Where were the students’ voices when they took away our therapists?

by Hannah Reaume
Staff Writer

HANNAHCOLUMN-HEADSHOT-HANNAH-REAUME-WEB-1After spending weeks sitting on an important and sad story – the elimination of the campus therapists – it is bittersweet to finally be able to share the information with the entirety of the student body, faculty and staff here at Washtenaw Community College.

I am working my way to become a psychologist myself, to offer compassionate care to those in need. I also began using this service on campus for the first time this semester, and happily share my success from having taken advantage of this.

When I first heard the news, I had to place myself in the shoes of the therapists, who are having to say goodbye to hundreds of students who rely on them for their success on campus. I can’t imagine looking someone in the eye – a student with bipolar disorder, or a student who has been suicidal, or a student whose father was murdered – and say, “I’m sorry, I won’t be here to help you anymore, and there won’t be anyone to fill my shoes.”

With this change in our Counseling department, I’m most fearful of what will happen in those dire circumstances. Where will the students be sent who get a call in the middle of class that their sister passed away? That their uncle lost his battle with cancer? I can’t fathom getting in my car and driving home, let alone anywhere after receiving such tragic news.

There is a lot of confusion, anger and sadness that boils to the surface as I imagine how painful this decision is for so many. I only began using the resource this semester, and I was able to find relief that aided in my success this fall.

I struggled with the reality of the career I have chosen to pursue. The self-doubt I faced began to subside within one short hour-long session – where I was reassured, through talking it out and being heard – that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and exactly what I needed to get there. I will always have moments of doubt, but had it not been for the ability to see a therapist while on campus full time, I was on my way to dropping my entire course load.

Of course, one session alone often isn’t enough, but just one session can make a difference in the way students view life issues that have an incredibly huge impact on their education. I am a prime example.

In more dire circumstances, one session can save a life.

For students who have been seeing one of the therapists for two or more semesters, I can only begin to calculate the amount of days they were able to feel relief, simply from sitting down to speak with of one of the licensed therapists.

Offering us therapists gives us a safe space. Yes, a majority of us are legally defined as adults. We don’t need to be coddled, but we also do not need to be treated as though what we have to say lacks any significance to the future success of WCC.

This college is here to serve the community, and we, the students, are the community.

The therapy model offered here is successful. I’ve spoken with countless students, current and former, that have attested to its successfulness.

Who determined that the current model, which WCC has been offering for decades, was unsuccessful? After speaking with fellow students, very few believe this service shouldn’t be offered – students who have never sought help from a therapist and those who have.

Were the students asked if this service was beneficial to our college success?

I must have missed that email.

HEALTHY VOICE: Practical and edible gifts

In my world, Thanksgiving weekend has been my signal to get Christmas cards and make a gift list. One year, my friend informed me that her husband had been laid off, and because of that Christmas was cancelled at her house. It took me a little while to finally scratch out “scented candle” after her name and head to the grocery store for something she could use.

Two bags containing ingredients for tuna casserole, spaghetti and sauce and bags of rice may not have been the most festive gift, but she was appreciative of the gesture that made her future a little less scary.

For years she had been my crafting buddy (and drinking buddy on occasion), and in her moment of uncertainty, I realized gift-giving should mean something, be fun to do and should not be for the sole purpose to impress.

As a recovering Martha Stewart addict, my gift giving wish list also includes: Something that will be used and appreciated, is inexpensive, from the heart and unique.

Food fits the bill in so many ways, but not another plate of sugar cookies. So much holiday food is a celebration of the holy trinity – fat, salt and sugar. There has to be another way to share and enjoy food, especially after the binge of holiday food has subsided.

Which leads me to gifts in a jar. Starting with a utilitarian canning jar, they’re somewhat homey, but the intent behind them shows care. This is not a quest for perfection, but a reminder that your gift was assembled by familiar hands.

It is also a great opportunity to involve smaller hands that are still perfecting fine-motor skills. Additionally, including kids in the activity provides them with a sense of accomplishment.

