My father and I lived in South Central Los Angeles, where instead of white picket fences, we had bars on our windows. It was a black and Latino community overrun with gangs and drugs, with graffiti serving as the aesthetic backdrop. My father did his best with a girl who was outspoken and riled adults. From my teachers’ perspective, I was a troublemaker. I was singled out for discipline and punished severely for minor offenses. But I made sure to stand up for myself because no one else would. There were times when my behavior led to strong suggestions that I “choose” to attend school elsewhere. And maybe it had to do with talking too much, or eating Skittles in class, or chasing someone down the hall. Whatever the reason, I attended private school for most of my life and then a public high school. There were some people who were on my side, however. When I entered a public high school, the second semester of my sophomore year, I came in with a bruised ego and no friends. The pace of my English class was too slow and I was shocked to see we were taught material I’d learned in fifth grade. I marched myself down to the principal’s office and demanded he transfer me to a more challenging class. To his credit, he said he would but only on one condition—I had to get straight A’s that semester. And I did. Afterwards, he let me move into all honors and AP classes. I continued to excel and even got involved in student leadership. But I still managed to get in trouble on occasion. Once, I decided to cut class and got caught sitting near school at a bus stop, and then on my birthday I got in trouble for kissing my boyfriend in the hallway. Both times the dean of students went easy on me, although he didn’t have to. Later, thanks to a new boyfriend, my grades started slipping. When the principal found out, he told me that I couldn’t go home until I came by his office and finished all my homework. His concern made me not want to disappoint him. Looking back, both of those men who challenged me were Latino, among the very few I encountered during my entire school career. Did they take a special interest in a troublesome teenager because they knew about my family circumstances? Had they seen other kids from similar backgrounds lose their way? Did they relate to me personally?
Whatever their reasons, these men who shared my cultural background took steps to catch me when I fell, and I’ll always be grateful. Now I’m a parent myself and having the option to switch my daughter from one school to another has made a huge difference in her life. We live in the same neighborhood where I grew up, and I enrolled her in a public school, but it was too big and located in an area plagued by gang activity. During first grade, I moved her to the same Catholic school I attended. She was better sheltered there, but I didn’t think she was being educated as well. True to my nature, I started asking questions. Who were the teachers? What were their credentials? What were their methods? I wasn’t happy with the answers, so I got her on a waitlist for a new charter school. It was in the next city over, not very close to home, but it seemed like an improvement. It took until second grade, but she got in, and I was right. One of my favorite things about her new school was that they posted teacher bios on every classroom—where they attended school, what drew them to teaching. I had to try harder to find ways to challenge this administration. I loved it. Seven years later, my daughter is still there and going strong. Many of her teachers are Latino, as is the principal, who’s deeply connected to the issues in her students’ communities. As a kid, I had a hard time believing I was worthy of going to college. Until my final years in high school, I grew up believing my teachers didn’t want me, so why would a college? Those little demonstrations of support meant a lot to me. I enrolled in a community college and then transferred into a four-year state school. My daughter doesn’t have any of this insecurity about her future. Thanks to her wonderful school and teachers and administrators who understand her life, when she thinks about college, it’s not “if” but simply “where.”
Lily Gonzalez is a
Homeboy Industries graduate and full-time student at California State University, Northridge. She lives in South Los Angeles with her two children where she strives to make her father’s dream of a family of college graduates come true and show her children that anything can be done with hard work, determination and perseverance ...