Notes to My 18 Year-Old Self

The other day, I came across a small, tattered white cardboard package. Underneath the yellowing packaging tape was a mailing label – addressed to me from Kaiser Permanente. Inside the package was a black plastic case with a VHS cassette inside with its contents produced over 18 years ago. A time capsule if you will. Kaiser was a key sponsor for the Oakland Technical High School Health Academy, and at that time, they ran a health program called Partners In Health on a local channel in the Bay Area called KBHK. For this particular airing, they were highlighting the Health Academy, and they asked me and my mom if I would like to be featured in that segment. “Of course!” I said. What teenager would pass up the chance to be on TV?! I recently watched this video, which is all but four minutes, but held so much more. I cannot tell you how many emotions and memories were stirred while watching it – amazement, humility, gratitude – all rolled into one. And how fortunate I am to look back on the mindset I once had. Analyzing what has changed and what is the same. After reflecting on this video clip, I decided to pen these few notes to my 18 year-old self:

  • Unfortunately, you did not become a pediatrician as you had always hoped to become, and that’s ok. You are not a failure. God had a different plan for you. Just embrace it and keep pushing.
  • If I could have forewarned you, I would have told you to NOT take 8 classes the first semester of your freshman year. At UC Berkeley. College isn’t high school.
  • Never let that ambition and drive you have diminish or disappear. You will always need it, and you must always cultivate and nourish it.
  • Don’t own or claim the odds that are stacked against you. They are not yours.
  • Granny was not there in the physical sense to see you walk the stage when you got your bachelors or masters degree. But know that she was there. She will always be there.
  • Your mom, sister, and brother are still in your corner and believe in you. So keep pushing!
  • Life never gets any easier. And that’s also ok. Just learn from each experience and continue to self-reflect and grow.
  • If you are fortunate to stay connected to or to reconnect with those that supported you on your journey, thank them. Thank them. Thank them.
  • You will become a champion for the kids that were like you. Those navigating challenges and coming from communities that are often cast in a negative light. The green/inexperienced kid that may not fully understand the process, but has the desire to do better in life – for themselves, their family, and community.
  • You will always carry a backpack. A very heavy backpack. But it’s never filled with burdens or pity.
  • And always, always, always – stay focused and humble.

Where’s Your Cape?

The other day, someone told me I wasn’t “superwoman.” I don’t think I know how to take that. My intent isn’t to be, but somehow this comment rubbed me the wrong way. I toggled and toggled over it – trying to figure out what was the intent of that phrase – or what I have done or am doing to give the allusion that I am a cape crusader.
I guess what trips me up is that what I see as resiliency may be misconstrued as something entirely different. If we rely on the definition noted by Merriam-Webster, resilience is defined as:

1: the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

As I began to unpack this definition and integrate it within my experiences, my DNA, my upbringing, the communities I have been raised in – all of these attributes becoming interwoven and tightly bound – resulting in the cape that others may see.
One strand of thread that popped in my mind was an experience I had in 5th grade. I was a student a E. Morris Cox Elementary School in East Oakland, and my teacher was Mrs. Cheney. She was from Germany, and had an extremely strict structure to her teaching. But this structure was not strict with the overt intent to make us resilient and excel beyond our fullest potential – to me, the outcome of this environment was the polar opposite.
I can remember a particular incident so vividly. I had turned in my math homework that I had completed with care the night before. It was done on tan-colored recycled paper that was so thin, that if you erased too much or too hard, and fuzzy film would develop before the thin layer underneath ripped. In an effort to preserve this delicate sheet, I conducted my work on a piece of scratch paper, and proceeded to double and triple check my work before I transferred it on to that tan sheet of paper. With all this care, I neglected to notice that I didn’t not wipe off the part of the dinner table where I conducted my work very well. This resulted in three small stains – I didn’t think Mrs. Cheney would notice or even care. But she did. And she let the whole class know. Upon gathering the classes attention – she decided to make an example of what “disgusting work” looks like. She held it up and told my classmates, “Look at this. What a disgusting mess. I won’t even grade anything that looks like this.” After this declaration, she ripped my sheet up to pieces and handed back to me. I was 10 years old. I was in the 5th grade. I was broken.
I was at a complete loss as to what to say and do. My stomach was in knots, my head hurt, and I wanted to go home. When the bell rang at the end of the day, I think I was the first kid out of the school. My mom came to pick me up, and I jumped in the front seat without saying a word. In her usual, comforting way, my mom asked, “How was your day, baby?” Silence. All the way home. When we got in the house, she asked, “What happened today? Did someone bother you?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the crumpled, torn pieces of the tan-colored paper, and handed to her before bursting into tears. Needless to say that my mom wasn’t happy about this in the least bit. Ok, that previous sentence was a total understatement – my moms was HOT! And when my grandmother found out about it, the anger boiled over. When things cooled to a manageable level, my mom called our principal, Dr. Cooke, and requested a meeting. She told him what Mrs. Cheney had done, and he was livid. The next morning, my mom, granny, and I visited with Dr. Cooke. I told him first had what happened. Shortly after, he requested that Mrs. Cheney come to the office. She tried to deny that the incident happened that way – that I had tried to submit some extremely messy homework, and when she didn’t accept it, I got mad and ripped in frustration. I was 10 years old. I was in the 5th grade. I turned in disgusting work. I was a liar.
Needless to say, Dr. Cooke didn’t believe her and she was reprimanded.
In looking back – I could have easily bought into the picture that Mrs. Cheney tried to paint me in. But being raised by two of the most resilient women that I know, that wasn’t even a factor. So am I bitter about what Mrs. Cheney did? No. But I do thank her for having a hand in crafting the cape that freely flows in the wind behind me.