But don’t limit yourself to gifts in a jar. Have you discovered a spice you would like to share? Is there a new recipe you love? Provide key ingredients that might ordinarily be a splurge like good quality olive oil or balsamic vinegar. Let “some assembly required” food gifts provide a chance to make memories with a friend or with family.

Food is a gift that everyone can use.

gift in a jar: not your store-bought granola

2 cups old fashion oatmeal

2 tablespoons brown sugar or honey

2 tablespoons olive oil or canola oil

½ cup raisins (or mixed raisins)

1 tablespoon Vanilla extract

1 tablespoon cinnamon

½ cup walnuts

Heat a large skillet on medium high heat. Add oil and warm until it starts to shimmer. Add oats and immediately stir to coat. After a few minutes, add brown sugar and stir, making sure the bottom does not get over browned. After about five minutes, add chopped nuts and cinnamon. When adding the vanilla, use caution as the steam can cause burns. Continue stirring the mixture until the oats are a toasted brown color, approximately 10 minutes. Take off heat and mix in raisins. Allow granola to cool completely before placing in jars. Stores up to one month.

M. Donaldson is a staff writer with The Voice and a journalism student at WCC. She has a bachelor of science in family and community services from Michigan State University, and has several years’ experience with nutrition issues affecting infants through older adults.

There is never such thing as ‘asking for it’

By Sofia Lynch
Staff Writer

For my whole life, hearing the word rape sent has chills down my spine. It’s a dirty word and an even more disgusting act. But I’ve had to become accustomed to the word as the topic has become unavoidable and an increasing problem on college campuses across the nation.

Around 20-25 percent of college women and 15 percent of college men are victims of rape during their time in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And that alone makes me shiver.

With this horrendous crime happening so often on campuses, universities have had to attempt to act on the issue and offer support, safety and security – despite the sensitivity of the subject.

The campus police at the University of Wisconsin have recently been accused of not treading that sensitive line well, and victim-blaming in the process. And it’s clear from the title of their safety tips alone, “Shedding the Victim Persona,” that the accusations were warranted.

Some of their suggested tips include, “A victim looks like a victim,” and “If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves.”

For most victims, speaking about their experience or hearing people talk about something raw is difficult. So people should speak about sexual violence carefully. For a campus-wide message to speak so bluntly and accusatory about something so fragile, it’s good that the school was under fire for it.

Victim-blaming is the most horrible stigma surrounding campus assaults. Taking advantage of someone is one of the most inhuman things a person could do, and there is no one to blame for that act but the perpetrator.

One of the most common phrases in victim-blaming is that the victim was “asking for it.” I wish I could paste this headline all over the media: There is no such thing as asking for something you don’t consent to. Rape by definition is sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person – without consent.

There is nothing that excuses the acts of a rapist, especially not the actions of the victim.

What you wear is not asking for it.

Being drunk is not asking for it.

Going to a frat party is not asking for it.

Going to someone’s house is not asking for it.

The only thing that can be considered asking for it, is, literally, asking for it.

So don’t make an already horrific experience worse by asking a victim what she did wrong.

Thank you

The Washtenaw Community College office of Student Diversity and Inclusion would like to thank everyone who attended the Diversity Extravaganza on Friday, Nov. 21.

A big thank you goes out to the community groups, University of Michigan students and the WCC International Students Club who performed in the show. And special thanks to Taste of India Suvai, Ahmo’s, Conor O’Neill’s, Frita Batidos, Pilar’s Tamales, Biggies Taste of Soul, Hut-Ke Chaats Nutrilicious Indian Food, and Paesano’s restaurants for donating all the food.

Lastly, thank you Anita Chaudhri for all your help planning and organizing the event.

Arnett Chisholm

Dean of Student
Diversity & Inclusion

A “happy ending?” A continuing SOQ discussion needed

As an adjunct instructor, I’ve had a 10-year history with the SOQ process. The airing of opinion and options for using student questionnaires to interrogate the quality of instruction has always been, and still is, of great interest and concern to all WCC faculty.

