Note: Heartfelt thanks to Torrey Maldonado, whose article inspired me to start the Father’s Day series. This is a bit longer than a regular post, but you will be glad you read. FatherLESS Days is also featured on The Latina Book Club blog.
That’s what my mother told me over the phone.
Her words swirled a tornado of emotions and I couldn’t grab one feeling to feel. My father was absent for so much of our lives. Wasn’t he already “gone” to us? Yet, here I was experiencing his real death. The kid in me suddenly wanted him back to give us what he never had: his full and fully positive presence.
True to the song, my “poppa was a rolling stone.” He regularly disappeared for years and, during his absence, I didn’t know him. When he returned, my mom let him stay with us and I didn’t know him. He often disappeared into the streets, came home, and disappeared into his bedroom. From my first day of daycare to my first gray hair, my father spent more time outside with guy-friends and almost no time doing “fatherly” things with my sisters and me. He wasn’t just a “rolling stone”, he was what Latinos call “muy macho”, all people call “hard”, and my students call a “hard rock”.
At some point, my mom told me about my father’s rough upbringing filled with close relatives being more distant, “hands off”, and cruel with him than loving. She said he fathered me how he was fathered; he loved me the best way he knew how. Whatever the reasons he cut out, his absence produced two reactions: first, I searched for father-figures with mixed results; next, there was an empty father-seat that my mom worked overtime to fill.
Before I knew about Oprah, I knew a quote she loves: “It takes a village to raise a child.” During my Vassar College freshman summer, I taught in the Harlem Freedom Schools for Geoffrey Canada and “It takes a village” was our mantra. It sums up my life: a village-effort set up by my mother had raised me to be the first in our immediate-family to attend college. Within my village, two villages of men shaped me.
During the early years of my life, Red Hook projects was the safe place for kindergarten kids to play late outside. It was a Brooklyn community where Carmelo Anthony (the half-Puerto Rican NBA player) was born and raised until age eight; people looked out for each other. Then drugs ripped Red Hook apart and, by 1988, LIFE magazine did a nine-page photo spread calling Red Hook “The Crack Capital of the U.S.A.” and “One of New York City’s Worst Neighborhoods.” The crises in Red Hook created a crisis in the guys around me and in me: I call it “the boy crisis” ON STEROIDS. In 1992, my elementary school principal, Patrick Daly, was shot in the chest and killed in Red Hook. As boys, the two males charged with his murder and I briefly ran wild together.
Growing up, we saw our fathers—good men who got caught up in unfortunate situations—jailed, killed, waste away from drug or alcohol addictions, run away; it all left damaging impressions on us. A huge chunk was cut out of our community and a whole existed and that void was quickly filled with one-sided images of men from the media and our streets. During my pre-teen and teen years, a lot of guys and I spent countless hours absorbing and following “hard rocks”—real or Hollywood-created. I’d race to see Hulk Hogan on TV rip his shirt apart, brag about his twenty-two inch pythons (biceps and triceps), and body-slam anyone who disrespected him. I couldn’t watch enough Iron Mike Tyson fights where he knocked guys out in early rounds of boxing matches. If I wasn’t imagining I was Arnold Schwarzenegger terminating people in The Terminator, I pretended to be Darth Vader bullying the universe. I held onto these men because, in some way, it felt like I had a constant male-presence and, in imitating their tough-guy attitudes, I was becoming my father. Males around me (both younger and older) were slowly splitting into two groups: positive Gs (Gentlemen—who only worked to increase the peace) and Gs (what my students call a guy if he gets money, power, and respect—especially on the streets. They say, “He’s gangster.”). My father, like so many males, spent time being both Gs that it made it tough to tell which G was he, but most people agree he was a G.
A G could be a great guy but, like Anakin Skywalker, sometimes falls victim to the Dark Side. What makes a man a G?
First, they have money, power, and respect (and my friends and I wanted that because our families sometimes didn’t have what we needed, experienced powerlessness, and often were neglected or abused).
Second, Gs on a daily basis were seen or heard talking about fighting other males, disrespecting them, killing them, or helping them down destructive paths.
Third, these guys often lived fast—fast cash, fast everything—and sadly died young.
As sure as the sun came up, one of those things was seen in my neighborhood, in the media, or in our videogames, before sundown.
“Like father like son” isn’t what my mother wanted so she convinced the positive Gs from Red Hook and beyond my neighborhood to walk me from boyhood into manhood.
No “bom chicka wah wah” ever happened between my mom and these positive Gs. They respected my mom, how she raised me, and they sat in my father’s empty parent-seat every now and then.
I didn’t immediately bond with them. They weren’t like the “hard rocks” my friends and I admired. But they had my back.
Some just watched me from their hang-out spots to make sure I behaved. Others invited me to pay daily visits to their jobs so they could quickly hand me coins or (when times were better for them) bills so I didn’t watch with hungry eyes as my friends ate ice cream cones paid by their two-parent allowances.
A tug of war began in me. Picture me as a little boy, clipped to the center of the rope that both the positive Gs and Gs yanked in opposite directions. My small feet dangling over a yellow line on the floor and my white t-shirt asks a question in bold, black letters “Where Will I Stand?” Both pulled me toward their crew.
