The Story: One Good Suit

onegoodsuit

I would like to dedicate my story to both my community in Salem, and my family. You will always be my inspiration. Thank you for pulling me out of the darkness.

Chapter 1: The Power of a Name

“Why is Victor so angry?” They would say.
“Victor, It cannot be that serious”. They would say
“Victor, you have to calm down” They would say
“Victor Cruz, please report to the office” They would say. Both of my brothers and I would report, even though my brothers knew that the principal was calling me. We were like the three musketeers, “All for one and one for all”.

 

I attended a school system that couldn’t see past the angry child, who acted out in school because he was forced to live in silence in his home. But I have always felt like I had good reason to be angry. I grew up in poverty, and my early childhood and adolescence were filled with domestic violence. The screams of my mother being beaten by my drug dealing and alcoholic father still haunt me. The shame of my father’s crimes and abandonment is still fresh. The days my mother, my two brothers, and I spent homeless still tug at my strings. The days our family spent hungry, still makes me anxious about my next meal. The physical and psychological abuse that we suffered at the hands of my stepfather still leaves me sleepless many nights. I was voiceless and powerless. But at the time, I had come to terms with being voiceless and powerless because that was my reality and all I had ever known.
But at least I was not nameless. And that name is not, I repeat it is not VICTOR because that is my father’s name. It may be the name that he gave to my two brothers and me, but that is not my name. My father decided that I would continue the family tradition of naming the men on his side of the family Victor. Victor is a Roman name, meaning “conqueror”. My mother, on the other hand, was allowed to give middle names to her three children. She gave my older brother the name Miguel (Meaning: Who is like God?), and my younger brother the name Steven (Meaning: Crown; wreath) . She gave me the middle name, Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”. But when she felt Emmanuel was too long for her to say she called me Manuel. But when my peers could not say Manuel, the way my mother and brothers said Manuel, my name became Manny. That is my name because it is the one that my mother gave me, and ultimately the one that I chose.

During my childhood, I would become so angry when my teachers and peers called me by a name that I did not choose. But, I was even angrier when they told me that I should change it. In retrospect, I do not fault them because I could not articulate why I was angry. I did not have a voice. As I grew older, I would simply tell them that I did not like the name, and I had very personal reasons for not going by that name.
Together, with my brothers, I had embarked on a quest to give new meaning to the name Victor Cruz. We were going to keep this name in spite of our father because doing so embodied “All for one, and one for all”.

Chapter 2: The Mask We Live In

The first time I saw this video was last semester working with an organization called the GoodMenGang (GMG). While working with GMG I had the opportunity to mentor ten at-risk eighth grade boys as a Leadership Coach in the GMG’s Greater Leadership Institute. The Greater Leadership Institute is an eight-week program, in which participants attend facilitated group meetings and workshops, where a weekly competency is introduced such as self-knowledge, self-value, and self-direction.

In this particular week, we were focusing on self-knowledge. Most of the young men in the Greater Leadership were thirteen or fourteen years old. Many of them were struggling but could not recognize that their detrimental behavior in and out of school was a call for help. I could see my peers, and myself in each of these young men. I shared my life story with those young men because I knew the power of vulnerability.

Before I wore my suit, I wore a mask, and I did not wear a mask because I was posturing. I wore that mask because my soul fractured by the pain of not only my father’s absence, but also because of my stepfather Carlos.

When I was about six years old, my mother would meet my stepfather Carlos, and for some time she was really happy with him. Carlos was kind to her, and he was good to us. Carlos would take my brothers and me to the park, pools, and so many places we never knew existed. Everything we did with Carlos was a new experience. I have a fond memory of staying home sick from school, and Carlos took me for a ride to meet his friend. When his friend asked who the kid was, he responded this is my son. I remember hearing him say this words, and how it filled me up with joy. Carlos seemed to love our family, and he eventually introduced us to his daughter, Katherine who to this day, I remain close to. But, Carlos like my father before him become absent from my life. I was unaware that this man also had character faults. He was a drug dealer, and one day he was caught. He was in the country illegally and was eventually deported.

A few year later Carlos, would return and rejoin our family. Except he was no longer the Carlos we had known. He became a disciplinarian. Carlos wanted to raise my brothers the way he was raised by his father, by the law of the belt and the fist because that is “how you raise men”. At the time, we were living in Lynn MA, and Carlos found that it was an unfit city to raise a family so he decided that we would move to Salem.

I was really upset about being uprooted. It was December, and I was in the middle of third grade. Having to leave the neighborhood, my school, friends, and the comfort of our home. I remember my teacher being upset because I was finally starting to make progress in the classroom. The thought of moving brought back the emotions of being evicted and being homeless.

Carlos had enrolled us at Horace Mann Elementary, which was close to our new house on Ropes Street. When he brought the U-Haul truck, and we started driving to our new home in Salem, I started crying. The thought of a new life, and having no friends in a new school terrified me. As my mother tried to comfort my fears, Carlos turned to me and said: “Be a man coño”. It was the beginning of my induction into the world of “machismo”.

In Latin America, to be macho was above your feelings and vulnerability. Carlos made it known to my brothers and me that tears and disobedience would not be tolerated. They would be met with force until we “learned how to be men”. Being a man became synonymous with violence. In our home, we were expected to “be seen not heard”. Every beating we took at the hands of Carlos made it more and more difficult to focus in school because the only priority I had was protecting my mom and my brothers. Every time something happened in school, a teacher offering constructive criticism or perhaps a peer playfully teasing me, it stung like Carlos’ belt. So what was my defense mechanism? Anger. My life was out of control, and so was I, but I could not tell anyone what happening at home.

