I never truly understood how lucky it is to be American, but then again what American really appreciates their citizenship? I took for granted everyday how easy I can turn on a faucet and fresh clean water pours out; how a simple drive will surround me with an oasis of food and most importantly I took for granted the opportunities of a solid education. I like many of my classmates and comrades over the years played around in and out of school and did not pay attention to so many children around the world who miss out and wish they had it as easy as I. My wakeup call came senior year of high school, my views on America, the American dream and citizenship, opportunities and education changed in little over a minute. That day will make me a better person and stay with me forever.
Senior year was pretty much a blur dealing with the college application process and all. I had a pretty clear schedule with just electives and the optional AP courses. There was difficulty applying for colleges. My first three years were not my best. I took my education for granted indefinitely. I was late almost every day, cut school whenever I felt like it and homework in my immature mind was nonexistent. When senior year arrived not only was I embarrassed but disappointed. It was a struggle as I scrambled looking for different schools that would accept my current GPA but also become a place I could actually stay for all four of my undergraduate years. I raced the halls of Vincent James High School. I headed to my guidance counselors’ office, ecstatic, waving the thick envelope in my hand. I plowed into her office and stopped dead in my tracks. She was on the phone and proceeded to raise her pointer-finger which signaled me to “wait”. I stood paralyzed for a few moments until Ms. Henderson hung up the telephone.
“Yes, Tyra? What is the commotion?” she asked as she hung up the phone.
I quickly interrupted her, “She gave me my last recommendation!”
“Who?” Ms. Hughes asked.
“Ms. Demmons! I screamed, now I can send all my documents in right?”
My best friend Janice was in the office as well, sealing up her last couple of envelopes to send off to schools. We proceeded to do a celebration dance to highlight my victory. Ms. Henderson laughed. My joy if only for a time was wrapped up in that thick sealed envelope where my former English teacher finally placed my third and final recommendation needed to successfully apply for college. I was too happy! I had been waiting on that recommendation for weeks and my patience was running thin. People in my small but close graduating class of about 59 or 60 were already getting acceptance letters and then there I was, still waiting on a recommendation.
“That’s wonderful, Ms. Henderson laughed, “Give it to me. I’ll place it in your college folder. Come back at 2:50, we’ll send them out then, after you get out of class.”
I nodded, smiled, and rushed back to finish my day.
Classes were over, I laughed in the hallways with some friends for a while but then I headed to get my documents sent out. It was the beginning of Mid-December and all of my friends completed their college lists and sent off their required paperwork. There was much to do that evening and sadly I would be all alone. Just my luck, as I walked into Ms. Henderson’s office I saw Rafael sitting behind a computer. “Aha, I thought, so much for being alone!” Then Saulo glanced from behind the computer with me standing in his view.
“Hey! He smiled, what are you doing here?”
“I have to send out my paperwork to all these schools tonight. I’ve been waiting for my third recommendation from Ms. Demmons for almost two weeks now, I explained with slight frustration in my voice, causing Saulo to frown.
“Well you can do it now. Ms. Henderson said it’s not early but, it’s not too late.”
“That is most definitely true”, I answered.
“But why did you need three recommendations anyways? You could have just sent in two if you wanted to get them in early”.
“Well, I nervously chuckled, my GPA isn’t that good and my SAT scores could be better. I just want everything else to come through? Ya know? So that I don’t have to worry and I’ll feel like I have more of a better chance.”
“Mm, yeah I could understand that.” He shrugged. “What is your GPA, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It’s a 76.8”, I replied shamefully.
I was so embarrassed telling Rafael my grade point average and not because I was ashamed. I knew that grades are a reflection of the work you put in and I was always the first to admit that I messed up. What I was uneasy with telling Rafael my grade. He was a sweet, quiet, interesting kid; I knew he wouldn’t make me feel dumb or bad about my grades like most of my friends had done. Rafael had a name of his own in my school. He was voted Most likely to be President in my high school yearbook and it was not by accident. He was on the honor roll every semester since the start of freshman year; always attentive and polite in class. There was no denying that school was definitely his strong point. Telling Rafael was just embarrassing because I knew how important he treated school since the beginning when I was too busy playing around. I knew his GPA would be much higher and I felt a little intimidated.
“Well hey! There is a college out there for everyone, he smiled, an attempt to ease my obvious tension, “I am more than confident that you find a four year university somewhere you like that will accept you. Not just you’re GPA but the whole package.”
His light and cheerful attitude lightened the mood and made me smile.
“That is definitely one thing about America that I love!” Rafael added.
Rafael was of Hispanic decent but I was unsure of exactly where he was from and he was right. I’d never really thought about all the opportunities presented to me by just being American. I was lucky and it never crossed my mind until he made that statement. I was too busy complaining about how I know felt like I had fewer options and did not appreciate that I had any options at all. I had the choice to finish my education at a place that I felt would best fit me. I had the opportunity to decide on a school based on simple things like what kind of weather I preferred; that was the perks of American freedom that Rafael referred. I immediately felt lucky. I was American and that was one of the many things I loved about America too.
“What is your current GPA, if you don’t mind ME asking?” I giggled with light sarcasm.
“I think it’s a 92.8, for now.”
My eyes beamed. “Whoa! Really?” I asked. Rafael just nodded.
“You can go anywhere! And anywhere good, I began to babble. “You should stay in New York State, because you know that’s where the money is right?”
