Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thanks readers

Happy Holidays and warm wishes to all those who have read my blog. As of yesterday, I had over 500 unique visitors and over 4100 hits since I made my first posting. 

Also, thanks for all the emails I have received commenting on my blog. I did have a clue that the "barrel child" issue was salient to some. However, I was a bit shocked by the number of people touched by my experiences.

The Rosary Boys RC postings had the most views by far.

I will be putting the postings together for a book. I believe I have enough material for the first book. Also, some of the most funny, inspirational, and melancholic postings are not on the blog. However, they will be in the book - depending on the discretion of the editor.

During the holidays, I will write a bit more about family life when I first came to NYC. I have focused more on my interactions at school in recent post. I am excited at the opportunity to write this chapter of the story.

Once again, Thanks! 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Third time is a charm

             I am free!

My third time getting suspended

Detention had become routine during my high school years. I found acting out in school was an appropriate payback for the conflict I was experiencing at home between my parents and me. Reunification with my parents was not going as planned. I was not adapting well to strict parental rules, a foreign culture, and lack of a cohesive extended family.

All communication between my grandmother and me had ceased. Not because I wanted it to but because I was not provided the avenue to by my parents. I missed my grandmother dearly. Much more than I thought I would.

And school did not fill the void left by my transplantation. If anything, school created a canvas for me to recreate myself in America. The result of that recreation was often detention.

I did not see detention as necessarily hurting me as a student. My grades were good and I was ahead of my classmates in terms of understanding the course material presented.

In fact, during my senior year in high school, I was granted special permission to take FORTRAN (an advanced computer programming language) at Pace University at night. There I was - a teenager in class with a bunch of grown-ups with full-time jobs and families at home.

Pushing the limits of rules and regulations were my focus.

The third time I got suspended was for breaking what I thought was one of the most stupid rules on the book. But of course I was young. I did not see the whole picture of how my actions could jeopardize the standing of the institution.

I lived a few blocks from school. It took me approximately 15 minutes to walk from door to door. I would walk in the snow, heavy downpours, and blazing summer heat. We did not have a bus to pick us up.

I was not allowed to leave school grounds once I entered the school gate. It was a regulation that no one tested. I was locked down for the entire seven hours.

One day I forgot my lunch and I had no money to purchase food from the cafeteria. So I did the next best thing, I left school to go home to get some food.

It was easy to leave school. There was a back gate hidden from the peering eyes of faculty and staff. I executed my plan to perfection. I went to the bathroom when my class was dismissed for lunch, slipped out the building when no one was looking, walked down the hill on the Southwest side, and out the gate.

It was my first time leaving the grounds without permission. I felt free, walking, swinging my arms, and whistling. Soon I would be home eating that tasty lasagna that my mother cooked the night before.

I had gotten three blocks away from my house. I stopped on the corner of a street and waited for the light to change. There was hardly any traffic on the roadway.

A light blue late model car was waiting across the street on the side of oncoming traffic. I was on the side with the flow of traffic.

I stepped down off the curb and onto the crosswalk as the light turned green for oncoming traffic and the walk signal facing me turned white.

The approaching car slowed down to a crawl as it passed through the intersection. I turned my head slightly to the left to see who was driving and caught the Dean of Students in his familiar black beard and matching habit looking dead at me from the driver side window.

As if it was a Saturday afternoon, excited, and with a broad smile, I raised my right hand and waved hello.

The Dean stared at me for a moment, scowled his face, turned forward, and continued driving.

It took me a millisecond to realize that it was not Saturday. That in fact it was a school day, at lunch time, outside school grounds, and I had just waved to the Dean as if he was my cousin.

I shoved the thought of trouble out of my head and kept on walking being guided by the rumblings of my stomach and thoughts of lasagna.

I got home, heated my food in the oven, ate in a hurry, and left back out. I had fifteen minutes to get back to school. I walked quickly and for fear of being late jogged back some of the way.

When I got close to the back gate, I noticed a teacher standing guard. He was looking up and down the street as if searching for someone. Obviously, a sentry posted by the now pissed Dean of Students who was certain of what he saw a little less than half an hour ago - Anthony Salandy playing hooky.

I decided I needed to take other measures to get on campus. I circled the block and came across a low part of the fence circling the school grounds. I hopped the fence and headed straight for the school nurse. That would be my only saving grace, I thought.

I could fake an illness and head to my class with a nurse’s pass. I was thinking that I probably could fudge the arrival time on the pass so it read sometime during lunch. I was desperate.

I entered the nurse’s office complaining of a stomach ache. To my surprise, she disposed of me quickly with some TUMS and a recommendation to use the bathroom. This was not what I expected.

I walked to my Science class and did not notice any sentries at the classroom door. Maybe I had beaten it. This was good luck, I said to myself. Although I was late, the teacher did not ask for a late pass - more good luck!

Ten minutes after class started, the Dean opened the door, excused himself, and asked if I could step out of class with my things. I was busted. I knew right there when he asked me to bring my things that I was going home.

“What did you do now Salandy?” whispered my friend seated next to me.

“I will call you later. I think I am on my way home.” I replied as I gathered my things slowly.

I walked to the Dean’s office where I took a seat in his all too familiar office. He looked at me for what seemed like an entire minute and then said, “now you must be an idiot or just brazen. I saw you off school grounds a few blocks from here and you waved to me. You did not turn your head or try to hide. You waved as if I was blind or one of your long lost relatives.”

