I remember having to attend the public school on 54th Street, wearing my second-hand clothes, and the adjustment was exceptionally hard for me. Luckily my mom was a hairstylist, so my hair was always well-maintained.
Not that it mattered much, but the kids at 54th Street School were just as poor as me, if not worse. Drugs were really starting to hit the streets, especially in South Central, and kids had to fend for themselves. In the early 1980’s, crack cocaine was being dropped into every inner-city across America, and Los Angeles was no different.
Regular, everyday guys were joining gangs in droves and becoming dope pushers because of the quick cash income and young girls were selling themselves to get a “hit”. I was considered fortunate to have a mom at home who was not using crack or heroine.
Meanwhile, I made two good friends while at 54th street; Kisha and Anthony. Kisha came from a good home with a mom and dad, along with several siblings. They owned a home not far from where my mom and I lived, and they were very religious. I used to love going over there to get away from the sadness and tension in my apartment and just feel like I was part of a family; they always welcomed me.
Anthony lived in a single parent home like mine and he loved the streets, but was like a brother to me. I think we got along so well because we had the same struggle at home.
Soon afterward, I got my first pet; a cat named “Freeway”. Along with Kisha and Anthony, I considered Freeway one of my very best friends; knowing that Freeway would love me no matter what was happening in my life.
Later in the fall, I remember Ms. Hoffman, my 4th grade teacher, calling my mother to discuss having me enrolled in a magnet school for gifted kids, because I was always scoring high on tests and I could read beyond my age level. She told my mom that she saw great potential in me. Of course, mom quickly agreed and asked Ms. Hoffman to help with getting me into a program. I was accepted into Amestoy Elementary in Gardena to begin the very next spring semester. Amestoy was a public school that had two schools on the campus; a magnet program and a regular public school.
Let me explain, starting a new school in the middle of a school year is no fun. Friendships and cliques have already been established during the first semester. The only way you would be welcomed into the popular group was if you were pretty, dressed well, was light-skinned, or came from a rich home. I was none of these things…
My first day at Amestoy was like getting a personal beat down!
I wore clothes from Sears called Silver Unicorn (which was cool for 54th street, but not for Amestoy), while the other kids were wearing clothes from either the Broadway or May Company department stores. I sported a jheri curl, and wore my cheap “Pro-wings” from Payless, rather than the Nikes, Adidas, K-Swiss, and Reeboks like the other kids were wearing. In addition, I had to watch other kids buying or bringing their daily lunches, when I was getting free lunch tickets due to my mom being on disability and food stamps.
Then, to top it all off, my face was starting to break out, and my hair was breaking off while the other girls had long hair or very nice braids. To say that I didn’t fit in would be an understatement.
Amestoy was a diverse elementary school consisting of a heavy Japanese and White student population, with about 15% African – American and Samoan. The gifted program required we study either Japanese or Spanish language and maintain a B average. However, I didn’t have a choice in language selection since I was a transfer student; I had to take Japanese for the rest of the semester. And, unfortunately, my 4th grade teacher was not very nice to me. She was quite different from Mrs. Hoffman who cared for all her students and never judged any of us just because we came from poor backgrounds.
Amestoy was a completely different world for me and opened my eyes to diversity, but it also made me hide in the girl’s bathroom during recess and after lunch time because I was always being picked on by kids who felt I was an easy target; especially since I didn’t fit into any of the groups. Even the nerds or the unpopular kids picked on me, which was painful! I used to come home crying every night and write in my diary as an attempt to ease the pain.
Since Kisha and Anthony were at different schools, we saw less and less of each other and Freeway soon became my only friend. Luckily, by the end of the school year, I had found two friends name Malikia and Rhonda who accepted me just as I was. Malikia was the little sister of the most popular boy in the 6th grade and Rhonda hung with Malikia. The three of us became good friends and I was picked on less; especially entering the 5th grade.
During the summer of 1984, mom found a decent second floor apartment near our old “Princess” apartment on Norton Avenue. It was a large one bedroom, one bathroom apartment in a duplex. There, I made friends with a Vietnamese girl named Lela, two Korean boys named Philip and John, and four African-American kids named Fatima, Giovanni, Dorla, and Nikki.
Mom had also made good friends with Fatima’s mother, Carol and our neighbor Linda. I was happy to be back on Norton Avenue! As before, here there was safety, friends and an increased ability for my mother to save money, as well as earn extra cash by recycling cans. I enjoyed going to the bank with her to trade the pennies out for dollars (remember, we didn’t have Coinstar machines back in the early 80’s).
