So boy, don’t you turn back. / Don’t you set down on the steps / ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. / Don’t you fall now — / For I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. – Mother to Son by Langston Hughes
I discovered this poem at some point during my teenage years and from the very first time I read the words out loud, they spoke to me. Touched me. Made me feel things I’d never felt before. Like they immediately became engraved into who I was supposed to be. Even though I hadn’t the slightest clue what or who that was. And how could they not? My life till then had been nothing more than sacrifice – the sacrifices of my parents, their parents, my siblings, my cousins, my uncles, and everyone else in between.
If you didn’t work hard you’d never get ahead. That’s just the way it was. Black and white. No gray area to ponder. We knew the language. That meant we’d made it just a step ahead of everyone else – including my parents – and that was good enough. A high school diploma, as good as any four year degree! We weren’t the Tanners, the Strattons, the Bradys or even the Winslows from TV. In all honestly, we were more like the Beverly Hillbillies than anything else…except we didn’t have the millions of dollars they did from all that black gold.
So college was never really a subject matter up for any serious discussion in our home. My parents wanted us to get an education, they did, but they knew as well as we did that there was no money for a college education, much less for seven of them.
Fast forward just a few years later…and there we were. Me in a tie and suit, my sister in a black cocktail dress, both of us in our caps and gowns, our yellow tassels to one side, feeling hundreds of emotions all at once, wondering to ourselves how the hell we got here at all?
Right there, with the orchestra playing, our nervous walk into the stadium, the thousands of people cheering from their bleachers, our eyes searching everywhere for our family; in that one instant, all I had were memories. There was the spanking with the wooden paddle I’d gotten in kindergarten from Ms. Keller for spitting out my water; the blur of our saying goodbye to our elementary school teachers after being deported; the marching to the beat of “mexicanos al grito de guerra” in Mexico; the fear of entering the fifth grade in a brand new city; my only friend Ambrosia that same year; running the halls in middle school to get away from Slim, our school’s security guard, when we were skipping; the warmth of Mrs. Quirk’s encouragement; my English teacher telling me I should be a writer; my art teacher yelling at me for getting gum on her skirt; my counselor at Eisenhower High School telling me I wasn’t going to graduate if I didn’t start coming to class; all of the Tejano dances we had in our cafeteria; and then, the sound of my sister’s high heels running down the hall, always a few minutes late, to the few classes we did take together at the University of Houston.
They called her name. And then my own. There! It was done. After well over four years of studying and working, staying up late, taking all kinds of crazy shifts, crashing for one exam after another, just like that, we were college graduates. I didn’t feel any different, but I could see it all in my parents’ eyes.
Langston Hughes came back to me, word for word.
Note from the Author:
This post is dedicated to all of the young people out there, who just like me, have struggled with their higher education dreams at one point or another, and is also part of the Latinos In Social Media (LATISM)-Univision partnership to create awareness about Es El Momento. Es El Momento is a comprehensive, multi-year national education initiative created by Univision Communications Inc., in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, as well as educators and civic and community leaders from around the country, with the aim to improve academic achievement among K-12 Hispanic students with a specific focus on high school graduation and college readiness. For more information on Es El Momento visit www.eselmomento.com