Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the 8th excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”
In class I was with the “smart” kids learning about algebra, geometry, biology, and Shakespeare; and after school I was either working part-time at Kinney Shoes or running around with Rudy and the guys. At first, living in two different worlds worked out just fine as I figured out how to straddle the different social circles. I wanted to be like my friends: cool, carefree, and popular with the girls from the neighborhood, and I also wanted to be like the mostly white kids in my college prep classes and the jocks: intelligent, successful, and popular on campus.
I chose who I spent time with depending on the season. During the fall and winter, when I played on the basketball team, my circle of friends included football players, basketball teammates, cheerleaders, and the “in crowd.” I would hang out during breaks and lunchtime in the school’s quad to see and be seen wearing my forest green wool and off-white leather-sleeved varsity letterman jacket that my dad could barely afford, but couldn’t wait to buy.
Most of the kids that came from my neighborhood and others like it played baseball, so the springtime would find me sitting at “the table” just outside of the quad shooting the bull with the guys. I would spend the summer working at the shoe store, playing ball, and staying in the neighborhood.
The system seemed to work. My sister Sisi, who started high school two years after I graduated, would later say that, “you were cool,” and she was always aware of my high school success. “When I went to your games with mom and dad, everyone knew who you were, and when I started freshman year, teachers, coaches, and the juniors and seniors, were all surprised that I was your sister because I was shy and didn’t play sports,” she went on to say.
I seemed to fit in with the school leaders and upper middle-class families that lived in the hills, life in the cocoon at Viewmont Avenue was business as usual, my parents were protective as ever, and Rudy and my other friends protected me as well. I’ll never forget the day after school during our freshman year when, while playing a game of pick-up football without pads, helmets, or adult supervision, I threw the ball in frustration at a big kid named Gus Rivas because he failed to block for me on the previous play.
It was another one of my risky decisions as Gus weighed about 250 pounds with a huge belly, thick wrists and arms, swollen-looking hands, and a mean streak. His belly deflected the ball like the bullets jumped off of Superman’s chest as he charged and tackled me to the ground. I was able to get one ineffective punch in before Gus grabbed me into a headlock and started pounding on my head. Within seconds, although it felt like years, Rudy jumped on Gus, pulled him off of me, and with my other friends there, loudly encouraged me to run.
Slowly, however, cracks in the protective shell begin to develop. When I was living the high school version of the prestigious life in the quad with the in crowd, I would hear their demeaning and condescending comments about “Mexicans,” “low riders,” and “cholos” (the term used for Mexican Americans who dressed in baggy clothes like the gang culture of the day). They would tell me that I was different from the “other Mexicans” and that their comments weren’t targeted at me.
At the table, the guys would make fun of the “school boys,” the geeks who took college-prep classes, and deride the self-importance of the football, basketball, and cheerleader types. Of course, they would also tell me that I was different than the snobby “white boys” even though I was a school boy myself. I began to feel like I didn’t fit into either of the worlds I was trying to straddle, so to avoid looking like such a geek to my neighborhood friends, I did homework less frequently and didn’t walk everywhere with my books under my arm.
Fortunately, I was good at taking tests to keep my report card slightly better than average. To maintain my place with the popular quad dwellers, I focused on basketball and baseball so I could be one of the “big men on campus.” Despite this new strategy, I continued to feel inferior with both groups, although no one around me noticed the transformation. As Sisi described it, “you seemed everywhere in yearbook pictures and everyone, the kids in the neighborhood and the kids that lived in the hills, enjoyed being around you.”
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