I’ve failed Algebra I for the third time. Not because I’m stupid, not because it’s beyond my comprehension, but because I don’t apply myself, you say. There’s a difference between can‘t and won‘t. I am straddling the line between the two. “At least choose one,” you tell me, “so then I’ll have an idea where to start.”
There are people who have failed you.
Your father, who you saw strike your mother on several different occasions, your father, who you saw cavorting with another woman.
I know these stories, I’ve seen history, in some cases, play out right before my eyes. I know who owes you money. I know the faces and the names of those who’ve lied to you and cheated you.
There are people who have failed you.
I have tried my hardest not to be one of them.
Recently, you handed me a folder filled with old disciplinary reports from high school. You certainly kept them busy. Low grades. Suspension records. Detention slips. Insubordination. Anger problems. The progress reports show only so much, however. They don’t show me as I was. They don’t say anything about low self-esteem or depression. They are silent in the presence of years of self medication. Pills. Drugs. Drinks. Sex with the wrong people. They don’t see the toothbrush, untouched in its corner by the sink, or the tub, dry as a bone. I am just a number in these pages, the talk of boardrooms, parent-teacher conferences.
But you only know so much. Even now, it’s difficult for you to hear it.
You’re twenty-nine. You’ve lost your job. You’re pregnant with a child the father didn’t want.
You’re thirty-something. You have a job. You have two children. There is still no father. This will pain you, even though I’ve been named Student of the Month only God knows how many different times, even though the other, barely a toddler, shows plenty of promise.
Enter Principal Crescente.
Now, I wasn’t there. But I remember your tears when you told me what happened. I remember how, you said, Principal Crescente congratulated you for having such a smart and spunky son and how you told me how you beamed from ear to ear and how you mentioned you’d love to have me take a real, honest-to-God IQ test, because I’m pretty special, all the teachers seem to think so; certainly Principal Crescente must think so, too.
“I don’t think,” she said, “that would be a good idea, Miss Herrera. It’s not necessary. With his background, he has so much against him already.”
There’s an article. New York Times. Mayor Giuliani is the subject. He’s holding up Catholic schools as the model for education reform. Principal Crescente runs a public school. She’s against Giuliani’s philosophy. She believes he doesn’t understand the mission of public education. “If we were more like Catholic schools,” she’s quoted as saying, “we’d be turning a lot more children away, wouldn’t we?”
Somewhere along our timeline, I find myself in the car again, accompanying you to one of your many doctor’s appointments. The pain in your back is terrible; you make sure I know that. I know—it kills me. So I join you and somewhere along the way, we hit another red light in a long stream of red lights and you’re running late again and you realize you left your coffee at home and now this entire day is off to a horrid start because your back hurts, you have to make a trip to some out of the way clinic, you’re running late and it seems you’re never going to do anything else with your life lately except staying up to pay bills online until half-past three in the morning.
“I’ll buy you a coffee,” I say, and when the opportunity presents itself, I do. You accept it gratefully.
You say thank you. Smile at me. Stroke my hair. You turn your gaze back to the road. We continue.
Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Of course there is. You’ve been through a bad breakup recently. You vent. We arrive at the clinic and after you’ve parked, I go around to the driver’s side and open the door like a true gentleman.
“I know it’s not true,” you say, “but sometimes I think no one really loves anybody.”
You never know what I’m reading, but you’re always ready to ask. You don’t know who Tennesee Williams is. You don’t know anything about Stonewall. You’ve never heard the name of Quentin Crisp and we can forget about Christopher Isherwood. I couldn’t begin to lecture you on the confessionals, on Lowell or Sexton or Plath. I couldn’t begin to tell you just how much of myself I see in any of these people. And I don’t. But I tell you who they are, just the same. You don’t read much, if at all. You haven’t had time. But you buy me any book I want; you take me to the library whenever I wish. We could never have a discussion on “Madame Bovary,” but you’re proud I’ve read it. When I wax lyrical, you listen. When I ask you for new notebooks, you buy them. I write a lot of poetry. I figure out who I am on my own.
My music taste confuses you. Tori Amos confounds you. Damien Rice seems too somber. M-83 is noise. Mew is a Pokemon. You grin and bear it anyway.
When you send my brother and me away to visit relatives one summer, my books and my music can only do so much. I’m seized by an all consuming homesickness. I don’t tell you this, so you don’t worry, but you probably sense it in my voice. I’m incapable of hiding anything from you; I should have known.
One night, we’re awakened at one in the morning by our aunt.
We need to get to the airport. Aunt Dolores is here. I have no idea who that is. She’s a distant cousin, actually, very sweet. You need to meet her. Could she have found a more convenient flight for those of us who are trying to sleep? Hush, child, hush.
So we go along and I fall asleep in the car. I miss you terribly. I’m too wrapped up in myself. It doesn’t cross my mind that Aunt Dolores doesn’t exist until I see you walking across the tarmac, dragging a suitcase behind you, sporting a cheeky grin, toting some brand new books. Those five days pass by all too quickly, but when you leave, my heart isn’t as heavy.
When we came to our silent agreement? It appears to be working for us. You’ve come to accept that I must do things at my own pace, even if you don’t completely understand it. You’ve taken the time to try and delve into my psyche (and I’ve allowed you to). You’ve stopped comparing me to my brother. You’ve stopped comparing me to yourself at my age. We laugh and we laugh often. We seem to know where to begin.
When we hit a snag, a raw nerve explodes. But my success is your success. I’ve learned to be successful in my own way. I’ve had to, with you or without you.
You live with a writer. A poet. A songwriter. How did you raise a child with such an interest in social justice? You should ask me what I feel when other people look at me and only see a gay man, only see a rape and domestic violence victim. You should see how these problems transcend class, education and upbringing. You should see what I see in the mirror.
You should ask me what I feel when those who’ve failed you simply see another woman, when I see my mother.
I do not know how deep your disappointment runs. I just know it has nothing to do with me. You do, after all, continue to keep my pictures in your wallet. You’re always ready to show me off at the drop of a hat. I take for granted just how much my education, even in its fits and starts, has benefited me. I could not fathom how the voices of the men and women who fought for your right to carve a life for yourself, who have died so we both can live, could evade you in such a way, but I am not you. I am not an immigrant who came here with little more than a mother’s love, the result of many years of planning and saving, and the clothes on my back. I have not lived within the throbbing heart of survival, though I have felt it in everything you are.
I have a voice.