Not all Gs felt this way, but many Gs disagreed with the positive Gs on one subject: education.
I needed real thrills to distract my young mind from drama in my home and neighborhood. Reading and writing helped. Yet where I’m from, female-readers get called “geeks” and male-readers get called the other “g word” since people feel school is a “girl’s thing.” So I hid how much I read and wrote to avoid being bullied. Why did my mother have to tell the positive Gs that I had writing-talent and honor-roll potential? That just made them remind me at every chance they got that an education was my “magic carpet-ride” out of poverty and my most powerful life-tool. As for the other Gs, people had convinced them that school was either soft or shouldn’t be their top-priority and they passed that message on to me. Did my father see the value in education? Was he proud and knew my good grades would get me ahead in life? Yes. But he grew up in a home that said guys who read books and did well in school weren’t “real men”. I still remember times he told me I’d grow up to be a “gay” if I kept spending so much time studying at home. I worshiped him and almost followed his advice to chase street-thrills instead of chasing my dream to be the man my mother wanted me to be.
My mom, my village of positive G’s, and others in my village kept guiding my hands to put the pieces of the puzzle together until I saw the big picture: men like President Obama are “real men” too and I could read, write, do well in school, and still be a “real man”. As I started to look at this picture more closely, I realized these men weren’t “hard rocks” but maybe rare diamonds because they had more developed and polished sides; the President Obamas of our world had more to offer their families and worlds.
I used to feel jealous when I heard someone say they had read this or that book as a youngster that changed their life. As a middle and high schooler, I didn’t find that book. Growing up, I discovered something else. Comic books pumped me up the way sports, video games, and movies did—not chapter-books. I’m approaching my tenth year as a public school teacher and each year I see the same thing. Lots of kids don’t like to read chapter-books and, second, most of the books they do love give them a quick escape from their reality but return them to their realities without tools to solve their daily problems.
A couple of years ago, two of my “hard rock” male-students—both boys growing up with deadbeat dads and more negative male-influences than positive—had life-changing incidents. One admired the thug-life, lived it, and went to another neighborhood and was murdered. The other one’s father stopped flirting with leaving his family and fully abandoned my student and his mom. The boy came to me in tears and his change in grades reflected how much of him was taken away when his dad left. He soon graduated and I don’t know what’s become of him. Those boys made me say, “If I could go back in time, I would have done more as their teacher.” The boy in me who experienced similar losses wished I also could time-travel back and help all the Gs of my upbringing.
In reality, there’s no time-machine. I can’t rewind time and rewrite history to maybe save the life of my one student and strengthen the other. I can’t have my father back and if he was alive, I couldn’t change him. But I can practice another quote that Oprah often repeats: “When you know better, you do better.”
A couple of years ago, I reminded myself that I knew how to write and I knew one thing to be true: if we want better men, we must get more boys reading, period. Reading set my mind, heart, and soul free to be the best I could be. It polished me.
So I pumped myself up: “Torrey, write the book that you, your dad, and Gs needed as a teen. It has to amp pre-teens and teens the way comics gave you a rush—the way sports, video games, and movies did.” So I laid out a plan to write a novel so real that A students, alpha males, Darth Vaders, and everyone in between couldn’t put it down. “It’ll show the roadmap that your mom and the village made that led you to become the man they dreamed you could be,” I thought. “It needs the exact balance of kindness and toughness of Red Hook projects and your schools. Make it an outpouring of your Red Hook life and the lives of New York students and families. It has to give readers a quick escape from reality but arm them to return to solve their daily problems.” It was from the fire that I forged Secret Saturdays.
• It became an American Library Association 2011 Quick Pick for Young Adults (12-18),
• NBC, ABC, the NY Daily News, and more have showcased it,
• The Kansas National Education Association put it on its annual recommended reading list for Junior High/Middle Schools, and
• Colleges assigned it as required-reading in Education Departments alongside S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
These are dreams coming true and magic happened during a school trip. Two fatherless students who remind me of middle-school versions of my father came up to me. They both hate to read and are “hard rocks” with capitals—H-A-R-D R-O-C-K-S. One boy said, “Mr. T., I know one of the raps from your book by heart.” Then, he lit up and looked into the air and quoted my book so perfect that you’d think he read it from a cloud. The other student started competing and said, “That’s nothing. Mr. T, listen to this.” Then he rapped another verse. Here are young males who weren’t showing the side of them that loves school or books yet they love Secret Saturdays so much that they show it. These males look to me and tell me “You’re gangster” for positive reasons. I am filling the holes in their lives with positivity. My teaching and writing is polishing them, maybe, into rare diamonds.
My father wasn’t around to see me make this lemonade out of the lemons he gave me. All my positive Gs and Gs aren’t around to see how they helped sweeten that lemonade. Yet, the two villages of men that shaped me influence my teaching, writing, and parenting and both male-examples help me to show boys that a lot influences their choices and they can make better choices: to evolve, to shine, and develop future generations of better men and fathers. I think of those two fatherless, middle-school boys who are 2011 versions of my father. They came from behind everything dumped on them to show positive emotions about education. Through them, it feels as if my father is alive and there is a chance for him to “know better and do better”.