GUEST POST: Poppa Was A Rolling Stone, by Torrey Maldonado

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.

“Your father is dead. He’s gone.”

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.

This year:
• 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”.

o Torrey Maldonado’s Website
o His middle grade novel, Secret Saturdays

Monday Interview: Author Torrey Maldonado

Hi everyone! Today I’m thrilled to grill educator and author Torrey Maldonado, whose book Secret Saturdays made the ALA Quick Pick List.

Secret Saturdays summary : Sean and Justin are 12, both half Black and half Puerto Rican (note: How they deal with being bi-racial an important element of the story), and best friends who live in Red Hook Projects, a dangerous neighborhood in New York. Soon a change appears in Sean’s behavior: his grades are slipping and he’s acting up. In addition, every Saturday he takes trips with his mother to an unknown destination. What’s the deal with Sean? Where does he go and how does Justin handle the situation? Pick up the book to find out! 🙂 Secret Saturdays is published by Putnam Juvenile, a division of Penguin Group.

Multiculturalism Rocks!: Hi Torrey, congratulations and thank you for joining us today! Please, tell us a little bit about your journey as an author. When was Torrey Maldonado, The Writer, born?

Torrey Maldonado: Is it true that we absorb what our mothers do while we’re in their bellies? If yes, my writer-journey began in my Mom’s stomach because she read books out loud to me while rubbing her belly. She definitely set me on my journey to write. As long as I can remember, she’s treated books and writers as special. I worshiped her and wanted to be special to her so it makes sense I became a writer, yes? No. Not with the rough realities of my upbringing. A lot of relatives and people in my housing projects pressured me to stop writing because they felt writing equaled school and boys who were into school equaled soft. So how did I stay on my writing-journey while growing up in one of New York’s most violent housing projects with crime, drugs, and people around me trying to knock me off-track? Comic books. I got hooked on comic books in the third grade. Two years later, I told myself, “I will create a comic book and other books too, someday”. I look back and see that the fifth grade “me” made a promise that the adult “me” kept.

To put things in perspective for the rest of us (mere mortals), how long was Secret Saturdays in the making, from its conception to its publication?

I’ve been teaching for almost ten years and a few years ago I supervised an after-school program for boys who regularly got into trouble and were heading toward dropping out. The boys loved me. A few would joke, “Mr. T, you’re my father, right?” or “We’re related, right?” I grew close with them too and they shared truths about their lives that they’d never tell other staff-members. One day, a seventh grader visited my classroom and asked, “You free?” I waved him in and he did something unforgettable. He stepped away from the doors so no one could see him through the door-windows and he started crying a cry you see a baby do when it needs real comforting. I jumped from behind my desk, asking, “What happened?” He cried, “My father’s gone! My father’s gone!” Around that time I was writing a magazine article about how my absent father and the absent male relatives in my life handicapped my childhood schoolwork, trust, manhood, and family. I was holding back a lot of emotions during my article-writing process. When my student cried, it was like his tears were a tidal wave that hit me and poured my emotions out. That summer I went home and stretched my article into Secret Saturdays.

Secret Saturdays has strong, resilient and inspiring main characters. I’m particularly struck by their family backgrounds, the neighborhood they live in, the absence of a father figure in their lives and the homelessness factor. How close does Secret Saturdays ring to home? Where did the inspiration come from?

From my birth to the1980s, I felt like nearly everyone in my Red Hook projects was my family. People looked out for each other and I was protected. 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 the ten worst neighborhoods in NY. What I’m about to say didn’t happen all the time but the violence happened too much. I remember being a twelve year and just getting back to Red Hook projects after visiting a relative in jail and a gun shootout started right outside while I was in the store buying groceries with food stamps. Right there, I did something that built my will to survive and succeed. Yogis say, “Ohmmm” over and over again. I remember feeling and thinking, “Someday life will be different for me. Someday life will be different for me.” You might say I was praying to get strength. I did that a lot. Then my prayer became “I’m going to make it, come back here, and get others out.” That part of me who almost didn’t “make it” still lives in me and he’s amazed that the adult-me is now using Secret Saturdays to hook Red Hook kids and other youth to books to springboard them to greater heights in life.

What was your biggest challenge when writing about Sean’s life?

There were a few big challenges in telling Sean’s story. His struggles were my childhood struggles yet I had to be careful not to write my life-story. My family likes to keep “family business” private. I also set the goal to show all sides of Sean when we know that males hide so much. Sean’s a Hip Hop and Rap fan and he’s the man at free-styling so he sometimes wears that rapper front. I love Hip Hop and Rap yet a lot of the music encourages our boys to wear masks or show the worst sides of people—usually that includes cursing and looking at women only as sex toys. So did I show both the public and real Seans? Did I show the roughness he absorbs from his world, music, and TV while showing his innocence, purity, and respect that so many males hide? The reviews from book experts, parents, kids, and schools say I went beyond meeting those goals so that’s one reward. Plus, I kept the book curse-free and sex-free and that makes me very happy because I’m a parent and am giving other parents a safe read for their pre-teens and teens.

I’m now speaking to Torrey, the teacher: In your classroom you notice a kid whose grades are slipping. In addition, he speaks back to you, makes one of his classmates trip. You discover weed and a knife in his locker. What do you do? What do you tell him?