Furthermore, Dave Horowitz’s February 2014 letter-to-the-editor, while tongue-in-cheek at times, did illuminate what really is at stake here: a quality education for students and employment prospects for instructors. Moving forward, it’s time to expand our SOQ dialogue.

Natalie Wright’s recent Novemeber 2014 editorial (Grade Inflation and a Happy Ending) in defense of posting SOQ scores online was, overall, fair and balanced. I agree, the student/consumer has the right to make informed choices, based on reasonable criteria, before spending thousands on tuition.

Factors not clearly articulated in Wright’s editorial (factors not easy to quantify) include physical classroom environment and interpersonal dynamics. Each semester, the changing, organic classroom experience encountered by all instructors may play some role in SOQ fluctuations. One group of students may be enthusiastic and motivated – the physical and interpersonal chemistry just works. Another section of the very same class, using the same variables, may be the complete opposite.

Personally, I feel more effective in a room with stuff on the walls and some kind of natural light. I believe many students feel this too. Don’t misunderstand, I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach here. WCC provides some of the highest level learning resources for a college of its size. Its technology departments and infrastructure are state-of-the-art.

Teachers, while being under constant quantitative observation (SOQs), are still human – only human. Are teachers still needed in this “braver” new world? Rhetoric aside, let’s be honest. Can a computer really connect a student with human language, or inspire a charcoal sketch, or explain why writers and philosophers have important things to tell us?

Well … maybe not – yet.

My own somewhat modest proposal to foster the growth of WCC’s valued part-time and adjunct educators would be to include more peer-to-peer instructor evaluation; regular update meetings with department heads; and a closer working relationship, overall, with our various departments – all of this and the SOQ.

Additionally (for all the activists), consider posting SOQ scores over a one academic-year-average (winter, summer and fall). While not an expert in statistical analysis, I sincerely feel that student/consumers may get a more accurate picture of who a particular teacher is: psychologist, motivator, mentor and more – a WCC instructor!

Really, aren’t we all entitled to a tough semester now and then without the threat of dismissal hanging over our heads?

Scott Schuer

WCC English instructor

Nature 101: A morning in the forest

By Erin Fedeson
Staff Writer

The early winter wind steals my body’s warmth while I powerwalk from my car in Washtenaw’s parking lot to my destination: the Fossiliferous Limestone boulder.

Half of me worries while the other half of me sighs in relief to not find the professor I arranged to meet with waiting impatiently for me at the boulder. My iPhone reads 9:34 a.m., four minutes later than the prearranged time. Tension mounts as I fumble for my notebook in my satchel, flick through my article notes to find the professor’s number.

“Hello,” Ross Strayer’s voice greets me just as I am typing his office number into my phone.

He approaches me in a worn brown beret-like hat, worn blue jeans, thick black gloves, a black coat and hiking boots, appropriate gear for the early winter weather morning. An apology for being a little late is on my lips before Professor Strayer tells me he had some trouble with traffic. I laugh from relief and nerves.

We walk through the parking lot, which is relatively empty for Thanksgiving break. The gray sky hangs above our heads as the wind constantly reminds us of winter’s presence. Hard pavement turns to grass, slightly mushy with its proximity to the first drainage pond. Geese float on the pond’s surface, squawking at each other – or perhaps at us.

Twittering and fluttering birds greet our entrance to the future nature trail. They dive between mostly barren branches or drop to the leaf-covered floor. We laugh about the birds being confused about the fickle weather. Our conversation ebbs and flows between an interview and a series of mini-biology lessons. Occasionally, my words are interrupted by an “oomph!” as my feet trip over branches and roots littering the trail’s path. All the while, decaying brown leaves rustle beneath our feet as we kept moving on the nature trail.

The walk is breathless but energizing by the pure air, which seems to erase traces of civilization. It is difficult to remember the professional nature of the walk when surrounded by natural beauty, which tends to intensify when someone like Strayer explains our surroundings. Somehow, the knowledge glorifies what might appear mundane to the casual walker.

Bittersweet vines with their red and perhaps orange berries serve as decoration, but are invasive to the area.

A pine tree’s age is determined by the layering of branches and adding 15 years to the number found.