There are times when a confrontation needs the least number of words to be exchanged. I thought that this was one of those times. I said, “yes it was me. I had to leave campus to go home.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I had to take a dump.” I replied.

“Why didn’t you do it here?” He pushed.

“Because I did not want to.” I said with a sarcastic tone. I wanted this over as soon as possible.

“How did you get back on school grounds?” he said curiously waiting for my answer.

There was no need to lie. I knew he had put teachers at all the entrances. I was going home anyway.

I said confidently and determined to save face by being bold, “I hopped the raggedy fence on the southeast corner of the grounds.”

I knew this would rub him the wrong way. I saw his anger grow.

He had warned students over the loudspeaker during homeroom not to jump that fence. Especially ones that used it as a shortcut to get on school grounds.

He quickly reached for the suspension pad. “Well you will be suspended for two days for leaving school grounds without permission.”

I tuned out the rest of his speech because I had heard it before. It was always something about taking responsibility, keeping up with my school work when I am gone, and how could I be so stupid. I was ready to leave. I knew my mother would be getting a call alerting her of my dismissal. And of course she and my father would be angry. But they always seemed angry at something I did. This latest suspension would be just another drop in the bucket that seemed to be filling rapidly.

I gathered my things and headed out the door, down the stairs, down the same hill I traveled earlier in the day, across the very street where I had waved at the Dean, and into my house.

I was home. I poured a bowl of cereal with milk, grabbed a spoon, went into my parent’s room, flipped on the only television we owned, turned the channel, and started watching Luke and Laura on General Hospital.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Second Suspension: Lessons learned

The second time I got suspended

My disdain for school officials and penchant to battle injustice bled into my freshman year in high school. It was a combination of these two factors that landed me my second suspension at Mount Saint Michael.

It was around 11am as I sat in Algebra class along with my fellow classmates taking a test. The morning had started innocuous. The blue skies offered unfettered passage to the sunlight that flooded the inside of the second floor classroom. 

I had studied the night before and was doing relatively well in the course. Relatively well for me meant I was earning a B average. My anxiety level was low and my leg had not shook up and down as it had when I was not prepared for a test. Many of my colleagues had already finished and sat with their paper turned over waiting for the bell to ring.

There were usually two bells. The first bell indicated the end of class. After five minutes, the second bell would ring that indicated the start of the next class.

Anyone entering class after the second bell was subject to after school detention. Detention was seen mostly as an annoyance to some students who routinely had disciplinary problems. Being that I had been suspended before and often was slow in getting to my next class - I mostly saw it as a VERY BIG annoyance.

Students in detention were usually held for one hour being babysat by a teacher who was getting a few dollars above his regular pay to read the newspaper or grade papers. The regular routine was to get our books out and complete homework or read. The worst detentions occurred when we had some anal retentive teacher who found pleasure in having us write 200 times “I will not misbehave.”   

After awhile, some detentions became a cool way of making time to study. Other times, it was pure hell knowing that you were missing a sunny afternoon playing tag football after school with friends.

But on this day, detention for staying late to complete a test did not worry me. The first bell rang and students jumped to their feet, gathered their test and belongings, dropped of their test on the teacher’s desk, and rushed out the door. I could hear quiet question of students asking how each other performed on the test. However, chatter was at a minimum partly out of respect for those still taking the exam. 

The teacher announced that he would not give late passes for the next class so we should finish up and rush to our next class. No late pass would certainly mean detention if I arrived at the next class after the second bell, I thought to myself. Undeterred, I continued to scribble numbers on my paper. I still had a question to complete.

My teacher was a competent mathematician. He was a friendly man that liked his students. He took pleasure in helping students and often asked me how I was doing in my studies. I always felt good about that. I often wished more of my teachers took an interest in how I was coming along in my other classes. I thought of him as I sat trying to make certain that my test score did not disappoint him.

Algebra is not a thing one can rush especially when a question has several steps. One could be at the second step in a five-step problem and stopping in the middle of solving it was not an option. That was my dilemma. Should I continue and finish this problem and risk going to detention for being late to my next class or stop now and risk getting this answer incomplete. I chose to stay and finish. I could do detention but I could not and would not disappoint my math teacher. It is one of those decisions that you make at the spur of the moment, which you regret a few hours later, and much later in life you see how insignificant that decision was in the myriad of all life decisions.

I finished the question and looked up at the boy that was standing over me waiting for me to vacate the seat. His facial expression looked like a store owner that came upon a vagrant sleeping in front of his storefront gate in the early morning.

“Yo! you need to get up!” He said.

“Ok! Hold on damn, it’s not like you are about to get mugged while standing there.” I said as I stood up from the desk.

I gathered my things and handed in the test. As I walked out the door, I realized I was not the last person. A White boy named Jimmy had just finished and he was in the next class with me. The second bell sounded as both of us exited the class.

“Man we are late!” I said to Jimmy in an alarmed tone as both of us sprinted down the hallway, our black heeled shoes clacking on the linoleum floor. Lockers flashed by as we neared the door leading us downstairs to the first floor. Jumping four steps at a time, I landed on the first floor in no time.

Both of us ran across the quad to the brown brick building next the dormitory where the Brother’s lived.

I flung open the door to the building and entered with Jimmy close behind. I was panting hard already. My shirt tail had already made it out of the back of my khaki pants. Thoughts of running home trying to make curfew crossed my mind. I thought to myself - same situation different day.

