Fail to Win: The Ups and Downs of Earning a College Degree

I almost didn’t graduate from high school. With two-months left of my senior year, I was twenty-five credits behind the required two-hundred needed to graduate. I was embarrassed. I was seventeen-years-old, already having dedicated twelve-years of my life to schooling, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, years that were never coming back, and I was on the verge of throwing away all those years with nothing to show for them. This was my hell. I had done it to myself. I was aware of this. I tried to act like I didn’t care, but I did. I was tough on the outside, but inside I was hurting, ashamed. I wanted to graduate. I really did. I knew I owed it to myself. I owed it to my parents. I had enough sense to know that it wasn’t too late, so I shifted my attitude, and focused on putting in the necessary to get me across the stage as a high school graduate. 

In case you didn’t know, public school systems have a ton of safety nets in place to catch struggling kids and to help them stay on task and finish school. It’s not a good look for schools when their students don’t graduate, so they nudge them a little, shove them even, here and there, just enough to get them to get over the line. Some students take advantage of the resources and some don’t.  The truth is, in all honesty, that you’d have to be a fucking idiot to not graduate from public high school. Kids simply have to get over themselves and put in a little effort. That’s what I did. I swallowed some pride and made moves. The best move I made was enrolling in the After-School Credit Recovery Program at Mt. View High School in El Monte. This is where I went to school. I, along with the other fuck-ups, reported to the program for one-hour every day to make up missing credits. It was easy stuff, but even then, some kids finished and some didn’t. In a matter of weeks, I was done. I got the green light from my counselor and put in the order for my cap and gown and diploma cover. I cruised through the last weeks of my senior year and made sure to stay out of trouble.

I was definitely happier knowing I would graduate, internalizing the excitement of the accomplishment. I didn’t think the ceremony would be that big of a deal, but when the day arrived and my family was in the crowd and the stadium was packed and all my peers were wearing their caps and gowns and everyone was happy and smiling and taking pictures and I walked across the stage as my name was called, well, I was overwhelmed by a massive sense of happiness and relief. It felt so good! To this day, it’s one of the most important moments of my life.  My grandma was in attendance, too, so that made the day even more special. In fact, I remember her presence at the ceremony more than I do anything else. She died shortly after I graduated.

Thinking back on that time, I realize now that I was an emotional wreck during throughout my senior year. The thought of not graduating and the threat of failure weighed heavy on me. I had been carrying this weight around for some time without knowing it. I was surrounded by a lot of other bad things going on in my life, too. My grandma was sick, dying of cancer. I was working part-time and getting home pretty late, so I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. I was smoking weed and drinking heavily with the homies on the weekends. My parents were divorcing, and they were always fighting and arguing about money. They didn’t know too much about my grades and they didn’t ask. My little brother and sister were feeling the pains of the divorce. I wanted to care about school, but there was too much shit going on. To top it off, in the midst of my personal storm, the question of what I was going to do with the rest of my life was booming in my head. At seventeen-years-old, I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with my life. My future needed direction, and it needed it quickly! 

There were options on the table after high school, but I knew they weren’t for me. Working shitty jobs for minimum wage, which is what I had been doing since I was twelve years old, was always going to be one. I hated all the jobs I had, so continuing down the path of minimum wage was sickening. At some point during my senior year, I asked my dad if I could join the Army. This was the military option. My dad gave me an emphatic “No!” He joined the Army when he was eighteen. He and his brothers fought in Vietnam and Korea. He wouldn’t let me join, telling me that the military was full of racism and hate towards Mexicans. I knew enough about the military to know that there was some truth to what he was saying. There were a few more options. I could join the local gang and live the life of a gangster, but I witnessed this life up close on a daily basis from the gangsters in my neighborhood. That life wasn’t me. Most of these guys ended up dead or in jail. I could name quite a few. 

The other guys in my circle, the ones I kicked it with, weren’t putting too much thought into their futures after high school. Their lives were pretty much predetermined. They were going to follow the paths of their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, getting local, blue collare jobs and sticking with them for a long time, moving up the ranks because they know a homie that knows a homie that knows a homie. They’d put in their five-days-a-week at their jobs, sometimes six, and then party hard on the weekends, and then press “repeat,” over and over and over. They were destined to become Weekend Warriors, working during the week and getting wasted on the weekends. I saw this from the older guys in our neighborhood. It could’ve been my life cycle. It was within reach and there if I wanted it.

Then there were the other kids, the ones outside of my circle, the classmates that I didn’t hang with, the smart ones. Their conversations were different. They were actually talking about their futures. I’d hear things here and there, in passing or when eavesdropping on their conversations: “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to Rio Hondo.” “You?” “I’m going to Rio Hondo, too.” I kept hearing these words over and over. “Rio Hondo.” “Rio Hondo.” “Rio Hondo.” “What is Rio Hondo?” I wondered. I did a little digging and quickly found that Rio Hondo was our local community college. It was located on the edge of Whittier, close to South El Monte, very close to my neighborhood. In fact, it was only about two-miles from my house, but it might as well have been on the other side of the planet. Up until I heard the words “Rio Hondo,” I had no idea it existed, which, now that I’m writing this, is a pretty depressing truth.

In the final weeks of school, the talk of Rio Hondo intensified. At one point, someone even asked me what I was going to do. The question caught me off guard, but to save myself from embarrassment, I quickly blurted out, “I’m going to Rio Hondo.” It was a pretty stupid thing to say, and I felt stupid saying it, but I only said it because I was copying what these other fuckers were saying. My counselors had never mentioned the words “college” or “university” to me. I’m sure they never thought I’d go. None of the guys I knew from my neighborhood were in college, and none of them mentioned going. In fact, during that time in my life, I personally did not know a single person who was enrolled in a college or university. 

I should’ve known at least a little about community college. My father earned his Associate of Arts Degree (A.A.) from East Los Angeles Community College, but not even my dad mentioned college to me. One day, years later, after I had already earned an M.A. in English and had been a teacher for about five-years, my dad said to me at a family gathering, “You know, mijo, I thought you were going to be a fuck up.” It was kind of harsh to hear that, especially in front of my girlfriend. I let out an uncomfortable laugh, but as I think about that moment, I can’t really blame my dad for feeling that way. I had been a fuck up for a good portion of my high school years. Anyway, as it was, at seventeen-years-old, I was on my own to figure out this college thing, and without knowing how painful and demoralizing the journey was going to be, I set my sights on it.

Three weeks after graduating from high school, I was enrolled in a full-load of classes at the Rio Hondo. The semester was to start in September. I turned eighteen in August. I had heard someone say that being “independent” was good for college, so I asked my parents to stop claiming me on their taxes. As a result of my new found “independence,” most of the college costs were waived because on paper, I was poor. I was actually poor anyway, but the government likes to see that shit on paper to make sure. 

Now that I was in college, I had to learn about “majors.” A major is essentially the subject or field that you choose to study during your college career. I already knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be an architect. Ever since I was a kid, I liked drawing, and I was somewhat of a graffiti artist, as well, so I figured drawing houses and buildings would be natural for me. I enrolled in “Introduction to Residential Architecture.” I was required to purchase a drafting kit for the class. It had a lot of really cool things in it, things I didn’t yet know how to use. The rest of my course load included astronomy, Intermediate English, P.E. some other elective course. I felt pretty good about my situation, mature even, like I was in control of my life.

The first class I attended was architecture. Right away the professor asked us to draw a rectangle. I was sitting at the back of the class, as I did in high school, and I heard him say in a deep professor voice, “Draw a rectangle that is 2 ¼ in height x 3 ⅝ in length.” I froze, and sat motionless on the drafting chair, my jaw practically resting on the desk. I knew what a rectangle was, but I had absolutely no idea about those numbers to which he was referring. I knew they were called fractions, but that’s it. I had no clue as to how they worked or what they meant. I was horrible at math. Ironically, my dad was a math god! He majored in math in college. He did all that crazy trig and calculus stuff. I remember once, when I was in second grade, I asked him for help with my math.  He tried explaining things to me, but I simply could not understand what he was trying to explain to me. I tried with all my mental capacity, but it was just way too abstract for my brain. He then exploded, yelling at me and asking me how and why I could not understand. It was pretty scary. He had little patience with me, and as a result, I never again asked him for help with math. Instead, I simply avoided the entire subject. Now, as a young adult, math came back to bite me in the ass, leaving me stunned at my drafting table, absolutely helpless against drawing a rectangle with a ruler. I didn’t even know what the lines on the ruler meant. Needless to say, my being an architecture major lasted exactly two-minutes. I still have the drafting kit somewhere in the garage. 

This was my first college failure. It was immediate, and it hurt. I felt ashamed for being stupid at math. I felt stupid in general. I went through the motions in my other classes. I attended all of them, except the rectangle class. In fact, I rarely missed school. I loved going! If my car broke down, I would ride my bike, and if my bike had a flat, I would walk. Sometimes, as I walked to school, people that were in my classes would pass me by but they wouldn’t stop to give me a ride. I’d say, “Fuck you” in my mind and carry on. I rarely missed a day because I liked being at school. I was failing my classes, but I liked being around people, and there were a lot of pretty girls in my classes, and I was getting something out of it. I was absorbing knowledge and I was even participating and sharing my thoughts on an array of topics. Nevertheless, at the end of the semester, my report card had five F’s on it. I even failed P.E. It was a horrible start, but as always, the drugs and alcohol with the homies soothed the pain.

The spring semester offered a chance to get things right. This time I enrolled in basic math, basic English, baseball, swimming, and Intro to Philosophy. I was back at it with another full load of classes and a more positive outlook. My car had broken down, so I was walking or riding my bike to school. Extra motivation came from my trying out for the baseball team. I had played all my life, and I was good! Some things, however, stayed the same. I was still smoking weed and hanging with the homies on weekends. I got a lot of shit from them for going to college. “Look at this little bitch school boy,” they would say to me. “Fuckin’ vato has a backpack like a little bitch!” It was the same shit all the time with these guys, but I ignored the noise. I kept at. I would say to them, “How can I soar like an eagle when I’m surround by a bunch of fucking turkeys?” It’s still one of my favorite lines. 

As long as I was student, I was always going to take shit from my friends, whether I liked it or not. The only way to escape it was to move away, but that would difficult. We always posted up at Mando’s pad. It was our ‘hood’s epicenter. He had a pool table and an older brother that could buy us beer. We’d get wasted there, sometimes for two days straight. We’d cap on each other late into the morning, drink up and smoke, and then hit up our favorite taco truck on Durfee Ave. On one night, I was getting ready to ride back home when I realized my bike had two flat tires. I was furious because it was my only mode of transportation, and the flats meant that I’d have to walk to school. I didn’t have money to buy new tubes, so I knew I was screwed for a while. For about a month I walked everywhere. Then on another drunken night, Mando brought up the time when they let the air out of my tires so I wouldn’t ride home drunk. I had been walking for weeks, and all my tires needed was air. Turkeys!

I really wanted to do well in the spring semester. I wanted to prove to myself that I belonged in college. After a few weeks, though, my focus began to fade. There were too many distractions. My parents were officially divorced, but we were all still living under the same roof because my dad didn’t want to leave my mom the house, and my mom didn’t have the money to rent an apartment. Even after the divorce, the fighting was intense, and there was a lot of yelling and screaming. It was affecting my brother and sister, too. There was barely any communication in our house, and if there was, it certainly wasn’t healthy. We were living with two people that hated one another and there was no way out.

Nobody asked me how I was doing. I kept my head down. I went to work and school. On weekends, I was still getting fucked up with the homies.  It was a tough time. To make matters worse, at mid-semester, I was hit by a car on campus, and my bike was destroyed. Luckily, I came out of it relatively unscathed. I did get $2000, out of it, which gave me enough to fix my 1964 VW Bug. I again had a car. That was a major plus. In the end, however, I was still relatively directionless, and college was proving to be a difficult endeavor. With a few weeks to go before the end of the spring semester, I had four F’s and an A in baseball. Things were looking bleak. Then I was cut from the baseball team. I felt out of sync with the world, spiraling further and further away from a purpose, further from myself. The outlook was bleak. Then, out of the blue, I ran into Freddy. 

Freddy was a kid I knew from my old neighborhood in Rosemead. We went to Elementary and Junior High School together. Before running into him at Rio Hondo, I hadn’t seen him since the eighth grade because we headed to different high schools. “What’s up, Freddy? How you been?” I asked. He had his backpack on and was wearing glasses. He looked like a veteran of the junior college scene. “I’m good,” he said. “I’m just taking classes and trying to get out of here. How are you doing? How are your classes?” He didn’t know better in asking me that. “To be honest, I’m not doing good. I’m failing every single class,” I answered. “I failed the first semester, too,” I added. To my surprise, Freddy didn’t flinch. There was no judgmental look. Instead, he said, “You need to see a counselor.” “What?” I said. “They have counselors in college?” “Yeah!” Freddy said. “You go right through those doors.” He pointed at the main building. He said, “Just go in there and tell them you want to make an appointment to see a counselor. “Dude, thanks, Freddy! I appreciate it,” I said. “I’ll see later.” I walked over the main building and made an appointment with a counselor. Following Freddy’s ended up being one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. 