Only the raspberry bush has bloomed, indicated by the white waxy substance that wipes off the thorny stem when it is touched.

An oak tree can start as one trunk, with two separate trunks growing from it, but a split occurs when it is young.

Two kinds of black cherries grow in the area – one with a burnt potato chip-like bark, the other with holes, called lentios, in its bark to allow oxygen into the tree.

The maple tree has smooth bark with its branches growing opposite of each other.

Spellbound. There is no other word to describe walking the trail. It shifts from ponds to fields, fields to forest of hickory, black cherry, oak, black locas and occasional pine. Beyond the road that defines the campus boundaries, another forest exists: White pine trees planted and used for paper.  Bittersweet vine, poison ivy, wild grape vine, and Virginia creeper either choke, hook on or wind their way up as the trees grow.

The spell ends as the woods dwindle toward civilization again.

It is fascinating, and it’s right in our backyard. If only once as a student, faculty staff or a visitor to WCC, go walk on the nature trail.

My love affair with journalism

And how a newspaper gig led to a dream-come-true in filmmaking

By James Saoud
Managing Editor


James Saoud, Managing Editor

I was nine years old when I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

I remember the exact moment it happened. Legos were sprawled across my bedroom floor while my mom was cooking dinner downstairs.

My dad had let me borrow his new digital video camera, which I quickly realized was like holding the hand of God.

I could do anything.

Legos were my filmmaking boot camp. Complete with good guys, bad guys and backdrops including various jungle and science-fiction settings. And the best part about my little plastic movie stars was that they could snap into place and hold a pose for however long it took me to decide what angle I wanted to film them from, which helped me create some awesome little stop-motion adventure films inspired by “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.”

Somewhere between producing my Lego films and developing an unnaturally early appreciation for the films of Stanley Kubrick, I became pretty close with some friends around my neighborhood.

We began writing and producing short movies about everything we could think of.

In one circumstance, to create a robot, I wrapped one of my friends entirely in tin foil, exclaiming, “good enough, let’s make a movie!”

Mom was not too thrilled about that last one.

My movies up to that point were never very good, and I knew that. But it was the act of making the movies, of creating something that I really loved.

There is nothing quite like turning a thought or a dream into a tangible reality that you can watch over and over.

There is nothing like it at all.

So when I first arrived at Washtenaw Community College, I headed straight for the video production classes. I was ready to learn the craftsmanship of my passion, ready to start learning all the mechanics of making movies.

I had two teachers who had a major influence on me during my first year at WCC, Donna Ryen and Matt Zacharias.

Donna taught me with positive influence, pointing out all of the things I did right and all the things she enjoyed about my class projects. Matt, however, was not afraid to tell me what I was doing wrong.

My initial reaction was, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Matt questioning my talent and work ethic would be one of the most important things that anyone had ever said to me.

I still owe him a “thank you” for that.

Matt was also the first person to tell me about The Washtenaw Voice, WCC’s student newspaper. He told me that the editors were looking for someone to make videos for their website, and that they were willing to pay.

Without hesitation, I offered my services to The Voice and soon enough, I was producing news and feature videos and making money doing it.

Something else I didn’t know at the time was that this new job would be part of a series of incredibly coincidental events that would lead to me pursuing my dreams.

But not without a short love affair.

Working at The Voice was exhausting, but I really enjoyed the new skills I was developing.

After running around with reporters and writers, visualizing their stories into short videos, I started to pick up on some of the ins and outs of reporting the news.

And I wanted in.

Soon, I starting going around on my own to make videos, which I would write stories for in the print edition of the newspaper.

It was that same sense of creating something tangible that I loved. But unlike a video, I could hold it in my hands. I could fold it up and put it in my pocket. I could feel it.

I remember writing my first column for The Voice. It was about my experience working on a documentary about the music industry for a video class I was taking.

I remember writing it. I remember loving it. I remembered that moment in my bedroom with Legos sprawled out across my floor.

And it gave me the same feeling.

I had found a new love: journalism.