We climbed two flights of stairs swinging our arms wildly. I was in front and Jimmy brought up the rear. We got to the landing on the second floor and made a left turn around the corner.

The door to the classroom was less than 20 feet away. We dashed down the off-white colored tiled floor. I passed the water fountain and stopped to get a drink. Jimmy whizzed by me coming to a complete stop in front of the classroom door down the hall. With my head facing him, sipping the arch of spewing cold water, I saw him open the door and walked in. Damn, I thought. He is walking in. I released the button on the fountain, dashed towards him and as I got to the door it slammed in my face. BAM!

Stunned, I opened the door and looked at Jimmy heading for his seat. The teacher had not said a word yet or at least I did not hear her if she did. The other students were seated and looking at me and Jimmy. I wondered why everyone was so silent.

The female teacher erupted in a stern voice, “Mr. Salandy, please go and get a late pass.”

I replied as I continued walking, “I was taking a math test. Sorry I am late.”

She reiterated, “I do not care if you were getting CPR. You are late. So please go to the main office and get a late pass.”

Student chuckled at her comment.

Maybe she did not understand what I said. Maybe my sweet Trinidad accent was not clear.

I offered my argument, “Jimmy who just came in was taking the same test. How come he does not have to get a late pass?”

Again she said as she stood, “I will not say it again. Please get a late pass.”

I blew a gasket. She had refused to acknowledge the injustice in her decision to allow Jimmy to sit and me to get a late pass.

Frustrated, I turned to her and said, “This is bullshit!”

A chorus of “Damns!”, “Ooohs!”, and “Oh Snap!” erupted from the class. The outburst made my words seem like daggers being thrown at the teacher.

She quickly came from behind the desk, whisked by me in a huff, opened the door, and left the classroom.

I stood halfway between the door and my seat not knowing exactly what to do. Students were looking at me or claiming to their friends that I had lost it. I am certain I heard crazy at least three times. A classmate said to me, “Hey Salandy. You should start walking home now because I do not think you will survive the rest of the day at school.”  

I turned and looked dead at Jimmy and said, “Jimmy you are an asshole for slamming that door in my face. You could have held it open for me. Shithead!” I turned and walked out the classroom.

I thought about going home but decided to hit the cafeteria. They had staggered lunches and one class was in there at the moment. The cafeteria was located in a large building on the quad. It was a fairly large cafeteria with a capacity of 300. Students could purchase lunch or bring one from home. I often brought my lunch from home. I entered the building and looked for my friends. The cafeteria as always was buzzing with chatter and laughter. Groups of boys were discussing everything from girls to sports. Mount’s football team was always a topic of conversation.

I found a group of friends sitting together in the center of the room. I sat down, said hi, and unpacked my ham and cheese sandwich from the brown paper bag my mother had so deftly packed.

One of my friends immediately asked why I was out of class. I explained that I had gotten kicked out and followed with a thorough description of my indiscretion and Jimmy’s asinine behavior. My friend’s jaws dropped as they looked at each other and then back at me. 

“You did what?” one asked.

I knew then that I was in serious trouble.

I ate my lunch thinking of my possible punishment. I thought my behavior required punishment that was way beyond detention but who knew. Maybe I would just get detention for a few weeks and the situation would blow over.

Just then I looked up and into the eyes of my friend sitting directly across from me. His eyes were opened wide and his gaze was focused above my head. At that very moment, I felt a hand grab me by the collar of my jacket and ripped me from my seat. My sandwich fell between my legs as I scrambled to catch my balance.

I glanced behind me only to see the Dean of Students with his black beard and matching color habit. Students stopped eating and watched me being dragged across the cafeteria as if I had stolen some fruit from a corner store.

“What is this all about?” I asked as we got out the building and into the quad.

“Don’t act like you have an IQ of 60. You know what you did.” was the response from my captor.

I was man handled all the way to the office without another word being exchanged between me and the Dean. I was placed on the seat outside his office and told to stay there.

Moments later, the Dean opened the door to his office and asked me to come in. My teacher who I blatantly disrespected was seated in the office. I sat down in the chair next to her. For the next couple of minutes, I listened as she told every excruciating detail of my outlandish behavior.

I dropped my head. My behavior seemed totally egregious hearing someone else recant the incident. I was truly ashamed. I turned to my teacher and said sorry. I truly was sorry at that point. But I still could not shake the fact that there was an injustice done. I just took the incorrect approach in addressing it. I learned a valuable lesson that day.

I got suspended for two days, detention for three weeks, and my mother had to escort me back to school when I returned from suspension.

The lesson I learned that day stuck with me. Sometimes, in the face of injustice, we have to be strategic in our response. Outlandish behavior or insensitive words could weaken one’s position regardless how morally right that position may be.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Suspended three times in high school

         Mount Saint Michael Days

I got suspended in high school three times. I often look back at my adolescent years and conclude that I was in pain. The pain I felt was difficult to verbalize. But it manifested itself in my outlandish behavior and contempt for authoritative figures.

I believe to this day that the pain I felt was associated with the trauma I experienced as a result of being separated from my parents and later my grandmother. It was the pain of missing one’s parents and later being ripped from the only mother you truly knew. The pain grew like a cancer coloring various aspects of my life. My relationship with my parents suffered. My school work deteriorated like an unattended plant sapling in soil void of water on a mid-summer’s day – it slowly withered.  Sometimes, however, I would rebound with vigor from a supportive word and an empathetic ear.

