I just received an amazing newsletter from KIPP Alumni Association Director and my former 5th grade student nearly 20 years ago, Vanessa Ramirez. As you can read for yourselves, Vanessa kept it very real – and inspiring. Thank you, Vanessa, for taking the road less travelled and now helping others on their journey, too!
Man, I’ve thought a lot about what to write as there was a lot of inspiration this month; but, ultimately, everything led to labels, labels, and labels. I’m currently STUCK on the 9 seasons of One Tree Hill… don’t ask me why, but that show makes me feel damn good about my ultra-simple life. During one of their Season 4 shows, a KIPP-like English teacher brings up the topic of labels and why we often rely on them to tell us more about the people they represent. He wrote your typical high school list of labels on the board: “Jock”, “Homecoming Queen”, “Geek”, “Nice”, “Very Nice”, and I know I’m missing one more. Anyway, these kids are all paired with someone representing a life polar-opposite of his/her life. They then spend 50 minutes discussing the intricacies of their high school life and label, the fear of the unknown awaiting them after that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk across their high school stage, and breaking down misconceptions. For an introvert like myself, those kinds of shows, actually any of the decently-written ones, always make me reflect. And that brings me to stories about a sex worker, Home Depot, and Vanessa.
Let’s start with Lauren, a sex worker I met two weeks ago. I don’t know how much you have been following human trafficking news, but the U.S. Justice Department ranked Houston “as one of the top destination cities for human trafficking”. I, of course, follow anything impacting women, but, most importantly, children. One of my favorite organizations, Children At Risk, is doing amazing work around this issue and recently published an article stating that “on average, both Houston and Dallas have about 6,000 runaways each annually. According to National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children, an estimated one out of every three children that run away is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home. Even more frightening is the fact that the average age of entry into sex trafficking is between 12 and 13 years old”. SOOO, Vanessa being, well, Vanessa, was nosy and attended awareness sessions, but NOTHING could have prepared me for my 4-hour conversation with Lauren. My other jobs pull me into several different conversations with people from all walks of life and that’s exactly how I met Lauren. I was reading something in the CPS waiting room and I heard someone say “hella”. That’s a Bay area thing, so I looked up, made eye contact with Lauren and asked her where she was from. She said “Oregon”, I said “cool”, and then went back to my article. About 3.75 minutes later, I heard a “why?” I have a tendency to get lost in my reading, so I looked up a bit startled, and realized she was talking to me. “Oh, I lived in the bay for a while and “hella” is a bay thing… thought maybe you were from there”. “Oh, baby, that was my second home”. Now, I definitely must have looked confused because Lauren looked like she was no older than 16 or 17 years old, but look who’s talking… Anyway, Lauren then proceeds to sit right next to me and asked if they were taking my baby away from me. I don’t know what got into me, but I probably stared at her for one solidly-awkward minute, got teary-eyed, shook my head and explained what I was doing there. She was hooked. She asked about my other jobs, asked about me and my life and offered to do anything she could to support me and my vision; but then she said “actually, I better not. I’m only going to be here for one more week and then I’m gone”. Lately, I’ve been too direct, so I flat out asked “what about your baby?” She looked confused and asked “what baby?” Hmmmmmm… And then proceeds to tell me “oh no, baby, my pimp has a no-baby policy”. I didn’t even ask what she was doing there as I was stuck on the pimp comment. I am embarrassed to say that all the questions that followed were based on the media’s inaccurate portrayal of prostitution. Think ignorant, think misconception, think labels. I started asking Lauren ridiculously phrased questions about her life and she eloquently answered all of my questions. When I pushed on her need to rely on a pimp since she was clearly capable of speaking for herself, she, again, eloquently made a beautiful case for how hers was different, needed, wanted, and fill in the blank with anything we’ve ever said about our own poisonous relationships. I could tell she didn’t want to talk about him anymore, so I took a chance and asked her “why do this? You are capable of doing anything in this world…why this?” What followed has left me seeking more answers, but I stopped here. “I don’t know. Ever since I can remember my mom’s boyfriend was always touching me and doing other things to me, so when I asked my mom if I could do this, and she said ‘why not, you’re already one’, I said ‘why not’, too. 6 years later, I’ve visited 17 states, and then I meet you, little V. And you’re no different than me… you have four jobs because you like to feel needed. And I do, too.” Dammmmmmmmmmmn Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiina, or better, yet, Lllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaauren. I’m not so sure why I have four jobs, but I told Lauren I would tell her story, but, most importantly, she wanted me to tell you that she is “smart, big-hearted, and proud of [you]”.
