For most of my life, I never thought I would leave New Orleans or go to college. But my teachers saw things in me that I never saw in myself. With their help, I learned what it means to persevere.
I am the fourth of five children in my family that grew up in Gretna and New Orleans. Back in Gretna, family was everywhere, watching my every move. My grandmother Sharon a registered nurse, lived down the street, my great uncle was around the corner and my father, who is from Trinidad, was the neighborhood handyman, always there to help when someone called. We couldn’t afford much growing up, with my father working construction and my mother holding down several part time and full time jobs while also attending school, but that never got us down.
When it came to being frugal, grandma Sharon was a force to be reckoned with, dragging us to five different grocery stores in one day just to get the best deal. And instead of spending money on vacations we couldn’t afford, my mother would take us to the library, exposing us to different cultures through books. One of my favorite memories was making dinner from a Caribbean cookbook while listening to my father’s Soca & Calypso CDs.
When I was seven, we moved to a different neighborhood in Gretna and I attended McDonogh No. 26 Elementary School where I faced bullying from both classmates and my third-grade teacher. I didn’t like my new school, where none of my classmates wanted to read and my teachers didn’t seem to care. My teacher was always telling me that I needed medication, I was stupid and that I was incapable of graduating high school. So I lost hope in my education and started cutting class. At that point, I was completely unmotivated to learn. I failed the third grade.
Things went from bad to worse when Hurricane Katrina hit. We moved to Newnan, Georgia, to be near my mother’s family who had moved there a month before us. Two months after the storm, grandma Sharon passed away. In the classroom, it was very difficult to focus. The sadness that I felt over my grandmother’s death and the storm made everything seem impossible. Georgia’s curriculum was also much more advanced than what I was used to in New Orleans. I used to stutter in class when my teacher asked me to read out loud. The other kids would make fun of me when I struggled, saying: “Why don’t you know this?”
When we returned to New Orleans two years later, I was still behind by one grade level. That meant that all of my friends were in the fourth grade, while I was in the third. It was too difficult to deal with, so my mother let me finish my school year out at Shirley T. Johnson/Gretna Park. In the sixth grade, I went to Martin Behrman Charter School, an arts school where I learned to play the drums.
At Behrman, I was still having issues with my classes. But when I met my eight-grade math teacher, Ms. Hampton, everything began to change. She knew that the effort I was putting into my work was mediocre, but I was eager to continue playing the drums. She made it clear that I wouldn’t be able to do the things in life that I enjoyed, like music, if I didn’t take my schoolwork seriously. I agreed to let her tutor me.
That year, I passed the state’s LEAP test with one advance and three masteries. When I began to understand math, I felt like I could do anything. My grades started to improve, and I took her words of encouragement with me to Edna Karr High School. There, I really surprised myself. I continued to play the drums and my band director, Mr. Herrero, helped me start a brass band when I was still a freshman.
In my senior year, I won the Principal’s Award, the Golden Cougar Award and the Horatio Alger Scholarship worth $10,500 for my leadership and academics. I didn’t think I had it in me, but I had taken every opportunity that was handed my way by the teachers that believed in me. I knew I wanted to work in construction like my dad, so I started to view life as if I were building a house: the foundation was music, the roof was college and everything in between was my high school career.
One of my favorite books is “Hatchet,” the story of a teenage boy named Brian who is stranded in the woods after his plane crashes. Brian had to learn how to build fires, shelter and hunt for food just to survive, which took both mental and physical strength. It was a valuable story, because it helped me understand how to be resilient and bounce back. I thought of this story around the time the recession hit. I was 14 and my mother was struggling to pay the bills. I asked my mother to take me to Lowes to buy a lawn mower and trimmer with the money she made from selling her second car. Soon I was waking up at 7 a.m. just to knock on doors to get lawn mowing customers. Some days all I got were doors slammed in my face.
But I kept going, and my perseverance eventually paid off.
When I think back on how I gained the strength to overcome the hard times, I can’t single out one person or thing that inspired me. But I do think back to my teachers and know that I would not be where I am today without them. People like Ms. Hampton, Mr. Hererro, my college advisors Amanda Lu and Emily Ferris—who told me in ninth grade that I would work with her as a student ambassador my senior year. They all saw things in me that were always there—I just needed help seeing them for myself.