Book: Resilience - The Life of a Mexican American. Novel based on a true life story. Names changed to protect participants. Introduction & 18 Chapters. I´ve posted first nine chapters. Interested in reader feedback. If interested, please read and provide me contructive feedback via comments. For additional chapters and poems, email (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Chapter 9: High School

In senior high, I never dated. Even if someone had asked, my parents wouldn’t allow it. They thought if I dated I would get pregnant and never finish school.

I continued to take college prep courses through high school. Little by little, I started speaking up in class. I began taking choir and language courses.

I knew my choir teacher, Miss Keeler.

Back in fifth grade, she was the traveling music teacher who taught music classes at various elementary schools in the city. She remembered me as a happy kid in fifth grade who sang with bravura, but out of tune.

I wasn’t the same happy little girl anymore though. I was this overweight, unpopular Mexican-American kid who didn’t have many friends.

Miss Keeler tried to help me but it was hard for her. The other kids teased me and tended to single me out.

Miss Keeler decided to get all the kids in choir involved in the school musical, South Pacific. I think she chose it because she wanted me to play Bloody Mary. I had the build, unfortunately I didn’t have the guts or the voice at the time. Someone else earned the part, but I was a member of the chorus.

It was the sixties and there was lots of focus on civil rights. When we did South Pacific, Miss Keeler asked us to pay special attention to the words of one song, “You´ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”

Some of the lyrics caught my attention:
You've got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,You've got to be carefully taught.You've got to be taught before it's too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You've got to be carefully taught!

Miss Keeler said the words were just as relevant today as they were when they were written.

The next year, when we did the play “Oklahoma,” she cast our star African American quarterback as Judd. During opening night, the first time he walked on to the stage, the entire student body and all of their parents let out a loud gasp.

Ms. Keeler was ahead of her time and she was not afraid to take risks.

During rehearsals, she often spoke of the importance of the civil rights movement. The world had to change. Every person should be treated as equals, regardless of race, color or national origin. We all looked up to Miss Keeler and she helped open the minds of several people in class.

I also had another excellent teacher, Mrs. Oliver. She remembered me from my first Junior High school. She was my Russian teacher in High School. In Junior High she was my social studies teacher. Mrs. Oliver took her students on school trips and helped us pretend we actually lived in Russia.

I started making a few friends because of these two teachers.

My best friend was Barb Jent, an African American girl. I had a few other friends too like Carmen Lopez and Lupe Nunez, both Mexican Americans. Carmen was Celia´s second cousin and Lupe was a girl from the neighborhood. There were so few Mexican Americans in school then.

Carmen and Lupe were both sweet, but they tried so hard to be liked. When I walked down the hall with them, they said hi to everyone that passed by. Most times, no one responded back. I asked Carmen why she did that. She just shrugged. I knew she just wanted everyone to be her friend.

I was still teased and sometimes the teasing got to me. Most times I just tried to be invisible so I could make it to graduation.

Once, in choir, Miss Keeler formed groups of four, soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

I was the last alto and no one picked me. Two white jocks were the only ones available who hadn’t become part of a foursome. They sat by themselves so I sat next to them.

As soon as I sat down, they got up and moved away from me.

Miss Keeler looked on at what was happening. I think it made her mad. She said, “I can’t believe how mean you guys are. I heard from some of my other music groups that you teased the unpopular kids, but I didn’t get it until today.”

Miss Keeler had been fat when I knew her years before. Even though she had slimmed down and was now popular, I think she related to what was happening to me.

The problem was her pointing this out only made matters worse.

During class, after she made this statement, you could hear a pin drop. But after class, everyone started staring and pointing their fingers at me.

“Oh no! It’s going to happen to me again,” I thought. “They’re going to single me out and pick on me!”

I was right.

I walked by one of the guys who was a friend of the guy that moved away from me. He was a jock too. “There she is!” he yelled as he punched me in the arm when I walked past. “Look at her! I wouldn’t sit by her either!”

Why was this happening?

I slunk off to my next class. Miserable.

It took weeks for the kids to get over this. Miss Keeler didn’t bring it up again. The kids didn’t mention it in class. No one spoke to me.

My best friend in high school was Barb Jent. She was a tall, beautiful, African American girl with a gorgeous alto voice. Barb was pretty popular.

Barb and I were in choir and in gym class together. I liked hanging around Barb. I didn’t think about my unpopularity when I was with her.

There were things I enjoyed in High School. I liked the singing part of choir and I liked Barb and Miss Keeler. I liked Russian class and Miss Oliver. I liked my advanced classes. I liked Carmen and Lupe.

In eleventh and twelfth grades, Miss Keeler formed the Quaker Singers. This was a group of the best singers in choir and she picked both Barb and me to be in the group.

This was a good change for me. I learned to start singing out and the kids in our group became close. We all went to special engagements and outings together so we became good friends. School was looking up.

