Saturday, June 18, 2011

Poppa Was a Rolling Stone

Hi Readers,

I’ve been taking a brief(ish) hiatus from the blog, using my “free” time to work and read, but I am back and I have lots of awesome posts planned for the upcoming summer months.  To kick it off, today I have a very special post featuring Torrey Maldonado (TBF 2011).  Torrey was asked to write a guest post for the Latina Book Club for Father’s Day, and the Book Club published his post on June 17.  Torrey was kind enough to give me permission to run his guest post, as well, so I am honored to share Torrey’s essay with you this weekend in honor of Father’s Day.  Enjoy! 

Poppa Was a Rolling Stone
By Torrey Maldonado

"Your father’s dead. He's gone."

That's what my mother told me over the phone.

I didn’t know how to feel. He was absent for so much of our lives. Wasn't he already “gone” to us? Yet, here I was experiencing his real death. The kid in me suddenly wanted him back to give us what he never had: his full and fully positive presence.

True to the song, my “poppa was a rolling stone.” He regularly disappeared for years and, during his absence, I didn’t know him. When he returned, my mom let him stay with us and I didn’t know him. He often disappeared into the streets, came home, and disappeared into his bedroom. From my first day of daycare to my first gray hair, he spent more time outside with guy-friends and almost no time doing "fatherly" things with my sisters and me. Yes, he was a “rolling stone”, “macho”, and what my students call a “hard rock”.

At some point, my mom told me about his rough upbringing filled with close relatives being more distant, "hands off", and cruel with him than loving. She said he fathered me how he was fathered; he loved me the best way he knew how. Whatever the reasons, his absence produced two reactions: first, I searched for father-figures with mixed results; next, there was an empty dad-seat that my mom worked overtime to fill.

Before I knew about Oprah, I knew a quote she loves: “It takes a village to raise a child.” During my Vassar College freshman summer, I taught in the Harlem Freedom Schools for Geoffrey Canada and “It takes a village” was our mantra. It sums up my life: a village-effort set up by my mother raised me to be the first in our immediate-family to attend college. Within my village, two villages of men shaped me.

During the early years of my life, Red Hook projects was a haven where kindergarten kids played late outside. It birthed the NBA star Carmelo Anthony and raised him until age eight (cool personal side-note: my sister was his daycare teacher). Then drugs ripped Red Hook apart and, by 1988, LIFE magazine ran a nine-page photo spread calling it “The Crack Capital of the U.S.A.” and “One of New York City’s Worst Neighborhoods.” The crises in Red Hook created a crisis in guys around me and in me: I call it “the boy crisis” ON STEROIDS. In 1992, my elementary school principal, Patrick Daly, was shot in the chest and killed in Red Hook. As boys, the two charged with his murder and I briefly ran wild together.

Growing up, we saw our fathers—good men who got caught up in unfortunate situations—jailed, killed, waste away from addictions, and run away. That cut a huge hole into our community and that void was quickly filled with one-sided images of men from our streets and media. During my pre-teen and teen years, a lot of guys and I spent countless hours idolizing “hard rocks”—real or Hollywood-created. I’d race to see Hulk Hogan on TV rip his shirt apart, brag about his twenty-two inch pythons (arms), and body-slam anyone who disrespected him. I couldn’t watch enough Iron Mike Tyson fights where he KOd guys in early rounds. If I wasn’t imagining I was Schwarzenegger terminating people in The Terminator, I pretended to be Darth Vader bullying the universe. I held onto these men because, in having them I had a constant male-presence and, in imitating their toughness, I was becoming my father. Males around me (both younger and older) were slowly splitting into two groups: positive Gs (Gentlemen—who only worked to increase the peace) and Gs (what my students call a guy if he gets money, power, and respect—especially on the streets. They say, “He’s gangster.”). My father, like many males, spent time being both Gs and it blurred which G was he, but most agree he was a G.

A G could be a great guy but, like Anakin Skywalker, sometimes falls victim to the Dark Side. What traits does a G have?

First: money, power, and respect (and my friends and I wanted them because our families had unmet needs, experienced powerlessness, and often were disrespected).

Second, Gs on a daily basis were seen or heard talking about fighting other males, disrespecting, killing, or helping them down destructive paths.

Third, these guys often lived fast—fast cash, fast everything—and sadly died young.

As sure as the sun came up, one of those things was seen in my neighborhood before sundown.

“Like father like son” isn’t what my mother wanted so she convinced positive Gs from Red Hook and beyond to usher me into manhood.

No “bom chicka wah wah” ever happened between my mom and these men. They respected her, her parenting, and they sat in my father’s empty dad-seat every now and then.

I didn’t immediately bond with them. They weren’t the “hard rocks” my friends and I admired. But they had my back.

