An Essayby Ronnie Pereira de Leon
I sit on my bed at 12: 22 a.m., pondering this essay’s word limit. I check my phone to discover an image of Malik blacked out on a toilet after drinking an entire bottle of New Amsterdam. Andrew and Nene are taking videos and laughing. These are my oldest friends.
Our days of playing basketball at Pickleweed Park are over. They joined a different game. Steals on the court turned into stealing from Safeway, three-point shots were now three vodka shots, box out has become hot box, and fast breaks have shifted into getaways. It is clear our lives have taken on a drastic change in trajectory. The worst part is, I know their capabilities. They are no different in ability than I am, but teachers, counselors, and parents have given up on them so they have followed suit and given up on themselves.
In my community, the stories of Malik, Andrew, and Nene are as common as gunshots and police sirens. Opportunity and role models are scarce. I’ve seen as many men of color in my AP and honors classes as my half brother, Andy, saw water coolers on his desert crossing to this country. But I have faith in a future few have achieved. When I start to lose faith, my cousin, Isaias, calls from prison, pleading for toilet paper and eating utensils, and my motivation to go to college is renewed.
My family, like so many other Black and Brown families, watched helplessly as Isaias was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a cop car. To me he was the gentle, fun older cousin who played Super Smash Bros. and Mario Party with me and came to all the carne asada cookouts. Even though I was still watching cartoons on TV and carried a Batman lunchbox to school, I knew then that neither of us would ever be the same. I still worry he will lose all sense of himself in prison and become the monster the world thinks he is. His daughter will never know him, and he will never know freedom, even after his release. As an ex-con, he will find that there’s even less for him than there was before. I know that one, if not all three, of my friends, Malik, Andrew, and Nene, will be among those from whom I will accept phone calls from prison. Knowing this, I have fought for every opportunity to get out. Turning away from the low expectation projected on me, I am navigating my own path, but I am not in my journey alone.
My achievements and high grades earned me a spot at Next Generation Scholars, an educational justice nonprofit, where I have met other low-income students of color who strive to break the cycle of poverty. While we are all surrounded by the same influences—violence, drugs, poor-quality education, and a lack of resources—we all take tougher courses, serve the community, and search out opportunity, because we all want more for ourselves and our families. We have chosen to fight for our future. With every assignment I complete and every essay I finish, what seemed a distant goal is now at arm’s length.
Each step closer to my goal is one step farther from Malik, Andrew, and Nene. They encourage me to pursue the goals they have abandoned. Though I will leave them behind, I will return to my community with the power of a college degree to become a resource we didn’t have so that all the Maliks, Andrews, and Nenes will be able to write this essay to move themselves up and out.
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