Written in 2004.
This is a true story of my life. You are about to receive an insight into the man I am. I wrote it, not for pity or sorrow, but in the hope that others will read My Story and know that they are not the only ones in the world who suffer. You are not alone, even though at times it may seem that way. There is hope. You can survive.
Survival. That was the name of the game: survival. It is a game I was forced to play very young and a game I learned to play well. The fourth largest city in the United States is where I called home.
Unlike New York or L.A., Houston does not really have “Projects,” but the area is still poor. The houses were not always run down and falling apart at the seams but the neighborhood was still poor. One look around and you knew you were in the ghetto.
My father was a school teacher, which naturally meant he did not get paid much, and my mother was a stay at home mom. To earn extra money mom use to baby-sit for other people. In the early 80’s a dollar stretched farther than it does today.
My journey bounces between Stockton, California, my birth town, and Houston, Texas, the place my father thought would give his family a better chance at life. Total, my parents had six children. I came out number four. I had one older brother, two older sisters, and way too many cousins to count.
Clothes were never an issue in our family, hand-me-downs were plentiful. As far as shoes were concerned Payless was our best friend. K Mart knew us well. Layaway was a way of life.
As I grew out of infancy my baby fat decided to stick around. Hand-me-downs were hard to find for me, but my mother refused to have me looking like a jungle boy so Husky became the brand of choice. The Donkey Kong gorilla became my logo.
I do not remember much about my parents before we moved to Houston, but I do remember my first job.
California is the state for produce. Everyone grew something different in their yards and come harvest time we would trade and share. Our house had a cherry tree in the back yard. One neighbor grew bananas and the other raised chicken. At one end of our block was an abandoned lot where the house burnt down in the late 60’s. In that lot was a fig tree, a plum tree, and a lime tree.
Across the street from our house was an open field owned by the Santa Fe Rail Road. Sugar canes grew in that field directly in front of our house. A quarter-mile away at the edge of the field was two peach trees.
Two miles north of our house was a huge strawberry patch. When I was four I went twice a week with my neighbors to pick strawberries, my first job. See, at that time child labor laws did not exist. Hard work for little money, but thanks to “Progress” none of these places exist anymore.
Kindergarten was the next step for me. Four of my cousins were going to the same school I was, so I would not be alone at school. At the bus stop, however, I was on my own. Simpler and safer times back then allowed my parents to send me to school on my own. Unlike today, where a route may have many “little” stops, the route was one stop per neighborhood. Our stop was on a busy main street. No kids running out into traffic back then.
I had three long blocks to walk to catch the bus. For a five year old it might as well have been a mile. I had to travel west to get to the bus stop. We lived in the far back corner edge of the neighborhood and the bus stop was at the main entrance. Walking to the stop I had three challenges to overcome each way.
At the end of our block, Mary, the owner of the house had a huge tree stump in her yard and no fence. Tied to this stump was her Saint Bernard we called Cujo. My idiot brother and sisters told me if Cujo caught me he would eat me. Being a fat kid I would have fed that dog for a week. So I ran.
Once I pasted Cujo I had to cross the haunted train tracks. The tracks were no longer in use and when it got real hot outside the bridge under the tracks would catch on fire. It actually happened so often that the fire department never came to put the fire out. The bridge would burn but NEVER fell apart. Haunted.
No ghost was going to catch me so I kept running. On the next block was another dog. This one was not on a chain, like Cujo was. I never stopped running until I got to the bus stop. After school was the same thing. My little fat legs were pumping for dear life.
After I graduated Kindergarten we moved to Houston. Dad packed us all into a huge blue moving van and hauled us from a three bedroom, one bath house to a two bedroom, one bath house. The type of neighborhood was the same, poor. But Houston was suppose to give us all a better life. Eight people and a small dog under one roof.
My older brother and oldest sister had dropped out of school. They did not want to go anymore. My sister was not going to come without her boyfriend David, so he came too.
Not long after we settled in we were introduced to things in Texas. Roaches were tiny in California but in Texas they are HUGE! OFF bug spray was a must when we found out about mosquitoes. Then there was a Hurricane, Alicia.
We had never been through anything like that before. We were all angry with my father. It took weeks before things went back to normal. The Red Cross Wagon Wheel was a God sent.
Soon summer was over and it was back to school for me and one of my sisters. The school was two blocks behind our house. I was in Mrs. Walker’s class. This was going to be her last year teaching. I was about to learn a few more things that were done different in Texas.
Unlike in California, corporal punishment was aloud in Texas. To Mrs. Walker we were already thugs and hoodlums. She had a thick wooden paddle full of holes. It whistled when she swung it. Like the horror stories of nuns and rulers, Mrs. Walker was not afraid to use her paddle.
