In 2011, I sat down in front of a computer filling out my college application for the UC system. I filled out everything and then it came time to select which campuses I wanted to submit my application. The box for UCLA just stared at me. Could I really mark that box? Did I have what it takes? I had vowed never to return to that place. Could I forgive UCLA enough to submit my app? I took a deep breath and I clicked on the box for UCLA. I also choose UCR. It was done, there was no turning back. Would UCLA accept me? Could we start a new chapter together? We would just have to see.
In 1983, I was just one among the lost. We spent our days smoking and going to school. Yeah we were UCLA students and we could even use the school’s name to score discount movie tickets! We were the UCLA students no one knew about, hidden away from the rest of well respected campus. Occasionally, we would walk among the Westwood crowd in complete anonymity. The other UCLA students and normal society completely oblivious that they were mixing with the crazy part of UCLA. We were 6 West NPI. There was another unit for crazy adolescents, like me, but their unit number escapes me now. We were the better of the two anyway. We were UCLA, symbolically speaking they were USC.
In 2012, I am waiting for a reply. Maybe they won’t take me. Maybe they found out about my UCLA “alumni” experience. I picture a group of people, exalted professors going over my application and declaring “We cannot accept her! She’s a nut!” During my application process I tried to broach the subject but just could not find a way to do so. Besides, it is probably better to leave that out. It is taking forever. Why haven’t I heard back? It is my last semester at LACC. I am ready to leave. No, I want to stay. I am just hitting my stride here. I feel at home but I need to go. I need to move on. Still no word from UCLA.
In 1983, I had no problem getting in. My therapist, a failure in the psych world, determined that helping me was beyond his capabilities and that I should be locked away. He would see about either placing me in a foster home or sending me to a psych ward at UCLA. Time passed and no word. About nine days after my 13th birthday a call from him came in-the verdict was in-I was going to UCLA! It had been weeks! I thought I was free and clear (no pun intended). I thought I would be able to stay at home. I didn’t need to be in that place. I wasn’t crazy!
In 2012, I hear back from UCLA. There is a letter from them in my email box. I brace myself for disappointing news. I am terrified but I read the letter-CONGRATULATIONS splashes across the screen! I got in and into Poli Sci, no less. It is an impacted major and I was sure I was not going to get in! It must be a mistake. How is that possible? I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. To receive yet another letter online or maybe in the mail stating, “Sorry Dena, we accepted you by accident.” No such letter ever arrives. I am in! I am an UCLA student! There is pride in saying that now. I don’t have to hang my head in shame. I am a scholar! I am an Honor student. I still have difficulty wrapping my head around that concept. They want me! I am going to UCLA! An echo from my past repeats those words again, I am going to UCLA. The first time I heard those words, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was dejected, filled with resentment and anger. Yet now those very same words filled me with joy and anticipation. I had a sense of accomplishment. I had finally arrived!
In 1983, I spent time in the seclusion room. One time was for beating up a boy who called me a nigger, the other times-well, who remembers? The seclusion room was a rubber room where no one could hear you scream. I had also been restrained, taken down by grown men, given a PRN (that is a sedative for you laymen) and strapped to a bed with leather restraints. I had lost control when my therapist at UCLA told me that I would be going to a foster home after leaving UCLA instead of going home! What? That was the whole point of coming to this loony bin-so I wouldn’t be sent to a foster home! How could they now change the rules and send me to one anyway? I was livid. I tipped over a table and sent my therapist running out of the room for help. I had been lied to! I wasn’t going to let them get away with that!
The days in 6 West blend into one another. One day was no different than the next. We would watch tv, play cards and dominoes and chain smoke. We were underage and were not supposed to be smoking but it was allowed anyway. I take up smoking as well, but only for a little bit. My brand was Marlboro Red. I do it to fit in. Smoking does not stick though. I give it up as easily as I started. The very last episode of M*A*S*H is coming on. I have to see that.
In 2012, it is my orientation. I am nervous and excited. While still at LACC, a friend of mine and I strike a deal. If we both get into UCLA, he will be my ride. On the day of the orientation, he gives me my first ride to UCLA. I sat there in the auditorium going over the orientation. A nagging voice keeps saying, “You don’t belong here.” I try to silence it. Another echo from my past surges forth and repeats those long forgotten words, “You don’t belong here.” Back then the context was one of defiance and anger. It carried with it an aura of superiority. I was better than these other kids, druggies and crazies. I wasn’t like them. I didn’t belong here. The words were a reflection of my wounded pride.
Today the words had a much more sinister context, it was one of fear and inferiority. Was I really good enough to walk among these scholars? I was consumed with doubt. “You don’t belong here. You are going to fail. You will be found out! You are a fraud!” My thoughts are liars! They want to hold me back but I won’t let them. i will prove them wrong!
In 1983, I missed the last episode of M*A*S*H. I am disappointed but figure I would catch it on the re-run. What I did not know was that they would not re-run it for years. I had missed it. M*A*S*H was not just a show. It was a connection to my mother. We would sit down every night and watch it together. No one else really watched it with us, it was our time. I would rub her feet and we would laugh. By missing the last episode, it was a like a premonition of things to come. It was like UCLA had taken away that connection to my mother, just as they taken her away physically from me. It was easier to blame UCLA and be angry at UCLA for another perceived sin than to admit my own choice of entertainment had caused me to miss it. The connection was broken because of me, but who needs the truth? I will just hate UCLA
In 2012, twenty nine years later I love UCLA. In 1983, I was there because of someone else’s choice. Today, I am there because of my own. In 1983, UCLA took a part of my life. In 2012, they are giving it back and then some. They are taking that broken girl and restoring her, refining her, making her into a gem to be admired and respected. The Dena Leichnitz they knew as “troubled” is now a woman they have accepted as their own. Someone who will go out and a make a difference.
In 1983, I walked into UCLA for the first time. In 2012, I walk down UCLA’s halls of academia for the first time. Two worlds apart, two lifetimes apart but one school. What a difference 29 years makes!