I was able to report on and make videos of everything from the morning that Michigan’s gay marriage ban was lifted to President Barack Obama’s visit to Ann Arbor – two events I will remember as some of the proudest moments of my life.

Before I knew it, my wall at home was plastered with awards I’d won for my journalism. I was spending hours in TI 106, our newsroom, sometimes staying there until 4 a.m. writing, only to return at 9 a.m. the next morning. It was exhausting, like I said. But, God, was it worth it.

It had taken over my life.

Just after Keith Gave, the newspaper’s adviser, asked me to be our managing editor I got a tip for an interesting job opportunity.

One of my co-workers at The Voice, Christina Fleming, told me her cousin worked for a video production company in Wixom that was looking for people to work on a documentary.

I applied.

And if you’ve applied for enough jobs in the video production world, it becomes pretty easy to detach yourself from them. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a “no.” But usually, you don’t get any kind of response.

The job sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime, but while moving at the accelerated rate, which working at The Voice required, I didn’t think much about.

But in the back of my mind, making movies was still my dream.

And just when my journalism career had become all-consuming, my dream came true – like a cancer diagnoses rather than a winning lottery ticket.

I had gotten a job – the job. I’d be traveling across the country with a movie crew as an assistant field producer on a film called “Maire’s Journey.”

I still owe Christina a “thank you” for that.

My primary job was to be in charge of social media, where I would apply many of the same things I learned at the newspaper over the past couple of years.

Here’s the thing: I would have never landed the job without my experience at The Voice. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but I knew I’d have to take some time off working at the newspaper.

I left for the month of July this summer, but part of me would never return.

I traveled with the crew of “Maire’s Journey” from Harbor Springs to New York City. It made me remember why I was at The Voice in the first place: to jumpstart my filmmaking career.

Sure enough, when my shoot was finished, I was offered a job at the company in Wixom. I know there was a certain 9-year-old boy that would’ve been furious had I turned it down.

I still owe him a “thank you” for that.

Of course, I said “yes.”

I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to my career in print journalism if I wanted to pursue my passion for filmmaking.

There would no time in the world to serve both of these passions, all while finishing up my college career. So I had to leave my pen and notepad in New York City and return home a filmmaker rather than a reporter.

But I will always know what my stint in journalism meant to me. It was always supposed to be a learning experience, a path to bigger and better things. The path led me exactly where it was supposed to.

To a new path.

I am now working full time at that production company in Wixom, making documentaries for Detroit Public Television. It will not be the final destination of my journey, but it’s a far better place than I’d ever dreamed to be at 24.

There is nothing quite like turning a childhood dream into a tangible reality.

Well, maybe a couple of things…

When I was 9 years old, I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I remember the exact moment.

And since that moment, I have been doing just that.

If you’re lucky enough to figure out what you want to do with your life, don’t waste your time finding a way to make it happen. Do it.

And never stop.

Au revoir.

SOQs, grade inflation and a happy ending

By Natalie Wright

photo of Natalie Wright

Natalie Wright, Editor

When The Voice first set out to get Washtenaw Community College to release the results of student opinion questionnaires (SOQs) – students’ end-of-semester evaluations of their teachers – our primary motivation was that someone told us we couldn’t do it.

Yes, we believed it would be a valuable resource for students, and that legally, this is public information, but mostly it was a challenge, and we wanted to take it on.

But inevitably, in the four-month journey to acquire the SOQs, we learned a few things.

We faced a lot of opposition and heard a lot of arguments against making the SOQs public. At times, those arguments caused serious doubt, but mostly they reinforced our belief that what we were doing was important for students.

The best case I heard, which made me seriously question what we were doing, came in a letter to the editor from an instructor, which explained that making these evaluations public turns registration into a popularity contest and leads to grade inflation.

After considering this theory for months, I cannot accept it.

First, students do not rate their teachers solely on grades. To make this generalization is an insult to students, who are incredibly diverse in their educational motivations – especially at a community college.

Second, while these evaluations may be a factor in grade inflation, they are one among many. To bring the problem of grade inflation into the debate, we must also consider the administration’s use of evaluations for hiring and firing purposes and instructors’ own pride and apathy.