That is the thing about being an at-risk youth. Depending on your situation you know exactly how the process will play out. The school would call the department of children and families, they would interview my brothers, my mother, perhaps my neighbors, friends, and of course me. Eventually, DCF would have discovered Carlos existed. My biggest fear was that my brothers and I would be taken away from my mother and put in foster care. That somehow they would blame my mother, even though she too was a victim. So I became the “angry kid” because I thought it would signal to my teachers and peers that I was to be left alone (it had the opposite effect). I had to protect my family. But I was only ten years old, I could not shoulder that burden and keep that cracked mask on forever.

It was during a career day in the fourth grade that I slipped up. I had met my classmate Paloma’s mother who worked for the department of children and families. Paloma’s mother had only briefly shared with me, what her job was; removing children from violent homes. I asked Paloma’s if I could have her phone number, and both Paloma’s mother and my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Connell wanted to know why. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them. Later that day, when I was sent to go see Mrs. Russo the school guidance counselor because she had caught wind of my request for the DYS number.

While I never mentioned the abuse at the home in this meeting, (We met often) I did divulge the existence of Carlos which I had never done before. I had never told anyone that he existed because my mom made it very clear that we were never to talk about what happened in our home with anyone. It was as if Carlos was a monster in nightmares that I wasn’t supposed to talk about.

Mrs. Russo had deep suspicions that my violent behavior in school, was somehow connected to Carlos. Mrs. Russo called the department of youth services, and the next week a series of wellness checks were conducted in our home. My mother was given advance notice that they would be happening. My mother told Carlos, and he made the decision to leave the house until the wellness checks were over. When the DCF representatives did show up to our house, I told them exactly what they did not want to hear. “Everything is normal in our house…I get angry because I don’t like school…Carlos? Oh, I made that up for attention…” I felt that there was too much at stake. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was only going to make matters worse.

When Carlos returned to the house after the wellness check was over, he convinced my mother that I was never allowed to speak to Mrs. Russo or any counselor again. I was forced to bottle up my anger, hatred, and despair. Those emotions filled the cracks in that mask, like asphalt on a concrete road. I had reached the fork in the road of my early childhood. But I did not have a choice in the matter in which path I would take; Carlos made those decisions for our family now. We were forced to walk a dark path of isolation, fear, and abuse.

Road

What happens to a child when he is forced to live in silence?
Does the child lose his joy?
Perhaps the child turns to anger, sorrow and violence?
Will he forget his aspirations like his old favorite toy?
And what of his tears?
Are they capable of making his hopes and dreams erode?
Maybe he gives in into all of his fear
Or maybe…he EXPLODES

Chapter 3: The Law of the Belt and the Fist

When I write about my story, I am liberated, and I am at peace. I cannot remember all of the details but I can remember how I felt…I have these memories. As the blood rushed from my heart to every part of my body. The rush of blood caused by the adrenaline, that my rage had summoned. I had been angry so many times, and each time there was a bit of a thrill. Immediately after an episode, I would have to fight back a smile, and it was really the only time I let out a genuine grin. My anger would manifest in so many forms. In those moments, I would punch a door or kick the floor, yell to the highest heavens, or swear as I flapped my gums like a bat out of hell. And they would call me crazy…

But I was not crazy. At any moment, he could come back…Every night imagined it, I was chased and haunted by him, and some nightmares he killed me. I was not crazy…I was traumatized. (Listen, as I take you back)

It was the year that I started fighting back. I was only eleven years old, I could no longer be contained, and I was ready to explode. Enough was enough.

I was only a year removed from being hospitalized for writing a suicide note in school. “I would be happier if I was dead I wrote”. I detailed how I planned to do it after school. I would not let Carlos have my life.

I was in sixth grade when it happened. Although my mother had forbidden me from speaking to Mrs. Russo, she had no idea that Mr. Russo worked at Collins middle school. Technically, I had not disobeyed my mother’s rules by speaking to Mrs. Russo’s husband.

As Mr. Russo walked me to Salem Hospital he just wanted to know why I did not come to him before writing that note. What is done, is done I told him. When I arrived at the hospital, I was greeted by a psychologist. She wanted to know exactly what I was going through. I could only describe it as living in a white room that felt like it was closing in on me. She diagnosed me with clinical depression, and I was to be immediately hospitalized until I could assure that I was not a threat to myself.

I remember gleefully staring at Carlos from the hospital bed. I ordered ice cream for my mom, my brothers, Katherine, and even for him. I was thinking to myself that he could not hurt me here. Doctors, nurses, and security would occasionally come by to check on me to make sure I was safe. But it was not until visiting hours were over, and Carlos had rounded up my family to head home, that it occurred to me that they were not safe. I was only thinking about myself up until I watched them walk out together. I had to get home…my family was in danger.

For the next two days, they would send the same nurse, the doctor, the psychologist, and the priest to see me (occasionally in different orders). I would tell them all the same thing. “I am better now, I really am, I was just really upset that I got suspended”. I was persistent and apparently persuasive. On the third day, I cut a deal with the psychologist. I could go home but they would need to send someone for some house visits. I knew how to handle house visits.

Carlos grew more volatile. Maybe it was the fact that he had almost been caught in the act, and he was afraid that I was no longer afraid to die. All I know is that we could no longer co-exist. But I had made a mistake. I told my mother about him abusing us when she was not home. She confronted him and it only shifted the abuse from us to her. I remember vividly as he choked my mother on the staircase…with every passing moment, Carlos drained the life out of her. My brothers were paralyzed by the fear, they could barely move. I snapped out of it myself, and reached for the phone and threatened to call the police. I could not watch my mother die.