This leads to Home Depot. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, I’ve been working on my relationship with my dad, whom I have ALWAYS described as an alcoholic. There is no speech, or interview, or piece of writing that I’ve not used the word “alcoholic” right after the word “dad”. I guess I’ve always used that as a crutch: “my relationships with men suck because my dad is an alcoholic”, “I am weird because my dad is an alcoholic”, hell this one’s next, “I don’t comb my hair because my dad is an alcoholic”. Stupid. For the last 29 years, my relationship with my dad has suffered, yes, because of what I saw and experienced; but MOSTLY because of the baggage that comes with such a label. Well three weekends ago, I spent 10 back-to-back hours with my dad as we were putting sheetrock in my bedroom. Back in the early 1990s, we had this program called “take your daughter to work day” during which I would either paint houses or clean them. Well, that experience paid off because I was a pro with that quick set. Dad and I were getting ready to apply the next coat when we realized we needed to make a quick run to Home Depot. As soon as we stepped in, my dad walked towards the Paint department, but I stopped by the toolset display. My dad, noticing that I had stopped, turns around and asked me if I had a toolset. I said no and he then proceeds to grab a cart, throws in a box and says “Ven”. I realized then that my dad has the same love for tools that I have for office supplies. He was so giddy, describing what this and that was for, mind you, I’m clueless, but mastered the “Ahhhh, okayyy” response. That day marked the FIRST day in my adult life (or ever) that I’ve allowed my dad to be my dad. I then start telling him about my doorknob not working, my showerhead leaking, and you could tell he loved every second of it as he excitedly grabbed the tools he’d need to fix all those things. We get to the cash register and I pull out my debit card, but my dad beat me and handed his to the attendant. The attendant says “ooooooo, you lucky” to me and before I could say anything, my dad, in his broken English and with a big ‘ole smile, says “she my baby”. The attendant politely smiled and handed my dad his card and receipt. As we begin to walk out, my dad grabs my hand. With my heart beating really hard, I tightly grab ahold of his and to break the awkward silence hovering over our way-too-long walk back to the car, I asked about lunch. As I say this, my dad points out the ‘Tamales’ sign hanging on a truck in the parking lot. I look over and see a lady and her two baby girls inside the truck. We walk over, the lady comes out and sweat is pouring down her cheek… I try to look into the truck to make sure the babies are breathing. They were. My dad places his order, the lady hands us our order, and my dad pays. As we get to my dad’s truck, he takes a Tamale bite, and then I take a bite. Those freaking things were disgusting and I was about to tell my dad that when he asks, “aren’t they good?!” I turn to look at him and I say “daddy, I know you’ve had better tamales”. But then he says, “I have, but knowing we helped that lady makes them taste so good, don’t they?” Woah- talk about meeting someone you’ve known your whole life for the first time. I’ve shared that story with a few people and they all said the same thing, “V, you got your heart from your dad”. So I’d like to re-introduce you to my dad. My dad is a very kind man that probably had kids too soon. He lives in Cleveland, TX (about an hour and a half from downtown Houston) and drives in to work every morning at 4 in the morning… he’s been doing that for 20 years and his job is off of 610 and Woodway. Talk about grit and hard work. My dad doesn’t get a lot of calls from his daughters, mostly because we allowed his early life to define him, but he now gets weekly calls from one . My dad is a baker, and so was my grandpa, so he makes all kinds of Mexican bread- Rosca de Reyes is his thhhaaang, though . He LOVES his four grandkids because they don’t know him as anyone other than Papa Toño, a silly, silly grandpa who buys them mangos every Sunday and goes to every soccer game he’s invited to. My dad has made a lot of mistakes, but he is a great man and the only dad I’ll ever have.
And last, but not least… Vanessa . My high school experience, which was NOTHING like the Tree Hill High too-grown experience, jumpstarted my first experience with labels. I stuck out like a sore thumb at Episcopal High School and I thought that if I put my guard down, my peers would judge me based on what they saw; so, I made every attempt to prove them…well, right. I was SOOOOO committed to not “selling out” that I forgot I was there to learn from others, which led to all sorts of negative perceptions of me. When I left Episcopal, I made sure to go to a college where I could reinvent myself to show “them” that there was more substance to me- beyond the cover. And I did just that. However, anyone that knows me knows that one of my pet peeves is hypocrisy and the last two stories proved that I had become exactly what I detested… a hypocrite. For years I have fought labels and have discouraged others from using labels because of how dangerously easy is to live up to or judge others based on them. It was until this past weekend, though, that I found out just how much of a hypocrite I was being when I heard myself say “but you know I’m stubborn, why are you surprised by [my actions]?” I had clearly embraced the not-so-self-imposed label of stubbornness and was using that label to justify why I did what I did and why I was going to continue to do what I did. Boooooo. Me. Or how about those times we change our ways only to “show them”? That always happens after a break up, in the personal and professional sense.
I was talking to someone I consider a best friend a couple nights ago, this past Monday to be exact, about this and our inability to change things for the better until we need to “show” others. For whatever reason, we never say, “I’ll show me”, when we criticize ourselves or live up to our self-imposed labels. Why not surprise ourselves every now and then?
Alumni- I challenge you not to step outside your comfort zone, but instead expand it. So you’re adventurous, great! It’s okay to be a homebody today. So you’re a jock, it’s okay to make going to the library everyday your new sport… trust me, girls/boys love the studious ones, no matter what they say . So you “always speak your mind”, great, just listen tomorrow. So you’re shy, agree to do public speaking for KIPP . So you’re always messy, cool, be extra-clean next Monday (through Sunday). And if you’re “cautious”, completely understand… but live a little and be vulnerable. My activist mindset got really good about identifying when “the man” was putting my people in a box. Little did I realize then that “the man” had nothing on Vanessa when it came to putting things, people, or myself in a box. I’m surprising myself today by not telling you how I’m going to surprise myself. Do the same, but do tell ME.
Vanessa Ramirez ’02