Some just policed me from their hang-out spots to make sure I behaved. Others invited me to visit their jobs daily so they could hand me coins or (when times were better for them) bills so I didn’t watch with hungry eyes as my friends ate “treats” paid by their two-parent allowances.

A tug of war began in me. Picture me as a little boy, clipped to the center of a rope and the positive Gs and Gs yank me in opposite directions. My small feet dangle over a yellow line on the floor and my white t-shirt asks a black-letter question: “Where Will I Stand?” That’s how I felt.

Not all Gs did, but many Gs disagreed with the positive Gs on one subject: education.

My young mind needed distractions from household and neighborhood drama. Reading and writing helped. Yet where I’m from, female-readers get called “geeks” and studious males get called the other “g word” since school is considered a “girl’s thing.” So I hid my passion for school to avoid being bullied. Why did my mother have to tell the positive Gs that I had writing-talent and honor-roll potential? That turned them into broken records: “Education’s your ticket”, “School’s your weapon”. As for the other Gs, people convinced them school wasn’t manly or shouldn’t be top-priority. They passed that message on to me. Did my father value education and know good grades would improve my life? Yes. But he grew up in a home that said academic-guys weren’t “real men”. I still remember times he yelled at me to stop studying inside so much. “Go outside! Hang with other boys!” I worshipped him and nearly followed his advice to chase street-thrills instead of chasing my dream to be who my mom wanted me to be.

My mother, my village of positive G's, and others kept guiding my hands to piece the puzzle together until I saw the big picture: men like President Obama are “real men” too and I could excel in school and still be a "real man". As I started to examine this picture more closely, I realized positive Gs weren’t “hard rocks” but maybe rare diamonds because they had more developed and polished sides.

I used to feel jealous when I heard people say that, as a youngster, they had read this or that life-changing book. As a pre-teen and teen, I wasn’t introduced to that book. Growing up, I found something else. Comic books pumped me up the way sports, video games, and movies did—not chapter-books. I’m approaching my tenth year as a public school teacher and I annually see the same thing. Lots of kids don’t like chapter-books and, second, most of the books they love give them brief escapes from reality but returns them home without tools to solve daily problems.

A couple of years ago, two of my “hard rock” male-students—both with deadbeat dads and more negative male-influences than positive—experienced life-changing incidents. One embraced the street-life, visited another neighborhood, and was murdered. The other boy’s father stopped flirting with leaving his family and fully abandoned them. The boy came to me in tears; his change in grades reflected how much of him was taken away when his dad left. He soon graduated and I don’t know what’s become of him. Those boys made me say, "If I could go back in time, I would’ve done more as their teacher.” The boy in me who experienced similar losses wished he could time-travel back and also help the Gs of my upbringing.

In reality, I can’t rewrite history to maybe save the life of my one student and strengthen the other. I can’t have my father back. If he was alive, I couldn’t change him. But I can practice another quote Oprah loves: “When you know better, you do better.”

A few years ago, I reminded myself that I knew how to write and I knew one thing to be true: if we want better men, we must get more boys reading, period. Reading freed me then polished me.

So I pumped myself up: "Torrey, write the book that you, your dad, and Gs needed as a teen.” So I devised a plan to write a novel so real that it would be a page-turner to “A students”, Darth Vaders, and everyone in between. “It’ll show the roadmap your mom and the village made that led you to who you are,” I thought. “Make it an escape from reality then return readers ready to solve daily problems.” It was from the fire that I forged Secret Saturdays.

This year:
It became an American Library Association 2011 Quick Pick for Young Adults (12-18),
NBC and others have showcased it, and
Colleges assigned it as required-reading in Education Departments alongside S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

These are dreams coming true and magic happened during a school-trip. A few “hard rock” students who remind me of middle-school versions of my father approached me. They hate to read. One said, “Mr. T., I know one of the raps from your book by heart.” Then, he lit up and quoted my book so perfect that you’d think he read it from a cloud. He asked me where he could get the album of my character Black Bald and his jaw dropped when I told him, “I made up Black Bald and his raps.” He said, “You? You wrote that? That’s gangster.” Here is a young male who hadn’t shown he loves school or books he admires me, he has holes in his life that I’m filling holes with positivity, and he’s being polished into, maybe, a rare diamond because of my teaching and writing.

My father didn’t live to see me take lemons he gave me and make lemonade. All my positive Gs and Gs aren’t around to see how they helped sweeten that lemonade. Yet, the two villages of men that shaped me influence my teaching and writing to show boys that a lot influences their choices and they can choose differently: to evolve into better men and fathers. I think of the 2011 boy-versions of my father who feel so moved by my work that they come from behind everything dumped on them to show positive emotions about education. Through them, it feels as if my father is alive and there is a chance for him to “know better and do better”.

Thanks again for granting me the right to print this great essay, Torrey!

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