In the midst of turmoil,pain, and hopelessness, a child manages to discover her ability to set goals that changed her life forever.
(An Excerpt from The Rise Above My Father's Abandonment)
SET ONE SHORT RANGE
GOAL AT A TIME
I was learning that no matter what came against me I could choose how I was going to handle it. All of my life this voice surfaced whenever it was needed. Fear of criticism silenced me from telling anyone. I thought my family would say I was crazy and have me committed. This voice guide prevented me from doing bad things to others. Sometimes when the other voices would try to influence me to do bad things, it would override them.
Though I had this voice guiding me, it was clear, the choice of which way to go was up to me. I could cop out or go on. There would be no one to blame. It was my decision.
I stopped focusing on the things I couldn’t control and directed my attention to academic performance. New York schools brought a lot more kids to deal with on a daily basis then I had been used to. I went to Junior High School 190. I liked school and the atmosphere of learning. I was eager to get into school. I felt that I had missed out on something in the earlier years of schooling because I didn’t remember much. My teachers liked me. I was receiving a lot more praise. School became a place where I could test how I compared against other students whom I thought had the perfect family life, had it all together—smart. Excelling academically meant that I was as good as the next person and that my past was unimportant.
Poor behavior and substandard grades were not acceptable to my mother. She didn’t have to reiterate it. I did what would please her. I figured if my behavior was good and my conduct was intact that she wouldn’t have to look any deeper to see what was going on, and she didn’t. I was a model student. The other children always seemed to be her focus.
I still had a lot to master about myself. The question of my identity began surfacing. I thought less about who I was and more about who I could become. I felt pretty good about my academic performance. I was recognized with the best of students.
Since my arrival, I had become friendly with some kids from Puerto Rico. We were neighbors. They lived in my apartment building. I had no exposure to other cultures until I moved to Brooklyn. We hit it off right away. They wanted to learn English. I wanted to learn Spanish. I caught on fast. So much so, that I wanted to study the language in depth, really get involved.
My decision to study Spanish in the coming fall term was met by a challenge. Upon further inquiry of my counselor, I found out that my reading level wasn’t high enough to take the class; I was reading two grade levels behind. Determined not to let that stop me, I enrolled in summer school. There was no way I was going to let anyone find out that I couldn’t achieve because I had a reading deficiency. Knowing Spanish would let me fit somewhere and would provide me with an identity outlet. I would be unique, an American who spoke another language.
With the summer reading class my problem was solved, but my records were lost. I was disappointed but somehow I knew in my heart that it would be worked out. There was a rumor circulating that I hadn’t shown up to class, that my name had been confused with someone else. Just when it looked as if that summer had been a waste, the mailman brought my report card, which showed that I had passed in excellent standing. The school never located the original but they accepted the report that had been mailed.
I returned to school in the fall excited about my summer school accomplishment and about being able to converse more with my new friends in their language. My Spanish teacher was amazed at the vigor and enthusiasm I approached the subject. My head was filled with great possibilities. My teachers thought I had a natural talent for the language.
Not only was I speaking it fluently, I was writing and reading it on the same level of understanding as the Spanish students. Some of my peers began to think I was Spanish. I was comfortable with my new found friends and family. We loved each other. This was the beginning of a new adventure. I wanted to learn everything about the Spanish culture, the dances, music; I ate the foods. This was my ticket. My plan was to become an interpreter to the United Nations. I had big dreams.
Then the word came which jolted me back to reality. I wasn’t going to be given a scholarship because I wasn’t Spanish. I hadn’t checked things out and my guidance counselor didn’t volunteer any information.
It didn’t take long for me to regroup. My confidence level was up. I had made a great stride. It was time to move on. I spent the balance of the semester focusing on other academic studies. It was time to compete with other students to see how normal I was and how I measured up.
During the course of arriving in New York and attending school, I heard that Jewish kids were smart, and that they were always winners. I thought if I could match wits with one of them, that would be my ultimate test of “being normal”. Prior to this I didn’t have to apply much effort to crank out A’s and B’s, but now I found myself developing study habits.
