I was sixteen years old when I graduated high school. Did I ever tell you that? My birthday falls in January, so the school system wanted to hold me over until I was six-and-a-half before starting school. Mom wouldn’t have any of it. She had placed me in kindergarten at four-and-a-half, and I was doing great, according to her.
I was reading when I was two, my relatives say. There’s a story of my maternal grandfather taking me to the local pharmacist (who was the most educated man in that little town in northern Mexico) to show off my ability to put strings of letters together into sentences. That ability came from my maternal grandmother repeating to me the alphabet every morning as she fed me breakfast. She used a set of magnetic letters on the fridge.
That’s the way my mothers have always been. They push me to be better and better, no matter what stage in life I’m in. So it’s no surprise that I reached the eleventh grade at 16 and had collected all the requirements for graduation by going to night school and doing special projects. But, in typical Ren fashion, on the last day of school, I managed to forget to do one important thing…
The last day of school, all the seniors (and I) were required to clean out our lockers, get signatures from all our teachers that all of our assignments were done, and to turn in our books. I had a ton of books, and I hauled them around as I reported to Mrs. Wilson’s classroom at lunch to do my last English III exam. It was all essays, so it took me about an hour to write on topics such as the necessity of complete sentences and how essential it is to put a comma in the right, you know, spot.
I then hauled around the books some more as I went and got lunch. It was a quick sandwich with a soda and some dried fruit. I was far too excited to be done with that school to make my way into the cafeteria and deal with all the stupidity in there. (Food fights were commonplace at that school.) So I sat with the kids from car shop class and we talked about how Sam had a cesspool cleaning business and was making top dollar hauling away people’s crap, literally.
After lunch, I walked over to the book depository lady’s office. She was an older lady from the Philippines. A lot of the kids made fun of her accent while at the same time having a horrible Spanish accent of their own when speaking English. Hers was just more pronounced, I guess. That, and she looked Asian, which hardly any kid looked like. The school was 95% Latino, with Whites sprinkled in here and there and maybe a handful of Black kids.
The book lady checked over my books, going down the list of the books I had checked-out to me at the beginning of the school year. “What is this?” she asked.
“This book. This book is not on your list… And you are missing a book as well.” I looked at the books and realized that I had an English Literature book from the high school where I did my night school studies, and I was missing the English book to Mrs. Wilson’s class. I must have switched them at some point, and I had already turned in my books to the other high school. “You need to find that book,” she said. “I can’t clear you for graduation until you do, or you pay for the book.”
I forget how much the book cost, but I remember it brought tears to my face when I heard the price because I didn’t have that kind of cash on me.
My first step was going to the principal’s office and appealing to him. I remember my lips quivering as I talked to him. I was just very frustrated because I was looking forward to being done with it all, all the school work, all the stress… All the bullying. I was basically begging him to release me from the torture chamber that the school had become. The bullies, you see, don’t appreciate a kid two years younger than them being their equal. They didn’t appreciate me wanting to get out of that place and on to bigger things. They didn’t appreciate my plans to save the world.
After the principal denied my appeal to him and ordered me to either find the book or pay for it, I found myself walking home in a hurry. My hurried steps then became a slight jog. Minutes later, I was in an all-out run. I had come up with an idea, you see, and I needed to get it done in the next hour if I was to successfully be cleared for graduation on time.
Grandma, who was taking care of us as mom worked over the border, wondered what I was doing home so early. “Jump in the car,” I told her. “I’ll explain it to you on the way.” Of course, I was not allowed to drive the car. I was sixteen and didn’t have a driver’s license. But this wasn’t the time for technicalities. I explained to her my plan, and she agreed. She had to come with me as insurance that, if we got pulled over, she was a sensible adult who agreed of my plan.
The plan was to drive the 15 miles over to the other high school and find the book, give them their book, and head back to my high school to finish the process. Traffic wouldn’t be bad since it was the middle of the day. Still, I was flying down the streets and on to the highway toward the other school. “We might not make it on time, grandma,” I said to her, my lips still quivering.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “If you see a red light, run it. I’ll pay the ticket.”
That last part was a joke we’ve told in the family for a long time. My cousin, who was penniless at the time told that to my uncle. The joke was that my cousin had no money to do so if there was a ticket, so why even suggest it? This time, however, I took my grandmother at her word not because she would have (or could have) paid for a ticket but because she just always had a way of getting away with things. She passed that on to my mother, by the way. And I hoped it was passed on to me, especially that day.
I got to the other school and parked out front. I ran inside and asked to speak to the book depository person. He was an older man who smiled when I told him what had happened. “I was wondering what that book was doing here,” he said. He had placed my book aside. We did the book exchange, and I ran out of there and back into the car. Grandma thanked Almighty God for the miracle of finding the book so quickly.
I did too.
Twenty minutes later, after driving like a bat out of hell back to my school, grandma sat in the car as I ran in to finish the sign-out process. She listened to Gospel radio while she waited, of course. After a few signatures here and there, and getting the book back to the lady at the depository, I was done. I was really, really done. I threw the last few things I had in my locker into the back of the car and drove back home.
“That’s it?” Grandma asked.
“Pretty much,” I said.
“I don’t know, abuelita,” I replied with the biggest grin on my face. “How about we save the world?”
It’s been 21 years since that day, and I still remember it very clearly. I guess it was all the adrenaline of the situation. It wasn’t that I was not going to be allowed to graduate. I’m pretty sure I would have. It’s just that the process for me to get out of a place I absolutely hated was delayed, and, at the time, that delay seemed to be derailing everything. And, frankly, how is a High School English book worth $250?
Funny how some things stick with you and bubble up again when you’re driving [redacted]mph on I-97 into Baltimore. 😉
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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