It sometimes is difficult to grasp that I have a Ph.D. and that I had been an at-risk teen failing academically. My poor behavior had encroached onto my academic playing field and was ruining the game of life for me. I was creating a trajectory for myself, which if not derailed, would land me in a world of trouble.

I was suspended in a series of what would be attempts to fit in, lash out, and be clever. The last suspension at Mount had me close to being expelled two weeks before graduation. But I was unbowed. I wore my disdain for school officials throughout High School like a scarlet letter on my forehead. To this day, I still crinkle my forehead – a reminder of what was and how much the underpinnings of that crinkle have changed over the years.

The first suspension came shortly after transferring to Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx, New York from Sousa Middle school. I still had a heavy accent and felt a little out of place in a culture that screamed abundance and left little room for tolerance. Wearing uncool clothes seemed like a sin and I seemed to be the sinner’s poster child. I wore Buster Browns in 8th grade – really!

Mount, as it is fondly called, was a typical Catholic all boy school. It is nestled in the north Bronx, and used to be surrounded by predominantly white neighborhoods. It sat on the border of Mount Vernon. Mired in a milieu of testosterone, the school body’s ethos was “only the strong survive”. The student body was made up mostly of Italian boys with a smattering of Black males. Football, basketball, and track were the three main sports.

The school was divided into the high school and the junior high. The Marist Brothers ran the school and had a dormitory on campus. Most students lived close by with the majority hailing from the Bronx.

I lived fairly close to school. It took me approximately twenty minutes from door to gate. Some of my classmates lived in the neighborhood. Many times we would meet up at the corner and walk to school together. Other times we would walk and our group would grow to about ten kids by the time we reach the school gate.

My last classroom fight was a few months before at Souza. I had grappled with a young lad from Edenwald project. That was a scuffle to fit in. But on this day, I would be engaged in a fight for respect. Certainly, it was not lost on me that I was sitting in a class with four Black youth and twenty-five White kids. We were the minority and I was the biggest one.

Little did I know that the rhythmic cadence of my sweet Trinidad accent would land on intolerant air drums and ignite a torrent of racist words.

“Why don’t you go back to your country!” said a White kid sitting in the back of me.

I turned and faced him. His eyes revealed that he meant it – daring me to take action. He was heavier than me but I did not pay it much attention. His vicious words overshadowed the surrounding landscape and created a tunnel that focused on the bridge of his nose.

Half of me was in disbelief of what I just heard. The other half felt like an active pregnant volcano ready to spew its molten insides far into the sky.  I wanted to lash out and I did. My right hand came around, south of Alabama, and landed flush on the bridge of his nose. With one shot, I had quieted the boy and drew attention to the melee. The teacher had seen the punch.

I was quickly escorted out of the classroom by the teacher as some other boys tried to find a gym towel to put on the now bleeding nose of my tormentor.

“Quiet! I will be back!” said the teacher over the uproar that had ensued after my slug.

I was being dragged to the Principal’s office by a White, 100 pound, barely 5’ 2” nun in a habit. I could hear the Principal being told that I had hit another boy. I wondered if my story was going to be told. The way she made it seem to the burly Principal was that I had killed the poor boy or at least sent him to intensive care. What an exaggeration, I thought. She argued that I had started the fight.

I was ushered into the Principal’s office. He asked what happened in a tone that presumed I was guilty. I told him what the boy said and explained that I was sorry for hitting him. I noticed that the die had been cast. I was going home. There was no need in arguing. I kept my mouth shut.

“Regardless of what he said, fighting is not tolerated in this school. You will be sent home for the rest of the day. I would like to see your parents here tomorrow morning when you come in,” he said as he signed a letter to my parents.

I went back to class and gathered my books from my desk. The boy had gone to the school nurse. Dried blood from his cracked nose laid on the floor. I thought as I turned to the door – would I get my behind opened tonight by my father. I could be in intensive care right next to that bully come nightfall.

I was never bothered by that boy again and no one talked about me returning to Trinidad. No one even made fun of my accent. I look back at that time and wondered what would be the result if I took that same action in school today. I may have been charged with assault, sent to detention or worse a youth bootcamp. Maybe I would not have been the only boy from Trinidad in the class. Who knows! On that day, I had stood up against ignorance and bullying. Today, I still stand up but I use words and writing and I use them effectively!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ignorance is bliss

 John Phillip Sousa Junior High School, Bronx, NY

I switched to John Phillip Sousa Junior high school on Baychester Avenue when we moved to Pratt Avenue in the Bronx. Sousa was located across the street from Cardinal Spelman High School where my sister would graduate and become an alum - joining the likes of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Sousa was only a 20 minute walk from our house. It sat next to Seton Falls Park that many whispered was haunted and filled with child snatching thugs. Needless to say, I never ventured into the park.

I attended the seventh grade at Sousa during the last half of the 1978 - 1979 school year. I still uncomfortable with the routine in the American school system.

For instance, standing with my hand over my heart, facing the flag and saying the pledge of allegiance first thing in the morning was definitely different. I took one night and memorized the entire pledge. I did not want to look out of place not knowing what seemed to be a mantra of sort.

Also, I was clueless about the hierarchy of power in junior high school. But I learned quickly during gym class compliments of Bill Perry.

On gym day, we gathered in the boy’s locker room, changed into our gym clothes, put our street clothes in metal lockers, and headed up to the gym. We often had free time to play after a series of brutal calisthenics. One game in particular was my favorite – dodge ball.  We played dodge ball on a small basketball court using a volleyball. I was a skinny and agile young kid and could dodge a speeding ball in a flash.