Science became my next focus. It fascinated me. I looked for kids in my science class I could compete with. The smartest kid in my class was Mark. He represented all that I had heard about Jewish students. I jumped in. As I got more involved in my science studies, Mark started to notice me. My studying paid off. I was being recognized right along with him. Science seemed to come natural for him. I knew nothing about his family life. I was sure he had a better family life than mine, but I wasn’t going to use my home situation as an excuse not to excel.
The Voice: “You are somebody because God made you special; and you are as good as he is.”
If there was ever any doubt in my mind as to whom I was and what I could do, those words took it away. Sometimes things at home attempted to make me feel undeserving but I rejected those thoughts. By the time the semester ended I had been nominated in second place to receive the science medal of achievement. I was the only female, so it was rumored, who had ever won this award, not to mention, of ethnic background.
It was another milestone in my effort to be the person I knew I was created to be. I had proven myself academically. The victory for me was not only the ability to win, but that there was nothing wrong with me. What a relief; because my lack of memory of the past sure bugged me.
My report card came home with praises from my science teacher. He wrote, “Send me a whole classroom full of Ashley Johnsons.” I was on a cloud. As good as I was feeling about my successes, my mother’s joy and acceptance was important, but she gave little praise. I wanted to hear her say how proud she was of me. My mother’s approval was the prize I needed that day. She didn’t jump up and down with joy.
The Voice: “Don’t let it bother you. Keep on pushing. So what, you don’t feel that she is supporting you. Are you going to let it stop you, keep you from achieving? Sometimes you may have to be the lone rider, feel like nobody is with you but you have to keep on.”
The impact of those words today is the same as the very day that I heard them. You were always there to give me that extra kick in the pants I needed to go on. I stopped trying to please my mother. It shouldn’t matter what others thought of my successes, as long as I knew who I was doing it for. Other than my mother, my successes were always a validation check.
I was discovering myself, testing my brain capacity, learning to rise above the memory handicap I suspected I had.
The Voice: “There are other things to know about life and people. It’s time to read more. Books can teach you a lot of things. You can experience life through characters in books.”
I was thinking how I had mastered some things and began looking at where I could go from there. I had proven I was normal in comparison to other kids my age. I was hungry for knowledge. Reading opened up a whole new world to me. I wanted to read everything, to know everything. I soon discovered the teaching ability of books, everything from social graces, table manners and how to talk to people.
I wanted to be a well-rounded person. As a result of my vocabulary being inadequate, I was shy and uncomfortable talking to my peers. Sometimes kids my age used words I didn’t know. I’d put my embarrassment aside and ask them what it meant. They’d tell me the meaning, then I would go home and look it up just in case they were leading me on. I didn’t care how it looked to them. I knew if I didn’t ask questions I couldn’t learn. Once I looked it up in the dictionary, I began to practice using the word. Some kids would throw out a word in order to appear intelligent or to impress. I was curious about why they did that.
My English Teacher cleared it up one day without me asking the question. The subject of Mr. Hardwick’s lesson this particular day was a speaker’s improper usage of words in expressing his thoughts. He said if the one being spoken to wonders what is meant by the use of a word, then the speaker has failed to effectively communicate. From that day on, I learned the meaning of words because I wanted to become an effective communicator. I was no longer impressed by the use of words that didn’t define themselves in the context in which they were used.
That day I learned: A good speaker is one who can make himself understood by the least educated and the most educated. My desire to communicate led to the discovery of the vocabulary building section in the Reader’s Digest.
The Voice: “Study more words at home. Use your dictionary. That is a good source. Make it a part of your daily study habits and you will know more.”
I didn’t have a dictionary at home.
Those words confirmed my direction. I became obsessed with knowing the meanings of words. I wanted to rid myself of any and all shortcomings that were within my control.
The Reader’s Digest got to be a part of my library. I don’t remember my mother ever subscribing to the Reader’s Digest. Maybe someone gave it to her, handed it down to her. It didn’t matter to me whether it was a past or current issue; it satisfied my hunger for knowledge. It contained not only a list of words to enhance my vocabulary, but there were tips on living, laughter, social do’s and don’t’s. You even had the benefit of other people’s stories and their experiences. The Reader’s Digest became like my life’s guide. I associated it with a book for intelligent people; people on the up and up. That’s where I wanted to go. I dreamed of growing up and writing a story under the Reader’s Digest “Life in These United States,” but I never did. My hope at that time was to be able to make the money they offered for those stories to help my mother pay bills.