Carlos initially ignored me until he heard the actually dialing of the numbers. Carlos quickly changed his attention from my mother to me. He charged at me, picked me up, and slammed me to the ground. He started choking me, in an effort to squeeze the life out of me. His eyes were bloodshot. Carlos looked like the monster I had always imagined him to be. I resisted with all my might and anger. Yelling at him and telling him that I hated him. I was finally fighting back. If that was the day that I was going to die then at least I would have died knowing that I wasn’t afraid of him. My mother recovering from her own injuries was able to call the police. Carlos let me go, grabbed his car key, and took off in his jeep.

Unfortunately, it was not over and we had only gained temporary relief. I would have to live under the same roof as the man who had just tried to kill me….at least until the summer. My mother and Carlos had decided that it would best if he went to the Dominican Republic for the summer until things quieted down with the house visits. He was only thinking about self-preservation. I had exposed him…when he left we offered each other no words, we stared each other. We would have to wait until our next meeting to settle the score.

When he tried to return to the United States, customs officials found out that his papers had been forged. Carlos was put into custody and was going to be deported.

Checkmate

Chapter 4: The Confrontation

 

We have reached a place where nothing looks back except what we know.”

 

We were finally free from Carlos reign of terror. But what I didn’t anticipate was that in fact I would be left with trauma from all that I experienced in the years that Carlos abused us. When I entered into seventh grade I was still angry, I still couldn’t focus in the classroom, and I certainly didn’t have any more respect for my teachers. All I knew was anger, fear, pain, and sorrow. I was trapped in my not so distant past, and it was my own personal hell. In the back of my mind, I was always afraid that he was going to return. Luckily for me, I had developed a relationship with Brad Maloon the conflict resolution coordinator. Brad encouraged me to join the peer conflict resolution team so that I could become  more involved in the middle school. Brad also made me a captain for the flag football and whiffle ball teams, and  to run for class senator. While these increased my engagement with the school that did not translate into better behavior or grades. I only made incremental progress.In the back of my mind, I was always afraid that he was going to return. I was fortunate that I had developed a relationship with Brad Maloon the conflict resolution coordinator. Brad encouraged me to join the peer conflict resolution team so that I could become  more involved in the middle school. Brad also made me a captain for the flag football and whiffle ball teams, and  to run for class senator. While these increased my engagement with the school that did not translate into better behavior or grades. I only made incremental progress.

In the back of my mind, I was always afraid that he was going to return. Luckily for me, I had developed a relationship with Brad Maloon the conflict resolution coordinator. Brad encouraged me to join the peer conflict resolution team so that I could become  more involved in the middle school. Brad also made me a captain for the flag football and whiffle ball teams, and  to run for class senator. While these increased my engagement with the school that did not translate into better behavior or grades. I only made incremental progress.In the back of my mind, I was always afraid that he was going to return. I was fortunate that I had developed a relationship with Brad Maloon the conflict resolution coordinator. Brad encouraged me to join the peer conflict resolution team so that I could become  more involved in the middle school. Brad also made me a captain for the flag football and whiffle ball teams, and  to run for class senator. While these increased my engagement with the school that did not translate into better behavior or grades. I only made incremental progress.

For every two steps I took forward, I took at least one back. The habits I formed over the last six years were not going to disappear overnight. I struggled throughout the rest of my middle school years, but I did just enough to graduate from middle school. The summer going into freshmen year we had taken a trip as a family that summer to the Dominican Republic for a month, and it would be the first time that I would return to my mother’s home country in eight years. While I was excited about seeing my mother’s family, I was deeply concerned that my mother would want to see Carlos.

Sure enough, as our trip was coming to its conclusion, Carlos made his appearance. My mother invited him to come see us at our uncle’s home. I could not bring myself to understand at the time why she wanted to see the man who was only two years removed from attempting to kill us. When she told us that he was coming to see visit, I felt incredibly betrayed.

I was shaking violently. I was in a sheer state of panic.Carlos was the source of so much of my anger, and anxiety. The mere thought of him had been haunting me for the past two years. But when we did finally meet again, something incredible happened. My perception of Carlos completely changed. That summer I had a growth spurt of about 9 inches and begun to fill out my frame. I was no longer that little boy, and Carlos was no longer the giant monster that I had perceived him to be. He was about 5’6 inches and had lost a substantial amount of weight. I now towered over him.

The legal process of being deported also had some unintended consequences. While Carlos was being held in the United States awaiting to be deported,  word had reached his local town that he had been detained. His home was broken into and most of his possessions had been stolen. He had little to nothing left. He looked like a broken man, and at the time I pitied him. I no longer could perceive Carlos as an invincible and otherworldly monster. Instead, I saw him for what he really was; a flawed human being that was just as at the mercy of life and circumstances as anybody.

A week later my family and I  boarded the plane that would take us back home. As I walked through the terminal I felt like I received closure by facing my biggest fear.  This trip to the Dominican Republic provided me with an opportunity to reconnect with my roots and family, and to gain perspective on my life. Look backing and knowing what I know now, it was clear that this marked a new beginning for me in my maturation into the young man I was hoping to become. But, I could not have anticipated just how ill prepared for my next challenge I was; High School.

Chapter 5: Man[ny]’s Best Friend

 

 

Preface: 

Growing up I knew that we were poor, I just did not understand the social implications of living of poverty in America. I had always compared my conception of ‘poverty’ with the way I had seen poverty experienced by family and the people of the Dominican Republic. Let me be clear the motherland is a beautiful place; from its famous pristine white sand beaches to the countries resilient people. We had gone there when we were small children mostly up until the last trip I had discussed in my last entry.  My entire conception of poverty throughout my childhood was based on seeing a country that had unreliable electricity, water supply, high unemployment, and where the suffering of the people was present every day. Even through all the things that our family had endured, my mother had always made it clear to us, that as long as we were American citizens there was hope. At a later time, I want to expand upon my family history.