With these funds, mom was able to buy me some name-brand clothes and shoes for the new school semester. By the time 5th grade started at Amestoy in September 1984, I was ready to go because I had two good friends, new clothes, and braids.
I remember arriving at school that first day and standing outside with the other kids; no one recognized me and thought I was a new student. Once they discovered who I was, they were shocked! I even started bringing my lunches to school to avoid getting free lunch tickets. This year, I was being selected on teams and able to join the Spanish language class.
It was a good year.
A LITTLE HELP FROM FRIENDS
I don’t know whether it was because mom was struggling with her health or in spite of it, but she reached out to a non-profit organization that paired disadvantaged young girls with professional women called the “Big Sisters of Los Angeles” to get me a big sister. These professional women volunteered their time at least once a month to take the “Little Sister” on outings like visiting museums, amusement parks, libraries, “Big Sister & Little Sister” events to fellowship, and mentor the “Little Sister” since she comes from a broken home the majority of the time.
I was truly blessed to have a “Big Sister” that made it a priority to see me at least twice a month and even check in on me. Her name was Claudette and she is still in contact with me as of today. All I can say is Claudette and the “Big Sisters” program is one of the primary reasons I did not end up a statistic!
Living back on Norton Avenue was wonderful to me. I even had a surrogate “grandmother” name Mabel who loved all the neighborhood kids and never saw color. She was an elderly white woman who personally understood racism first-hand from marrying an African-American man and raising bi-racial children during segregation. She would tell us stories, give us gifts, and even feed us when we were hungry. She always welcomed us into her home and even let some of us celebrate holidays and special occasions with her family.
I was accepted by some of her children, and her granddaughter and I became friends. It had taken a moment, but I slowly began to live a new life that didn’t include my brother, but a rather emotionally absent and sick mother instead. I still believed it could only continue to get better from here.
However, as things were improving for me personally, my mother was requiring more trips to the eye clinic and seeing more specialists for a possible spinal fusion surgery to permanently join together two or more bones in her spine.
In late spring of 1985, my mother talked tome about going to a girl’s summer camp called “Camp Hollywoodland”, which was in Hollywood Hills. She had received word from the Director of Big Sisters of Los Angeles that they could pay the weekly cost for me to attend the camp. The timing was perfect, as she would also need to have the spinal fusion surgery performed during this period. She coordinated everything with her friend Linda, who would care for me during the surgery and recovery phases, make sure my 11th birthday party was set up and I got to camp in early June.
Just before mom went into the hospital, she cashed in all of her pennies to get me a beautiful birthday cake from Grace Bakery in Los Angeles and she paid for a tent along with a dance floor for the party. I even had a flowing tower punch bowl and catered food. I had a memorable birthday party and somehow I believe she sacrificed to do it because she wasn’t sure if she would make it through the surgery due to all the risks involved.
There isn’t any way I could have dealt with losing her too…
The week prior to my birthday my mother departed for her surgery, having great confidence that she had left me in good hands with Linda; believing that she had taken great care to leave her with enough money to pay for upcoming bills, food purchases, and rent for the next two months.
None of this would occur. Not only did Linda not help with the birthday party, she eventually took the majority of the cash and used it for her own purposes; putting me in the position of coordinating the delivery of everything and having to take care of myself. I found myself at just 11 years of age, completely alone in our apartment. I had to figure out how to get the bills paid with the debit card my mom had thankfully left with me for emergencies. I quickly figured out how to deposit my mom’s disability checks that came in the mail and keep myself fed and safe until the end of the school year.
I had been taught not to share with anyone, including Claudette, that she was in the hospital, so no one really knew what was going on.
Luckily, I had my friend’s Lela and Fatima to at least keep me company. As planned, I went to camp for one week. I made friends and it helped me get my mind off my mom.
While there, I received word that she had experienced some side effects with her surgery, prolonging her hospital stay until late July. But, the good news was that she was alive.
By the time mom returned home, she quickly discovered that I had been pretty much raising myself while she had been away. Her relationship with Linda was never really the same after that. although they technically remained friends, she just stopped spending time with her and things were extremely strained and tense.
Following the operation, mom required lots of rest and quite a bit of assistance with physical therapy to regain her ability to walk. Although she did have a caregiver who came in to help her for a couple of hours a day, I still needed to not only care for myself to a great extent, but also be a caregiver to her as well. at least for a few hours a day after school and into the evening.
That was how I spent the remainder of my summer; however, I couldn’t have been happier that she was home.
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