That summer of focusing on reading impacted my life. I don’t remember my summer reading teacher’s name but she said, “reading must become a habit. If you don’t do that habit every day, you lose it.” I practiced everyday. Reading became my escape from reality. Reading about other people overcoming insurmountable odds gave me hope that I could get through whatever was going on in my life. Books taught me that I, too, could become an achiever in spite of where I had come from.
Secretly, I wondered whether I could ever achieve the greatness of the writers’ works I read, or would I ever have anything to write about.
My enrollment in the school drama class was an attempt to overcome my shyness. It was a shortcoming I wanted to be rid of. It was uncomfortable and short-lived. My biggest fear in drama was getting stuck in a character.
The Voice: “You didn’t want them to find out about your memory problem. You had to remember lines. Playing other characters threatened you.”
I didn’t pursue drama for those reasons. You’re right.
The words of Grandma Ethel continued to echo in my mind: “If you don’t go to church you are sinning. Bad things are going happen to you for not serving God.” My mother didn’t attend church regularly or pressure us to attend, though she encouraged us to go to Sunday school.
Grandma Ethel had forced me into baptism, but I didn’t know anymore about God. He was still a mystery to me. I felt that He had forsaken me. I wanted to forget about God but I couldn’t let go of the hope he represented. I felt pretty sure he had a place but for now, no sense in a kid getting all caught up in confusion.
Keeping in mind what Grandma Ethel said, when the summer came around again, I joined some of the neighborhood children in vacation Bible study at the corner church. It had been a long time since I read or had anything to do with the Bible. Grandma Ethel was responsible for that.
The scriptures were meaning something to me again but I was still at a lost as to how to apply them, or what to do with the information as its meaning revealed itself.
The Voice: “You were afraid to open yourself up because of the dual personality you sensed within you.”
I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Bible. I wouldn’t surrender myself; I held back. I thought the scriptures were talking to me. I was afraid I was losing control, the way the movies portrayed spiritual things.
I remember saying, “I don’t want this.” I stopped pursuing after God.
By the time I reached the 10th grade I had begun to blossom. I made some decisions about where I wanted to end up. I liked what I was becoming. I felt good about myself. I knew I needed to step out of the comfort of my past achievements and look for new challenges.
I learned to focus on my abilities and not my liabilities. I was tough on myself. I believed I had to be the best that I could be in any situation. I began to act and believe that I was created special. I was hungry to explore this new world of self-direction and independence.
Strolling through the schoolyard one afternoon, I came upon several girls having a baton twirling practice. I stood there and watched them work their routine. I was spellbound by their uniformity. At the same time as I completed reading the sign behind them that read “tryouts,” my reading was interrupted.
The Voice: “You have proven yourself academically, now it’s time to prove your physical accomplishment.”
I thought, “I can do that.” Prior to this, I had never done anything physical. As I stood watching the batons being twirled and thrown up in the air, a girl’s voice spoke: “Do you want to sign up for tryouts?” Before I could respond she handed me a piece of paper to write my name.
I was excited. I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mother. By the time I reached home it was more than just a want to, it was a burn on the inside of me. I knew I could make the team. I just needed my mother’s okay and the rest would be up to me.
I went straight to my mother’s room. “Mom, guess what, I signed up for the twirlers today. The tryouts are coming up in a couple of weeks. I need...” My mother interrupted me. “Where do you think I’m going to get the money for that?” I didn’t hear her words of disapproval; I was already on the team. I questioned why she responded this way to my excitement but I chose to ignore it. My determination rose.
The Voice: “If you persist she will know that you are serious.”
Yes, that voice again, guiding me. I thought my mother would be happy about my getting involved with anything that was positive, but money was always an issue. I didn’t care about her money problems. Money was an obstacle for me. I wanted to be on the team, to be out there representing the positive side of my family. It was my way of saying to other people that I was okay and that I had reached another accomplishment.