 

High School: A social challenge

My first couple of months I had actually performed incredibly well in the classroom. I had very few outbursts, and I had not been removed from class. But status in high school was largely tied to who was best following the latest fashion trends. We didn’t have the kind of disposable income for me to purchase new clothes and shoes every month. My mother had a modest budget and she was only able to buy the three of us some school supplies. My brothers did not have too much trouble with having a small wardrobe.  My  two brothers were relatively the same size and could swap clothes. Over the summer, I had close to a 10-inch growth spurt, and entering into my freshmen year of high school I was 6’0 tall. None of my old clothes fit me. I had two shirts, and a couple pairs of jeans. Most of my peers never repeated their outfits during the week. I wore those same two shirts almost every day.  In the first couple of weeks, it did not bother me.

It was not until I started I started getting dirty looks and heard the whispers about my wardrobe. But what was I supposed to do? Steal clothes? Sorry, that is illegal. Find a job? There weren’t too many people hiring fourteen-year-olds. We could not afford a car, which limited my mother’s job opportunities. I quickly learned that what made other accept you in middle school, didn’t apply in high school. Unlike many of my friends, my parents were divorced. My father fled the country and had never provided any type of financial assistance to my mother.

My mother’s  priorities for our family were making sure that there was food on the table, keeping a roof over our heads, raising us right, and paying the bills. She worked all day and night to provide for our family. We barely survived living with Carlos, and keeping up with the latest styles of clothing was not integral to our survival.

But I will admit, this superficial aspect of high school started to wear me down. I started to feel ashamed walking through the hallways of SHS.  I wore my coat almost every day because I did not want my peers to see that I was wearing the same clothes.  So I tried different things to make myself feel like I was not invisible. I

I tried becoming a student-athlete.  I had always wanted to play football and basketball. The problem was that the student activity fee, which was  $200, and that was too steep for our family to pay. I tried being the class clown because that does not require money. That did not work out to well for me, as I racked up detentions. I tried being the “smart student” but I did not want to put in the time and effort required to make the honor roll.   It was like every time, I tried to integrate myself into our high school’s community, I just did not fit in, and that made me bitter. So the last thing I tried was apathy. I slept through classes, I skipped classes, and I wandered the halls. Apathy was the one thing I was good at. There was one person that stuck by me, and that was my best friend Emi.

 

 

——Flashback

Emi and I had grown up together. He had orchestrated our meeting. Emi  moved to our neighborhood about a year after we had moved to Salem from Lynn.  Emi had previously lived in the Point Neighborhood, in close proximity to all of his friends. So when he moved to our neighborhood, he had gone through some of the same emotions that we had. Emi was going to miss his neighborhood friends and was not sure if this new neighborhood would even have other kids for him to play with.

One day Emi spotted my brothers and I going for a walk through the neighborhood. He grabbed his dog Fifi, a small but feisty  shih tzu mix,  and decided that she would serve as his friend magnet. He approached us with Fifi, and it ultimately led to me asking him if

I could walk his dog. The rest is history.

 

 

Emi had been there through it all with us (the good and the bad). He introduced me to many of my current friends. Emi brought us to different youth-serving programs that he engaged with. He always invited us over for family gatherings or to play Xbox. Emi always sought me out and included me in everything that he did. He witnessed the way Carlos had treated us. Emi was always there when we needed him.

——Flash forward———————-

Around December of my freshmen year,  during lunch, I was with some of my friends, and I had been picking on Emi. ‘Name calling’  and trash talking amongst friends was like a rite of passage.  But subconsciously part of the reason I turned my sights on Emi, was because everyone liked him. He was popular, and he fit in. I was jealous.

I really regret what I did next. I was showing off for the guys, and I decided that I would  slap Emi across the chin. It was a completely disrespectful thing to do to a friend. But I thought since we were just joking and horsing around. This was the norm for how teenagers in Salem high school interacted with each other. I should have expected that he would retaliate by slapping me on my chin. Emi slapped me back and was laughing at me, the same way that I was laughing at him. But in my mind others were allowed to be made fun of, or look stupid was anyone but me.

I could feel the anger building up. I stood up, with the full intention of fighting Emi. That’s right, I was going to fight my best friend, for doing what I had just done to him. I couldn’t swallow my pride and let him embarrass me in front of all of our friends (As I had done to him). I knew that was going to start a fight, but I didn’t care because my pride was on the line. I had to prove that I was tough and a man. I backed up to give myself space as I prepared to fight my best friend. It didn’t go as I had imagined it in my head.

I couldn’t swallow my pride and let him embarrass me in front of all of our friends (As I had done to him). I stood up, towering over him knowing that it was going to start a fight, but I didn’t care because my pride was on the line. I had to prove that I was machoand a man…just like Carlos had taught me.  I backed up to give myself space as I prepared to fight my best friend. It didn’t go as I had imagined it in my head.

——————————————————————
It was like the universe was exacting cosmic justice on me. As I was backing up I tripped over my backpack and fell to the floor. I found myself in a position of disadvantage, and Emi didn’t hesitate to pounce. He got on top of me and I braced myself for the beating. I was overmatched and overpowered. I braced myself for what was supposed to come next. My body instinctively  prepared to take the brunt of his blows. Pain, after all, it was all I had ever known.

However in that moment, Emi proved that he was a better friend to me than I was to him. Emi could have beaten me to a bloody pulp because I was in a position of disadvantage.  I was lying on the ground and he was on top of me. I had seen this scene before many times with Carlos. But instead, Emi decided that our friendship was more important. The blows never came.