To say that grade inflation is due solely to students’ emphasis on grades is to use students as a scapegoat for a problem for which many parties share blame.

Furthermore, students’ emphasis on getting good grades is a symptom of a higher education system that is more about churning out employees than educated citizens.

Students are forced to play along with a system that often takes advantage of them, just to have a shot at a comfortable life. And as long as that’s the case, they deserve every opportunity to get what they want out of the system that is losing its purpose.

That said, despite the pressure, not all students are in college just for good grades – especially at a community college.

Many factors play into how students choose classes, but when two sections of the same class fit into their schedule, it often comes down to choosing between two instructors, and the majority of students turn to RateMyProfessor.com.

I’ll admit, every semester I’ve registered for classes, both at WCC and Oakland University, I’ve used the site. But every time, I read at least a few poorly written, poorly justified angry rants. Like any reasonable person, I don’t place much weight on these comments. However, if there are 10 angry rants under one teacher’s name, I’ll probably do what I can to avoid the teacher.

Recently, a friend pointed out to me, while she was planning her winter schedule, that sometimes the posts use a lot of the same language and oddly specific reasons for disliking an instructor. They were probably written by the same person.

There is no credibility to the site. Anyone can post anything they want to trash or build up someone’s reputation. Many students know this, but consider it an invaluable resource anyway. I am one of them.

When we’re investing thousands and thousands of dollars in our education, we’re going to use any information available, even flawed information, to try to get the most out of our money.

Yes, this creates a “popularity contest” among teachers.

Popularity among those you work for seems to me a pretty good measure of how a person does their job, as long as those doing the evaluating are fair. By using “popularity contest” as a derogatory term in regards to these evaluations suggests a major lack of respect for students’ fairness and judgment.

Despite what some instructors have said, students consider more than just grading and “entertainment value” – although these are both factors in what makes a good teacher. And often, entertainment value boils down to an obvious passion for the subject and a knack for public speaking – crucial qualities for a good teacher.

Ultimately, a good teacher understands that students come into every class with unique goals and needs and helps them get the most they can out of the class.

Allowing students to build a collective knowledge about instructors can guide them to instructors who can best meet their needs, not just who is “good” and who is “bad.”

While the numbers present a mostly “good” or “bad” ranking, we tried to divide the SOQs in a way that categorizes rankings based on what students want to know. This is how you will see them on our website. And most importantly, we will soon add a comments field where students can share more relevant, qualitative information.

Do instructors use blackboard or give paper handouts? Do they put PowerPoint notes on Blackboard for use in class? Do they put more weight on tests or homework? Do they require students to pay for an expensive textbook or print out free resources and do their best to cut costs for students? Do they teach visually or just lecture? Are they clear about what material will be covered in exams? Are they easy to understand or do they easily confuse most of their students?

In the comments on a site like RateMyProfessor, students can find hints at these things while discounting the overarching unjustified rage. Most college students are capable of thinking on a high enough level to read those reviews critically.

While RateMyProfessor presents a twisted picture, with a huge voluntary sample bias exacerbated by anonymity, the idea behind it is brilliant.

This is why The Voice set out to emulate that forum with a structure that provides more fair and accurate information, something many colleges have done.

Why shouldn’t the student body be allowed and encouraged to use its collective knowledge to make the most of their education and their money?

And honestly, the picture that is most clear in reviewing the SOQs: WCC students love their teachers. The results show very little variation in instructors’ average evaluations, with nearly all of them falling between four and five on a scale of one to five.

The entire WCC community should be proud of the story told by these SOQs, and proud to share the information with those who need it most – those who produced it.

Voters care about WCC

On Nov. 4, we saw what a big difference an informed group of voters can make. Leading up to Election Day, when voters would choose three new Washtenaw Community College trustees, we heard from a lot of people, particularly WCC employees, that the community truly cared about this election.

While we believed that many cared, the question, as it often is, was how many of them are going to vote?

But as the midnight hour approached on election night, a clear picture emerged – people cared enough about this college to vote.