Dad wasn´t too happy about my joining the group. He was so protective. He was a bit skeptical about the group events I had to attend on nights and weekends. Nevertheless, with the help of Mom, he allowed me to stay in the group.

Barb and I became very close those years. We were in the same Choir class, Quaker Singer class and Gym class. We ate lunch together. We went to Quaker Singer engagements together after school. We talked and shared our dreams for the future with each other.

I shared my dream of becoming “That Girl.” She didn’t laugh at me. She felt the same way I did.

Neither of our families had money. Her family was even poorer than mine, if that were possible. Barb was cool though. I never saw anyone tease her like they did me.

Barb said Martin Luther King helped make things better for blacks.

People could no longer publicly discriminate against minorities, although there was lots of it in private. I knew what she meant.

We often talked about the Civil Rights Movement and how important it was for people to support the movement. Life wasn’t always fair to minorities. Martin Luther King was her hero and soon, he became mine.

I started watching the news with Dad again, especially when Walter Cronkite talked about Martin Luther King or Civil Rights. Dad said Negroes were treated more unfairly than Mexican-Americans. We talked about slavery and all the mistreatment they received.

Dad said God knows we are all equal and we should all treat each other the same. I was glad Dad felt the same way I did.

Dad´s best friend at work was Will Porter. He was black. He worked in the paint shop in the factory, just like Dad. Will was one of the few friends from work Dad brought home with him.

Sometimes they sat and talked about work, other times about life. My best memories of Will was when he talked to Dad about cooking.

My Dad rarely cooked, but when he did, he made it an event. Sometimes he would take every left-over in the refrigerator and put it in a pot. He called it “Mingongay”. It was horrible.

We didn´t ask for Dad´s cooking very often.

Will, however, was an excellent cook. Sometimes he brought over his home cooking.

My favorites were his cornbread dressing and his peach dumplings. We were glad he gave Mom the recipes. We didn´t want to know what they would taste like if Dad cooked them. Mom used these two recipes every Thanksgiving for the rest of her life.

Back at school, Miss Oliver took us on a number of field trips. We even went horse-back riding together. What a blast. I still remember the songs we learned in Russian, but not much more.

Late in the eleventh grade, the Quaker Singers had an engagement at a Country Club. Miss Keeler asked us to dress in spring colored evening gowns.

I, of course, had nothing to wear. I went to Mom and explained what I needed.

The funniest thing happened. I think Mom was proud of me for being a member of the Quaker Singers. When I went to her with my request for a dress, she was surprised, but pleased. She promised to talk to Dad. She said not to worry. She’d help me get the gown.

Dad didn’t like the idea of me getting a gown for this singing group. He still wasn’t thrilled about me being a member of the group either.

Mom convinced him, however, that she would find me a good dress for a good price, so he finally relented and said I could get a dress.

He said, “Ok, but try to keep it to about five or ten dollars.” Even I knew this was an unreasonable sum for a dress.

Mom decided to take me to a dress store instead of the usual discount department store. In the dress shop, she steered me to the gowns. I looked at the price tags and it was just impossible.

Finally, Mom said, “Quit looking at the price tag. Just look for the dress.”

Ok, I decided. I found a pretty yellow dress. Mom agreed. The dress had been in a smaller size than I expected. I lost a few pounds that year.

Mom and I decided I looked good in the dress. We looked at the price tag. “$23.95” it said.

Mom said, “Let’s just get it.” Hesitantly, I nodded.

We got home and the first thing my father asked was, “How much?”

She gave him the sales slip and he blew a gasket.

“We don’t have this kind of money to spend on a dress!” he yelled. “Take it back.”Mom refused.

I wore the beautiful yellow dress to the singing engagement and I decided my dress looked just as good as the other girls’ dresses.

Over the next several months, I must have heard about that price tag every day. Over and over $23.95, $23.95.

Dad, the Dad that had always been so supportive of my hard work, had turned against me with one dress. Nothing I could do would please him or change his mind. I couldn’t understand it.

That summer I decided one thing. I would not spend any money my entire senior year. I knew that school pictures, rings, gowns and many more expenses were coming up. I decided I wouldn’t get anything.

Mom tried to change my mind. “What do you care if he yells at you? Do it anyway. Be like your sisters. Let him yell at you. It doesn’t matter. Just have a good time in high school.”

I shook my head. I was stubborn. I was not going to have him yell at me for spending money.

Dad and I didn’t like each other very well my senior year. When I think back about it, I think his goals were to have us graduate from high school and stay out of trouble. So far, all six older children achieved these goals and I was so close. He was afraid my being in the group and spending money would somehow corrupt me, or at least take me out of his control.

Dad was glad I wasn’t spending any money my senior year though. He often commented on it. Mom just shook her head.

In addition to High School, I taught Catechism at our church on Saturdays. They needed someone to teach the 2nd and 3rd grade children religion classes.

I volunteered and was selected to teach. I was provided the curriculum and some brief training, then started teaching.