A few days later, I was in the main building, meeting with a counselor. I remember her being young and pretty. We sat in her office and she pulled up my transcript. It was embarrassing but I had to sit through it. She gave it a quick glance and said, “Ok. Let’s see. Wrong class. Wrong class. Wrong class. Wrong class. Mark, you’re taking all the wrong classes!” She pulled out a sheet and placed it in front of me. With the end of a pen, she started tapping at the list of classes on the paper. “You need to take this class, and this class, and this class, and this class!” Essentially, what she did was map out my entire college pathway, giving me a GPS to help me navigate my way out of Rio Hondo and into a university. I can’t emphasize enough how much this moment changed the trajectory of my life. It was a massive game changer, and from that point on, I was on my way! 

The first thing I had to do was change my major. I decided that I was going to tap into my strengths and major in Journalism or English. I should’ve made this move a lot sooner, as reading and writing were my two strongest skills. Since second grade, at Duff Elementary in Rosemead, I had been labeled a “gifted reader,” reading two grade levels higher than my classmates. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was reading at the high school senior level. I absolutely loved reading. As a young reader, I devoured everything by Donald J. Sobol, the author of the Encyclopedia Brown series. Oh, man, if you didn’t read his stories as a kid, I feel sorry for you! Encyclopedia Brown was this neighborhood kid detective that went around solving crimes that went down in his ‘hood. For example, if some kid’s skateboard got stolen or some other kid got her pet goose stolen, they go to Encyclopedia Brown for help. He’d then ask the kids a bunch of detective questions and then he’d set out to solve the crime, and he always solved it! The cool thing, though, was that in order for the reader to find out how he solved the crime, you’d have to go to the back of the book to read about the details and the clues involved in the case and how Encyclopedia Brown figured it out.. It was awesome! I never cheated, either. I never went to the back of the book until I had read the story. My teachers would call other schools or libraries to find me the books I hadn’t yet read by Sobol. They were so good to me. My elementary years were the best years I ever had in school. 

It helped that I come from a family of readers. At my grandma’s house, where my immediate family lived for a long time, the bathroom was known as “The Library,” and this was because everyone read while taking a dump. We all did. My grandpa loved to read, too, which is where I think I got my love for reading.  He would spend hours in his room, in his recliner, reading Spanish politics magazines like “Tiempo” and “Siempre.” I’d lay on his bed while he read, and I’d ask him about what he was reading. I didn’t understand but he took the time to explain to me what was happening in Mexico. My dad, too, would sit on the throne for what seemed hours, reading the paper, and on Sundays, he practically read the entire Sunday Edition of the Los Angeles Times while sitting on the toilet. It was actually gross because he would leave the door open. Don’t ask me why. We were lucky we had two bathrooms. I read, too, and sometimes, if I didn’t have a book or magazine, I’d read the ingredients on the back of the toothpaste: hydroxide, calcium hydrogen phosphates, silica and hydroxyapatite. I’d do my best to pronounce the words correctly. Sometimes I would take a dictionary with me and read it as if it were a regular book, reading words from A to Z.

With a confidence boost from my counselor, I was ready for year two. My new course load included English 101, Philosophy 101, Intro to Psychology, Astronomy, and a remedial math class (again). This time I was really determined to get my act together. I felt somewhat invigorated and eager to prove to myself that I could earn a college degree. Weeks into it, things were moving smoothly. I was on top of all my work and passing my classes and playing baseball for a team outside of school. I had a decent job, too, unloading trucks at UPS. I had a little cash on hand. Life was finally pretty good, but then things took another interesting turn, this time for the better. 

I had submitted an essay assignment in English class. I can’t recall the topic, but I do remember the professor calling me up to her desk during class. It was a small classroom and so anything that was said was heard by all. I stood beside the professor. She was seated. She had my essay on the desk so both of us could read from it. “Do you know what this word means?” she asked as her finger smoothed over the word on the paper. “Yes, it means _______.” I answered. “Do you know what this word means?” “Yes, it means ________.” “What about this word? Do you know what it means?” “Yes,” I said. “It means _________.” I then realized what she was doing. She was testing me because she thought I had plagiarized the paper. After defining all the words she asked, she looked up at me and said, “You know, you’re a really good writer. You should write for the school newspaper. You should go to their office.” I said, “Thanks,” and went back to my seat. My heart was pounding, as I was immensely proud of myself. It felt really good to be praised for something other than sports. I actually took her advice and floated all the way to the office of The El Paisano, Rio Hondo’s school newspaper. 

I submitted a sample to Larry Knuth, the paper’s advisor. I was quickly made part of the staff. Larry gave me the school politics beat. The very first article I wrote ended up on the front page of the paper, the main story. At the end of the year, I was awarded First Place as the best writer in the California Community College Journalism Association Competition. I still have the plaque at home, my most cherished trophy of all.  

So now my days consisted of school, heading to the El Paisano headquarters, working at UPS, and playing baseball on the weekends. School was going surprisingly well, except for math, which continued to confuse the hell out of me no matter how much help I received. I failed math three times, and it proved to be a major setback. In order to get to the math class I would  need to transfer to a university, I had to pass the prerequisite math class, the one needed to jump into the transferable class. I could not pass it, and little did I know that colleges allow you three chances to pass it. If you don’t, you must take a year off math before trying again. A whole year! 

Life was pretty good, and this short string of good fortune coincided with my mom finally finding an apartment. At the same time, my dad was in the process of purchasing a newly built home in Temecula, a startup town about an hour and half southeast of Los Angeles. It was at this time that my siblings and I had decisions to make. Which parent do we go with? For my brother and sister, it was an easy choice. They were going with my mom. I wanted to do the same, I really did, but I ended up choosing to move to Temecula with my dad. It’s not what I wanted to do, but I found myself feeling sorry for my dad because none of us wanted to go with him and I knew he’d be alone out there. It wasn’t a good reason, but it’s what I chose.

One day, a few months before we moved to Temecula (my mom and siblings were already gone), I was stuck in my room. Literally stuck. I couldn’t move. I was plastered to my mattress on the floor. My dad called me to breakfast. It took all I had in me to pull myself up and walk to the kitchen. We were both in our underwear at the kitchen table. It was a Sunday and he made menudo for us. I’m sure he sensed my sadness. I was hunched over my bowl and I didn’t say a word. “What’s wrong, mijo?” he asked. I was glad he asked. “I miss my mom,” I said. I was immediately sobbing into my menudo. I felt incredibly sad and empty. My dad got up to give me a hug. He wasn’t too affectionate with us, so for him to do that meant a lot.  “Go call her, mijo. Go call her right now.” I got up from the table and back to my room.  I plumped onto my mattress and tried to calm myself down before calling her. I was crying before my mom picked up. “Mom, I miss you! I miss you!” I could barely get the words out, but I kept saying them over and over! “ I miss you, mom! I miss you!”  “It’s ok, mijo! It’s ok. I’m here!” and she was crying and she was saying she missed me and were both crying hysterically and everything was fucked up because we weren’t together and I hated fucking life and I hated Temecula and I wanted things to get back to normal because fuck all of this. 

I felt much better after speaking with my mom. Hearing her voice and all the love it carried with it put me in a better place and bought me time, both emotionally and mentally, to deal with the loneliness I was feeling.

Temecula sucked! I think my dad and I were the only Mexicans in town. Every summer day was over 100 degrees. It was desolate place back then. However, looking back on that time, being there did actually give me a clean start. I was out of the ‘hood. I didn’t know a soul in Temecula. I had a lot of time on my hands, as my dad kept working in Los Angeles and made the three-hour round trip drive five days a week. I had no job and no transportation. I walked everywhere and jogged about six miles a day. I kept in shape, read, played the guitar, and wrote. But I was incredibly lonely. I missed my mom immensely, so much that it hurt the pit of my stomach. 

After months of looking, I finally found a job. I became a security guard at a construction site. I guarded plywood and 2×4’s from 5:00 p.m. to midnight. It was a horrible job that required absolutely no skills whatsoever, but I got paid to do it, so I wasn’t complaining too much.  No one ever showed up to steal the wood, so it was a really quiet and lonely job. I’m not sure how long I lasted at the job, but I know I wasn’t there long before I quit. 

It was 1993 and Temecula was growing rapidly. There was new home construction throughout the town, including a spot down the street from where we lived. Back in L.A. I was able to get a little experience in construction by working with a couple of friends that started working in the business right out of high school. Armed with the little experience I had, I went over to the site to ask for a job. The guy in charge said he didn’t have anything. I went back a few weeks later and asked again, but still nothing. Then I went back a third time and the boss asked me to show up the next day. I did. He gave me a hammer and a tool belt with nails and asked me to climb the second story of one of the homes. It was scary up there. My job was to nail metal brackets to secure 2×4’s to the frames. I started on a Monday. I took Thursday off and showed up on Friday. “What happened to you yesterday?” the boss asked. “Oh, I had to run some errands and take care of stuff for my dad,” I answered. I lied. “I saw you ride away.” Our home was visible from the site and so I guess he saw me take off on my bike. “Look, man,” I began. “I gotta quit,” I said. I was feeling really frustrated and annoyed. It wasn’t anything the boss was saying or even his attitude. He was pretty calm. I was upset at my own situation. “I’m no wetback, man. You have me on the second story of these homes hammering braces for five bucks an hour.  I have no insurance. I’m no wetback, man. I speak English!” The words kept coming. “Well, I could get anyone to do the job,” he said. “I know you can,” I said. “But I ain’t doing that shit for five bucks an hour. Sorry.” He didn’t fight me on it. Instead, he wrote a check for the hours I worked. I thanked him for giving me a job and went on my way. It was to be the last job I held in Temecula.

It was at around this time that my brother Juan called me to tell me that he had received an offer from our cousin Edward. Edward had asked my brother if he wanted to move into his apartment in Fullerton. He encouraged Juan to move in and to attend Fullerton Community College. My brother passed on the offer, but my heart was on fire when Juan told me about this. It was the offer I needed in my life at that time. I called my Ed immediately. “Hey, what’s up, Ed!” I said. I don’t think he knew why I was calling. I told Ed that Juan had mentioned the offer. I then asked if he would extend the offer to me since my brother had passed on it. Ed seemed hesitant. I know why. I was pretty much from the streets. Ed knew some of my friends. Ed and the guys he hung with were complete opposites. Ed worried about my influence, but I knew me. I knew I needed a chance and I wasn’t going to squander it. Eventually, Ed said “Yes.” I couldn’t leave Temecula fast enough. I said “Bye” to my dad. He was happy for me. He wanted to see me go and do things. 

I slept on Ed’s couch for the first six months. The apartment was roach infested. Sometimes I’d wake up with baby roaches in my ears. It was gross, but I endured. Finally, one of our roommates moved out and I was able to share a room with a kid named Carlos. He was from East Los. I attended Fullerton Community College where I finally passed the math classes I needed. I transferred to California State University Fullerton where I earned a B.A. in English. I then went onto the English Program at California State University Los Angeles where I earned an M.A.

If you’re ever feeling that it’s too late to improve your life, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. I didn’t receive my B.A. until I was twenty-eight years old. You simply have put your head down and go for it!

I had a lot of help throughout my academic journey. I needed it. None of what I accomplished could have been done alone. Throughout the process, I never gave up, even when I was shot at, held at gunpoint, incarcerated in L.A. County Jail (twice), jumped by about fourteen guys at a party, and involved in several other fights, and doing drugs with the homies. I always got up! It was not easy, but I never stopped. Even at Ed’s it was still somewhat tough. I ate spaghetti with grated cheese almost every night until I found a job. I couldn’t afford sauce, so it was simply pasta with a bit of parmesan cheese on top. It was so good! I rode my bike everywhere, too. Some things didn’t change.

In the end, my cousin Edward and my extended family saved my life. One of the things I’m most proud of is my willingness to ask for and accept help. I took it whenever and wherever it was available. The pride that often times prevents us from asking and accepting help must be swallowed. It must. The help I received allowed me to keep my eyes on the prize. I knew a college degree was going to improve the quality of my life. It has and it continues to do so. This much is true: If I did it, anyone can do it. Accept the help you’re offered and never give up. 