I baby-sit my uncle’s kids so I could buy a baton to practice. I made enough to buy a cheap model but it didn’t matter; I used what I had.
I watched the girls practice everyday. I learned a little more each day as I watched. At home I could be found in front of our apartment building imitating the routine I had observed at school that day.
The big day came. My weeks of practice and determination had paid off. As I stepped up to do my routine I knew I couldn’t miss. I made it. It felt good. Achievement was a sign of improvement and growth. The accolades of others didn’t mean as much as the feeling of accomplishment.
I made the team. For some it was a historical advancement and a celebration. In the history of the school there had never been a girl of color on the twirler team—I was reminded—but it didn’t concern me. I set the goal, did the work, and made it happen. My color never entered into my ability to win.
The tryouts were over and now it was time to settle in with the team in practice sessions. At the first practice I realized what I had taught myself was an incorrect way of handling the baton but the coaches straightened me out.
My world opened up to cultures I hadn’t been able to befriend. The captains of the team Beth and Joanie were both Jewish. They were beautiful. I liked both of them instantly. Unity and team spirit were their focus. I felt welcomed under their leadership.
I had made up my mind that nothing was going to slow me down or stop me, not even the money my mother said she didn’t have for my uniform and boots. My uncle continued letting me baby-sit on the weekends. I gave up my weekends. I saved the money visiting relatives gave me, and I looked for ways to earn more money doing extra chores. I was unstoppable. I practiced, did whatever I needed and believed that I would have what I needed when the time came.
I had no idea how much I saved and how much my mother contributed, but one of the girls was graduating and had an extra uniform. We were the same size. I ended up with her slightly used uniform and my mother bought me a pair of brand new boots. Where did the money come from? I don’t know but it came.
My mother joined in to help me achieve my dream. That was a big ego boost. My confidence level rose. She taught me that when you want something bad enough, people who oppose you will join you when they see your determination to win.
Sometimes during the practice sessions I would end up sitting alone. It didn’t bother me because I didn’t feel comfortable talking to the other girls. I was shy so I thought it was okay if the girls didn’t talk with me during the breaks.
However, this particular day as everyone moved over into groups, I was content to sit alone until one of the captains made a statement, “Why is Ashley alone? We are a team. I don’t want to see her sitting alone.”
I was embarrassed. I had thought nothing of their actions, just that we had nothing in common. Plus I didn’t want the girls to get too close. I feared those asking questions about my past. I was enjoying things the way they were. I couldn’t understand why I was being singled out. I had earned the right to be on the team. I brushed it off. It didn’t faze me that my color played a part in why the girls were staying to themselves.
I was naive to racial prejudices. It had no place in where I wanted to go. If I could see them today I would say “thank you,” because their defense of me in a spirit of equality touched me.
Puzzled by the situation, when I arrived home I told my mother what had happened. That day I learned that people are people and that other people help you grow even in what appears to be a negative situation. I also learned that I didn’t have the color hang-ups that others had. My goal has always been to strive to be a better person.
I remembered none of the details of the football games. To this day I don’t like or understand the game. What I do recall is half time, marching proud, head held high for my mom and others to see. I wanted to let my mother know that I was thankful for her rescuing me when she did. I had come through another test.
I was growing up, maturing. At 16 I was starting to realize that I needed to cut the umbilical cord.
The Voice: “Stop trying to place your mother on a pedestal and understand that whatever you become is up to you, not her. She is responsible for her life’s direction and how you end up is up to you.”
I remember hearing these words and I knew it was time to let go. I could no longer hold my mother accountable for what I became in life, it was up to me. I appreciated having my mother back in my life. I needed her pampering. I would find ways to have her to myself. I’d fake like I was having severe menstrual cramping during that time of the month so that she would pick me up early from school. It would be just her and I, no other kids around. She would sit and rub my stomach, place a cup of hot tea to my lips, and just hold me close.
