her right. “I’ve made sure that what I’m surrounding myself with is positive,” Erin says with a faint grin. “I used all of the hurt to decide I’m going to make things better. I made it into motivation.”

“And it worked,” Erin goes on. “I’m really proud of myself for that. That’s one of my really big accomplishments.”

On the outside, the junior maintains contained composure. The light brown beanie covers golden, coffee colored hair. The deep, mustard yellow sweater is tucked into a black belt to hold up dark gray jeans, pant-legs rolled up to the calves: a muted palette that so seamlessly replicates the air of maturity and fortitude Erin possesses at surface level. However, inside is much more vibrant. Inside, there’s a photographer, a political activist, a future psychologist. Inside, there’s an equilibrium that’s finally beginning to balance out — a yin and yang.

A painful past

Erin grew up in Northwest Indiana, specifically Merrillville and Hobart. There was a suffocation in the towns, as Indiana is a conservative state and her mom’s side of the family is very traditional–not so suitable for a liberal activist like Erin. She recalls having arguments with her uncle on whether or not it was okay to date outside of your race. “Yeah,” she says, her eyebrows shooting up her forehead. “It was that serious.” Chuckles find their way into the air as she recounts the disagreements that became native to Indiana, being raised in a quota of what women “should” do and how makeup was a more suitable gift than video games. She smirks and glances at her PS3 and PS4 that sit on a tall dresser on the side of her wall.

“I remember one time my grandma said, ‘Hey, it’s normal to be allergic to people.’ And now I’m piecing together that that was just racism,” she says with a shake of her head.

Her father’s side of the family doesn’t align either. Most of them are alcoholics and drug addicts, leaving Erin’s connection with them pretty nonexistent.

However, when Erin was 12 years old, Indiana would no longer be called home.

She moves to cross her legs, recalling the phone call he had received while in class that her mother, Tamika, had passed away. Tamika had an ongoing battle with seizures from her medication, one having caused her to swerve while behind the wheel with Erin and her brother in the car.

It had gotten to a point where she would have multiple seizures in one day, even resulting in a childlike behavior from the medication.

It all ended abruptly when she passed away in her sleep.

When Erin had gotten home after the news, she recalls engulfing her father in a hug, simply crumbling into each other and crying. Within the embrace, Erin’s father Ryon had said that he couldn’t be in the house any longer. The day then consisted of sitting at her grandparents’ house on her mother’s side and talking to them about what occurred.

Erin squints and tilts her chin to the side, letting her elbows rest against her thighs. She sat there — at Grandma’s — whilst her older brother and cousins ran around the house, almost cheerful and happy as though everything was fine. She cried occasionally, but mostly pondered how to deal with the situation, put the piece together as a preteen.

As an atheist, the sense of security that a loved one is off in a better place never came to her. All that served as resolve was just that she was gone, which is a concept that Erin thought she had solidified internally, until the wake came along.

“I didn’t touch her,” Erin says while tracing a finger along the white of her comforter. “A lot of people would stroke her hair or something, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for whatever reason.” There’s a thoughtful trail in her voice as her hands move to find a patterned pillow that makes its way into her lap. “I don’t know, I feel like I just wasn’t accepting it.”

But whether she had accepted it or not, reality veered its head back into her life. Before she could finish piecing together what this all meant, she was already stepping into the shoes that weren’t supposed to be filled until she was an adult.

That period of initial grief and heartbreak was short lived when her attention soon drove to her father, who was struggling with depression in tangent with recurring financial instability.

He inhales through his nose and looks somewhere in between the wall and the ceiling, blue eyes set. He mentions Erin coming to him, when they were both feeling down, resolving with a simple hug. “That would be it,” Ryon says softly. “But when I would get depressed, she’d make me food. Or bake me brownies.” The dark scruff that surrounds his jawline and upper lip raises as he lets out a breath that falls somewhere in between an exhale and a chuckle.

The level of resolve and maturity that Erin managed to maintain from the situation was continuously tested, however. After her mom passed away, her half brother, who was only related to her mom, moved out of the house in order to live with this real father.

It became pretty clear that Indiana didn’t have much in store, tainted and withered, and Erin and her father moved to Chicago for a change — well, back home for Ryon.

A passion for politics: Chicago’s liberation

Despite the heaviness from Erin’s past, she found herself coming into her own and discovering acceptance in the city. She attended the 8th grade in Chicago as well as her freshman year at Senn High School.

In the city, students are required to take a test to determine which high school they can get into, which also involves a selective application process. While initially the time period was stressful since Erin and Ryon were not aware of the testing and other technical aspects, Senn proved to be a turning point in Erin’s road to recovery. Besides, she had no problem getting accepted and even qualified for their AP IB program. Ryon was relieved that his daughter had an environment to flourish in the midst of the dark weight that home had. He rubs his fingers along his chin with a slight glint in his eye, recalling how she was able to open up with the artistic freedom of Senn High School.

Erin pauses to slurp on some more ramen noodles, hunching slightly over the small cup. Before encountering the liberation of the school, she explains that almost exactly a year after her mother passed away, her grandpa did as well. They went down to Tennessee, resulting in her missing two weeks of school as opposed to the few days she missed for her mother’s passing.