The End


For high school teachers, the Student Behavior Referral Form is perhaps the most popular and mostly used document in the world of education. This is because the “referral” provides the most powerful form of leverage teachers have in dealing with unruly and defiant students.  When used judiciously and appropriately, it allows teachers to formally dismiss a student from their class for a certain length of time, depending on the severity of the kid’s behavior. A dismissal can range from just the remainder of the period to a one-week suspension. In the most extreme cases, a referral could potentially lead to student expulsion.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that getting rid of that “one kid” is a game changer in terms of maintaining classroom management and creating a safe and effective learning environment for all students. If you have trouble picturing this, just imagine a kid wielding a knife in a crowded classroom and every student in this class cowering and nervous and completely aware of the knife and the kid. Imagine the tension level. Now, imagine the kid with the knife being removed from the class for good, no longer to ever return. Imagine the peace. There you go. This is what it’s like to get rid of that “one kid.”

Of course, because of its quick-fix quality, some teachers are keen on overusing the referral, often gratuitously. The power-struggle between a teacher and unruly kid can go on for some time, and when it does, resentment is born, causing the teacher to continually dismiss a kid just because he doesn’t like him. It happens. This behavior is no different than when a second grader gives candy to all her classmates, except to that “one kid,” because she doesn’t like him. Addressing the same problem child for 180 days would shrink anyone’s heart.

In my thirteen-year career as an English teacher (I am no longer a mainstream teacher), I had hundreds of reasons to write several referrals. I didn’t, though. This is because my patience level, for some reason, is almost Buddha-like. I don’t know from where it came, but I am blessed with a respectable level of tolerance and patience. In thirteen-years of dealing with vampires, kids that can suck the soul right out of a person, I pride myself on only writing two referrals in my thirteen-years as a mainstream teacher. Oh, believe me, I had those fucking forms filled-out and signed and ready to be delivered, but there was always a reason, a voice gently imploring me to refrain from doing so.

However, I gave in twice. One of the referrals, at least I believe, had legitimate cause. It was the last day of school, and during these last few weeks of classes, I had received two, telephoned death threats. When Alex said to me on the last day of school as he walked out of class, “Watch your back, Mr. C. You might get shot,” all while pointing a fake finger gun at me, I naturally balked and fell into self-defense mode. I reported it to our administrative team. The kid and his parents were brought in for a formal meeting, which ultimately resulted in Michael’s expulsion from the district. I saw him a few years later when I went to Little Cesar’s to get pizza for my class. He was the cashier. We remembered each other, and no hard feelings were had. I should’ve asked if he graduated. I hope he did.

Maybe Michael’s referral was warranted. His was the second I had ever written. Manny’s was the first. Manny was a pain in the ass of the highest order. He came to class prepared to test me every single day, and I absorbed his behavior and his remarks and his defiance. I was not going to let him beat me. He was a wannabe gangbanger, and he was always decked out in the standard Cholo uniform: oversized white T-shirt, oversized gray jeans, Nike Cortez, shaved head, and little starter mustache. His school supplies were rolled into a small tube and shoved into the back pocket of his 501’s, with a black pen clipped to the lip of the front pocket. It was all he ever brought to school, and in his eyes, it was all he ever needed.

When Manny said something like, “Fuck this shit! I ain’t moving. This is my seat!” I would ignore him. I’d wait a minute or so, then shoot him a look, just to let him know I hadn’t forgot about him. We’d lock eyes, and then he’d move back to his seat. When he was twenty-minutes late to our fifth period class, the class after lunch, I’d ask, “You got a pass?” “I was in the bathroom,” he’d say. Then he would sit at his seat, and look around to see what everyone was doing. He’d then pull out his paper and start drawing, and I wouldn’t stop him. When he’d say, “I don’t get it,” after I had just explained subject-verb agreement, and I’d look to him, sort of relieved that he was asking for help, only to notice that he was drawing a picture of Mickey Mouse smoking a joint, I’d look away and ignore him. He knew what he was doing, but I did, too.
Manny was reacting to something, but I could not figure it out. He was angry, but I could not tell why?

I must’ve tried every geometrical, data driven seating assignment possible for Manny, but wherever I sat him, he always found a way to fuck things up, whether it was tagging on a desk, talking across the room, banging his head against the closet, or just straight up mad-dogging me. It was always something with Manny.
At the semester, I had Manny moved into my sixth period class. I figured that he might benefit from a change of scenery, different faces and personalities. Nothing changed, though, but because it was sixth period, I was able to keep him for after-school detention, something I began to do more often than not.

I was also the school’s yearbook adviser, so I usually had students in my class working on their assignments long after the day was done. During after school detention, Manny sat right in front of the class, as everybody around him worked on their yearbook assignments.

As a teacher back then, I never really used a desk. I liked it this way. Instead, I sat in a chair with wheels and used the student desk in the first row as my home, even when there was a kid sitting there. They never seemed to mind. In sixth period, this desk belonged to Manny, but it was also mine. We shared what little space there was on that little desk, but we also shared the immediate space around us. There was nowhere for him to look other than at my face, and he couldn’t get up and wander because I was always there to remind him that it was a bad idea. I wasn’t mean about it. I didn’t have to be. He didn’t like being there, and he probably figured that if he cooperated, then maybe I’d let him move to another desk. Nevertheless, I kept him after class for nor more than fifteen-minutes, almost on a daily basis. I tried to talk with him, but it was almost futile.

At some point, Manny’s case became personal. I let it get to me, but I couldn’t help it. He began to occupy my mental downtime, time I reserve for not thinking about anything that has to do with teaching. I found myself thinking about him on my drives to and from work. I talked to my girlfriend Jennifer about him. I brought him up with friends. Manny was a rash, and he wasn’t going away.

I take full responsibility for allowing this to happen. I could’ve walked away. A referral cycle would’ve gotten him out of everyone’s hair, and with two-weeks left in the school year, the quality of my own life would’ve greatly improved. Nevertheless, I kept on. I needed to know what was at the center of his conflict. What was it that was causing his rebellion? There was something at work here, and I was determined to find the source. I just didn’t know any better.

One day, with a week left in school, I was sitting directly in front of him, sharing a desk with him. Keep in mind that there were thirty-seven other desks in the room, but we were both sharing one. He was sitting in the built-in chair, and I was on my roller. There was peripheral action going on, as kids were working on their yearbook assignments, while other kids were coming in and out for cameras and pens and questions. But I sat there with Manny, doing my best to strike up even a semblance of dialogue.

I was working on my roll sheets, and Manny had his head down. After a while, I turned around, jumped off my chair, and erased the whiteboard. It had just gotten installed, and I liked that it was easy to clean (teachers are easy). When I was done, I jumped back into the chair and rolled right up to Manny’s desk, our desk. “So how’s your brother?” I asked. I had no knowledge of Manny’s having a brother. I was just asking, and I don’t know why I asked this particular question. He had his head down, but when I asked, he lifted it so that I could see his face. He looked tired, and his eyes were bloodshot and saggy, as if being a full-time asshole was tiring him. He looked like he was barely hanging on. “How do you know I have a brother?” he asked. I was surprised he answered, to be honest. “I don’t. I was just asking. Do you have a brother?” I asked. Manny kept his head up. He was rubbing his eyes. He was never this engaged. I had gotten his attention. “Yeah,” he said reluctantly. “He’s older or younger?” “He’s a senior,” Manny said. Manny was a junior. “Oh, cool! So you have an older brother then? He comes here?” I asked.” “Nah, he goes to Glen,” Manny said.” “What?” I said. “He goes to Glen and you come here? What’s up with that?” “Nah, it’s cuz they have like the things he needs and the classes he needs over there,” Manny said. “Oh,” I said. “Alright. Cool.”

Holy shit! It was happening! Wow! Out of pure desperation, I cast one final, desperate, barely baited line, and Manny took it. With one-week left in the school year, he fucking took it! I was reeling him in, gently and slowly, and he was giving in. I didn’t want to lose him. I believe that during this particular moment in our lives, we were both happy. Both of us had let our guards down a little. We were trucing, and it felt good. We were both aware of it, too. Judging from his answers, Manny felt relieved.

“Oh, so special classes, huh? He’s a smart kid then, like GATE (gifted kids), and he’s in A.P. and all that shit, huh?” I asked. This is what I genuinely thought. I figured maybe Manny was pissed because he was the “dumb” one and his brother was the “smart” one, and that his parents favored his brother over Manny and he was pissed off about it…simple as that. I was wrong. “Nah, he’s a mute,” Manny said, “and they have special classes for him over there.”

Whoa! Things thickened.  “Oh, damn. He’s mute? That’s crazy! So you know sign language then, huh?” I asked, thinking that for sure he knew how to talk to his bro. Manny looked down a little. “Nah, I don’t know sign language. He’s a deaf, too,” Manny said.

No! I was taken aback by Manny’s revelations. Then I knew. I knew right away why Manny was so angry at life. It was because the one guy, his older brother, the one that he’s supposed to be able to talk to about sex and girls and cars and movies and sports is a deaf mute! His older brother, his hero, is a deaf mute, and Manny couldn’t even communicate with him because he never bothered to learn sign language. In that moment, I really felt for Manny. I really did. “Damn, dude, I’m sorry. “How come you don’t sign language?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Manny said. “I never learned.” I answered with, “Well, it’s not too late.” “Nah, he said.”

The last four-days of school were the most relaxed days I had had in a while. Manny and I, all of sudden, had a student/teacher relationship. We had become friends in the classroom. We even talked about stuff during class. We couldn’t talk after school because he no longer kept him for detention. In the end, I saw Manny express a genuine, unforgiving smile.

Manny taught me a huge lesson. He taught me to never give up on a kid. He taught me that all kids, even the kind and gentle ones, are fighting internal and external forces, some more difficult than others, and that as a teacher, I have to be patient with these kids and try to find the source of their sorrow, if possible, so that we can all move forward. My experience with Manny ranks up there as one of the three greatest experiences of my teaching career. As is usually the case, though, I don’t have an update on Manny’s future. He’s probably thirty-eight-years old by now. I just hope he learned sign language and is talking and listening to his brother, and that his brother is able to do the same with him.

The Little House That Could: A Lesson in Saving

This is a story about saving money, but it’s also a story of other things, as well. It’s not meant to brag but rather to help others learn from my mistakes.

I was twenty-eight-years-old when I was hired as a full-time teacher, marking the first time in my life that I got what some would view as a “real job.” All jobs are real, I know, but this one was more formal, more legit, and the title of “teacher” carried a little more weight than any other job I had had up to that point, and believe me, I had a lot of them. Prior to landing the teaching gig, I had accumulated a broad range of experience from a slew of jobs I had over the course of about sixteen-years. I hated most of them, too, but I was young and fairly dumb and always needed the money to party and also to keep the party going, so wherever I could make a quick buck, I was there. I was a nomad for the dollar and a hunter and gatherer of good times.  Most of my friends were, too. That’s how it was!

I got into child labor at twelve. On weekends, I would ride my BMX to the Starlite Swap Meet to set up shop and sell counterfeit Timex and Rolex watches for my boss, a Korean man, who took  visible pride in the quality of his counterfeit goods. I earned about sixty-five bucks for the weekend, after putting in about twenty-four hours of work in two days, but it didn’t matter to me. On Sundays, just as the swapmeet was about to shut down, I’d hustle over to the bike parts guy and spend most of my money there, buying counterfeit BMX parts for my own counterfeit bike. I had the baddest imitation bike in the neighborhood. 

After that stint in jewelry, I got an actual W-2, job, at K-Mart, right as I turned fifteen and half. I was hired as a checkout cashier, but the cashier part of the job didn’t last very long, as I was quickly exposed for not being able to count money very well or work the credit card slider. I know for certain that I gave away a ton of merchandise in the process. It’s no wonder my lines were so long. I was demoted to stock boy but soon after left for greener pastures. 

After giving stuff away at K-Mart, I got a job as a trap and skeet puller at a firing range in South El Monte. All day long I was surrounded by old white guys with fancy, thousand dollar shotguns. It was scary stuff that fortunately didn’t last too long, either. After leaving the range, I got hired to drive a forklift in a Robinson’s/May warehouse. I lied on the application and checked “Yes” where it asked “Experience driving a forklift?” I wasn’t needed to operate the machine during the first two days on the job, but on the third, my boss yelled my name and commanded me to move some pallets. I climbed up the forklift like Spiderman and took a seat at the control center, and as fast as I could, I fiddled with every lever to see what it controlled. My boss yelled, “Let’s go!” and I was off. I ended up being a natural at it, and just like that, I now had experience operating a forklift. My next job was as a maintenance man for Macy’s. After this, I was a janitor for a few months, cleaning industrial park offices. I later took my talents to Toys “R” Us for the holiday season. After that, I landed at UPS where I unloaded 45’, bi-level semi-trucks. It was during the Christmas season and it was excruciating work. We were supposed to unload at least two-tucks during our four-hour shift. After just one day on the job, I could barely get out of bed the next morning. Our breaks were ridiculously short. The first break, our snack break, was four-minutes long. Our second break, lunch, was seven-minutes long. One day, I quit during the four-minute break. I was soaked in sweat when I told my boss I had enough. They actually cut me a check right then and there.