Although the race was tight for some, with incumbent Mark Freeman losing to Dave DeVarti by a narrow 57 votes, it was not so close for others. Both Ruth Hatcher and Christina Fleming won by a landslide. All three candidates endorsed by The Voice were elected, so, needless to say, we’re thrilled.

It’s clear voters wanted trustees who know the college, its students and employees well, and who will ask questions of the other trustees and administration.

They did not choose those with the most political experience. They did not choose those who spent the most money. They did not choose those with the most recognizable names. They chose those who promised this college needs –transparent, honest leadership and a heart for the students.

We hope the new trustees feel a heavy responsibility, knowing so many entrusted them with the future of WCC. We hope their leadership will be welcomed.

Thank you, voters, for doing what’s best for WCC. To continue to show you care, consider attending a board meeting, where you can listen and learn and make your voice heard. There are two more meetings this semester on Nov. 18 and Dec. 9, both at 6 p.m. in ML 150.

When winter ‘fashion’ is more about survival

By Eric Wade
Staff Writer

The sound of the alarm pierces my dream, and I wake up to a dark house with the frigid wind howling outside my bedroom window. I stumble into the bathroom, brush my teeth and put on what feels like 20 pounds of smoke-smelling, slightly damp clothes from the day before. I fill my thermos with hot coffee, grab my lunch box and step out the front door only to get slammed in the face by the brutally harsh cold.

It’s winter, and I spend it outside building houses in the harshest conditions.

We build through the blowing winds, snow and ice. Conditions so cold that when I get out of my truck and breathe in through my nose, it crystalizes. Conditions so cold that when people enter a building together they can’t help but to turn and look at each other and mutter profanities about what they felt outside.

When it gets really cold, we build fires, not only to stay warm but also to keep our tools from freezing up. Tools break more often in sub-freezing temperatures, and power equipment starts harder and dies faster.

When it gets really cold, shadows turn into nightmares of intense cold and we have to move across the job site while being chased by the looming and lumbering shadow of the neighboring house.   

The crazy thing about the shadow area is when it moves, the area that it moves to starts to frost, as if in  some wintertime apocalyptical movie.

We dress in layers that we constantly have to adjust to meet the changing temperatures. Too much clothing and we sweat, and then we freeze. Too little clothing and we just plain freeze. Gloves are great, but if they’re too thick we can’t grab nails or hold onto a swinging hammer.

The layers have to be thin, light and loose, yet still provide as much warmth as possible. Thick and bulky clothes makes moving difficult. Bending over becomes tough, and breathing while bending over becomes even tougher.

The weight of heavy clothes is burdensome when we have to climb, jump and walk all day. The lighter the layer the better, and shedding the layers throughout the day helps to keep the weight down and skin temperature even.

Getting the moisture away from the skin is important, and how we layer can help to do that. Cotton tends to hold moisture, so we wear the cotton on the outer layers and poly-blends on the inner layers, and it helps to have a thin wind resistant layer as an outer shell.

Even with proper dress, everyday tasks become challenging during the tough winter months. Ice forms everywhere, and walking becomes difficult. Slipping more often takes a toll on the body, and some go as far as to wear spikes on their shoes.

Ladders could slip out from us at any time, and walking on roofs becomes treacherous. Safety is always important, but accidents can happen no matter how safe we are.

Our workdays get shorter, eight hours days turn to seven as the rising and setting sun dictates our incomes.

We tend to take more breaks in local restaurants in an effort to get a half-hour reprieve from the harsh elements.

But, with all of this being said, some ask why I do it. Why do I put myself through the torture of working outside in the winter when a Polar Vortex can be life-threatening?

I tell them that it’s what I love; there is no feeling like it, and I’ve done it long enough to know that it won’t kill me. I love the feeling of standing on a frozen wall two stories in the air, frosty breath billowing through my nostrils with the low January sun slowly rising in the southeast.

That is the feeling of living. Perhaps it is when I tell people that I work outside all winter long, and they say they could never do it, I feel somewhat super-human.

But nothing makes me appreciate the warmth of my truck, a hot shower and a warm bed to dream again more than a long day in the harsh cold.