I heard a lot of noise, was someone crying? All four of the televisions we had were tuned to the news and there were blaring reports of a local nightclub in Brooklyn where police were on the scene. Whose voices are those? Is it my party?
It was one week before my fifth birthday and I was so super excited. It meant that I could go to school with all the “older” girls and wear a uniform and finally be “grown up”. My dad promised to buy me anything I wanted and I knew he, as always, would keep his promise. He loved nice things: drove a Cadillac, was always fashionably dressed and covered in expensive gold jewelry; he was a true charmer to ladies, but to me, he was just my dad, happy to spoil his kids anyway he could. I started getting nervous as I descended the stairs early that Saturday morning because I realized I still didn’t know what I wanted for my birthday but clearly the guests had arrived! But as I landed in the living room, the scene I witnessed was not a celebration of my birth; it was mourning of death.
My mom was wailing, three of my uncles were there consoling her, while my aunt was talking feverishly on the phone. No one noticed I was there but I made out what had happened…it was my dad. He had been shot and killed at a nightclub the night before. The news reporter couldn’t reveal the identity of the man, but the “officers” my aunt seemed to be talking to on the phone helped me start to put things together.
There would be no birthday for me after all. I never did get a cake, or a song, or the gift my dad promised me. I remember crying and hugging my mom. The only gift I could think of getting at that point was having my dad back. That never happened either.
They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, but I don’t believe that anymore. Before my father passed away, my baby sister was born. Early on the doctors noticed something was wrong and after several weeks, they diagnosed her with a heart defect. After the news of my father’s death and at the request of his mother to have him buried back in Jamaica, my mother left us with her brother and his wife to go tend to my dad’s funeral arrangements. While my mother was away, my baby sister became sicker and sicker. Six months later, she too, was gone. She was off to join my dad in heaven. My poor mom.
Looking back, I thank God for giving her the strength to bear such heavy loads all at once, and somehow manage to raise three wonderful and successful children on her own. I am in awe of her amazing strength and courage to this day.
Several years after my dad’s death, when I was about 8, we had moved to a small suburb of Long Island, New York miles away from our devastating past. I was a typical third grader, loved school, but was surprised one day, when I was called into the principal’s office to “have a talk”. I was almost in tears walking down the long, quiet hallway towards the main office, because I was such a “nerdy goody two-shoes” and I never got into any trouble. “What did I do?” I thought. But by the time I left the office I was skipping so fast and smiling so hard I almost tripped over my black patent-leather mary-jane shoes my mom worked so hard to buy. “I’m gifted? I have to go to different classes now?” I couldn’t wait to tell my mom. She only smiled and nodded. “I always knew you were smart and special” she would say. She was proud of me, and that made me proud of myself, too.
Fast-forward 8 more years, my mom packed us up from New York and we moved to Florida. I was 16, a junior in high school, had to leave my first boyfriend behind and was tragically devastated. Instead of my predominantly black suburban neighborhood in New York, I was thrust into a still-developing, half-rural, predominantly white area of central Florida. My life, essentially, was over.
I excelled in school as usual, with Honors and AP classes, but I felt different in this environment. I thought it was because I was culture-shocked (seriously) and just dealing with the move. But I know now that I began to feel inferior to my white counterparts when I found myself to be the only student of color in Honors and advanced classes. It was a scenario that I wasn’t familiar with at all. I began to doubt my abilities as I heard my white peers whisper and laugh behind my back in class. Wait, I thought, I’m gifted!
Surely I belong here! But that “D” in pre-calculus and suddenly getting mediocre grades in other classes suggested otherwise. I finally pulled my grade up to a B- towards the end of my 11th grade year, but even for me that was horrible. I was so used to getting A’s in everything. But I couldn’t focus on that; I had a few months before my junior year would be over and I needed to start asking questions about college because I felt so clueless!
I went in to see my guidance counselor and I couldn’t help but think that he was shocked to see me there. He peered over his bifocals and stared at me as I awkwardly explained that I wanted to learn more about college and what options I had. With an exhausted and confused look, he finally pulled up my grades and class schedule to figure out whether this conversation, and me, were worth toiling over. He finally looked at me and said, “Why don’t you start with community college and see how that goes?” Wait, what? My heart sank, the optimistic look in my eye was suddenly extinguished, and I was quickly ushered out of his office though I left feeling so shocked and confused. All I could think of on my way out was “But I’m gifted…”