After that, I did a little roofing, some ceramic tile, and other low-level construction work, here and there.  I even got into bartending. My Uncle Pablo was the main bartender at Paco’s in East Los Angeles, one of the most famous streets in California: Whittier Blvd. I loved bartending. I earned tips and got to talk to some pretty cool characters. The ladies, especially, were pretty interesting, flirty, too. They wore a lot of makeup and smoked all day long. My signature drink was the Greyhound. They regular ladies taught me how to mix it.  I made them extra strong, too. More tips!

One of the more prestigious jobs I had through the years was working on the Mediterranean Fruit Fly Project for the California Department of Agriculture. I was given a tan Dept. of Ag. shirt, a state car, a state gas card, and a partner. Amelia and I drove all around Whittier, walking into people’s backyards searching for fruit trees that contained medfly larvae. It felt like important work. Amalia was beautiful and I looked forward to seeing her every day. We took a lot of detours, and one day, she took me to meet her parents. It was the first time I had eaten a whole tomato by itself. We had a great time, until Amelia moved away to Costa Rica and broke my heart. We wrote letters to each other, but that soon stopped when she met some dude out there. 

The jobs continued after that. I worked in various parks and recreation programs (where I got my start in coaching at the age of twenty-one). I was a security guard in Temecula, where I guarded wood for twelve-hours a day, starting at 6 p.m. Yes! I bravely and dutifully watched over two-by-fours and plywood.

At some point, in between all the odd jobs, I managed to earn Bachelor’s Degree. This was a big deal for me. I never thought I’d be a college graduate.

The last job I held just before becoming a teacher was as the lone Graduate Assistant for the English Department at California State Los Angeles. It was my duty to assist the English professors with whatever they needed, whether it was ordering books for them, fetching mail, or covering their classes. To earn a little extra, I supplemented my income by doing weekend work for them. I painted their houses, cleaned their yards, pruned their trees, and organized their bookshelves. I even did mechanical work on Dr. Liu’s car. My dad had taught me to do all that stuff. I was pretty much booked every weekend. At night, I took classes to earn my M.A. in English. The best part of this job is that I met my wife there. I was sorting mail for the professors, and Jennifer was in the mailroom prepping for a class. She was a teacher, and I was a student. We have now been married for close to fifteen-years and have two fantastic kids.

Despite having all these jobs and making a substantial amount of money in the process, my bank account was always at zero or close to it. I was living check to check, and I didn’t give a shit. Like I said, the party needed to keep going, and it did, and I was happy. 

On the last work day of September, 1998, after my first full month as a teacher, the secretary at Norwalk High School waived an envelope at me as I was exiting the main office. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s your check!” she said. “Oh, thank you!” I humbly accepted it and took off for the parking lot. It was September so it was hot. I got in my car. Sweat was running down my face. I was feeling weird. I was nervous about the envelope. I honestly had no idea what to expect. I opened it with caution, carefully sliding the check out of its protective cover, handling it like sacred text. I let the check peek out slightly from the envelope and then opened my eyes. “Holy shit!” I pushed back on the car seat! The check read something like: $2,738. 72. I remember with great clairty, saying, “What the fuck am I going to do with all this money?” 

That night, Jennifer and I celebrated!  I had never received a check that large in my life. I never even dreamed of receiving a check for that amount. I knew it was going to be impossible for me to spend it all. Well, we must’ve celebrated for the entire month of September because by the end of the month, I had nothing in the bank. Zero! Luckily, by then, it was payday all over again, and again we celebrated. In fact, we celebrated for two-years straight, and by the beginning of my third year of teaching, I had very little to show for two-years of teaching. 

It was at the start of my third year that something within me finally clicked. I was a little tired of partying, and I was definitely tired of having no money, so I decided to take a serious look at one of my pay stubs to see what the hell was going on with me. There was a section on the stub that read: Year to Date. It showed a number below, as well. It was the amount of money I had earned so far for the calendar year. The number read something like: $38, 436.98. That was a slap in the face, and it forced me to have a little talk with myself. “You mean to tell me that you have earned $38, 436.98, and you don’t  have a dollar to your name? You’re an idiot. What the fuck are you doing, Mark?” Yes, I was an idiot. Not just for spending all my money but for other reasons, as well. I realized that I was squandering a perfect opportunity to save large amounts of money and do something with it, to improve the quality of my life. I had moved back in with my mom after living in an apartment with my cousin Ed, so I didn’t have a rent payment. I had moved in with her just as I started teaching, and in these two-years, I burned through all my cash. Also, back then, as is the case even now, I have never purchased a new car. Every car I have ever owned has been used, so I didn’t have a car payment, either. I was simply wasting every dollar I earned on material garbage.

Moving in with my mom was part of the problem. I wasn’t paying rent. Yeah, I gave my mom money and I bought her nice things, but I was too comfortable. I knew I could spend without consequence. Other than a $9000, credit card bill, I didn’t have much debt. But I didn’t have much money, either, so I decided that I was going to stop screwing around and start saving. 

In the beginning, I didn’t have a goal, something to save for, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I first committed myself to paying off my credit card debt. It took five-months to do so, but it was a heavy burden lifted. After that was done, I started putting away $1800.00 into my savings account every month. I lived frugally and only purchased what I needed, which wasn’t much. I took pride in seeing the numbers rise in my bank account. After a year of saving in this manner, I had accumulated about $18,000. This was about one school year’s worth of saving. Going into my fourth year of teaching, I kept it up. In the summer of 2004, I had gotten up to $36,000. My girlfriend, Jennifer, had been urging me for years to get an apartment, but I never complied. I looked at a few apartments, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay someone rent. I worked too hard for my money. I wasn’t going to give it to someone else.  I didn’t want to make someone else rich off my money, so I had to ignore Jennifer completely on that one. She didn’t take it too well because she wanted me to have my own place, but sometimes you have to stay true to what your goals, even if you’re in a relationship. 

After close to two-years, I had saved an admirable amount of money. I was at the point where I needed to make a move, so I thought about a few things, buying a car, investing it, or to just keep saving. Finally, I decided I would buy a house. 

Jennifer lived in Pasadena, and if you know anything about Pasadena, you know that it’s a beautiful city. It’s one of the nicest cities in Los Angeles, and it’s got a robust nighlifel. It’s home to the Rose Parade and the world famous Rose Bowl. The streets are lined with 100 year old oaks, and it’s centrally located, minutes from the San Gabriel Mountains and the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica. This is where I wanted to live, and so I began looking for houses in Pasadena. 

You should also know real estate in Pasadena is pretty pricey. It’s worse now, but it was pricey in 2004, too. I looked at several houses, all of them out of my price range. After a fairly extensive search that lasted several months, I got lucky and found one. 

It was probably the ugliest and dirtiest eighty-year-old house on Rio Grande St. It had been infiltrated by a gang of about fifteen feral cats, who spent their days loitering all across the property, including under the house. Most cats are easily scared, but not these guys. I think they even had a leader, too. He wouldn’t move from the driveway, even when cars came up it. It was actually pretty impressive. They were a scary bunch, for sure. 

The smell of cat urine permeated the air around the house and inside, as well. The backyard looked like a junkyard or dump, take your pick. Approximately eight people were living in the two-bedroom, one-bath home, so there was a ton of junk inside, too. The hardwood floors in the living room were thoroughly stained with cat piss.. The kitchen and bathroom were a smelly wreck and everything about the bedrooms needed help. One bright, however, was the backyard. Even though it was littered with every imaginable piece of junk, it had massive potential. It was huge, too, around 6000+ square feet, definitely bigger than the shack in front of it. There was a dilapidated deck overlooking the yard, and to the right, deep into the backyard, was a big barnyard garage. The roof was caving in on it, and the doors were falling off their hinges, but I liked what I saw. I had a vision. I saw greatness! To some, it probably looked like a crack house. To me, it looked like home. I called my realtor and said, “I’ll take it!’”

I had four-years of teacher retirement savings, and I took it all out to help with the purchase of the house. I took a 45% tax hit on it, but I figured the investment I was making outweighed the penalty. My Aunt Lupe also lent me money to meet the down payment. In the end, I purchased the house for about $220,000, putting about $42,000, up front as a down payment. It was now mine. 

Jennifer didn’t like the house. She took one look at it and said she could not live in it. It pissed me off a bit, but in her defense, she was right. In its current state, the house was inhabitable. It was in dire need of disaster relief cleanup, but, unfortunately, I didn’t have much money left to pay someone to do the work. I’m a handy guy. My dad taught me, well, so I tackled the renovation myself. For a month straight, I arrived at the house and 6:00 a.m., rolled up my sleeves, and went to work!

I had negotiated a $3000 fee into the contract in order to pay for the disposal of the junk in the backyard. I hired a crew and within hours, the yard was as majestic as I had imagined it to be. The interior of the house was of paramount importance. I hit the hardwood floors first. I got on my knees and I sanded and sanded and sanded, but the piss stains would not disappear. I rented an industrial sander and attacked the floors with it but still the stains were present. I spoke with a flooring guy at Home Depot and he suggested I use a product called “Wood Bleach.” Its main ingredient is oxalic acid. It was the last resort. If the acid didn’t work, nothing would. 

I poured it onto one of the stains and watched the acid immediately go to work. It was pretty amazing. I watched as the dark rings of piss and soot rose off the wood all in a matter of minutes. I did this to almost the entire floor, and after wiping off the grime, the floors were in really good shape. I proceeded to sand them and then I stained them and covered them with a couple of healthy coats of glossy finish. They looked new, again. Jennifer was there the whole time doing her part to make the house look as good as possible. She was happy with our progress and so was I.

Painting was next. We hit every wall in the house, painting most of the walls a simple white, and just to get a little crazy, I decided to paint the master bedroom a bloody red. I know, but I liked it. It was Buddah-like, I told myself. 

Finally, a thorough, top to bottom cleansing was completely necessary. We poured bleach everywhere and wiped down every inch of every counter. The tub, toilet, sinks, faucets, door knobs, and windows also got a good wipe down. After a month of hard work, in August of 2004, Jennifer and I officially lived together for the first time.  Man, did it feel good! I was a homeowner, and I was really proud of myself. I know I made my parents were proud, as well.

After about a month of living together, Jennifer got a call from Monterey Peninsula College. She had applied for a job there, and to our surprise, she got it.  “What are you going to do?” I asked, thinking that she would say “No,” since we had just moved in together. “I’m going to take it,” she said. Whoa. 

That was a tough one. We both knew it was a good opportunity, but we also knew we had just moved in together and were pretty happy about it. Monterey was about five hours from Pasadena. I had never been there. I only knew that it was where Jimi Hendrix had burned his guitar on stage. Jennifer had experience living up north. She had attended UC Santa Cruz, and she liked it up there. We were at a turning point. Either I agree, at some point, to move up with her, or I stay in Pasadena and essentially end our relationship. We were long distance for the entire school year. They say, “Amor de lejos; amor para pendejos,” but we made it work. I would go for a weekend and then she would come down for a weekend. We were together on holidays and every other chance we could.  But the clock was ticking. The school year was nearing its end. “Do I go?” “Do I stay?” We loved each other. I loved my house, too. It was a tough decision to make. In the end, I sold or gave away everything I owned, including a van. The only thing I took to Monterey was my clothes and my car. 

I made arrangements to rent my house. I had waited thirty-five years to have my own room, and within months, I had to give it up. I was sad that I only got to live in it for a year, but it was one of the greatest years of my life. It’s now 2020, and the house has been rented ever since. I’ve had that little beauty for seventeen-years.

I hated everything about Monterey. I was depressed and missed everyone. My dad had died only a few months back, and I was still reeling from the pain of his absence. I went back almost every other weekend to visit my mom and family and friends.

In Monterey, we lived in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment.  I missed my Pasadena backyard and my oversized master bedroom with its red walls. I missed the deck and the BBQ’s with friends. Jennifer and I talked about renting a house in Monterey simply to have more room. Luckily my brother had moved up to Monterey to attend Cal State University Monterey, so he moved in with us. His presence made things a lot easier. It was 2007, and I was liking Monterey a lot more, and my trips to L.A. were much less frequent. Each time I did go back, I disliked L.A. more and more. The traffic is hideous and the heat and smog are pretty gross. L.A. is in my heart, for sure, but Monterey slowly earned my love. It’s clean and there is hardly any traffic. It’s always cold, too.