Instead of hitting me, Emi punched the ground next to me. It didn’t take long for the teacher on lunch duty and a senior to separate us. The teacher immediately walked us over to the housemaster’s office for us to face our punishment. As the last bit of adrenaline wore off, I tried charging at Emi again. The teacher grabbed me by my collar and said,  “CUT IT OUT”. Before, the housemaster had come to see us; I started reflecting on what just happened.

I was going to give up my best friend, over my own hypocrisy. The old adage came into my head “do onto others as you would have them do unto you”.  Where was my empathy for the person that had always been there for me?Why did I think it was ok for me to physically and verbally assault Emi, but not for him to do the same? I wept because I believed that I just traded Emi’s priceless friendship for my hollow pride. I begged Emi to forgive me. Even in this moment, Emi proved to be the person that I had always known him to be.  Emi smiled as he reached out his hand to me and said, “I’m sorry too”. Emi cared, and for the time being that snapped me out of my apathy. As long as he was my friend, there was hope.

 

Chapter 6: Image Problem

 

Those kids are unruly…they just won’t listen…they are nothing but trouble…they are up to no good…those boys are crazy”

I have heard so many different versions of the same tune. I can only respond that I see these young men for what they are, and the potential they have to become the best versions of themselves.  “What do you do? Is it like scared straight?” 

No, I listen to these young men’s voices and their stories,  and I hear their desire to be something more. More than just the angry or the talkative kid who was kicked out of class. Much like myself at their age, they need someone to take the wild roller coaster of emotions they are dealing with, and to direct it. To turn their anger, despair, (and their ill-timed jokes) into the passion to change the world around them for the better. But why give voice to young men that some in society find undesirable? 

We are young men of color and we are who we are, not what the world (and the media) tells us we are. 

We go through things like anybody else. Sometimes, because of the stereotypes, and portrayals by the media, it feels like there is no chance at redemption. But we can climb out of any hole… with help.

 

————-The pendulum swings as I take you back——————————————

The resolution to my fight with Emi was good. My best friend would remain my best friend.

 

Mr. Wulf, the freshmen housemaster witnessed us shaking hands and chatting with smiles on our faces. When he asked to explain ourselves, we told him what transpired. I told Mr. Wulf that Emi never punched me. Emi got on top of me but I could see that he didn’t want to hurt me. There were no ill feelings towards each other. I told Mr. Wulf that Emi didn’t deserve to be suspended, but that I was willing to accept my punishment for starting the altercation. Mr. Wulf had seen that we shook hands before entering his office. After looking up our records, he could see that neither of has gotten into any trouble to this point. We were both doing well in our classes. He told us that we seemed like really good friends and we let our emotions get the better of us. Normally, under the schools policy, we would have been suspended for ten days for fighting. But Mr. Wulf instead chose to suspend us for one day for the scene we caused in the cafeteria.

He said our suspension would be effective for the next day and we could return to classes for the last period. I immediately began to panic because in my last period Algebra class, were some of the people that I knew would give me a hard time about what happened. If there was anything I knew about fighting in school, it was that whoever the perceived loser was going to be made fun of. I begged Mr. Wulf not to send me back to class, but he did so anyways. He assured me that if there was a problem that I should return.

As I anticipated when I reported to last period I could hear the whispers. All of the students in the school had half the day to gossip about me losing the fight. One of the boys in my class called out and said, “How does it feel to know that you got rocked”. Other quickly laughed and joined in. I immediately lost my temper, slammed my fists on my desks, and stormed out of the classroom back to Mr. Wulf’s office. I barged in, screaming “I told you, I told you, I told you, that this was going to happen”. He told me I could go home for the day so that I could avoid the same thing happening again after school.

After that day, I began to struggle even more with my identity as a freshman. I felt alienated in many of my classes and I didn’t fit into any group. I was a loser because I didn’t beat up my best friend. How stupid was that? I started to revert to old habits that I had in middle school, and I added a few new ones like skipping school. Fortunately, because I had done well in my classes to that point, all four of my teachers surprised me with an intervention. The message of the intervention was clear. I was slipping in their classes, and they wanted to help me get back on track. It felt good to know that they cared enough. If I had not started engaging in truancy, I may have finished that year on the honor roll.

 

That August, my childhood friend Greg was in a terrible bicycle accident. Greg and I had been friends since elementary school. Greg was a good person and a very talented basketball player. He had an infectious personality and a smile that could light up any room. He was the only freshmen that year to make the varsity basketball team at Salem High School. He was the future of the team. His accident shook me to my core

At the time of his accident, I began to grapple with difficult questions about my own mortality and purpose in life. Why did someone who had so much potential have the rug pulled from underneath him? I had become so depressed.  I pulled my mask  (refer to the Mask we live in the class anthology) out of my drawer and I put it back on.  I was sick and tired of feeling anger, fear, pain, and sorrow. I wanted to feel nothing  and be nothing. 

So when I entered my sophomore year, I decided that I would make others feel that way. I was rude, I was sarcastic, I was mean, but I was calm. I knew what my truth was. I hated myself, and I hated everyone else. I felt like it was me against the world. Eventually, this approach to life caught up to me. I tormented my chemistry teacher with my new attitude, day in and day out. One day she had enough and confronted me about my behavior.

It was the Friday before three day weekend. I was a bit more relaxed but I figured I could get away with more than I usually did.  She finally would take a stand…. rightfully and I only wished it had happened sooner. I was in the back of the classroom with my partner in crime Jesse. As she tried to prep us for a quiz of the day, I was making being loud noises and being disruptive with Jesse. She stopped said, “I have had enough, Manny get out of here I don’t care where you go just get out.” I pondered “How could someone weaker than me, make me look so foolish?”  Blinded by my arrogance, I called her an idiot and told her I would be back in no time.