Mother had gone through a lot of changes with Carlton. It was the incident that occurred during an Easter Holiday that left me more disturbed than anything about adults. Mother had been out all day shopping. Carlton was angry and making accusations. His attitude was showing. My baby sister, Vanessa, was washing dishes. Carlton’s anger peaked as mother and he continued to argue. The next thing I knew he threw a glass in the sink where my sister was washing dishes. Glass splattered in the sink and onto the floor.
I heard my sister say, “Man, that glass almost got in my eye.” Rage began to rise on the inside of me. I said, “You’d better be glad that she didn’t get hurt.” He came to my face, “What would you do?” He had crossed the line. I jumped on him. I was no match for him. He was over six-feet tall and I was five feet two inches. I didn’t care. I had prepared myself to die for what I perceived as harm to my baby sister. We wrestled together on the floor. He put his hands around my neck and began choking me. I was gasping for air.
My mother tried to get him off me but he didn’t budge. She grabbed the scissors she had been using to hem our dresses for that upcoming Easter Sunday and began stabbing him. All that mattered to me was that he was not going to hurt my sister. When he realized he was bleeding he stopped and bolted out of the house.
The holiday had turned into one of turmoil. The kids were crying. Mother wanted to know was I all right. I couldn’t bring myself to cry. He was gone and I felt relieved.
He made it to the hospital. Word came that if mother had hit him one more time he would have been dead. I figured it was all over for the two of them, but a few days after his release from the hospital, he came back to live with us. He tried to apologize but I wouldn’t accept. I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to take his rough ways with my younger siblings. I vowed in my heart if there was ever another confrontation with him that I would kill him.
It began to look more and more like my dad was out of the picture. My mother needed a life other than just her kids. The past didn’t seem to matter to her. I decided that if I was going to survive the rest of my journey I needed to let go, stop feeling sorry for myself and move on.
My concern turned to my younger siblings. I attempted to get them to adopt that way of thinking but they were too dependent on mother. I couldn’t control what they did. Letting go gave me peace.
Everything was okay for me but not my brother. It was one of those times when Carlton was in and out of mother’s life, more out than in. She was seeing other men. One afternoon I found Armstrong leaning next to mother’s room door, tears running down his face. Mother was in there with a gentleman friend. By the time I got to him I didn’t hear anything unusual but something had disturbed him.
The Voice: “You shared your decision to let her live her life and that you were going to move on, but he didn’t want to hear it.”
Yeah, I remember that day. I saw he was not going to move. The motherly urge came over me. I moved in closer, pulled him into my arms to comfort him. I recall whispering in his ear, “It’s okay.” I tried to resist mothering him because I had let go, released the kids back to their mother. But I found myself out of a child’s role and assuming a mother’s protective nature for her hurting child. I thought that part of my life was behind me but it had surfaced again.
The Voice: “Now you know.”
I wasn’t willing to let anything or anyone distract me. I knew I could reach back and give them all the help they needed, but I had to continue on my journey. I failed to get through to Armstrong. That day his life changed. He started using drugs. He stole from mother. His behavior was disappointing. My hurt was such that I felt a need to confront mother about her behavior and the affect it was having on her children. She didn’t welcome my comments. Instead she responded with a slap to my face: “You whore!”
I was out of line so I decided to get back in my place and whatever happened, those were her kids.
Armstrong’s stealing was out of control. He didn’t come home anymore. Mother had enough. She put him out. He was 15. His visits were few and far between. He got more involved with the business of selling drugs. Rumor had it that he was selling drugs to kids. That information drove me to confront him. I asked him to stop selling to kids. I reminded him that one day it could be his kid. I left it up to him to stop. The rumors stopped. We lost contact with each other. I was disappointed that he had chosen that path.
Our family was crumbling. Terry followed in Armstrong’s footsteps. I thought, “How could they be so weak, bring such shame on the family.”
I made an excuse for them. I blamed their sexual abuse for their problems. It hurt me that they were not like me, strong, and determined to beat the odds.
I remained obedient to my mother. I respected her house rules, so did Vanessa, the youngest. My goal was to hurry up and grow up. I was going to show my parents that I could succeed without their nurturing and love.
The Voice: “That day you were reminded again that the responsibility for rearing the children was no longer yours.”
That day I grew to another level of awareness. I learned to hate my mother’s behavior but not her.
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!