Again, it was 2007. This is important to note because during this time, housing prices in the U.S. hit an all-time high! The house I had purchased in Pasadena was now valued at $640,000! That’s a massive jump in just three years! 

Jennifer was on the hunt for some house plants and we had heard about a nursery in Monterey. We drove around town looking for it. This is before the Maps App. At some point, we took a wrong turn, but, as fate would have it, it ended up being the right turn. There was a corner house for sale. It looked gorgeous! She had a big carmel stone chimney and a small but practical backyard. “Look at that house,” I said to Jennifer. She thought it was pretty, too. There was a guy walking out of the house. I guessed it was the agent selling it. I pulled up to the curb and asked, “Is this house still for sale?” He said, “Yeah, you want to take a look?” “Yes!” The second I walked into that house, I knew I wanted it! Everything about it felt right. As soon as we got back into the car, I called my agent. She lived in L.A. “Toshiko,” I said, “I want this house! Please make it happen!” 

Because the value of houses had gone up, I had major equity in the Pasadena house. I took out $140,000, cashe from the Pasadena house and used it as a down payment on the Monterey house. In october of 2007, the house was ours! I had always dreamed of living near the ocean, and I made it one of my goals when I was thirteen-years-old. I made my dream come true! I was now the owner of two houses. One was being paid for itself, and we lived in the other just blocks from the beach. 

The housing market crashed shortly after we bought it. It wasn’t a good time to be a new homeowner, but we hung in there and are now in a good spot, again. It’s safe to say that Monterey is home. 

Sadly, after nearly seventeen-years of owning the Pasadena home, I am now selling her. She has been so, so good to me. The little crack house that could gave me $140,000, to buy my dream home, and she is still going to continue to give after I sell her. She’s worth close to $700,000 right now. I owe $400,000, on her. I will be sad to see her go, and I’m sure I’ll cry at some point, but she has done her job. She has been a beautiful little house for us, and she has given me so much. I love her.

Looking back on her, I did the right thing. I aimlessly spent money on material trash, things that didn’t really do much to improve the quality of my life. I was mired in a temporary existence, accumulating and holding on to things that bring no real worth. Yes, a house can fall under this category, but a home gives us love and memories and children and warmth. This is what I desired. The decision to change the way I lived and to save money ultimately changed my life. The decision to move to Monterey and be with Jennifer was also a major decision in my life. Having children, too, was another wonderful decision. So I can say, even if I die tomorrow, that I at least made three very good decisions in my life.

Do yourselves favor and save for something good. Out of that good will come other rewards. Trust me. I know. 

Welcome to the Club!

I didn’t know him incredibly well, but if you knew RIchard, you know that he did not have to know you well in order to help you or offer assistance in almost any form. I met Richard in 2006, after having just finished my second year as head coach of the Alisal High School Boys’ J.V. Soccer Team. I will always remember Richard as a kind man, with pure intentions. His legacy will live on in Salinas, and I truly believe, due to his lasting impression on youth in the Salinas community, that one of the new soccer fields in the developing soccer complex in Salinas, be named after Richard Mussellman. It would be well-deserved.

On March 20, 2020, our local soccer community lost an important figure in Ricahrd Mussellman, a great man and advocate for kids’ soccer in the Salinas Valley area. As the one time president of the then El Camino Real Football Club, Richard was an iconic figure in the area. Throughout his years of involvement in youth soccer in the Salinas Valley area, Richard helped a countless number of kids achieve their dreams of playing club soccer, and in doing so, gave kids greater exposure and lasting memories. In fact, it could be said that Richard, himself, helped launch club soccer in the Salinas area.

The following is the true story of how Ricahrd and I met.

I was in room 550 at Alisal High School, working one-on-one with a kid in after-school tutorials. The soccer season had just ended, so it was nice to get back to working with kids to improve their grades. At one point, a tall man entered the classroom. He was a big, husky guy with a pretty easy demeanor. He smiled as he entered. “Are you Mark Cisneros? The J.V. soccer coach?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “How are you? How can I help you?” Richard introduced himself and then said something that kind of scared me. He said, “My team played your J.V. team this past weekend.” I was startled because the season had ended and it would’ve been illegal for the Alisal team to continue playing beyond the normal high school season. Luckily, it turned out that Richard’s team had played our salinas soccer league team, except that I was not there on that day. Anyway, Richard proceeded. “That is the best soccer team I have ever seen at that age. They killed my team (I believe he said my guys beat his team, 10-1). I kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, they’re pretty good. We only gave up four goals this year and didn’t lose a game for the second year in a row. We gave up seven goals last year.” I wasn’t bragging. I was speaking from a great sense of pride in my boys. After some other comments, Richard said, “You know, they should come play for El Camino Real.” I had no idea what Richard was talking about.  “What is El Camino?” I asked. “It’s a travel soccer team,” Richard Said. “We train and travel to other cities to play other teams.” I had a vague idea of what travel soccer was, and most of what I had heard about it was negative, mainly because of the ridiculous fees clubs charged for a kid to just play soccer. My response to Richard was, “Nah, man. Sorry. My guys don’t have the money to play travel soccer. It’s pretty expensive.” Richard answered quickly. “No, no! They won’t pay. I’ll pay for everything. They don’t have to worry about that” What I was hearing was intriguing but almost too good to be true. “Where do you guys train?” I asked. Richard said, “We train in Gilroy. That’s where our club is.” Right then I knew it was going to be almost impossible for my guys to play. I said, “Oh, man! There’s no way my guys can get to Gilroy to practice. Their parents work late and the kids don’t drive or have rides.” Richard smiled and said, “We will pick them up every Tuesday and Thursday from Alisal High School and we’ll drop them off, too.” Wait! What? Now, it was definitely too good to be true! I was definitely intrigued, and the thought of the guys playing club soccer was pretty exciting. Knowing what I know now, a lot of coaches would’ve probably said “No” for fear of losing their players, but when a great opportunity comes along for any kid, it’s important for us to help them reach out for it. “Let me talk to the parents and share this information with them. I’ll get back to you,” I said to Richard. We exchanged contact info and he left. Little did we know that what had just happened in room 550, would go on to become a pivotal moment for club soccer in Salinas. 

Meanwhile, I was excited to share the news with the boys the next day. I told them what had happened and about Richard. Once they knew, we had a parents’ meeting so I could share the info with them. I called the parents that could not attend. The parents saw value in the opportunity and the boys were thrilled at the opportunity. They didn’t know that they would be in for the ride of their lives. 

In the end, Richard was completely true to his word, 100%. He transported the kids back and forth from Alisal High School every Tuesday and Thursday. He bought the boys dinner, too, paid all their fees, bought them cleats, and paid for their hotels when they traveled. When I needed a van, RIchard simply put the keys underneath the mat on his porch, and I returned it when we were done with it. Again, I didn’t know him well, but he went out of his way to help where and when he could, even if you weren’t his best friend. 

That year, he took some of my best, young players, guys that help the school win its first ever Central Coast Section Championship in 2010:

Joni Cruz (CCS Champ)

Carlos “Charlie” Ortiz (CCS Champ)

Eduardo “Lalo” Hernandez (CCS Champ)

Armando Serrano (CCS Champ)

Ivan Manzano (CCS Champ)

Santos Oritz (CCS Champ)

Augustin Martinez (CCS Champ)

Edgar Prieto (CCS Champ)

In the years that followed, Richard and El Camino Real moved their operations to Salinas, and more and more kids, not only from Alisal, but from the other high schools in Salinas, were introduced to club soccer, many for the first time. Today, El Camino Real is still in existence under a different name, but Richard’s impact on youth soccer is still felt today. 

During that time, in 2006, club soccer was pretty well known in the San Jose area, as well as in other larger cities and counties. It was also known then, as it is now, that access to club soccer wasn’t always attainable to some kids, mainly because it was pretty pricey. Thus, a lot of kids from low-income families and/or under-served areas were priced out. The bad side for clubs was that they weren’t necessarily getting the best players. Instead, they were getting the players that could afford to pay the high fees to kick a ball around. 

This changed when Richard rolled into my classroom. All of sudden, club soccer was a real possibility for every kid in Salinas, and they flocked to the opportunity. Richard and El Camino Real made it possible for hundreds of kids to travel all across the state, region, and country to experience the game on many different levels. It was truly a beautiful thing. 

On another level, the experience of playing year-round, against teams that our guys would not normally play against, was awesome. I had been the J.V. coach for Alisal for two-years, and I had a first-hand view of the varsity team. I saw the varsity team train and compete regularly for two-years. They were always good locally, but when they traveled to San Jose, it didn’t always go well. I attributed this to a couple of things. One, the San Jose kids played on the same team all year long. Many went to the same high schools, and when that season was over, they would return to their clubs where they were all on the same teams there. In terms of recognition and chemistry, this is a huge advantage for any team. Knowing how your teammates think and being familiar with their tendencies provides a huge advantage in the game of soccer. In contrast, the Alisal guys returned to their Sunday teams, with most kids playing on different teams. There was local pride in these teams, rightfully so, and many are drawn to them by family members who’ve also played for the same Sunday team for generations, so it was in the blood.  As a result of this dynamic, however, in Salinas, usually the only time the best high school soccer players played on the same team was during their high school seasons, for four-months out of the year. Once the final whistle blew on that season, it was off to their Sunday teams. 

Another reason I believe that Alisal kids had a hard time in San Jose is because they lacked the mental toughness that comes from playing against tough teams all year-round. The kids from Mitty and Bellarmine were big and physical, characteristics not usually associated with our guys at Alisal. The teams in San Jose liked to talk trash, too, sometimes spewing racial epithets as the games went on. This had a negative impact on the minds of our players. They never really had to deal with this sort of stuff in the local areas. I personally have had players tell me to take them out of the game because the opposition got in their heads. It was interesting and I knew it needed to be addressed. 

This is where club soccer bridged the gap. All of sudden, the Alisal players were playing against the Mitty guys and the Bellarmine guys and the De La Salle guys on a weekly basis with El Camino Real. They were gaining valuable experience against these guys. They were hearing the trash talk and taking the blows. They got used to it and learned to work through it. This made my job easier, as I knew from watching the varsity team for two-years, that we needed to toughen up mentally. And we did! When the guys returned to high school soccer, they were seasoned players that had already seen many of the players we were facing in our Alisal season, and they were not phased by any of them. We focused on keeping quiet and playing the game the right way. They boys were taught to let their actions speak for themselves. It’s no wonder that the group of players that Richard opened the El Camino Real doors to were the same group of players that lifted the first ever CCS trophy for Alisal High School! We found ourselves in a win/win situation. 

It was a fun time then. The boys were genuinely happy to be playing soccer, and many are still very close friends today. Many earned soccer scholarships to universities across the nation. Many are now married, too, with kids and full-time jobs. A ton have gone on to earn four-year degrees, with many others becoming cops and nurses and probation officers. A few are even coaching youth teams, giving back to their community. It was a special time. I don’t know if the clubs in Salinas are keeping soccer affordable for kids, but I believe that in the name and spirit of Richard Mussellman, they more than likely are.

Richard was a champion for community based, grass roots soccer. As the Director of Coaching for the Monterey County Condors Soccer Club, our club is doing our best to honor Richard’s legacy by helping make soccer accessible to as many kids as possible. Viva el futbol!

This is dedicated to Richard Mussellman. Thank you for all you have done for our youth. May you Rest in Peace.

P.S. I would also like to dedicate this to Joseph Cairel. He passed away a few days ago. He was the son of a family for which I have great respect. Artie Sr., gave me my first ever opportunity at coaching youth soccer. I hope that the Cairel Family can find the strength and courage to get them through this difficult time. Rest in Peace, Joseph!

Mark Cisneros
Opportunity Program Teacher
Head Boys’ Varsity Soccer Coach
Alisal High School

Here We Go, Again!

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

Know who spoke these words. Remember them. They were uttered by America’s president in the face of a pandemic, in the face of social injustice, in the face of economic collapse, in the face of racial unrest, and in the face of death. Know who spoke these words, and let them reverberate to the core of your being as you try to make sense of the America we are and have become. The world was a better place three and a half years ago. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better, because we had a real human being in charge.

The issues we are dealing with have always been, and for generations, our Black and Brown peoples have challenged the status quo, gaining ephemeral victories here and there, only to watch the gains fade away, and the ugliness that has always been once again rear its racist head. People like to fall back on the voting option as our easy fix. “We have to vote!” they cry. Well, we did vote! Our current president had three million less votes than his rival, and he still won. When you are ready to seriously think about this–when you let this fact sink in–you begin to see the roots of all our problems. The system is not designed for us. It does not take us into account. It is grossly flawed. It is rotten.