During my lunch break, I went back to her class and asked if I could take the quiz now. She smiled politely, and said “Come see after school and we can talk about it”. I thought to myself she had calmed down, so I should be golden.When I came to her classroom after school, I noticed my former biology teacher was there along with my friend Ariel, who was also staying after. I thought to myself at least I didn’t have to be around my chemistry by myself. I told her “I’m ready to take my quiz”. She looked at me and started trembling. My chemistry teacher looked to my former biology teacher seeking reassurance that what she was about to do was the right course of action. My former biology teacher nodded to my chemistry teacher , and then my chemistry teacher finally said

Manny, I kicked you out of class, you can’t take this quiz…” she lectured me on how disruptive I had been since the first day. Anger quickly consumed me, I responded in a harsh tone “Ok, so why the hell did you ask me to come after school, for kicks and giggles?” She began to tremble again but the words came out “Manny, I want to talk about your behavior…you’ve been so disre I cut her off “You mean to tell me I’m not going to be able to take this quiz? I refuse to take a zero on this quiz”. She summed up some more courage and responded,“Manny you and your attitude, do you honestly think that you are in a position to make demands?

In that moment, she set me off, the mask slipped away and I walked out of the room, ignoring her words. In a fit of anger I smacked the door as hard as I could, and walked downstairs to the exit. When I got outside I began to pace back and forth, asking myself how she could humiliate me like that. My anger quickly turned to rage, and I found myself charging back to her room. Somehow “Listen you better let me take this quiz, and I can’t fail”. It seemed as though she had finally found her voice “Listen Manny, don’t think you can just come here like a small child, and think that a fit of anger is going to change my mind.

I began to shake violently, it was as if my body was encased in all of my hatred. I was in between two chemistry tables; I lifted them both above my head, and slammed them to the ground. I never used words throughout the encounter, I just screamed like a madman, and bolted out of her room. Looking back, I know I was projecting all of my social ills onto her. She wasn’t asking for much. She wanted to be treated with respect and dignity, and for me to understand that I didn’t have the right to disrupt the learning environment. I couldn’t see past my own life. It was always about me, me, me, and more me. I felt like at every turn I was being persecuted. The hand I was dealt was unfair so I had to take it out on everyone around me. I still wasn’t able to be empathetic nor could I draw true strength and resilience from my life experiences. There were going to be consequences for my outburst
When I woke up in the next day I thought nothing of it. I figured I had a three day weekend to cool off, and so would my chemistry teacher. I imagined she would use the time to reconsider allowing me to retake the quiz. It was late in the afternoon when a phone call, from the school, came in from Mr. Shevory, my housemaster. I’ll never forget what was said on that message “Dear Mrs. Cruz, we are calling to inform you that your son Manny Cruz, is being suspended for ten days for threatening a teacher, and could face possible assault charges, we are taking this matter very seriously…”. I found myself in a state of shock as the words “assault charges” ran through my head over and over again.

I thought to myself, how could they believe such lies? There were two other teachers and my friend in the room, I had never laid a finger on her yet I was facing assault charges. Again, I could not  see past my own life.  How did my chemistry teacher feel when she saw that angry young man? Did she feel safe? Where was my empathy for her?

To make matters worse was, a couple of hours later Officer Fecto the school resource officers showed up to my house. My mother was crying and I buried my face in my hands in the sheer shame of my actions. He began to tell me all the trouble that I was about to be in, but he would give me a chance to advocate for myself. All the emotions I had been bottling up all this time just gushed out of my eyes. I cried so hard, feeling truly powerless to control anything in my life. I pleaded my case and tried told the man everything, and I mean everything. 

 

He could have taken me away in cuffs, instead, he listened. Officer Fecto saw the pain in my face and heard it in my voice too.  Officer Fecto knew that all I had gone through was weighing heavily on my heart. He said he would give me a second chance, on the condition that I took anger management classes, and that I would write my chemistry teacher the apology she deserved.

 

It was during this ten-day suspension my mother presented me with “the suit”. She found the suit for an affordable price at local thrift store. I thought to myself. “When would I ever wear this?” I wasn’t going to the prom, I didn’t attend church, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to run for student government president. My mother assured me that the day would come and that I would look my best. This would become a great example as to why we should never question a mother’s intuition. The suit would go on to become a symbol for my transformation from a troubled youth into the young man I am today.

 

The charges were never pressed, and when I returned to school Mr. Shevory told me “I had to change my image”. I could not understand how I was supposed to do that at the time, but I was given a second chance, and  I was determined to find a way.

 

Chapter 7: OneGoodSuit It Takes a Village

It was during my ten day suspension my mother presented me with “the suit”. She found the suit for an affordable price at local thrift store. I thought to myself. “When would I ever wear this?” I wasn’t going to the prom, I didn’t attend church, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to run for student government president. My mother assured me that the day would come and that I would look my best. This would become a great example as to why we should never question a mother’s intuition.

When my suspension was over, I felt more alienated from my peers. My interactions with teachers felt very different. I approached every interaction with teachers, as if they were all very aware of what had transpired between Ms. Tyrell and myself. If I thought I was a social pariah before it was worse now. The only thing that kept me from total isolation from my peers, was the fact the Boys and Girls Club was having basketball tryouts. A few kids I knew where trying out for the team, and they were encouraging me to join them because I was tall. They weren’t interested in being my friend. But I loved basketball and I convinced myself to that going to the tryouts was worth it.