My first meeting with “The Whistler” was when I had to pee. In California if you had to go to the bathroom you were allowed to just get up and go. I had to go so I got up and walked out of the room to the restroom. Mrs. Walker’s hand grabbed me and pulled me back so hard I got scared and pissed my pants. I was whipped and learned that no matter how bad I had to go I had to wait till break time.
Also, in Kindergarten we got out at noon so I never ate lunch at school. On paper, my father made too much money for free lunch and not enough for me to pay full price, so I received reduce lunch. Of course that was on paper.
You have to eat to survive and we did not always have money for reduce lunch. On those days I brought a sack lunch that was often eaten by Moses, the class bully. I worked hard once before, now I was about to do it again.
Mr. White, the school janitor, saw what was going on and intervened. He would pay the breakfast and lunch fees if I agreed to help him. So I did. For four years I worked for Mr. White. He was a true friend to me, sneaking me extra food whenever he could.
In the morning I would help roll out the tables and put them down. During breakfast I was stationed at the trash line. Kids would bring their trays up to the line and I dumped the different sections into the proper trash can.
If there was a program happening during the day I came to the cafeteria to set out the folding chairs. After school I went back to put everything away, tables and chairs.
Now we fast forward to 1988. My little brother, two years younger than me, was left behind in elementary while I moved on to Middle School. My baby fat had only gotten fatter, and was a cause for teasing. My belly made me a target.
I was on my own again. My parents were expecting child number six which now put us into a different tax bracket. We now qualified for food stamps, government cheese and butter. We also qualified for free lunch.
My older siblings were now out of the house and I was the oldest one in the house. Things were changing for me again.
Sports were now available to me but my father wanted me to be a “Brain” not a jock. That was another thing that made me a target. I have to give my family credit though, I was never without books. My parents always made sure I got the books I wanted. During the summer the only place I was allowed to go alone was the public library.
My Grandma Margaret and my Uncle Herman were always giving me books, believing at that young age I was smart enough to understand Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, and Tom Clancy. If not for all of them pushing me I would not be here writing to you today.
Well, in 5th Ward, where I grew up, when you went to middle school you only had one choice, McReynolds. The Bears. Since my parents did not allow me to play football, and the coaches wanted me to play because I had a good arm, I joined the band. Music was in my blood.
My family could not afford to buy or rent an instrument so I received another hand-me-down, my older brother’s broken coronet. Its bell, the end where the sound comes out, was crushed inward. I was the joke of the band.
There were now more bullies than when I was in elementary school and I was their favorite target. They would corner me in the locker room and beat on me for no reason another than I was fat, hitting my body so no one would know. They threatened to kill me if I ever told; if I only knew it was a lie.
These bullies would break the lock off of my locker, leaving it open. Taking my books and flushing them in the toilet happened often. Soon I had to start carrying all of my books home with me. In addition to that I had to carry the coronet case too.
I looked like a soldier carrying a fifty pound rucksack on my back and a radio in my hands. Adding fuel to the fire, I was forced to walk home because McReynolds did not have any buses. I lived a mile away and most of the time I ran it home.
At the end of the school year my mom told us we were going to California for the summer; my little brother, my new little sister, and me. My grandma, my mother’s mom, was now living in our old house so I was back in the same neighborhood I was born in.
By this time Cujo had died and the strawberry patch was now a highway but all the fruit trees were still there. I did not mind picking the fruit now, I was an active kid, fat but active. Climbing those trees I looked like the Donkey Kong gorilla that was on my pants.
The summer flew by quickly and school was about to start. My parents were having trouble and separated for the year. I was about to go to school in Stockton again for the third time. Kindergarten, fourth grade, and now the seventh grade, but the only question was where.
The district had redrawn the lines a week before school started. I was already enrolled in Hamilton Middle School, the Hawks, the same school my older siblings had gone to.
I could either go to the new school or take the public bus to Hamilton. The district provided a bus but only after it had finished its first route. That meant late to school and late getting home. I could have walked and it would have been faster.
I took the city bus to school and walked home. This time the distance was two and a half miles. The lockers had locks built in so I did not have to lug my books around everywhere. I was in band again and my Uncle Gerald let me use his trumpet. A real trumpet.
Since my mom did not work we were on welfare. I was back on reduced lunch. Money again was not always there in the beginning. The school let me work my lunch debt off. Ten minutes before lunch started I went to the cafeteria and got ready.
Paper hat on my head and plastic gloves on my hands, I was ready to serve lunch to my fellow students and teachers. My job was to make sure there was plenty of milk stacked and pass the trays down on the hot plate.
I was laughed at and teased but it was survival. The gangs in Stockton were a lot tougher than the ones in Houston. Before Christmas there were three drive-by shootings at the school and two more before the school year ended.
Gym class looked like the “Yard” at San Quentin State Prison. If you were in trouble you did P.T. (Physical Training). Jumping jacks, sit ups, and pushups. The girls were watching boys as they walked around and flirted. The boys were either playing basketball, volleyball, or lifting weights.
