I was born in San Diego, California. The first native Californian in my family. When I was four years old, I found a dead baby in a neighbor’s trashcan while playing with cousins. It was such a profound experience, it’s still with me today.
At eleven years old, my father decided to abandon his family in Hartford, Connecticut. Over 3,000 miles away from home, my mom, younger sister Cheryl, and I found ourselves homeless.
“I’m sorry,” my mom said, “you’re going to have to grow up sooner than I hoped.”
But my mom worked tirelessly to find a job, a bed we all shared, and something to eat. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. When life gets tough — as it so often does — you can’t just give up. That’s the moment you learn who you are.
Thanks to her hard work, things did get somewhat better. Fortunately, we were able to return to San Diego after a year.
The age of thirteen marked an important turning point in my life. It was then that I was chosen as a member of the first group of inner-city minority children to integrate the San Diego Unified School District. This was an early move to address the concerns of a major court case against the district. It claimed the city’s schools were segregated, causing the facilities in minority areas to become “racially isolated” and “less than satisfactory”.
Almost twenty years after the landmark Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court decision. yellow buses carried minority children from San Diego’s disenfranchised neighborhoods to schools in predominately white areas. Our parents hoped it would give us better educational opportunities.
In my neighborhood, we waited at Jerry’s Market each morning to make the ride to John J. Pershing Middle School, located in the upper-middle-class San Carlos area of the city.
As we arrived on campus that first morning, we were unprepared for what awaited us. Racial taunts. Daily fights on campus. One broke out after a white boy spat on a black girl. She beat the hell out of him, by the way.
Things would get worse before they would get better. At least, for me.
I was targeted as having a reading problem and placed in a special education class. Now it wasn’t just the white kids telling me I was inferior. The system had labeled me so. I’d never felt so low. It took all of my strength to fight back the tears as I entered the separate bungalow classroom.
What so many others couldn’t do with their hurtful words and cruel treatment, the “system” had done by classifying me as “broken”. They made me feel worthless.
Then, I met Ms. Davila, my reading development teacher. She could tell I was “damaged”. She not only gently worked with me to improve my reading skills, but she also helped me discover my hidden talent.
As part of her curriculum, she required me to submit an essay each week. I loved it so much, I’d voluntarily do two…three…maybe more. We both soon understood. I could write.
I was saved, by Ms. Davila and by writing. Not my body, but my spirit. It was the first time I’d ever experienced any feeling of self-worth and I didn’t want to give that up. From that moment on, writing has been a major part of my life. It’s been an anchor during the stormiest times.
And the fact that Ms. Davila was white also reminded me that good people — as well as bad — come in all shades. It was especially needed because of what was going on outside of the classroom. It would be something I’d never forget as I journeyed through life.