I was wrong. I initially tried out for the 18 and under tryouts but found them very difficult. The teen director, Andre Daley, was a former college basketball star. He took no prisoners. He was interested in building a roster of guys that would work hard, and could handle his criticisms. I had never been pushed this hard in my life. I was sore and exhausted. I didn’t want to continue. The next day was another try out and I left Andre with the same impression that I left many others with. That I was a quitter. I made up an excuse as to why I could not try out that day. I decided that I would take the less challenging route, and try out for the less experienced 15 and under team.

It wasn’t until a Boys and Girls club travel team game, I decided to make a change. Our regular coaches had a heated argument during a practice, and as result they were suspended. Andre, was asked to coach our team. We were playing against an undefeated Brockton team, and they went up by as much twenty points in the first half. During the half time, we had all assumed that Andre was going to let us have it. Instead he opened up the huddle by saying “Do you guys have any pride? Those guys that are out their do not respect you or the game of basketball. If you had pride, then you would put in an earnest effort to show that you are better than that first half. Do you guys believe in yourselves” What’s the worst that could happen if you gave it your all? “. As I looked around the huddle I made eye contact with my teammates. I could see that we all felt the same way about what Andre had said. Why not us?

In the second half of the game I worked so hard to lead the team an improbable comeback. I poured my heart and soul into the court, on every possession. We didn’t win but that Brockton team was stunned by our effort. It was a moral victory that resonated with us. We believed that we were the better team, and we nearly achieved our goal. Instead of being defeated, we were so excited about the idea of playing again.

On the van ride back home, Andre said something to me that I hadn’t heard in such a long time and that I’ll never forget. He said “This was a good game. But I want to take a minute to acknowledge someone. Manny. I’ve never seen someone work so hard. I’ll be honest when I first met you, I thought you were lazy. But you proved to me just how wrong I was. You made me a believer. You’re so young, but you lead these guys tonight.” Life seemed to tailspin out of control. In that moment I found myself grounded again. Andre in that moment did more for me, than he may have realized. After this, I wanted to remember what it was like to have people believe in me. That recognition of my ability to be more than what others expected motivated me. I wanted my life back. I wanted to be loved again. I wanted more opportunities to prove that I could be a better person both on and off the basketball court.

Ever since that day, I did everything in my power to do the right thing. I realized I had a responsibility to my peers, to work hard, and be a role model just like Andre. I spent the rest of the year at his side, listening and learning from him. Despite my lack of talent on the basketball court, my hard work filled the gap. Every time Andre had a program I made an earnest effort to show up. I took the energy and thirst I had for basketball and translated into the social enrichment programs that Andre designed for us. We had workshops on character, conflict resolutions, time management, financial literacy, and I showed up to all of them. I also spent a good amount of my time asking Andre questions about life. Eventually, Andre would open up to me, and I would open to him. He told me his story of growing up in crime riddled Mattapan. How he was given two choices by the neighborhood gangs; you’re either with us or against. Despite the circumstances he survived, and because of his talent as a basketball player he was actively recruited by local colleges. But because of his grades in high school, he settled for a spot on the Roxbury Community College basketball team.

He would share stories about the amount of hard work that his coaches made him go through in order to prepare for a game. They had high expectations of him both on and off the basketball court. The coaches made an effort to ensure that he was both staying out of trouble and doing his work. They believed that Andre, was a special talent, and could be a leader for their team. Their bet paid off because he would go on to lead RCC to a junior national basketball championship.

Andre credited his transformation to the relentless support of his coaches.
The more time I spent with the Andre the more I grew as a person. I was starting to become a class room leader, and a leader at the Boys and Girls Club. I spent less time in the dean’s office too. That’s because instead of taking out my immediate frustrations on teachers or my peers, I started going to Andre, and actively seeking his advice on how to resolve conflict. I would often tell him a situation, and he would give me his honest assessment. He would validate my emotions, but also point out instances in which I was being empathetic of the other person. He stressed the importance of humanizing people if that is what I wanted for myself. What I had begun to practice was self-leadership. Taking ownership of my actions, and holding myself to a higher standard.

The club had done so much for me, and I tried my best to give back through community service and peer mentorship. For my efforts I was recognized as the 2009 Youth of the Year. I finally had an opportunity to wear the suit my mother had given me, and her premonition had come true. It was the beginning of many positive events in my life in which I would get to wear the suit while pursuing my dreams and passions. I became a role model, and mentor for many. I had committed myself to speaking passionately, and wearing a good suit instead of wearing a mask. But this was not the end of my story. It merely was the push I needed to make it to the next chapter which was college.


So Andre prepared me. He gave me a thirst for learning, success, and the mental fortitude to turn my life around. But my next test was in higher education. Andre could not follow me to College, and I was “too old” to be in the teen proram at the Boys and Girls Club. But now I knew the value of mentors, I just had to find them at the next level.

That fall I began my college career at Salem State University (Salem State College at the time). It was there that I would meet Rick Moylan. I now have had the pleasure and honor of knowing Rick for the past five years, as a mentor, classmate, friend and a member of my extended family. Together, at Salem State University we served on Student Government together for two years, serving the student body. Rick over the year has been one of closest friends, and I credit him with aiding me in my personal growth as a man. Rick is the epitome of what it means to be a public servant. He does all that necessary to bring out the best in others.

In my experience as Rick’s friend and peer, that is exactly what he was able to do for me. He challenged me to achieve my academic potential and to be a leader outside of the classroom. When I arrived at Salem State University, I was looking for an opportunity to be a better student and to reshape the course of my life. In high school, I was was disinterested in my education and wasn’t applying himself. It wasn’t until I met Andre that he helped to reshape my character and took me on my first college tour at Northeastern University. At this point, however, my apathy towards my education limited my choices for college. Andre assured me that if I went to Salem State, worked hard inside and outside of the classroom that I could transfer to Northeastern. Upon graduating from Salem High School, I knew that Andre could not follow on my next journey in academia because there were other teens who needed his guidance. I needed a support network of friends and mentors that would help me achieve my full potential at Salem State. Rick helped me to build that community.

