Everything was nearly ready for our New York trip to attend the special United Nations screening of the movie “The Hurricane.” Our bags were packed, notes written and re-written. As I stared out the windows, I didn’t see the frozen, snow covered hills of my town, but the noisy, chaotic streets of New York City. It seemed incredible–impossible even–that in days, I’d be speaking before U.N. delegates from around the world. The realization was both thrilling and bittersweet.
I grew up on the streets of Bushwick, not far from the U.N. It was a place where few people were untouched by violence, poverty, and despair. My world didn’t extend much beyond the few city blocks where my family lived. A debilitating back injury kept from father from working and my mother struggled to feed and clothe eight kids. Somehow, she always made sure that I got out the door to attend school every day. It seemed the one and only chance for me to have any kind of future. I had every reason to be proud of my school marks; I had, after all, earned the third highest grade in English class. Thinking that I was doing well, I had vague plans to attend John Jay College after graduation.
All the while, I had no idea that I was illiterate, truly unable to read or write. That discovery had a devastating effect on my life. I had gone to school every day, yet I couldn’t read. I knew there had to be something wrong with me. I believed that I was incapable of learning.
Through a series of extraordinary circumstances, my life changed, helped in part by a group of dedicated people who invested their time, energy, and commitment into improving my education–and ultimately–my life. I was lucky. For years, however, I couldn’t shake the crippling legacy of illiteracy.
Now, as I threw myself into preparations for the New York trip, I became more nervous and edgy as each day passed. Going back to New York was never easy for me, no matter what the circumstances. I had never lost my instinct for fear, that sense of danger that took hold every time I returned to my old neighbourhood.
Something else troubled me even more.
In the ghetto, so much time is consumed in day-to-day survival. I could never understand how a child in the ghetto would have ever have realistic hopes and dreams when their most basic needs aren’t met. When everyday is filled with crisis. And fear. And hunger. In order to have a better life, you have to have something to compare it to. I didn’t have that growing up on the tough streets of New York.
But this trip was different; it represented all the miracles that had taken place in my life. Somehow, I needed to find a way to share that with the delegates.
In Vancouver, our plane shuddered, then roared down the runway, bound for New York. As I worked on my speech, my heart and mind were gripped by memories: our crowded apartment in Bushwick; my father, his job lost, struggling to make a place in a world where he no longer had a role, an identity; both my parents on our threadbare sofa, confused and distraught as they listened to a stranger talk about the chance for me to get a better education, only I would have to leave my home and country to do so.
I started to cry when I remembered my mother’s drawn face, tight with emotion, as she agonized over the decision to let me go. As I worked on my speech, Cheryl gave me a sidelong glance, but left me alone. She understood the emotional turmoil I was going through. Suddenly I knew what I needed to say.
At the U.N., I stood in the Trusteeship Council Chamber, and was struck again by the irony that Bushwick was only a stone’s throw away from this famous world body. After the movie was shown, people settled into their seats; some were adjusting their headsets. I scanned the sea of faces. It was comforting to see Cheryl sitting next to my older sister Lori and her son, Kortrell. None of us could ever have dreamed that we’d one day be sitting in the chambers of the U.N.
I stepped to the podium.
I had come full circle.
“….if my parents had not allowed me to leave my home, I wouldn’t be standing here today. They are my unsung heroes.
….I cannot conceive of an act more selfless than parents giving up a child in order for that child to have a better opportunity in life.
…This is the land of opportunity. Few could mistake that. But you know, my parents should not have had to be so brave, so heroic. They should never have had to make such a decision. There is no reason why a mother, a citizen of the mightiest nation of the world, should have to ever conceive of giving up a child in order to provide that child with a proper education.
….It is a sad day when a 15-year-old child has no choice but to leave his birth country to have meaningful access to opportunity. It is a sad day when that child has to say good bye to his brothers and sisters. Saddest of all, there’s no excuse for it. The resources are here, they just weren’t available to me.
….I came here tonight because I need your help. A war is going on in our own backyard.
…Are we so developed as a society that we can afford to let millions of minds go to waste…right here in the most developed nation in the world? I think not.
…How do we know that there isn’t another George Washington Carver or Einstein languishing in a ghetto community because they didn’t have access to a good education, to the resources that would nourish their minds? I urge you to fight the fight for literacy. Don’t turn away from it. In each of us, there is the strength, the power, and will to make a difference.”