Sandra and I rented a small one bedroom apartment in the east foothills, not far from Alum Rock Park and the expensive houses up the hill. She was in her first year as an elementary school teacher and I taught Spanish to pre-school kids at a private elementary school/day care center. It was a job that didn’t require a college degree and paid next to nothing. I also coached basketball at City College and made extra money tutoring the basketball players. We were able to scrape by financially and married life was treating me well.
For the first time since I was a teenager I felt a sense of accomplishment and stability, this time without the brashness and bravado of one of the big men on campus. Soon after the basketball season ended, Sandra and I made the decision that I should return to San Jose State on a full-time basis and put my career as a basketball coach on hold until I earned my bachelor’s degree and teaching credential.
I had been taking courses at State here and there for a couple of years to meet reinstatement eligibility to the university and to remove the academic disqualification from my record, so I was ready to submit an application for acceptance. When a letter from San Jose State arrived in the mail, I anxiously opened the envelope, read the letter, and let out a huge sigh of relief. My failed academic record had been cleared, and I was officially a college student once again.
The next day, a Saturday, Eddie Velez and I were working on a side job with Mr. Peralta replacing sidewalks at an apartment complex, but I wasn’t participating in the usual banter about sports, politics, the weather, and the aches and pains that come with construction work. My mind was spinning with thoughts about my past failures, my new opportunity, and my second, and perhaps, last chance to redeem myself by earning a college degree and pursuing my dream of being a teacher and a coach. Right then and there, I decided that I would work harder than ever in college to stay focused on the prize.
Because the acceptance letter arrived just days before classes were to begin, I had to sit in on the classes I wanted to secure a space before I could actually register. It would be a tedious process that required patience and perseverance. With a determination I never had before, I sat in class after class, cajoled professors to allow me to stay, and registered for a full load of classes to qualify as a full-time student. I threw myself into my schoolwork, finishing projects, writing papers, and completing reading assignments ahead of schedule.
Early that first semester, I ran into a mental roadblock that could have compromised the entire effort; I realized that I was almost ten years older than my classmates in first year general education courses. I started to doubt myself, I questioned my decision to drop everything to return to school, and I felt out of place as a weathered twenty-seven year old man among bright, young, and eager college students.
I shared these sentiments with a professor, Dr. Randall Jimenez, with whom I had developed a good relationship in his freshman communications course. He told me that I had a natural talent for public speaking and using words to persuade and lead others. Then he asked me how old I was and when did I anticipate on finishing my degree, and I responded that I hoped to graduate by my thirtieth birthday. He said with good health and God’s will I would be thirty years old, so I had to decide whether I wanted to be thirty years old with a college degree or thirty years old without one; the choice was mine and mine alone.
From that day on I had a laser focus toward achieving success at the highest level possible, as a student and in my future career as an educator and basketball coach. To help Sandra with living expenses, I spent the next three years tutoring freshman for the professor’s public speaking courses. I ran into Dr. Jimenez two decades later, and with a bear hug and heartfelt smile, he mentioned how happy he was to see me, and that he had followed my career and medical problems in the newspaper.
I reminded him of and thanked him for the wise words he imparted on me that day early in my return to college. He thanked me for listening because he knew that I would use my gift for public speaking to make an impact in people’s lives. His wise advice twenty-one years before sent my college career and the professional life that was to follow into high gear.
For the next three years, I was a full-time student and part-time homemaker. After that first semester, I met with an advisor on campus, selected history as my major, and mapped out the schedule of classes I would need to graduate by the time I was thirty years old. At home, in between reading and writing assignments, I washed clothes, kept our little apartment clean, and experimented making different meals so dinner would be ready when Sandra got home from a long day with her students.
More often than not, my experiments would go badly and we would end up at one of the mom and pop restaurants or fast food joints that dotted our new neighborhood. In addition to my studies and tutoring for the professor’s public speaking courses, I worked as a referee for intramural sports at San Jose State and tutored a neighborhood kid to further supplement Sandra’s teaching salary. I was absolutely dedicated to my studies, devouring books faster than professors could assign them; reading in the laundry room at our apartment complex or at the kitchen counter while preparing another disastrous meal.