The Predator, The Snake, and The Thief; Why I Couldn’t Wait to Get Away from Paradise

IMG_0287My name is Jeremias Arevalo. I am a junior at Lighthouse Community Charter School. I have always enjoyed writing in the forms of poetry, scripture and memoirs. I hope that my work shows you an insight into the life of a mixed-race, 17-year-old growing up in a turbulent time, in a turbulent place. I love the Bay Area and California so I hope to go to college in Santa Cruz or Berkeley. I don’t yet know of what I want to do with my adult life but hopefully it will be full of misadventures and success, so when I am an old man I can write my stories down to share with the world.

 

Snakes in the jungle, predator in the streets, thief in my home.

All were gathered under one roof and called me nephew. Guatemala is a wonderful place for a third world country: drinking age is never enforced; white folks are treated as walking banks, and reggaeton is the soundtrack to the lustful poverty.

The innocent boy visiting the jungle, the home of his father. If only the father was more of a wordsmith and could weave the wild acts committed in the depths of night to something not so shocking. Father told him one day, and quite by accident, he morphed him.

I was 15 during these events. My father called me into the guest room back in Oakland, a small quiver in his voice. I knew it was serious. I mentally prepped my mind for the worst. Divorce? Death? Adoption? What could it be?! I surely wasn’t prepared for what was said next.

My father began the compilation of stories about my uncles that I wish were fiction; new truths, new light shone on them like the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass on an anthill. One of them I didn’t know very well, one I despised and the last I loved. My family always branded the motto: Family is the purest thing and blood is thicker than water. Apparently ineptitude in life is thicker than blood.

The Predator

IMG_1683My father’s body language prepared me for the tale of the The Predator.

I dare not speak or write his name. He was a man of god, yet he committed such deadly sins, absolved of whatever promises he made to those he preached.

As a male lion entering his new pack, he devoured his children. The husks left behind, sacrificed to Moloch. My poor cousins. When my father told me what he did to them, I was in shock. That my younger cousins were raped by their father, while my aunty knew and didn’t do anything about it made me question the sanity of my bloodline.

This experience changed my opinion on family forever. I could no longer trust my most active muscle of blood to carry me through life, for it had been bitten by the predator.

The Snake

IMG_1681The snake arrived at my house the third day of my vacation in Guatemala. As usual he decided to slither into the house without us knowing.

“Hola guicho,” my dad said with a blatant air of disdain in his voice in spying the snake.

“Hi tio,” I said nervously, looking at my father expectantly.

“Holassss Jeremiassss,” the snake replied, engulfing me in the stench of alcohol while showing his yellowed fangs and flashing his vertical pupils at me, pot belly jiggling from his last meal.

“How are you? You have a lot of girls huh?” The snake interrogated.

“I’m fine tio, and no, no girl yet.”

The gruffness of the exchanges that occurred between my father and my uncle showed the true sides of the two: one a protective father, the other a slithering duplicitous reptile. My uncle then started begging my father for money to settle this enormous debt he had. Problem is he wouldn’t tell us how he racked up this debt. My father shooed him away after a while and he slithered out hissing his opinions on us under his breath.

The Thief

Enlight2He is Elder. My favourite uncle. Elder would take me on his motorcycle with his adorable baby son. We would walk down the Guatemalan streets and talk about life. Struggles, pain, pleasure. He was the only uncle I could talk with about serious topics such as family, love, and the types of people to worry about, the only uncle who would take me seriously. But bombas of crushing truths did not cease with the Predator or the Snake.

“You can’t talk to him anymore. If he comes close I’ll kill him.”

My father was in a fury.

“Elder has been stealing money from the people of Morales. That’s us. And the cartel. Jeremias, I  know you love him but I forbid you to talk to him or be around him. He may not be alive for much longer. I’m sorry.”

Elder’s job with the municipal government was corrupt. The job I would hear him talk about so much was actually his way of laundering money from taxes for himself and the mayor. Now he was being hunted like an animal.

Love: Is it the strongest bond above anything else?

I questioned whether I should still love my uncle after I found out that he is a completely different person when he’s not around me. Two personalities, double trouble, two lives, two polarities. One I activate with my presence, the other evident without me. Golden-toothed smile begging for family, missing thumb, broken spirit. The posture of a man exposed for his true self. No security, not even in life.

 
*     *     *     *
 

I was leaving Guatemala with the same amount of luggage, but tons more mental baggage.

I couldn’t wait to get away from the poisonous paradise. When we finally arrived back home there was a silent tension about the desecrated image of my kin.

My brother didn’t need to know; some secrets are best kept in the dark, where they came from.

I thought that seeing my family would make me feel more complete. Instead, the realities of man, the cruelest animal, were shown in my blood.

Teachers, You Can Never Know the Demons Your Students Face, But There Is Something You Can Do to Help

This guest post is by an anonymous, Oakland-based educator.

One time my mom tried to kill me.

She chased me with a knife, cackling like a witch. It was hide-and-seek—but it wasn’t, it wasn’t a game. I trembled in a dark corner of the basement, which terrified me, but I was more terrified of her finding me. It was hours down there, in the dark.