On this particular day, Bill and his friends had lined up on one side of the court and me and a few other boys on the other. Bill was clearly a big kid that probably got left back in school several times. He wore new sneakers and trendy clothes and was always seen sitting at lunch with a gang of guys. I never had a problem with Bill or any other student as a matter of fact. I just went about my business assuming everyone was a nice person and had my best interest at heart.

The game started with Bill running forward, throwing the volleyball whizzing through the air, and hit a boy square on the knee caps. The force of the strike sent the slim boy toppling to the ground. He lay on his back for a second and then hopped up and slowly limped to the side.  

A boy on my side picked the ball up, ran forward and hit an overweight kid who could not get out of the way fast enough. Walking back to the safety of the pack with a swagger of confidence, the boy exclaimed with a smile on his face and pointing to Bill’s team, “easy pickings!”

The game went back and forth for five minutes. Boys were dropping like flies. I hung in there until there was only me against Bill and two boys. A crowd of boys had gathered around the court excitedly cheering on.

What happened next made me understand that this was no ordinary game.

Bill had thrown the ball and missed hitting anyone. The ball hit the back wall, bounced off, and started to roll back to Bill who was standing at the mid-court line. I took the opportunity to cut the ball off but slipped a mere few feet from reaching the ball. I realized shortly thereafter that Bill was going to have the ball in his hand with me being less than six feet away on the ground.

Bill reached down for the ball as I tried to scramble to my feet. However, the dusty floor provided little traction for the bottom of my sneakers and I slipped back down. Bill had me dead to right. I expected him to just softly hit me on my legs with the ball as I lay there in complete submission. But when I looked into his eyes I saw malice and wickedness. I saw the look of a hunter who had his prey cornered and was closing in for the kill. He raised his hands and aimed the ball dead at my head and released it in a full wind-up motion.

What happened next was simply a miracle. I felt a breeze blow over my face, then the sound of the ball hitting the floor a couple of inches from my head, and then the chorus of thirty plus boys exhaling in synchrony.

He missed!

I opened my eyes and looked at Bill’s face that wore the mask of disbelief as he followed the ball with his eyes and then anger as his gaze returned back to me.

I got up, ran, and grabbed the ball that had bounced off the wall and straight to me. I turned and cocked my hand, ran forward, and flung the ball at the retreating Bill. He tried to duck out of the way but the ball had enough speed to catch him on the side of his head.

He was out!

A chorus of “oohs!” rang out from the crowd on the side line. Bill turned and walked towards me as if he wanted to inflict bodily harm. Then came the second miracle in the form of the gym teacher saying, “okay boys that’s it - head down to the locker room.”  Bill stopped and turned towards the door. He had a smirk on his face.

One boy came up to be and said, “yo man, that was dope. You hit Bill in the head.”

I replied, “I did not mean to.” We chatted some more as the boys made their way down to the locker room. I was trying desperately to downplay what had just happened. I still had no idea that I had seriously challenged the hierarchal order.

We made it to the locker room and I got my clothes out the locker to put on. I stood slipping on my pants when out of nowhere Bill walked passed me, bumped me hard with his shoulder, and kept on walking. My friends who witnessed the assault started with their “oohs!”

“Damn, you let him do you like that.” One boy said.

“If I were you, I would go over there and punch him in his head.” Said another boy as he pointed to where Bill was standing with his lackeys.

Yet another boy said, “he played you like a punk.”

That was it. I decided I had to take a stand regardless of the consequences.  

I walked up to Bill and shoved him in the back. He fell forward and was held up by his friends. He turned and stepped to me and swung his right fist at my head. I stepped back and immediately saw the left hand coming towards my face. I ducked and quickly returned to an upright posture when I noticed Bill charging. Not being able to quickly move out the way, he tackled me in my midsection, lifted me up, and ran with me to the lockers. As he ran, I grabbed the back of his head by instinct. I really was just holding on to his head and trying to brace myself for the impending smash of the lockers on my back.

My back hit the lockers with a loud sound followed by a smaller sound of my head hitting the same metal frame. My hand had remained on the back of Bill’s head and not knowing this would serve to keep Bill’s head very straight as it rammed into the locker’s metal handle.  Bill let go of me and I crumpled to the floor. He stood over me in a daze as blood poured out the right side of his forehead. There was so much blood coming out of his head that it made me sick.

The gym teachers quickly came to the scene asking what had happened. I heard boys talking over each other saying that Bill and I were fighting. The teacher grabbed me and asked if I was hurt for which I responded no. He told me to get changed and meet him in his office. He escorted Bill to his office, opened a box, placed a bandage on Bill’s head, and walked out the locker room with Bill in tow.

One of my friends looked at me and said, “damn you are brave. Bill has a lot boys and he lives in Edenwald projects. You better not come back to school.”

Honestly, I was scared. I did not know what was going to happen to me. The gym teacher returned and told me to come along to the principal’s office. As I sat there in the principal’s office looking out the window, I saw Bill being put into an ambulance in front of the school.

The principal walked in and said, “congratulations Salandy you managed to send a child to the hospital with a severe laceration to his head. Now tell me how did that happen.”

I went on to tell the principal about the incident in the locker room and did not know how Bill’s head got cut open. I reaffirmed that I did not hit him and had not intended for anyone to get hurt. The principal said I was going to be sent home and my parents would have to come in with me the next day. I was officially suspended.

