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I didn’t expect to see my mom picking me up from school. Not just because she’s supposed to be at work, but more so because I’m an eighth grader: I’ve been commuting and riding the “city bus” for years – Q85 and Q30 to be exact. Still, I’m eager to get the comfortable ride home rather than straphang for the one-hour, two bus odyssey through rush hour and Jamaica Avenue. We stop at the best West Indian bakery in Queens (Huie’s) and pick up patties and cocoa bread, making this an exceptional November afternoon.
When we pulled within a few blocks of home, my mom turned to me and said “Now, when we get home I don’t want you to be scared….” As she parked the car in front of our two-family home, I could faintly see it. Our front door – which had to be three inches thick and made out of solid wood – looked like something out of a horror movie. I immediately thought “axe,” but it turns out a baseball bat was responsible for the damage – splintering the front door to where I lived with my mom and two aunts. Our old landlord had sold the house while we were living in the upstairs apartment, and apparently, our new landlords had decided they did not want us living there anymore. This was our eviction notice.
We didn’t have anywhere to go.
My mom is one of nine children so the thought was that we would lean on family for support. Twenty minutes away on Long Island lived one of my mom’s older sisters, in a three-story, 6 bedroom, 4.5 bathroom, two kitchen, three living room, gated-community home – and two of the children were already away at college.
For reasons, that I still don’t understand and that still anger me today – we were never welcomed. Instead, the closest family who would take us in was my Uncle Johnny in Newark, New Jersey. The four of us – my mom, my aunt Rosie, my aunt Joelle and me – shared two small bedrooms in my uncle’s three bedroom townhouse.
It was the fall of my eighth grade year and I was applying to boarding school. I needed the grades and recommendations from teachers at my Queens middle school. I couldn’t leave. So every morning I was in the car with my mom by 5:30, driving back to New York, where she would drop me off at some random bus stop in Queens while she headed back to work in Brooklyn. From there, I’d ride a few city buses to school and arrive by 8am. In the afternoons, I would ride to a local public library and wait until she could pick me up around 8pm and we would travel back to Newark to do it all over again. Our car got broken into twice over the course of 6 months. Most of those winter mornings, we drove back to the city with a trash bag covering a backseat window, flapping in the wind.
I always fully understood our situation. In our big family, all of my cousins grew up with a lot more money than me. I knew we were the “poor ones.” And though I could never stomach the words when I was thirteen – “homeless” would not have been completely inaccurate.
I was angry, but I never really let it show. I immersed myself in school (both my public school and Saturday Prep for Prep classes that got me ready for boarding school) and soldiered through.
I knew my choices at the time were to be angry, to feel sorry for myself, to transfer to a different school, to quit Prep for Prep, to complain to my mom, and do anything other than make the mornings easier. But I also knew that my family’s biggest problem at the time was that we didn’t have money. More than anything, that was my motivation to go to boarding school and eventually end up at Princeton. I felt like education was my only way out.
Fourteen years later (damn, that’s a long time), I teach because I want to make sure my students (and adults alike) never give excuses for why they “can’t” – especially when it comes to black boys in the city.
Leslie-Bernard Joseph is a habitual line stepper, both literally (routinely trespassing lines of race and privilege), and figuratively (in the ignorant-as-hell sense). Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, Leslie is the founding Dean of Students of Coney Island Preparatory Public Charter School and will be pursuing a J.D. at Stanford Law School. He likes Sportscenter, movies, good clothes, good food, fast bikes, and you.
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