In Secret Saturdays weed and knives aren’t found in lockers. However, in my book, kids’ grades slip, they speak back, and some bully. Grades’ slipping and speaking back to a teacher is something a teacher can handle. I’ve visited hundreds of schools before becoming an author. My recent author-visits let me see inside other schools. Over thirteen years, I’ve seen adults viciously put down kids about poor grades or behavior—in front of other children. That’s bullying, period. Bullying is when someone with power acts harmfully or aggressively toward another person to gain something while putting his or her victim down. A teaching certificate or administrative license doesn’t give anyone permission to be mean. I’ve also seen teachers put “band-aids” on problems by only calling home or giving detention. When it comes to bad grades or behavior-issues, I make every effort to, first, pull youth to the side to discuss the problem, spot the issues behind the grades or the behavior, and we create a plan to solve the issues. That’s a habit from my Conflict Resolution training. My experience is youth become honest and friendlier when they don’t have an entire class or crowd staring at them. Most times, a student will work with me to get back on track. As for weed and a knife, teachers are mandated reporters. If I see drugs or weapons, I legally must report that to my dean and administration.

I really enjoyed the voices of Justin, the narrator, and his friend Sean—young, blunt and true. Were they easy to capture? Any tips on character’s voices that made a difference in your writing journey?

Eighty per cent of Justin’s voice is how I spoke with my friends during my pre-teen and teen years. What makes up the other twenty percent? The 2011 language of youth. Years before I wrote Secret Saturdays, I visited a Literacy (English/ Language Arts) teacher-friend for lunch. I kept grabbing urban fiction titles from her shelves and I was shocked at how many sounded fake. I picked up a famous writer’s novel and told her, “Listen to this. This sound real to you?” I read their book out loud and my friend laughed, “No! You know our kids don’t even talk like that!” So, being playful, I reread those lines how our students or real-life urban-adults sound. The Literacy teacher said, “Torrey. I’m not kidding. You should write a book. I’m serious. Kids need to see and hear themselves in books. Plus, you can write. So why not?” So, I wrote Secret Saturdays and kids find it so real that they memorize parts of my book. My advice to writers is to do what I did: read the stiff dialogue that’s on shelves, practice loosening it up, then write in that voice.

What is one reaction to Secret Saturdays from your readers that rocked your world?

One reaction that rocked my world happened during a school-trip. Two students who hate to read approached me. One boy said, “Mr. T, I know one of the raps from your book by heart.” Not believing him, I said, “Let me hear it.” He looked into the air and said a Black Bald’s rhymes so perfect that you’d think he was reading the rhyme off a cloud or streetlight. The other student started competing and told the boy who just rapped, “That’s nothing. Mr. T, listen to this.” Then he rapped a verse from Killah Kid. It always rocks my world when students that teachers and parents think don’t enjoy reading love Secret Saturdays so much that they memorize parts of it.

Will there be a sequel? Pending this isn’t classified information, are you currently working on another book?

My agent told me that the writing business is “supply and demand”. Readers “demand” a sequel to Secret Saturdays then I’m told to “supply” them with Book Two. I’d like to happen next yet the book must become wildly popular for a part two to happen.

I’m hoping that:
Will Smith sees how Secret Saturdays is The Pursuit of Happyness for his son’s, Jayden’s, generation (Jayden’s perfect to play Justin too), or
Tyler Perry discovers how Secret Saturdays mirrors his childhood and he turns it into a film, or
President Obama realizes my book is the tool The White House is looking for to help youth pick up their pants and fully grab “The American Dream”. I sometimes daydream and hear him on TV telling our nation, “Secret Saturdays will bring about the ‘change’ we need for our males”, or maybe
Oprah sees how her mission and Secret Saturdays is the same: evolve people into better humans and show life is about choices.

Until then, what’s next are two things. First, finish the novel I’m now writing, which is something Secret Saturdays fans will love. Second, I’ve a line-up of exciting author-visits in New York and other states to elementary all the way up to colleges where professors have built Secret Saturdays into their Spring courses (in two weeks I’m flying to St. Louis to meet awesome students who taught me that what we call “dissing” in Brooklyn is called “Jonesing” in St. Louis).

Last but not least: For a day you can be any children’s book character you want. You are…

If I can be any children’s book character, I’ll be a comic book hero. By age fourteen, I had almost two hundred comics. I also had a cat named Snow White and she peed on and scratched my collection down to fifty comics. So maybe I would have a super power that freezes pets during mid-pee to prevent us from losing things we love. I’m like the baseball legend Roberto Clemente, or Soledad O’Brien from CNN, or Fabolous the rapper because I’m an Afro-Latino American. People think I’m straight African American and that’s a compliment I embrace. Hancock is Black and almost my skin-color. Ironman has my Puerto Rican American heritage. A lot of people don’t know Tony Starks is Latino. So as a hero, I’d be a mix of Hancock and Ironman (with the bonus power of pausing and redirecting pets to pee in the right places).

Thank you Torrey, for your time and for sharing your experience. I wish Secret Saturdays to change many lives, as well as much success!

Notable Info
o Maldonado, Torrey. Secret Saturdays. Penguin Group/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010. $16.99. 978-0399251580.
o Torrey Maldonado’s Website.
o Secret Saturdays is a 2011 ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Congratulations!
o February 12, 2011: Torrey Maldonado featured on The Brown Bookshelf as part of the 28 Days Later Campaign, which celebrates Black History Month.
o Multiculturalism Rocks! review of Secret Saturdays.