For us nerds, we either prayed we were invisible and ignored by the bullies or we were their toys. I was too big to be invisible, so I hid and ran. I did not have to run often due to band practice after school. Most of the bullies were gone by then.
One day I was caught in the hallway by a “Muscle Head,” the weight lifting bullies. He grabbed me by my throat and my balls, threatening to rip them off, as he slammed me into a wall. That day I decided if I was going to survive bullies I needed to fight.
Out of rage I had beat up one bully back at McReynolds so I figured I could do it again. The Karate Kid was my inspiration. I could relate to Daniel. Martial Arts were the way to go. I watched Marshal Arts movies over and over, copying their moves, go Ninja Turtles. I had boards in our back yard that I used to practice with. I learned about pressure points, spin kicks, roundhouses, sweeps, and punches. I would not be picked on again.
With band practice over after Thanksgiving I was now at the mercy of the bullies. I had to strike first.
A week before Christmas vacation, as I was walking to the front of school, I saw the “Muscle Head” who had grabbed me. Butterflies filled my stomach as I attacked him, punching him in the back of the neck.
The fight lasted only a minute and I had won. A sweep to his hip and three hard kicks to the groin was enough to bring him down. Muscle did not matter and I was never picked on again. From that day forward I was not going to take shit from nobody. Nobody!
My parents made up three weeks before school ended and we were on our way back to Houston. I returned to Houston totally different than I had left it. All the running and playing I did helped to slim me down. I had to be twice as active than most to stay in shape. I was still over weight but only by ten pounds.
School started and I was now in all Honor classes. There was only one set of Honor classes so all the students were the same in every class. No one recognized me. I thought I could start over fresh.
I was known only as the transfer student from California. Girls that laughed and teased me for being fat were now talking to me. At the end of the week I was discovered. My good arm and broken coronet gave me away.
Fat or not, the bullies wanted their easy target back. They wanted the girls laughing at me, not talking to me. One day I walked out of History class and went to my locker. Band was my next class. Band was at the front of the school and the rest of my classes were at the back of the school, so I had to run.
As I closed my locker and turned to leave, I was tripped and fell hard. Laughter rang out through the hall. Quickly I got back on my feet to face my attacker. Two guys pulled me back and slammed me into the lockers. They did not know I had learned how to fight.
The boy in front of me found my foot in his groin. My elbow flew into one boy’s nose and my fist into the other boy’s face. The fight was over. I had three more fights that year and never lost once.
I was glad to leave that hell hole when summer came. My father insisted I go to Barbara Jordan High School for Careers, a magnet school. I studied hard and was accepted. There was no way I would have gone to my home school, Wheatly. If I had I would have been killed sooner or later. I would rather have dropped out.
To my father, dropping out was no longer an option. I was going to be the first in my family to graduate high school. My father took on a second job to help keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. I hardly ever saw him.
The ninth grade brought a fresh start. Mostly the brightest of the bunch from 5th Ward went to Barbara Jordan. I did not have to worry about bullies anymore. With this new school I was suppose to learn a trade. Without trying I learned many trades and life lessons.
My first kiss, my first girlfriend, my first breakup. Making friends for life that I would never see again after graduation. My first failed grade, allowing my brother to catch up to me. We may have come from the same place but we grew up opposites. I fought, I loved, I cried, I made my own way.
When I turned sixteen my older brother paid for my driver’s education. With my license in hand, I received my first paying job. My father was angry and cut me off with money. I had to buy my own clothes, school supplies, and pitch in for food. If I wanted to go out I had to pay for it myself. If I wanted to work then I had to be responsible. I was not afraid to work; I had been working all my life. The only difference was now I was getting paid for it.
After graduation came the REAL world. Nothing in my fourteen years (K-12th) in school prepared me for real life. I got my own car, fought my parents over it but I got it. Less than a year after graduation I was living in my own apartment, leaving because my mother did not approve of my girlfriend, who is now my wife.
Money was tight and life was hard but I was out of the ghetto. I swore to myself I would never go back again to live.
The circle of life is funny. Every child wants to do better than their parents and every parent wants a better life for their children. I find myself taking on traits of my father, something I never wanted to do as a child. But I also try not to make some of the same mistakes.
I have worked two jobs at once just to keep my head above water. I try to give my daughter what she wants without spoiling her. She likes books, writing, aviation, and music, just like me.
My wife thinks I’m trying to make her grow up too fast when in fact I’m scared to death of it. My daughter is very outgoing and not shy. She loves to sing and dance. She is so big and yet so small.
We do what we can to keep her safe. She is the light of our lives, she is our baby. She will help me keep my promise of never returning to the ghetto. I escaped and have not looked back. I survived.
From a pile of manure can grow a beautiful rose. Granted, I am no rose but my family is.
There you have it. That’s my story. So what’s yours?