Yes, I have the time and the privilege to be able to sit here and write this, but this wasn’t always so. I had to work for mine, and if it wasn’t for my striving to earn an education, I don’t know what my life would’ve become. But I am here now because I didn’t give up, and when I see the images of young people fighting for their rights, fighting for a change, fighting for better lives, and not giving up, my chest fills with pride! We need to be there for them. We need to guide them. They are our children.

The inevitable is happening. It was never a question of “if,” and always a question of “when?” Now, the historical lid has once again blown off the the pot, and although I do not condone violence or looting in any form, the massive crowds, the people protesting and marching with positive intent and for the all the right reasons, is a sight to behold. I only hope that the spirited marches and the peaceful protests, along with the love and support from our community leaders, continues, not only for days, but for weeks and months, all the way to November, and even past November, into generations upon generations, louder and larger, until the system as we know it, is a thing of the far behind past. I know it will be difficult. History has proven this, and what makes it even more difficult is our own complicity in most of it, including my own. It’s not on purpose, but the system is designed to camouflage our involvement. We need to wake up! It is happening.

Black and Brown culture has been taken advantage of for far too long.  America’s appetite for it is insatiable. The music. The sports. The walk. The talk. But it stops at these thresholds. You like using the “N” word with your homies? Back it up, now. Go walk a mile in a Black man’s shoes. Go break your back in the fields. Feel what they do. You won’t want any of it.

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

My heart goes out to my Black and Brown brothers and sisters, and I can’t pretend to know their suffering. I, myself, have been a victim of police brutality, and I have had a family member shot down and killed by cops, so I know a little bit about it, but the suffering in the Black and Brown communities is on another level. It is never ending. It doesn’t abate! 

Unfortunately, cops bear the brunt of our ire. Sometimes it’s deserved. Sometimes it’s not. Nevertheless, there are bad cops out there, just as there are bad teachers and bad leaders, and we know there are great cops out there, too, just as there are great teachers and great leaders. The greatness will always outweigh the bad, and so we need all of our great leaders, young and old, and all of our great teachers, young and old, to unite so that we can bring a halt to the pain and suffering that continues to plague our Black and Brown communities. The young people in these communities deserve a fair chance at becoming something. They deserve the opportunities to shine. 

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

I am a teacher, and I have been for over twenty-years. I have been a firsthand witness to the potential and greatness that our youth can reach when presented with opportunities. I also know that our youth sometimes cannot recognize opportunities because they’re not familiar with them. Thus, we must teach them to recognize these potentially life changing moments so that when they do come along, they can reach out and grab them. When they can recognize the presence of opportunity more clearly, we then have to teach them to fight for these opportunities because we, who have been there, know the rewards are not easy to attain. Nothing of genuine value rarely is, so we must continue to encourage our youth to push forward, to work hard, to deal with adversity, to never give up, and to plow through and destroy the barriers designed to hold them back, because the good stuff is on the other side. And finally we must teach them to give back, to pass down their knowledge to the generations that come after them. This is the ultimate revolution. This is the ultimate protest. This is our molotov cocktail.

“No, I don’t take any responsibility at all.” 

Support the movement and ignore the voices and opinions that want to suppress it. We don’t have time for that shit. To the ones out there on the front lines, keep it rocking until the world sees and accepts that fact that Colin Kaepernick’s knee carries much more weight and power than the knee of a crooked cop.  

This is why kneel.

Happy birthday to my brother, Juan D. Cisneros, Jr.

Dedicated to all the people fighting the good fight.

Ganas: An Alisal Story

This 2018-2019 school-year marks my 14th Year Anniversary as a teacher at Alisal High School. When I first arrived to the area, as a transplant from Los Angeles, I knew nothing about Salinas or East Alisal or Alisal High School, but I did know that I was excited to begin a new chapter in my teaching career, at a new school, and Alisal seemed the perfect place. I mentioned to the few people I knew that I had found a teaching gig in Salinas and then watched as their jaws dropped when I said “Alisal.” They were sure that my life would be in danger, and that I was stepping into a deadly place. I didn’t know it then but East Salinas had a bad reputation, but it was born from people who just didn’t know any better. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the negative rap on Alisal was completely unwarranted. These people were wrong. Alisal was and continues to be the best school at which I have ever worked, and this is saying something, since I’ve been to some pretty cool schools, including John Muir High in Pasadena and Norwalk High in Los Angeles. I ignored the noise and began my career at Alisal, armed with five-years of teaching experience and a master’s degree in English. My first assignment included five sections of 11th grade English, ideal for me, as American Lit was my emphasis, and I liked teaching writing and mechanics.

Throughout these fourteen-years, I have met some incredible kids, each one with a history, a beautiful, sometimes harrowing story that has shaped them and influenced the courses of their lives. As a new teacher at Alisal, I set out to immerse myself in the school’s culture and to learn as much as I could about the students of Alisal High School. I wanted to know who they were, who they wanted to be, and why. I didn’t just want to learn about my students’ lives—I NEEDED to learn about their lives, in and out of the classroom. As an English teacher, there’s really only one genuine way of doing it: writing.

Writing assignments are magic. They help peel back the veils on student lives and create openings to catch glimpses and flashes of who they are. Through my students’ writings, I learned about their triumphs, defeats, pains, and struggles. All I had to do was assign writing topics, prompts that engendered introspection and which allowed the students to delve into themselves, to reach inwards and extract the pain, to help put the struggle to rest, or to simply lay their problems and dreams before their eyes, in front of their faces, right on their desks so that they could stare at them and take in the light and power that emanated from their own words. Through writing, along with long classroom talks about the world, I was let into their lives. They gave me permission to learn about who they were and where they came from. More importantly, however, much more importantly, I learned from them. They taught me everything I would need to know in order to succeed at Alisal High School. They gave me permission to become one of them. All I had to do was to remain true to my own self. I did and I have.

Like I said, I have met some truly amazing kids. I’d like to celebrate my 14th Year Anniversary at Alisal by sharing stories of some of these kids as a form of celebrating their triumphs. I begin with Gerardo.

Gerardo was a student in my 12th grade, A.P. English class. He had been in the Honors English class the year before, with Mr. Battaglini, but I had gotten to know him when he was a junior. He played on the J.V. soccer team, and I knew a lot of the soccer players on both the J.V. and varsity teams, as many were my students. They would swing by my room and we’d talk about soccer and our favorite teams and whatever else. Watching soccer in my classroom at lunch was pretty normal. That’s how I got to know Gerardo.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Gerardo was a super smart kid. In my A.P. English class, he was the best writer, the best reader, and the best thinker I had. He was always attentive and always curious. Learning mattered to him, real learning, and so he set out to get as much of it as possible.

We read a lot that year. It was my first time teaching A.P. English, and so I wanted to make it special.

We read Dracula, Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and Catcher in the Rye. It was an awesome list of novels, and I did all I could to keep them interested, and to their credit, they were.

Writing, too, was essential, and I had the students respond to the books in order to help them gather the meanings and themes of each novel. Gerardo’s responses were the best. He was eloquent and thoughtful, and he got as close as anyone when it came to discovering motive and intent. In short, Gerardo was a superb student, and every teacher felt the same about him. He just had a way of rising above everyone, academically and intellectually.

What makes Gerardo’s story so inspiring is that he arrived from Mexico to the United States at the age of thirteen! When I found this out through his writings and through conversations with him, I was blown away! Even now, I don’t really know how to put this into the celebratory context it deserves, but you need to understand that Gerardo was writing and reading and thinking better than any student in any of my classes, and I’m talking about students that were born here and claimed English as their primary language. It was exhilarating to have a student like him, and I counted myself lucky to be in his orbit. But still I could not help but wonder: How did he do it? How did Gerardo, who attended El Sausal Middle School at the age of thirteen, as an 8th grader, and then to Alisal, become so smart, and how did he learn English so well? Granted that he had a pretty significant accent—picture a Mexican Arnold Scharzenegger—but still he was natural with the language. I needed to know his secret! Weirdly, though, I was a little embarrassed to ask him. I think I felt that maybe I would offend him or embarrass him if I pried deeper into his personal story, so I never took the time to ask him how he acquired his language skills…until one day!

It was a morning in May, around 7:20 a.m. I was driving down Williams Rd., one of East Salinas’ main arteries and one that runs directly in front of Alisal High School. I was about ½ mile from campus when I saw Gerardo walking alone on the eastern side of Williams. He was heading towards school. I knew it was my one chance, so I knew right then that that I had to pick him up and immediately ask him, “How do you do it?” And this is exactly what I did.

I pulled up beside him, put the window down and said, “What’s up, Gerardo? Get in. I’ll give you a ride.” He got it in and off we went. I didn’t waste any time, as the question escaped my mouth before I could control it. “How do you do it?” I asked. He was taken aback a little. “Do what?” he said. I said, “How do you do it? You read better than any of my students. You write better than any of my students. You think better than anyone in the class. How do you do it?” He went quiet for second and I waited. I knew I had probably caught him off guard, and that he probably couldn’t answer or didn’t want to answer. Then, finally, he looked straight ahead down Williams with an intense look in his eyes and said, “Sabes que, Cisneros. Cuando llege de Mexico al los Estado Unidos, le puse un chingo de ganas al escuela!” (You know, Cisneros, when I came to the U.S. from Mexico, I put forth a shitload of desire and effort into my education). The words came out fast, and I could tell that he was proud to have said them. There was strength and power in his response. It came from a very proud place within him. I think he was excited to have been asked what a lot of people were probably wondering about him, too. My own pulse sped up a bit when I heard his response. I was stunned. I thought, “You mean there was no secret power to his success? There was no magic potion? No special privilege or help? It was simply ‘ganas’?” And it was true. Ganas, or desire, is all that Gerardo relied on. His ganas put him head and shoulders above everyone else.

Before that moment in the car, I respected Gerardo a great deal, but after hearing about what propelled him, I cultivated an even deeper respect and admiration towards him. He became one of my heroes. I still regard him in this way, which is why, fourteen-years after meeting him, I’m now writing about him. Unfortunately, meeting Gerardo and knowing of his success forced me to look at my other students with slight disdain. A lot of my students were born in the U.S. Their parents worked and they had money. English was their first language. They had everything that most immigrants die for, and yet many of my students were squandering their privileges. They didn’t care about school. They didn’t care about their attendance, and they failed classes. They simply were indifferent towards school and towards their parents and towards life in general. This is still true, today. They didn’t have the power that this proud, hard-working, Mexican immigrant kid had. They didn’t have ganas!

Gerardo graduated from Alisal High School in 2006, and was awarded the most prestigious, full-ride academic scholarship Fresno State had to offer. It was called the Smittcamp Family Honors Scholarship, and it came with a laptop and a student parking space. In his senior year, Gerardo was one of only two students in the entire school that passed every single A.P. Test he took, which included Calculus, Spanish, and History. Gerardo graduated from Fresno State in 2010. He is now a licensed civil engineer, having passed his licensing exam last year, in 2017.

Unfortunately, to this day, Gerardo is still very worried about deportation and Trump’s policies towards immigrants. Gerardo said to me, “Deportation is something that I worry about to an extent. I know it can happen, but I stay out of trouble and try to be as good a citizen as I can.”

Gerardo has plans for the future. His next big step is to open his engineering firm. He’s more informed now and knows that opening a business is possible for him, despite his immigration status. I’m sure it will happen for him because he has what it takes. He has ganas!

The End

The Accidental Teacher

by Mark Cisneros

It was never my ambition to become a high school teacher. This idea did not exist for me. I respected most of the teachers I had, but becoming one? Nah, it wasn’t for me. My 20’s were a mess, and I didn’t have life together, so there was no way I was going to slide into a classroom and preach the gospel to the right path to a bunch of teens going through the most tumultuous periods of their lives. I had to be more concerned with my own life and on trying to carve out a decent living for myself, whatever this entailed. Teaching didn’t fit into my vision of a good life. Besides, I hated school. It was a joke. My elementary years were some of the best of my life.

At 28, I was basically like that stupid vacuum—you know the one that people leave on in their houses while they’re away—the one that bumps into furniture and table legs, trying not to get stuck, as it attempts suck up cat hair and lint and crumbs. That was me, bumping into dead ends and different jobs and different college majors. But even then, I always had one ear peeled way back, listening hard for my life’s calling.

At 28, I was earning $865.00, a month as the English Department Grad. Assistant at Cal State Los Angeles. It was an easy gig, and the hours meshed well with my class schedule. I worked mornings. In the afternoons, I worked towards earning a Master’s Degree in English. But I was nearing my 30’s, and making $865, a month was embarrassing. I was living at home as a young adult, and my mom was still asking me where I had been the night before. I needed change.