She sometimes heard voices, and sometimes those voices would tell her to do very bad things.

But as a child, it’s just the two of you, hard to make sense of what is what, and this the person you love most, admire most and still do.

And that time with the knife, she later told me, the demonic voices were telling her to kill me. That is when she had to banish them.

That is how I lived. It wasn’t like that every day, and I love my moms, of course—but there were these episodes. You come home and all your stuffed animals are burning in a pile in the backyard—they were talking to your mom, they were evil, so she burned them. The cross that hung over your bed disappeared, it’s a sign, you rush out of the house and stay in hotel for a night.

She self-medicated. She drank, but she would never take medication. A proud Black woman, she would say she’d “never be a slave to a drug.” So she never took any drugs that might have helped her.

She would binge-drink and once I understood the symptoms of being drunk, I would scour the house and pour what alcohol I found down the drain. Thankfully she wasn’t a mad drunk and she never came after me, but I would pour every drop of alcohol out because she would drink it if I didn’t.

Her health got worse and eventually she was completely disabled. Life got worse for me too, struggling with where to sleep, among other struggles.

Thing is, nobody ever knew. About any of this. Nobody at school. Really nobody. I was good at just keeping it all in. Telling people my mom was “at the hospital” when they asked where she was, since she obviously wasn’t at the house I was often sleeping in. She worked in health care, so I wasn’t lying, but they just assumed she was working.

Many children live in a similar world of insecurity or fear, with their protector haunted by demons. But that is the only world you have as a child—or at least it is better than your other choices. And you learn early on to keep that world private and invisible to the outside world. Even though I was active and well-known at school, I was very alone, like so many children living through the mental health or substance challenges of their parents. Desperately trying not to attract any attention. Holding those secrets close.

One of my coaches pulled me aside once and tried to talk about my escalating drug use. Really gently, he talked about how his own child had a disability and he would have hated to have done something to be responsible. Even as a teen I understood the message. He had heard something and he cared enough to just talk to me. I appreciated that. I didn’t stop using drugs, and it didn’t relieve any of the underlying issues, but it mattered and I felt a little less alone. That was the closest any adult got to me.

Every educator likely has kids whose parents have serious mental health challenges and/or substance abuse issues. Chances are, they also have young people facing down their own mental health demons.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of adults live with a mental illness and 1 in 25 have serious mental illnesses. These numbers vary by race and other factors, as does the likelihood of getting treatments. And half of all chronic mental health issues materialize before age 14. Furthermore, roughly 1 in 10 Americans over 12 needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

I studied psychology in college, because I wanted to understand if I was having mental health issues. Instead, I ended up in education. I don’t have the answers here, but I do have some simple advice for other educators, which is…you just don’t know.

You don’t know what some or many of your students are struggling through, things that might literally be life or death, or the more subtle wearing down of a kid’s psychological defenses. You really don’t. And you probably won’t.

But you can create environments where children are physically and psychologically safe. Where they will be known and cared for. Where basic needs are always met and more complex ones are increasingly met.

There is an invisible world educators interact with every day, because as children we learn to hide things from the world. I know there are things that I should but will never know about my students, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t act. We need to support that invisible plane that students sometimes exist on, even without seeing it, but knowing it is always there.

And I have also learned that persistent caring matters, just being there enough, asking for the 100th time how a child is doing even if they said “fine” 99 times. Just showing that I care for their well-being consistently in bigger or smaller ways. And sometimes kids will talk, and share, and that can help.

Whether children are struggling with their parent’s demons or their own, nobody wants to face them alone.

 

Check back for more in our series of posts from Oakland students and alumni. Please sign up now if you would like to get notified when new stories are posted.

After 8 Schools and Almost Giving Up, I’m Graduating From MetWest and Headed to UC Davis

This guest post is by Camille Marley Brewster (aka Mars), who is graduating from MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District this month.

During my time in Oakland I’ve been to eight different schools, some district, some charter, one home-schooling program twice, and then finally ending up at one very different and special high school, MetWest, that I graduated from this June. Also, I’m excited to say that come next September, I’ll be attending UC Davis as a part of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences with an interest in Clinical Nutrition.

Who am I? My name is Camille Marley Brewster, but I go by Mars and I’m a born and raised California city girl. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and most prominently, Oakland, have become my hometowns. I was only 7 when my single mom and I moved to Oakland after being on the East Coast to take care of family for eight months. I went to kindergarten out there and began the rest of my education here.

When I first started school in Oakland I went to the local public school a few blocks down from our apartment building, Lakeview Elementary. They didn’t have a proper after-school program and just let the kids out to the busy intersection of Grand and Lakeshore, right at the highway exit. My mom felt really uneasy about my safety as no staff member ever seemed to be watching over those kids until they got picked up. Right away, my mom decided I needed something different and put me on the waitlist for EBCC (East Bay Conservation Corps Charter School), a charter elementary school in Emeryville that focused on Civic Literacy.