Rafael was one of the lucky ones. His grades were amazing with SAT scores to match. My first few years of high school, college was not even something I thought of. I did not care about college or even think about what school I actually wanted to go to. I knew nothing of financial aid, and these long applications. When I thought of college I heard the usual schools that everyone knows about, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, NYU, Cornell, etc. I knew those were schools everyone else wanted to attend so my mind was no different. I just was more focused on having fun. I totally did not take advantage of my opportunities until about junior and senior year when it was already too late. This was another great thing about America and also a downfall. I had so many opportunities but I did not see it as a big deal. Like many American teenagers, specifically living in my urban NYC neighborhood, college was something you could always decide to do later in life and just wasn’t a big deal; but not for Rafael. I could tell he had an idea of exactly where he wanted to go and his grades were a prime example. I kept going on and on, my mind racing and failed to realize the change in Rafael’s attitude. He was no longer smiling, his head began to lower, his face flushed red and he grew very still and quiet.
I stopped speaking, grew extremely still and watched Rafael quizzically for a few moments. He finally answered, “I’m not going to an HBCU. I’m not going to college. And NO, I don’t want to talk about it”, his eyes got heavy and soon the tears began to fall.
I quickly rushed toward him in an attempt to console him.
“Why? What you going to do? You can’t do anything without a college degree Rafael! You know that…” I was so confused. This was not the hardworking kid I knew. I waited for Rafael’s response. He quickly interrupted me and shot a look of anger and then genuine grief.
By this time, we had already been alone in my guidance counselor’s office for about an hour talking about college and opportunities, now silence filled the room. He looked around the room at all the college memorabilia that decorated the walls and finally urged, “You can’t tell anyone!”
“I promise you I won’t, I replied. He shot me another serious look. I led on, “I would never! Whatever you tell me is not my business to tell anyone else.”
After about five minutes of silence he finally muttered, “I’m an immigrant.”
“So?” I replied with slight confusion. I was about to explain to him the situation of another friend of mine who is an immigrant as well and applying for college but I then thought against it and let him explain.
“No, explained Rafael, I’m an illegal immigrant. I can’t go to college; I can’t get a real job. I technically don’t exist.” And then again the tears began to fall down.
My heart began to slowly break. Rafael was the smartest person I knew and up until that exact moment, someone I knew who would definitely have a bright future. I slowly began to comfort my friend who I now understood would never have the same opportunities. He always worked ten times harder than I ever did and still would never reap the benefits.
As he wiped his tears he began to explain his mom’s decision to leave Mexico when he was 6. She hoped to find a better job, better life for Rafael and his two sisters. But I began to question it, “Did your mom know you wouldn’t be able to go to college? I mean, did you?”
“Well, no. I told Ms. Henderson that I didn’t have a social, and a birth certificate and I finally told her why. She said it’s virtually impossible. I can’t get financial aid without it.”
I wondered what the American Dream was. What life did Rafael’s mom expected for him and could he really have it? I guess that dream was still important to Rafael until the day he realized he would not be going to college like he’d dreamed. Even the friends like me who did not care enough in the beginning to work for it. The life his mom knew he would not receive in Mexico was just about unattainable in America as well because just as Rafael explained he, “did not exist.”
I felt for my friend and I began to understand why he really did take school so seriously. Growing up with immigrant parents he explained he had no time to play around. His parents wrapped their minds around the American dream so vividly that Rafael grew up wanting to achieve it for them. He deserved college more than I did because he really earned it. I felt terrible.
We continued talking and he began telling me about the DREAM Act which stands for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. Rafael explained that the act would allow him to go to school and then apply for temporary citizenship later on. He would only be required to go to school and graduate or enlist in the military for at least two years and only be “honorably discharged.” He told me how he watched the progress of the act and prayed every day that something would be done. He urged me to call our local Senator and tell them to pass the DREAM act, which I would later do for the next few months.
That evening turned into one of the most important days of my life. Rafael helped me fill out my envelopes and prepare to send them off. Ms. Henderson came into the office and we all spoke about Rafael situation and how unfair it was and left the office that night very sentimental. The American dream is what all immigrants believe to be less struggle and better opportunity in their countries. When they make their pilgrimage to America they see a bright future and for so many illegal immigrant minors that dream are so much harder to reach. My views on America, the American dream, citizenship and education changed drastically that night. I now question what the American dream is and can just about anyone attain it? Back when I first heard the news about Rafael I questioned American citizenship and whether or not the government made it fair for everyone. Most importantly Rafael made me appreciate all I have as an America. My American identity was cherished that day and valued. For all those who do not have the life I have and wish they could. I question how fair some rights and policies of American society but I do appreciate the fact that I can agree or disagree. I have the right to call my local representative and fight for an act or law to be passed. I can go to college for nearly nothing for as long as I want.
Today I am a college student and after graduation have never heard from Rafael again but I pray for his best interest every day. I hope he finds a way to live out his dreams and the expectations of his parents so all their hard work and struggle to get to America and his, do not go to waste. As for me, I strive to be the best student I can, and help out as much as I can. It starts here at home to make a change. I appreciate my education, my citizenship, my life, my opportunities for all the people who cannot imagine being able to have all that I do. I am proud to be American, which is my identity. I cherish my identity one hundred percent. It just took me a special, hardworking; determine young man to realize that.