One day, I heard an adjunct professor mention the name Frank Zepeda. I couldn’t have been wrong in hearing it, and even though I had not heard that name in exactly ten-years, I knew it was the Mr. Zepeda I knew from Mt. View High School in El Monte, Ca. Mr. Zepeda single handedly saved my life when I was a senior in high school. His belief in me gave my life direction and purpose. He didn’t provide me with any specific advice or big game pep talk. He didn’t point me in any direction, and he didn’t talk to me about purpose. He’s just responsible for helping me paddle out of the shit in which I was stuck.

This is how Mr. Zepeda did it. I had just finished walking off the graduation stage, a place I’d never thought I’d find myself just months earlier. I don’t remember my name being called; I don’t remember walking up to the stage; I don’t even remember walking off the stage. I barely remember being there, but I know I graduated.

Then, after the ceremony, I decided to take a solitary walk through campus. I was alone. I strayed from my family, as I needed a few minutes to myself. You see I never thought I would graduate. I had been kicked out of my previous high school. I had poor grades, my attendance was poor, I smoked a shitload of weed, and I hated school. And yet I felt like I owed it to myself to take one last walk through the school, to try to get out of there with solid memory, something intact and tangible. There wasn’t anyone around from what I could see. I was still in disbelief, I think, kinda blown away that I had done it—that I had graduated.

Mt. View High School was comprised of perfectly squared, windowless, brick buildings situated at a good distance from one another. The roofs were flat, and concrete covered most of the acreage. Surrounding the entire school was a ten-foot high chain-link fence, which either made you feel trapped or safe.At the farthest edge of the school was a duck farm. Our athletic fields ended where the duck farm started, so the stench of duck shit was prevalent. The school’s mascot was a Viking, but to our rival schools, we were the Mt. View Ducks. It was just a weird place.

I continued on my walk. I had no aim. I was just trying to be present. I was talking to myself, whispering my thanks and disbelief. Then, without warning, I saw Mr. Zepeda. He was chatting with the school’s Dean. We made eye contact from afar. I could tell from his facial expression that he surprised to see. After all, graduation was over and here I am walking aimlessly through campus. He called me over. I bowed my head walked over.
Even though he was my favorite teacher, I remember not wanting to talk with him. It’s awkward when you’re talking to teachers outside of the normal school settings. We were on campus, true, but school was over and I had just graduated. There was nothing left to discuss.

When I reached him, the Dean said “Hi” to me and then took off.
I’m not sure how long we talked, and I don’t remember what was said, either. I really wish I could remember every word, but nothing from that conversation comes to mind. But this part I do remember.
Towards the end of our talk, Mr. Zepeda put his hand on my shoulder. It caught me off guard, and my body stiffened. It wasn’t a forceful or heavy touch. He just rested his hand on my shoulder in a fatherly way (not a Catholic Fatherly way), but in a Michelangelo’s painting Sistine Chapel’s ceiling kind of way. And then magic happened. With his hand still rested on my shoulder, he said to me in his calm, soothing drawl, “I expect big things from you, Mark.” This is all I remember from our encounter.

“I expect big things from you, Mark.” “I expect big things from you, Mark.” “I expect big things from you, Mark.” He couldn’t have known that these were the very words I needed to hear right at that moment. He couldn’t have known because I didn’t even realize I was that desperate for affirmation, for someone to believe in me. What made these words even more powerful was that they came from the very person I needed to hear them from. I said, “Thanks,” and walked away. I found a quiet spot near my English class and sobbed.

And that’s how Frank Zepeda saved my life. From that point on, I set out to accomplish everything I could, and if I was down or tired, I just remembered, “I expect big things from you, Mark,” and again, everything was possible. For all I know, Mr. Zepeda could’ve uttered these same words to every other student, but for that time, in that moment, I was the only one around, so they were my words, and they are still are my words.

When I heard the adjunct professor mention Mt. View and Zepeda, I had no choice but to pry. “Did you say Mt. View High School?” I asked. “Yeah,” she said. “I graduated from there.” “Oh, cool! So did I,” I said. “Do you know Mr. Zepeda?” She obviously did, since she mentioned him but I was playing stupid. “Yeah,” she said enthusiastically.” I could tell she thought he was as cool as I did. “He was my twelfth grade English teacher,” I said. “Oh, yeah?” she said. “He’s a principal now, at Norwalk High School.” “Really? He doesn’t teach anymore?, I asked. “No, he moved on,” she said. “I guess he got tired of teaching.” She said, “Bye,” and walked on down the hall. I sat at my desk for a few moments. I was stunned, but still a little excited at hearing about my favorite teacher. I returned to my tasks, but I had been wounded by a nostalgic arrow. I thought about Mr. Zepeda a lot after high school. I wondered what he was up to and how he was doing.

I kept thinking about how weird it was to hear his name, but I was also happy to know he was alive. I now knew where he worked, too, and that he moved up the ladder, so to speak. I figured it would probably be a good time to reach out and contact him and tell him about all the good he did for me and how his words and his pat to my shoulder awoke me and gave my life direction. And so I did.
Norwalk’s High School’s operator answered the phone. “May I speak with Mr. Frank Zepeda?” I said. I had pretty good phone etiquette because it was part of my job as a graduate assistant. I used to answer all the phones. It got old fast, though. When I started the job, I went through the entire greeting with the politeness of a butler. “Hello. English Department. Mark speaking. Can I help you?” After a few months on the job, my greeting had dwindled down to, “English!” That was it, but I said it with conviction. I didn’t care who was on the other line. I didn’t care if they knew my name. I didn’t care if they had the wrong number. “English!” That was it. It worked, too, and I answered almost every question that was thrown at me, even the stupid ones.

The operator was polite. “Oh, yes. One moment, please. I’ll transfer you.” It was a short wait. “This is Frank Zepeda.” It was his voice, in the same exact tone with which he said, “I expect big things from you.” “Hey, Mr. Zepeda. How you doing? This is Mark Cisneros.” How could he remember me? Ten years had elapsed since we had spoken or seen each other. “Hey, Mark. What are you up to?” He remembered me. “Oh, nothing much. Just working. I’m earning my Masters’ Degree in English from Cal State L.A., and I work in the English office,” I said. After ten years, this is what I was doing? Hearing me say this to him reminded me of how little I had accomplished in ten years. “You want a job?” I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. I said, “What was that?” Mr. Zepeda repeated, “You want a job? I have an English opening. It’s eleventh grade English.” “Yeah!” I said excitedly. “Can you be here on Thursday for an interview at 11:00 a.m.?” It was Monday. “For sure. Ok, Mr. Zepeda. I really appreciate it. Thanks,” I said. “Ok, see you Thursday,” he said. “Ok, see you later,” I said.

To make a long story a little less longer, the interview went well, and I was given the job. I’m sure my history with Mr. Zepeda had something to do with my landing it, but in the end I was pretty knowledgeable, and I had a lot to offer.
When I graduated from college, it was my intention to become a writer. I don’t know why I felt I had to wait to finish college in order to start writing, but in my mind, this was part of the progression of becoming a writer. The majority of my friends applied to the teacher credential program. Most knew that they wanted to be teachers. I applied to graduate school. I knew I wanted to continue my studies in English and literature, and I figured that more studying would provide me with a broader scope of general knowledge and enhance my poor writing skills. Like I said, teaching wasn’t even a thought at this time.

While my friends were studying to become teachers, I was earning my M.A. in English. Sometimes I wondered if I made the right choice to pursue a Master’s Degree in English, but I was hearing horror stories about the credential program, so I was pleased.

Mr. Zepeda hired me on a few conditions. One of them was that I had to earn a teaching credential in five-years. Because I had no credential, and because I wasn’t enrolled in a credential program, I was given an “Emergency Credential.” Teachers needed to possess some type of teaching credential, or at least be working towards one. A person couldn’t teach without one.

There was a major shortage of teachers in the 90’s, so in order to attract prospective candidates, California began distributing Emergency Credentials like gov’t cheese to anyone who show showed an interest in the teaching racket. It was easy, even for a guy like me who knew absolutely nothing about the profession. It wasn’t my calling, and I made a vow to get out of teaching in four-years. I wanted to make enough money to sustain me while I wrote a book.

Well, it’s been nineteen-years, and I’m still in the teaching game. Sometimes I hate myself for it. I didn’t want to be in it this long. I’ve seen what the profession can do to people. I’ve seen the shoulders and backs of good people, young, vibrant souls, droop and hunch and break with the weight of their complacency. It’s depressing. Others walk around zombie like, with eternal downward glances, not even looking up to see where they’re going, navigating their way by the all too familiar cracks and grooves in the cement. I didn’t want to suffer the same fate, and so I took inventory of these people, of the tired and wilted, and I promised myself that I would not suffer the same fate.

I received my very first teacher’s paycheck in September 1998. It was handed to me by the principal’s secretary, and it came in a plain white envelope. I remember feeling both excited and scared. I was trying to guess how much it would be. I didn’t open it right away. I waited till I was sitting in my car. It was parked in the teacher’s lot across the street from the school. Septembers in L.A. are hot, so my car was scorching when I got it, but still I just sat there.
I held the envelope over the steering wheel and opened it. I stared at it for a few seconds, letting the numbers sink into my mind a little deeper. It read: $2345.67. I had never seen a check for this much, especially one that was written to me. The words, “What the fuck am I going to do with all this money?” came out of my mouth. It was a lot of money to me, and I really did have a hard time trying to understand that a check for this much could be given to a human being. But within two weeks, almost every dime was gone. I lived paycheck to paycheck for the next two years because all I did was party and dine with my girlfriend.

Now, when I try to corral all the years into a single memory of sorts, I can see that my teaching career, so far, hasn’t been that bad. It’s actually gone pretty well. I like to think, or hope, at least, that I’ve changed lives in positive ways, and that I’ve been a role model, and that I’ve improved my own quality of life.

I’ve even earned a few awards for my teaching. The biggest was being, recognized as “One of Los Angeles County’s Most Inspirational Teachers.” This was special because the nomination came from the students themselves. I have a picture with then L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and a t-shirt to prove it.

Yes, my life is a little easier now, financially speaking, although, teachers’ dollars still don’t go very far. I’ve had a lot of fun and interesting times as a teacher, and I’ve made some strong, long lasting connections with students. Along the way, I’ve been asked to baptize babies and be the best man at weddings. I’ve also been invited to numerous Quinceñeras and baby showers. I’ve also been invited on family outings to Mexico. Some students have even tried to set me up with their older sisters and aunts. It’s even gone further. Students have also asked me to pack bowls with them, smoke joints, take shots, snort lines, and do keg stands at their kickbacks or house parties. No, there’s never been a shortage of surrealism, comedy, intrigue, and mystery in the teaching profession. Every day is grab bag. You just never know what’s gonna go down.

Meant to Bee

Not many know this about us: my wife and I lost a child to complications. Our baby boy would’ve been close to five-years-old by now.

Finding out we were pregnant with our second child was a celebratory call for us, just as it had been when we found out Xaria was on her way to us. A few years after her birth, Guen started talk about having another, especially because we wanted Xaria to have a sibling. We decided to go for it, despite knowing that we were going to experience a gamut of nerves and fears associated with pregnancy. Xaria’s birth was no exception, either, but we did all we could to be best prepared for our new child’s arrival. We would DI the same if and when we had to.

It happened. Guen was in her forties when she was got pregnant for the second time around, and we were well aware of the potential complications associated with older age and pregnancy. We saw all the right doctors and took all the necessary tests, driving back and forth to San Francisco and Stanford. We were full throttle, all positive, and yet cautious with everything Guen did. But still, at our soul’s core, were over the moon.

We talked about names and gifts and sleeping arrangements and how happy Xaria would be and what age she would be when her baby brother or baby sister was five or six-years-old and how our lives would be made much more meaningful with more children. Xaria was getting a younger sibling, too, and she was super excited about it. We, too, were super stoked for her.

There was still a lot of work to do, and we were determined to be thorough with our preparations and medical options. We took advantage of all the advice and tests that were recommended, leaving little room for future regret. Guen and I fielded a slew of Genetic Screening questions from a specialist in San Francisco. We were asked questions about our families, on both sides, about moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, and great grandparents. We volunteered information regarding any family health issues of which we knew. The conclusion from the screener was that everything was normal. In fact, every test Guen took had come back absolutely positive, making us even more excited to see our baby.