I explained what happened when my parents got home that evening. And told them I was scared of Bill and what he might do to me and it probably would be a good idea for me to transfer to another school now. My parents assured me that nothing was going to happen to me and transferring was out of the question.

They took me to school the next day at about 11am and explained to the principal that I was scared of retribution from Bill. The principal assured me and my parents that Bill will be monitored and I should not fear him.  I was told to go join my class in the cafeteria. I did not want to go because I knew I would see Bill there. I did not have a choice. The principal escorted me to the cafeteria.

The cafeteria was full of loud chattering children and clanking plates and glasses. I got in the line and picked up a tray. I got my food and headed to sit somewhere not too conspicuous. I was looking so frantically for Bill that I walked up on where he was sitting and did not even see him. He wore a white bandage that circled his entire head. His right eye was swollen and blood totally covered the sclera of that eye.

Bill shouted as he stood, “hey Salandy!” I felt like running but could not move my feet. He was going to kill me right here in front of everyone. I thought to myself self that this is a true thug. The cafeteria had gotten quiet and I looked around for teachers to intervene and prevent my death. None of them were moving. It seemed that the same ‘foot immobilitis’ condition was affecting them as well.

But death passed me by. It never came. There was a slap or punch as I expected. To my amazement, Bill extended his hand, gave me a dap and said, “good fight. You stood your ground.” 

“Yeh! good fight. You are good too.” I mumbled trying to keep it together.

And with that I walked away and found a seat close to some of my friends who began to ask me a dozen questions about yesterday and today. The noise level in the cafeteria had increased to its pre-showdown level.

Bill and I became very good friends. He was really a very cool guy. We started hanging out together. We played scully and basketball. I would hang out at his house in the projects and he at mine. He introduced me to his friends and his parents. And I also realized that boys who I did not know were ‘dapping’ me up and giving me the brother head nod.

I was now aware of the hierarchy in junior high and somehow had ended up in the top echelon.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Adjusting to life in the U.S.

         Young man Playing Scully on the sidewalk

So I had started the second chapter in my life in a new country with almost new parents. This chapter would bring both joy and pain - each one fighting for supremacy as the major player in my daily existence. It would prove to be a difficult period in my life. One that would shape who I am and what I would become.

In the very beginning, I was trying desperately to come to grips with missing my friends and relatives in Trinidad that were central in my life thus far. I cried a bunch, reminisced with my sister, and wrote letters to my grandmother.

I longed for the foods of my youth - pelau, callaloo, shark and bake, provisions, stew chicken, roti, and coconut water. Instead, I was introduced to spaghetti, twice baked potatoes, hamburgers, broccoli, lasagna, and kool-aid. There was one new food introduction that was especially good however – pizza. As with many kids today, pizza trumped any food item for me during my first few months in the U.S. Nevertheless, I felt that my history with Trinidadian food was slowly being erased. My taste pallet was being rewritten with a bent on European/American cuisine.  

We moved into a house on 219th street in the Bronx at first, which was a temporary arrangement until my parents closed on a house on 3940 Pratt Avenue close to the border of Mount Vernon.

I was trying to fit into a culture that seemed foreign at best and wildly exciting at the very least.

I attended a public junior high school when I first arrived in the U.S.

School was my first true reminder that I was not in Trinidad anymore. I was trying to find my place among the throngs of students who seemed to know exactly their position in the universe. I had a heavy accent and tried to communicate with children that seemed to speak a language I only heard on American television shows.

It was the beginning of the school year and children were dressed in new stylish jeans and Adidas sneakers. I looked way out of place with my “high-water” pants and sneakers that kids called “skips” even though it was not written anywhere on the sneakers.  I felt out of place in the American school system.

In class, I would raise my hand to answer a question posed by the teacher and would have to be asked time and time again to repeat myself. I could hear students saying, “huh? What the hell did he just say?” What I learned from that experience was to shut my mouth and try to speak properly. I felt like I was being forced to relearn a new language.

On one occasion, I got in serious trouble for not knowing the proper U.S. classroom etiquette. One day the teacher in my history class asked a question about a U.S. event. I raised my hand high with certainty that I had the correct answer, my hand waving back and forth with anticipation, my eyes wide open hoping that the teacher would make eye contact with me, and making the sound “ooh! ooh!”.  She called on me since I was the only student making this odd sound and acting as if my hand had a serious cramp. I answered and got it incorrect. I responded with a loud, “shit!”

Aghast, the class looked at me with mouths wide open. I looked at them with horror as I realized that I had committed a crime and was going to be sent back to Trinidad for my indiscretions. The look on my teacher’s face was one of disdain. My mind raced to fathom how what I said could have been so offensive. My teacher replied, “Young man, we do not use that language in class. It is not appropriate.” I replied with my eyes trailing down to my desk, “sorry.” I can’t even say shit, I thought to myself. We would always use that in Mr. Orsoco’s class if we missed an answer. He did not mind. The only consolation was that this teacher did not hit people with canes for bad behavior.

Our neighborhood was pretty cool. There were kids around riding bikes and playing scully http://www.teako170.com/scully.html – a sidewalk game played with bottle caps filled with clay.

I did not know how to ride a bike. I never had one in Trinidad. So my parents bought a ten-speed for me. It was made by KIA. The same company that now makes cars.