It always seemed, at first, like I had more and better opportunities at the charter schools than the district ones. It took a little more than a month, but I was accepted into the school and almost instantly got to participate in so many life changing events, even as an elementary school student. As early as the first grade, I was learning about the four R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, & Rot” and I never would have been able to go out to Washington, D.C., as a second-grader to give a speech about “Buddy Reading” to the Congressional Congress of Civic Literacy (an audience of about 400 leaders) if it wasn’t for the school’s imagination and innovation.

Like any school, though, they had their flaws and my mother withdrew me after my fourth grade year. They were completely unorganized and cared more about their reputation than the students sometimes. I first saw this in my third grade year when they lost my STAAR Testing and then without warning me or my mother, pulled me out of class to retake it.

They never informed the district of their mistake and my anxiety over the event showed in my test score results, which we received the following summer. This is when my mom first found out, because I, as a third grader, of course didn’t understand the situation as clearly as I do now and didn’t tell her when everything first happened.

They say “everything happens for a reason.” So I guess it was perfect that my mom pulled me out of EBCC (who were in the process of changing their name to Civicorps) and then placed me into home-schooling instead, because the summer before my fifth-grade year I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Home schooling was just what my situation called for, as I needed flexibility in my schedule to learn how to balance my life with my new label.

During my semester in home-schooling as a part of the K-12 Cava program, I was my own teacher, sitting at the kitchen table at my mother’s work (she’s a nanny), learning on the computer. The program itself wasn’t the issue, it was my need for social interaction that was lacking. I didn’t have many neighborhood friends, most of my friends were always from school, so without a physical school to go to, I was lonely.

After the first semester of fifth grade and me becoming more adept with my new condition, my mom placed me in another regular district school, Chabot Elementary School. I felt they were unprepared for my medical needs due to lack of resources and although they had a school nurse I found myself avoiding eating all day so that I could also avoid going to the office at lunch for my insulin shot. Maybe I just didn’t want to be treated differently by the other kids, but I soon found out this was impossible anyway.

Middle School was more of the same old same old. I went to Oakland School for the Arts (aka OSA), an arts-focused charter school. They had great ideas on how to improve education while promoting passion among their students for their art emphasis, but they also were extremely unorganized. They were packing the school with more and more students in hopes of receiving more money from the district and sponsors. In the end, it was a disaster and certain art departments got zero funding while others seemingly got it all.

For example, I was in the visual art department and the main art room that we worked out of wasn’t even big enough to hold each one of the middle school students in the department! This issue was never fixed when I attended the school, but three to four times a year the theater department got more funding to go on awesome and expensive field trips while we were cramped in a room without enough chairs.

This seems to be the biggest issue with non-district schools: funding.

After going back to home-schooling for a bit, I ended up at another public school for the second semester of my eighth-grade year. Claremont, despite its reputation, made me feel more connected to its community than I had to any school community in a very long time. I remember one time I was in English class and a boy saw me checking my blood sugar under the table. He then proceeded to ask me if I was a Type 1 diabetic. This was the very first time that anyone had made this kind of distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

I almost cried then and there, simply because for the first time ever I didn’t need to try and convince anyone that I wasn’t a diabetic because I “ate too much candy when I was little” or that I could actually eat anything I wanted as long as I gave insulin for it (so many people mistake Type 1 diabetes for what they think they know about Type 2).

This, to this day, is still the one thing I love about district schools, they don’t have the power to discriminate against kids labeled undesirable because they have to accept everyone. I was always able to find someone, whether it be a student or a teacher, that wasn’t completely ignorant about other people’s struggles and didn’t grow up in a bubble—a feeling I got a lot about the community at certain schools with the power of this “selectivity.”

I went to one of the biggest high schools in Oakland for two years, Oakland Technical High School, and failed miserably due to the lack of attention I received from the teachers and administration.

I really just gave up on school entirely. There were many times in math class when I would sit by the door to the classroom and wait for attendance to be called before slipping out of class simply out of lack of interest, but because of the class’s student to teacher ratio I was never caught. I don’t think the teacher ever really noticed either.

I transferred one last time to this very special school I mentioned earlier, MetWest High School. This school, while a part of the Oakland Unified School District, was more like an independent study school than anything else. It helped me believe in education again and I began to see opportunities to prove my intelligence left and right, after only a few days of being there.

We would have normal school hours three days a week and then spend the other two out in the world learning through internships. My internships have helped me realize my love for working with others my age on projects to better the future or help others. That’s why I want to be a nurse or work out of a hospital, besides the fact I’ve already been close to hospitals and the medical world for most of my life.

I was also given the chance to take college courses before graduating high school and am now that much closer to getting my degree in college in my next few years. I feel like I am actually being prepared for the world.

This is what education should look like and feel like. And I love that every single flaw I could possibly think of in this school is not only being worked on by administrative staff but also includes teachers’ and students’ voices. I was given the amazing opportunity of being on the Student Council and Prom Committee this year as a senior. I’m both sad and happy to be graduating from this wonderful school because while I will miss this type of environment, I now have clear goals for my future and life.