Because of Guen’s age, she was provided information for one more optional test. It was called a Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) test, a prenatal exam used to detect abnormalities, birth defects, genetic diseases, and other pregnancy problems. The test was recommended by Doctor Alexander, the same doctor that who delivered Xaria. We loved Dr. Alexander, and we trusted his opinions and judgement.  Guen wholeheartedly agreed to the test

The CVS test involves removing a sample piece of the placenta. It’s done by inserting a long needle through the belly, reaching all the way to the placenta. The sample is then sent to a lab, and the results come back a few days later. Guen was a trooper during the test, a symbol of her determination to ensure a normal, healthy birth.

The CVS results had come in, and so we drove to San Francisco to hear the findings. If I remember correctly, we were apprehensive and emotionally fragile. Up to this point, we had relied on images from ultrasounds and blood samples to tell us that our pregnancy was going well. We studied our baby’s curled form, mysterious and magical on the ultrasound screen, and watched his/her heart pulsate with excitement, my urging him/her on, “C’mon, baby! You can do it! I’ll see you, soon!”

A trisomy is a type of polysomy, when an organism or species produces one extra chromosome.  A normal human is equipped with 46 chromosomes. The first twenty-three chromosomes, called autosomes, look the same in both males and females. The next twenty-three, the sex chromosomes, differ between males and females. The production of extra chromosomes severely throws off the balance in an organism, which could prove dangerous, even deadly.

For women aged 40 and up, the chance of their baby being born with Down Syndrome is approximately 1 in 90. A double trisomy, two extra chromosomes, is exceedingly rare, at a rate of approximately 1 in every 10,000 births.

The CVS results confirmed that were that 1 in 10,000. We were told our baby had a double-trisomy. The double-trisomy meant our baby was to born with Down Syndrome, a disease we were ok living with, but the second trisomy meant that our baby’s life would be a stillbirth, meaning that he or she would more than likely die after approximately 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. It was blow. Dr. Alexander explained our options. He was slow and careful and empathetic.

My heart was completely broken. I can’t imagine how Guen felt, but I know she was destroyed on most every level. After all, this was not supposed to happen. Every test was positive. Every ultrasound was a celebration. Every conversation we had with our team of doctors and every piece of information we received about our baby was positive. The chance of a double trisomy was almost nil.

After many tears and long periods of depression and self-doubt, we aborted the pregnancy. Dr. Alexander assured us that our decision to do so was made much easier by the double trisomy, a surreal, reverse blessing of sorts, giving us no choice. We did not want our boy to die stillbirth.

A few days later, we were once again in San Francisco. I don’t remember the drive—only the stillness in the air, the quietude, the sadness. There were no words that day. Only feelings.

My wife asked about the sex of the baby after the termination. They told her he was a boy. He would’ve been named Luke or Santiago, or even Mark. These names were on the list.

The doctors said they were surprised that Guen got pregnant in the first place. In fact, the post-operation counselor told her that she was lucky to have gotten pregnant at all. Even after the initial fertility tests we took as we were planning to have another child, Dr. Alexander told Guen that she had a 1% chance of getting pregnant. She had defied the odds, and a month later after he told her that is was almost impossible, Guen was pregnant. That it had ended was devastating.

A day after the termination, I had a dream.  I was walking into the family room from our bedroom. At the same time, Xaria was walking in through the back door of our house and into the kitchen. We met at the threshold of the kitchen and family room. I noticed her hands were cupped as she approached. “Dad, look what I found.” I looked into her hands, and she was cradling a dead bee. She was so very cautious with this creature, even though it was dead. I could tell she was connected to it on an emotional level, as I have seen Xaria in these situations before. I could sense this connection in the dream. And then I, too, was affected emotionally by the sight of the bee, and I felt drawn towards the bee, too, pulled towards it by a soft sadness.  I knew in my dream that she was holding her baby brother and that I was seeing the symbol of my son.

I told Guen and Xaria about the dream. Guen knew it was our boy. She believes in these things. Xaria was mystified by its meaning. At school, she told her friends, other Kindergartners, that her brother is a bee. We had to counsel her a little from making those types of statements, as elementary kids take everything at face value. But from that point on, we started to see a lot of bees—not in swarms—but individually, and at odd times. Recently, as we were returning home from a family trip to Big Sur, a bee flew into the car. The odds of it happening were pretty crazy because I had only one window slightly open, barely at a crack.  The bee found its way into the car, immediately causing excitement and joy. It hung around for a few seconds to say “hi,” and then he flew out of the car on his own, through the same window. It was pretty cool, and both Xaria and Iris knew the bee was their baby brother. I drive on with a smile.

Last week, on August 8, 2017, I turned 47 years-old. I got up particularly early that day to water the lawn and vegetable garden. After this, I went back into the house to get Guen’s car keys. When I can, I start her car for her and get Iris strapped into the car seat, little things to make Guen’s day easier. As I walked back towards the house, I noticed a speck on my car window. As I neared, it didn’t take me long to realize that it was a bee. It was just resting there, in no particular rush or posture. It was just glued to the window. I called for Xaria and Iris. ‘Xaria! Iris! Come here! You’re not going to believe what’s on my car!” “What is it!” they yelled, rushing outside to see. I was standing at the car as they ran up. “Look,” I said, “It’s your brother, my son! He’s come to wish me a happy birthday!” “Wow,” Xaria said. “That’s cool!” She didn’t seem surprised, but Iris was, and she unloaded a barrage of questions. “Is that my brudder?” “Why is the bee on your window?” “How come the bee is there, daddy?” “Why is he resting?”

I answered every one of Iris’ questions. It was my pleasure. She’s our rainbow baby, the less than 1% girl, the miracle that came after our boy left us. 

Dr. Alexander didn’t think it was possible for Guen to get pregnant again, and if it happened, it could prove tumultuous. We were still reeling from the abortion, and we passed through substantial period of mourning, but Guen and I got through the aftermath together, and with the love of family and each other, we were able to move forward, emotionally and spiritually. We were ready to try again, too!

The months passed, and Guen periodically cried as she thought about our boy and what could have been. I did, too, more in secret, though, hiding my musings from Guen. My son would’ve played soccer, and I would’ve been under the car with him teaching him the difference between open-end wrenches and sockets. We would’ve fished together and he would’ve cursed and I would’ve laughed. And he would protect and take care of me when I was old.

The months went on like this. Then, on one December day, there was good news. I was napping. It was about 1:00 p.m. It was chilly and I was under the blankets. The house was unusually quiet. Xaria was asleep, too.

There was a massive bang on the door. I don’t scare easily, but I jumped, completely startled. Guen was standing at the threshold, crying hysterically. She was clutching a pregnancy test. “I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant!” she yelled. “What?” I threw off the blankets and crawled across the bed to her. She thrust the test into my face, and I read the lines. They were pink and they were positive. We cried together.

Well, here we go again! We were back at it, traveling to and from San Francisco and Stanford. We didn’t want to jinx this one, so we remained tight lipped about the pregnancy. We didn’t even talk about names. However, Guen is Guen, and so she turned to Google. She found that a baby that is born after the tragedy of a previous pregnancy, is called a “rainbow baby!” She believes in these things, and, by default, I do, too. When we found out we were having a girl, we decided on naming her Iris, the Spanish name for “rainbow,” or “arco iris.”

Iris has been a miracle, a truly magical addition to our lives. She has already proven to be fierce in her three-years of life. She is completely different from Xaria, too. Xaria wore a threadbare tutu for the first four-years of her life, pulling it up over every outfit she ever put on, until it finally fell to pieces. Iris, on the other hand, hasn’t worn a dress in almost three-years. She refuses to wear one, and she detests the color pink. Instead, she’s into soccer, baseball, basketball, skateboarding, scooters, and jumping off high places. She has already broken an arm, ridden in an ambulance, and worn several bandages. She does not walk. She runs to wherever she has to be. She may very well be our boy reincarnated, but whatever she is, I know that she is definitely meant to bee. 

“Daddy, I was flying!”

When my daughter, Xaria, was six-years-old or so, she burst into our room one early morning as my wife and I were waking and announced,  “Daddy, Daddy! I had a dream that I was flying. I was actually flying!” She was over the moon (pun intended). I said, “Really? Were you actually flying with your arms or with wings or what?” “I had wings and I was flying all through the sky! They were big wings, and they were colorful and long,” she said. I was happy for her. I’ve had the dream a few times, and it’s unique. If you haven’t had it, I hope that one day you do. It’s probably the most beautiful dream you can have, especially if the spirit of your flight comes from a healthy place.

The first time I had it, I was about twenty-three. I might’ve had it before, but I don’t recall it. In my dream, I found myself running down a childhood street at full speed. I think I already knew that I had the ability to fly, which is why I was running in the first place. At full pace, I then jumped into the air and flapped my arms as fast and as hard as I could. I did so as though my life depended on it. I wanted to fly! I managed to stay in the air for a few seconds, but quickly came back down. I wanted more. I was pretty conscious of my abilities. I tried again. I did it all the same. Then, just like magic, I was in the air. I was in a state of amazement, too, but I was conscious of my flight. I flapped and gilded, flapped and glided, and then I simply controlled myself across the night sky, flapping my arms and guiding myself over neighborhoods in L.A.

Us Mexicans are a pretty superstitious bunch. I told my mom about the dream, and she said, “Oooooh, that’s good, mijo! It means you’re going to get money!” A part of me thought my mom was maybe a little foolish to believe in that stuff, but in the back of my mind, her words were taken as a bit of wishful truth. It just so happened that my brother and I were preparing for a Vegas trip with our dad. It took place two days after my dream.

We were in the Tropicana when my dad hand me a $100 bill. He gave my brother one, too. We weren’t going to spend it. When my dad gave us money, we pocketed it and used it on stuff we needed for school or clothes. I did, however, have three dollars of my own. I exchanged them for Tropicana, one-dollar coins so that I could play the slot machines.

I walked around the casino searching for the right slot machine, theone, lucky machine that would call my name. I found it. It was a corner machine, at the edge of a major walkway in the casino, side-by-side with about ten other machines. It was decorated with colorful pictures of the Tropicana lady. She wore a big hat with fruits and flowers stacked on top it. She wore a bikini, and she had beautiful breasts and long legs. She was the one!

Because I only had three-dollars, and also because I expected to lose all three dollars in the blink of an eye, I didn’t even take a seat. I just stood in front of the machine and proceeded to give it my money. I put the first coin in and pulled the lever. The wheels inside spun wildly for a few seconds and then one by one they stopped. Nothing. I put the second coin and watched the numbers and fruits and ladies and all kinds of other icons roll to a complete stop. Nothing. Then with one foot pointed in the direction of the door, I popped in my last dollar and went for the lever.

Before  I could pull it, though, the coin popped out at the bottom of the machine. I thought, “Well, at least I didn’t lose.” I put it in again. This time the machine took it. I pulled the lever and watched the numbers and symbols roll across the face of the machine. The first roll stopped. It was the Tropicana lady. The second roll stopped. Again, the Tropicana lady. Finally, the last roll stopped. The Tropicana lady. There wasn’t a sound. No lights, no sirens, no horns–just silence. “Did I win,” I asked myself. I stood directly in front of the machine and squinted my eyes as I stared deeply at the icons and the center-line on the glass. They seemed to be lined perfectly, but still there was no indication that I had won.

Then a voice called to me. There was a woman standing atop the row of machines. I hadn’t notice her, and I didn’t even think it was possible to be up there, but it was her perch and she made sure the machines were functioning. “Did you win?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “The ladies are lined up, but there wasn’t a sound or any lights or anything.” “Yeah, you won,” she said. “You won $800!” “No way!” I said. “Oh, shit! She called me over and handed me eight, $100 bills. “You’re dumb,” she said with a laugh. “If you would’ve put in two counts, you would’ve won $2700!” I didn’t care. $800, was the most money I’ve ever had. Mom was right!

When we got back to our hotel room, I put the $800, under the mattress. There was no way that I was going to spend a dime of it. After two more days, we left. We were on Highway 15 when I realized that I had left the money under the mattress in our room.. My dad was pissed! “Son of a bitch,” he said as he angrily drove us back. We didn’t lock the door behind us, so I went in and straight for the bed. The money was still there.

Xaria was so excited about the dream, and I didn’t want her to forget it, so I said, “You should paint your dream. You should paint what it looked like so you don’t forget it.” She did. My wife always has Xaria’s art supplies within arm’s reach, so Xaria got to painting at the kitchen table. We left her alone. This is what she painted:

Xaria's flying

I’ve since had the dream a few more times. In fact, I just had a few weeks ago. It never gets old. I’m glad Xaria had it. I hope Iris has it, too. I can’t really put to words how beautiful it is to fly. It’s funny, though. In my flying dreams, I never have wings. I always have to use my arms. Xaria is lucks. She got wings.