I first met Rick in the fall of 2010. I spent the first month of my freshmen year adjusting to the academic rigors of college. Once I felt comfortable I decided that I could pursue my goal of joining the Student Government Association. I quietly sat down and observed one of their meetings to learn about the organization functioned. The following week, I interviewed with the President of the Student Government Association, and he agreed to nominate me to the freshmen senate. But before I could become a freshman senator, I had to be voted the current senate in a confirmation hearing. On the day of my confirmation, the senate floor was opened for questions, and Rick asked the first and only question. As he sat in his uniform, he asked me, “Why do you want to join student government?” His tone was sharp, his eyes were focused on me. I knew that he was expecting a well thought out answer. In my first impression of Rick, he struck me as a person that took his commitments very seriously. I provided my background, what I hoped to accomplish as a student, and why I wanted to join Student Government. My answer to Rick’s question appeared to satisfy the senate because they unanimously approved my appointment.

After the meeting, I approached Rick to express my admiration for his service and the uniform that he wore. At the time, I was a Park Ranger for the National Park Service. In the summer of 2010, I had finished learning about how the United States Army Calvary were the inspiration for the park ranger uniform. I was hoping to engage with Rick about the shared history of our uniform. At the beginning of our conversation, I informed Rick that I too wore a uniform. He looked at me and said, “Oh, what kind of uniform”. Rick looked at me with the same intensity that he had when asked his question. I thought to myself that perhaps I had rubbed him the wrong way. I told him that I was a park service ranger. Rick began to laugh, showing me a glimpse of the type of person. This type of laughter would become a staple of our friendship. Rick offered to shake my hand and said: “tell me more”.

The first project that Rick and I would work together on in the senate was a voter registration drive for the month of October. It was during this project that I got to see Rick’s lighter side. We discussed politics, the state of the university, and we even gave each other nicknames. Rick was wearing a yellow shirt, so I gave him the nickname “Colonel Mustard”, and I was wearing a red shirt, so Rick dubbed me “Captain Ketchup”. We would proceed to introduce ourselves to students with our new nicknames. Rick, believed that students were in college to learn, and the student government needed to reflect the student body in order to address their needs. However, it was clear that for Rick, that didn’t mean that we could enjoy ourselves in the process.

Later in the month after a student government event, the chair of the senate rules committee invited everyone to join her at home for dinner. It was during this dinner, that I opened up to Rick and my peers up about my upbringing. I wanted them to know about my struggles, and how that I intended to dedicate my life to improving the lives of others. I told Rick and the others about a close friend of mine, Greg, who had gotten into a life changing accident. He listened with empathy and wanted me to know that he would always be there for me. Rick exemplified this commitment with both words and actions. One example that comes to mind came after we had finished our classes for the day, Rick offered me a ride home. He asked me how my family was doing. At the time, my mother was dealing with medical issues. Our family does not own a vehicle, but Rick offered to drive us to the hospital. He was even willing to stay with us, and to pick her up afterward.

Throughout Rick’s time in student government (SGA), I could immediately see that Rick had a deep compassion for the struggles of others. To call Rick a humanitarian at heart would be an understatement. He embodies the qualities of an involved community member that actively gives back through community service projects. Rick had been recognized as the Executive Officer of the year for the SGA, for his commitment to his community and others.

Rick also served as the President of the Military Support Group (MSG) at Salem State. The MSG was one of few student organizations that admitted both veterans and civilians. Rick extended an offer for me to join him at a community service event at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital. The goal of the event was to have members of the MSG spend time with our veterans from past wars. For me, this was the first time that I had an opportunity to see the challenges that our veterans face after their service ends. I listened to veterans from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, etc. tell me about their lives. Many of these veterans were battling both physical and mental ailments. Rick, however, took it upon himself to go to see and spend time with the veterans with the most severe conditions.

Most impressive is Rick’s strength of character and his ability to rise above his fears and make others feel comfortable. Our journey in the SGA was difficult in terms of the poor relationship that SGA had with students prior to Rick’s presidency. Rick never complained about being tied to the legacy of the former admiration. He made it his mission to reform the SGA. Rick treated everyone with respect, recognized the inherent dignity of others, and listened to their struggled with empathetic ears. As the Treasurer of SGA, I had the pleasure of working with Rick in his presidency. I’ve watched him lead the charge as SGA began working on a bottom-up campaign to empower students. Rick tried in earnest to repair relationships that had been destroyed by the previous administration. Rick apologize to student leaders for actions he played no role. He studied the history of the organization and charted the course forward. Rick always makes a concerted effort to ensure that as an organization and individuals that we were striving to improve.

In our relationship, Rick has been an invaluable resource in a number of capacities. As a student leader, Rick advised me on how to manage my time and maintain his relationships in the community. I would often privately conduct a meeting with Rick in which we would exchange our life stories. Rick would constantly remind me, that as a STUDENT-leader, being a student first. Despite our deep commitment to the student body, we shouldn’t disservice ourselves. In previous administrations of the SGA, many members have not supported academically. Rick would host study sessions in the office, and encourage us to utilize student academic support service. Rick approached his work with the same or greater intensity and dedication that he put towards servicing our country.

It was mentors such as Rick and Andre that made me into the person I am today. I am forever indebted to them. Now it is my responsibility to do the same for others. Because for every child, there needs to be a village.

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