My parents always looked out for our safety and decided to put training wheels on my ten-speed to assist us in learning how to ride a bike. Now picture a grown 13 year old boy riding down the block on a ten-speed with training wheel. It did not dawn on me how utterly ridiculous I looked until I rode past a group of teenage boys who stopped their conversation, stared at me riding past, and immediate fell on the ground laughing all the while shouting, “he’s got training wheels on a ten-speed!”

To make matters worse, as I turned to look at them rolling on the ground, I hit a patch of uneven pavement, lost control, and fell off the bike. The bike toppled and landed on me. And as I looked up, the first thing that came into focus were those damn training wheels sticking up in the air spinning as if taunting me to no end. Of course, that made the boys laughs even louder. Pointing and jeering they continued their onslaught of insults. I rose to my feet, picked my bike up, and with my head bowed I walked around the block to my house. I walked inside and found my father’s tool bag, grabbed a screw driver and went outside. In five minutes those training wheels were off the bike and sitting next to the garbage can.

I still believe that somewhere out there when any one of those boys wants a good chuckle they think back to the day that the boy on the ten-speed with training wheels took a dive in the Bronx.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My parents return to Trinidad for good.

Top of the World by the Carpenters

We were told one day, in the latter part of 1975, that our parents were returning back to Trinidad to live for good. We would be reunited as a family not in the U.S. but in Trinidad – home of our birth. We were elated.

I was in my last year at Rosary Boys RC School and looking forward to my next academic challenge. I took my common entrance exam which determined where I would conduct my secondary school education. Most boys wanted to be placed at Queens Royal College (QRC) or some other top level school. QRC was at that time the best school on the island.

Unfortunately or fortunately as it turned out that my test scores got me placed in Saint James Secondary and I was to start the same time my parents would arrive in Trinidad. Saint James Secondary was a good school located in the town of Saint James on the Northwestern part of the island and I thrived there. It was coed and was the first time in my life I went to school with girls. My father’s brother Wayne was the science teacher and I often would go see him to talk.

The summer my parents arrived caused tremendous upheaval in our lives in ways that we could not have anticipated. The decision was made to take us from my grandmother and place us with our Aunt Helen and her husband Benji in Santa Cruz – a town east of the Capitol. My Aunt Helen lived with us in Maraval before she got married so we were already very familiar with her.

Nevertheless, I did not understand this move. It made no sense to me and furthermore no one discussed it with my sister and me. One day we were living with our Grandmother and the next day with our Aunt. Later I learned that the rationale was that my Aunt Helen had more room in her house to accommodate my returning parents, my sister, and me for a short period.

Uncertainty and confusion can be routine in the life of a barrel child especially when adults fail to discuss important decisions that affect the child’s adjustment.

My parents arrived a few weeks after we started living with my Aunt. They stayed with Aunt Helen for a few weeks until they rented an apartment on Belmont Road next to a steel pan yard. It was on the second floor of a two-story building that had a veranda that overlooked Belmont road. Belmont road was busy with plenty of cars and foot traffic and sat on the outskirts of Port of Spain – the capitol. The apartment had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living and dining room. It had indoor plumbing and was considered a big step up from our Maraval home.

My parents purchased a grocery store on Belmont road just a block or two from our apartment. I worked there after school often ringing people’s purchases, stocking shelves, and cleaning up. I even caught a man trying to steal one time. I was so happy when my father looked at me and said “good job son!”

Traffic stopped and men tried to clear away taxis, vans, and buses the day a eighteen-wheeler truck rolled through Belmont and brought my parent’s belongings from the U.S. to our home in Belmont. Furniture, household items, and even the electric organ came along with all other kinds of stuff stacked high on the truck. However, transport was rough because those who packed the truck did not account for the low hanging wires in Belmont. Traffic was backed up all the way to Port of Spain General Hospital about a ¼ mile away. Eventually, everything was moved into the house including the four of us.

The Salandy family was finally all together after 8 years of being separated. We ate dinner together at the table on evenings and had discussions about the day’s events and our school work. My father tutored me in my lessons. I started doing well in school placing third in my class at St. James Secondary. We went on trips to the beach as a family and visited relatives. We played music on the record player. I fell in love with the Carpenters – I played their 1971 and 1972 albums over and over. Top of the world became my favorite song and anthem to our reunification as a family. It was truly a happy period in my life. I did not care that we were in Trinidad and not NYC. I cared most that my family was together.

But the happiness would not last. We would be together for one more year when I would go through my second painful family separation that would change me forever.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My first visit to the U.S.

I first came to the U.S. on a visit in 1975. My sister and I traveled unaccompanied from Port of Spain, Trinidad to New York City on American Airlines. We were to meet our parents at JFK airport. Our excitement bubbled over during the entire trip. We received our wings from the flight attendant as we stepped onto the plane. Although I had flown before on my trip to St. Lucia, my sister was a virgin flier. Thus, I received a first flight pin when I did not respond after the attendant asked me if it was my first flight. She just assumed it was. Those plastic wings seemed like gold to me and I wanted one.

Unaccompanied kids on flights are often well treated. We sat in first class before I even knew what first class was or old enough to take advantage of the open bar. I always think about this fact when I board planes as an adult. Because, before I even get to my seat in coach, first class passengers are throwing back rum and coke looking at me as if to say “keep on walking to your cramped up space in the back. There is nothing for you up here”. As a child in first class, my alcoholic fix was candy and chocolate.