While I enjoyed teaching and the students were receptive to my teaching style, I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher the rest of my life.

My dream job was to become a career woman, just like Marlo Thomas on “That Girl.” I didn´t want to be an actress, but I loved the thought of having my own career and living in my own apartment.

During senior year, we constantly prepared for SATs. We took sample tests every month. I always did well on them. I carried A’s in my music and Russian classes, but my other grades remained C’s. I could not get motivated in those other classes.

My high school counselor wasn’t pleased. He said, “Dee. Your grades are not good enough to get you a scholarship in a University. Do your parents have any money to help you with college?”

He already knew the answer. I just looked down.

He continued, “You have to decide what you want to do in life.”

I didn’t know how to answer him. I didn’t know what I wanted to do tomorrow much less what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

He put his hand on my shoulder, “Maybe you should have taken vocational classes. You have to decide for yourself what you want to do. I suggest that once you graduate, you go to the Community College. Look at the classes they have to offer. Then make your decision.”
I nodded and left his office.

The year I graduated, nineteen sixty eight, was quite an eventful year. Everyone was talking about the Vietnam War. Students were protesting.

My older brother Steven was in Vietnam. My parents were worried. When Steven wrote home, he said most of the soldiers were upset with President Johnson and they were against the War.

We listened to Walter Cronkite and the reports about the War were disastrous. How did our country get in such a mess? Peace must be the answer. I found myself siding with the Peace activists.

Barb and I sometimes joined other students in protesting the war. I didn´t think of myself as one of the activists. It was more about Barb and I agreeing with our teachers and other kids our age and carrying signs asking for Peace.

In the spring, Martin Luther King was murdered. This was a shock to me and all the students. Barb was particularly upset.

We sat together after school talking about what happened. Barb was crying. I put my arm around her shoulder and tried to console her. We were both worried. Who was going to lead the charge for Civil Rights now? Our champion was dead.

Bobby Kennedy came to town the next month. I asked Gloria to take me to go see him. We waited at the airport and stood with the rest of the crowd for hours waiting for him.

When he finally arrived, the crowd pushed and shoved us like sardines.

I lost sight of Gloria. The crowd started moving me forward, shoving me towards Bobby´s path as he was walking towards the terminal.

All of a sudden, Bobby´s back was directly in front of me. We were still packed like sardines and the crowd was moving us forward. Bobby and I were moving with the crowd´s momentum and he was just inches in front of me. He was so close, I could touch him, so I did. I reached up and touched his shoulder, just to see if he was real.

Bobby looked back at me, startled. I pulled my hand back and just looked at him as the massive crowd moved us along.

I couldn’t believe I was actually within inches of him.

Suddenly he disappeared into the terminal. It was so odd that we moved along with the crowd as we did. Then I was mashed by the crowd against the glass doors.

I became a little nervous and said out loud, “Stop! You are squashing me.” My face was mashed against the glass doors.

It might have been dangerous had the security not pushed everyone back. I was relieved, but I was still in awe over what just happened.

When I found Gloria later, we both were amazed that I was so close and that he wasn´t better protected from the crowd.

A month or so later, we were in the high school auditorium when they announced Bobby was dead. People were shouting “No!” Everyone was crying. They let us out of school early.

I ran into my friend Lupe on the way out of school. She was crying almost hysterically.

I said, “Lupe, what’s wrong?” She said someone told her, “Your people killed Bobby.”

The early news reports said the shooter was Mexican and some of the kids were blaming us for what happened. I gave her a quick hug and said they didn’t know what they were talking about. My words didn’t help. She was still very upset.

Mom was watching TV when I arrived home.

Our family stayed glued to the set and watched the reports of the shooting. Walter Cronkite gave us all the latest reports.

Bobby was dead.

Sirhan Sirhan shot him.

Another hero died. I wondered who would win the election. My heart wasn´t in it anymore.

Barb and I continued to be best friends at school our senior year. Occasionally we went to the movies together. It was fun going with her instead of babysitting my brother and sisters.

We saw the movie Camelot that year. I loved the movie. It was so romantic. We both loved the songs, “If Ever I Would Leave You” was our favorite. We loved Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and especially the handsome Franco Nero.

I wondered what it would be like to fall in love. I knew if I ever fell in love, I wanted it to be magical, just like in Camelot. I knew I would not meet my Lancelot in high school. Dad would not allow me to date. Maybe someday, I thought.

Even though I didn’t spend much money, my senior year was tolerable.

I graduated but it wasn´t the big event I thought it would be. Dad had to work that day and Mom wasn´t feeling well and stayed home.

I ended up going to the graduation ceremony by myself, alone.

I grabbed my gown and ran the two miles to the school auditorium so I wouldn’t be late. I had tears streaming down my cheeks, but didn´t know why I was crying. I had to brush them away right before I walked into the auditorium.

I arrived just in time. I graduated.

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