But it wasn’t until her return that she made connections with the other students at her school, soon discovering the parallels with their home lives.

“I started opening up … and come to find out, a lot of the kids there came from single-parent households and it was considered a luxury if you still had both your parents, so — ,”

She pauses to chuckle and readjusts the beanie on her head.

“I was worried for nothing.”

Looking back, Erin admits to not realizing just how great the school and community that the city contained truly was. There wasn’t a divide between students with “popular kids” and the kids no one talks to. Instead, everyone knew one another and no one was isolated, which was exactly what Erin needed.

Senn also gave her the opportunity to exercise her political beliefs. After broadcasts of a school shooting — she scoffs and shakes her head when she can’t recall which one since there are so many — they had a walkout to the Alderman’s office in which she and her other classmates were given the opportunity to discuss gun violence. Even when she was getting shut down and her questions were being avoided after pressing why reforms weren’t being made — she refused to back down.

“That’s my dad. He never talked to me like a child,” she explains with a firm nod and a grin across her face. The mixture of a laugh and a huff of air leaves her mouth for the umpteenth time this afternoon. “It’s helpful and why I’m so fired up … it’s just a self-confidence thing that I gained from being treated like an adult from such a young age.”

It’s the same maturity that came into play to allow Erin to speak her mind in regards to politics, like having the courage to express to a war vet that it’s a right to kneel during the national anthem–even though it resulted in her being “that girl that yelled at the veteran” when she moved to East her sophomore year. But, as nice as that confidence is, Erin admits that it has gotten in the way of her enjoying her youth on multiple occasions.

Financial woes, a toxic toll

Ryon upholds discussions on politics and world news due to the fact that those topics will and have affected her life. Specifically, conversations on political stances in regards to income take precedent.

Ryon has been in the roofing business for the last 24 years, currently working on his 25th season. The labor is demanding on anyone, especially one with a short stature and small frame as Ryon.

However, having intermingled with being an estimator, it became abundantly clear that the men behind the desks will continuously be the ones that make the most money. It doesn’t matter that Ryon has been working hard his entire life, it doesn’t matter the 10 hour work day, 6 days a week, for 6 months out of the year doesn’t matter.

“That’s my dad. He never talked to me like a child. It’s helpful and why I’m so fired up … it’s just a self-confidence thing that I gained from being treated like an adult from such a young age.”

— junior Erin Kalwa, on her father

Ryon knocks his knuckles against the wooden table and leans forward slightly, long dark hair responding with a sway. “I was working extremely hard to make somebody else rich,” he says, his voice lowering. “If you’re not truly busting it day in and day out, especially in a trade, you’re either lazy or you’re a hard worker. There is no in between,” Ryon says while reaching down to pet Cedar, one of the two fullbred Siberian huskies the Kalwas own. “But there’s that lazy person that sits behind a desk, doing nothing but barking out demands … It’s pretty clear [who’s really the lazy one in that scenario].”

Erin shifts positions to tuck one leg under the other, causing the wood frames underneath her bed to creak softly. She explains that money has always been a problem, to the point where having food in the house was an endeavour on its own, and still is.

At school, Erin is provided with a free lunch and Student Services provides food for her as well.

“This — ,” she pauses to lift up the now nearly empty cup of Ramen noodles with a short chuckle. “This is from Student Services.”

Financial woes caused Erin to habitually keep money off to the side whenever things were beginning to get stretched thin or bills needed to be covered. In fact, Ryon owes her $200 from the electricity bill.

But after Erin’s mother passed away, Ryon found it difficult to bust it every single day in the manner that he had years prior. The love of his life is gone, with her went the fire and resilience that it took to put his body through strenuous circumstances, just to make a small paycheck.

“I know the amount of money that I personally made compared to other people who did nothing … ,” he trails off. “That’s a tough pill to swallow when you don’t feel like there’s something at the end of the tunnel,” Ryon says, his thumb and index finger rubbing the curve of his chin.

As frustrating as it was for him to see Erin step up into such an adult role, Ryon is proud. He explains that one of the roles of a parent is to ensure that their child is capable of taking care of themselves, which Erin has clearly demonstrated. All the same, Ryon mentions that it’s hard to see Erin deal with these problems when it’s apparent that there’s a part of her that wishes that she didn’t need to.

Maybe an even bigger part of her than he could have imagined.

The pressure of the family’s financial situation cut much deeper than she let on. Prior to her mother’s passing, her parents would fight, resulting in quite a few split ups. That, in tandem with the everpressing issue with financial stability, proved to be too much without taking a mental toll.

“I blamed myself, and was super sad about the things going on with my parents,” Erin says while gesturing slightly to her arms, which are covered from the sleeve length of her oversized sweater.

Now, already at the age of 12, Erin — like her father — was seeming to work overtime, wearing scars that were getting harder and harder to disguise. When her mother passed, the weight of demons seemed to only be eluded through inflicting self harm — something Erin quickly realized would only add onto the toxicity of her situation.

Erin suddenly straightens up and rests her palms on her knees. “I remember actively making the choice to say, ‘Hey … I want to do better, I want to be happy,” she recalls.

“I don’t want to deal with this anymore.’”

End of Part 1.

Jayna Dias is the Personality Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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