We arrived in New York’s JFK Airport where our parents swiftly wrapped their arms around us and my mother planted wet kisses on our cheeks. We had not seen my mother in nearly a year and a half and my father in six months. But this was the first time seeing them in their natural habitat – New York City, U.S.A.

My father drove a souped-up Chevy that made so much noise it seemed out of place in an urban environment. We got in the car and my father and mother’s first question was how was your flight? Why is that always the first question when people greet you upon arrival? I appreciate small talk like anyone else. But the “how was your flight” question should be retired.

Just once I would like to respond, “I had a rotten flight! I got mugged half way through the flight by the guy sitting next to me. He stole my money and promised to kill me if I revealed his crime to the flight attendant. Not only that. A baby threw up on my head as his mother took him to the bathroom. Not only that. The airline lost my luggage and said that it accidentally got put on a plane to Nigeria. Not only that. Someone’s luggage fell out of the overhead compartment during our very turbulent nonstop six-hour flight and hit me one the head. According to the flight attendant, I was out for 3 minutes and may have a concussion. Oh and the bag of pretzels and water I was served were excellent!” Just once I would like to respond the way I really felt about the flight. But on that day, we responded to our parent’s inquiries as most people do to the ‘how was your flight’ question – it was okay!

New York City unfolded in front of us like the vibrant colors of the costumes worn by the characters of the play ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. Traveling on the Van Wyck Expressway on the way to the Bronx was breathtaking. The modern cars, wide highways, and beautiful houses that whizzed by at 70 MPH were all things that we were seeing for the first time. Our eyes were pressed against the glass of the car – opened wide and fixed on the amazing landscape as we tried to capture as much as possible before it exited our view.

We traveled to the Bronx and the scene became a bit more dismal. The houses were a bit drab, things were a bit greyer and run down, and the houses seemed stacked on top of each other. There were lots of people milling around in the streets and hanging on corners. We stopped in front of a two family house off Gun Hill Road. My parents rented a two-bedroom apartment in a three family house. It was a small place and did not have the yard space as we had at my Grandmother’s home in Trinidad. As was expected, we were pampered and tucked in for the night.

Parents often over compensate during periods of reunification with a child that had been separated from them for some time. We were asked at least ten times each day if we wanted something to eat. My parents certainly exhibited the trait of guilt for having lived apart from their precious children or they just really cared about their children.

They showed us this electric organ that they had purchased because my Grandmother communicated to them that I had liked music. I learned later that it was bought for another reason. My father was especially interested in my academic achievements. I didn’t want to venture anywhere near that topic so I skirted the issue since I was did not really want to describe how my bottom periodically found the shaft of Mr. Orosco cane.

Our journey into Manhattan the next day was awe inspiring. We took the subway for the first time and were slightly scared and excited at the same time. The rocking back and forth, the conductor’s garbled voice over the speakers, and the people rushing in and out seeming to be on a deliberate trek to a purposeful destination all added to the rich experience. Our verdict was in – the subway was a thrill!

My impression of the subway would change later in life to the point where I dreaded the thought of going underground. But in between those two periods in time, I would have many adventures riding the IRT and BMT lines.

We stayed at home with our parents in the Bronx for the week and a half we were there – venturing out frequently to see the sites.  We visited the Empire State Building and the Statue of liberty – the beacons of New York City. We walked down Time Square and were amazed by all the flashing neon lights and the huge billboards. I also noticed all the nicely dressed young ladies standing around on 42nd street. I would learn the word prostitutes later on in life.

I had developed some sort of atrophy in my neck at the end of two days of sightseeing primarily due to looking up at the tall buildings. Even to this day, one could easily pick out tourists in NYC by seeing more of their Adam’s apple and up their noses than their faces. Pointing up in the air also is a dead giveaway.

Soon it was time to return to Trinidad. Our parents dropped us off at JFK and I remember crying uncontrollably not knowing why we were going back to Trinidad and not staying in NYC. I did not want to leave. I loved NYC. I loved having indoor plumbing and not having to use a chamber pot at night. I loved the lights and definitely was sold on the glitz and glamour. I longed to be together with my parents and did not understand why we were being sent back.

“Why can’t I stay?” I remember saying over and over again to no avail. We were put on the plane and promptly seated in coach next to an elderly White woman who talked our ears off the entire flight. She must have thought we were invalids because she tried to do everything for us. The final straw was when she grabbed my sister’s bread and started buttering it. I firmly told her that my sister could butter her own bread and that she should not put her hands all over my sister’s food. My vociferous repudiation of her behavior cut short the pleasantries and resulted in a moratorium on communication between the woman and us.

We returned to Trinidad where our Grandmother met us at the airport. We were so excited to see her. However, my glee was tempered with the fact that my parents where in the U.S. and we were in Trinidad. In fact, apart from my boisterous outburst at the elderly woman, I had cried the entire flight. That was probably what made our neighbor on the flight act as a motherly figure to us. More than once she asked me why I was crying. I never replied. And in my opinion, unless she had some amazing power to turn the plane around, it was not any of her business why water was flowing from my eyes.

That night, my sister sat with my Grandmother and great aunt recounting our travels in NYC. I heard her laugh and seem enthusiastic about her description of the Statute of Liberty and the trip to the crown and all the other sites. She talked about our parents and how well we were treated. I did not want to be around anyone the night we got back. I lay on my bed in the dark, cried, and wondered how it was so easy for my sister to be happy and at the same moment in time my heart throbbed with a piercing and numbing pain.