A poor teenager from a bad neighborhood overcomes her obstacles and heads for Brown University – leaving a wonderful poem to contemplate as she does. [more]
Editor's Note: Anything below that begins with "I am From" is excerpted from a poem written by Elena Sanchez. The full (uninterrupted) poem is available at the end of this article.
I first ran into Leyni when she was about 8 years old. She was an altar server at the church where I was the music minister.
St. Philip's church was in the toughest part of Cleveland. My family and I were there for a couple hours each Sunday. Leyni lived there 24/7 since she was born.
I am from the big yellow house in the middle of the street
I am from the street where there's no bike riding,
The street where the ice cream truck never slows down
I am from the porch you could hide under
I am from the house that had dirt where grass should be
She was lovely, a light chocolate brown perfect complexion, petite, hair pulled back tightly, rimless glasses and oh, so very quiet. Very pleasant but head-down determined. She lived in her own world that I couldn't see on a Sunday morning.
Her Dad left when she was three: "I don't really remember much", she says, "he called occasionally over the years... from what I can tell, it wouldn't have been good for me if he'd have stayed."
Her tough, quiet, smiling Grandma, got Leyni into the neighborhood catholic elementary school at six years old and she spent the next eight years there.
I am from the stolen skateboard
I am from the school where asking for help was tattling
I am from the desk in the back corner
I am from the books read at recess
I am from the pictures drawn in gym
I am from the broken lunchbox
I am from a fight on the playground
Her Mom and her little brother, Emilio, lived with Grandma and when they asked if they could go out and play, the answer was "as long as we can see you through the window". There was an eternally drunken neighbor on one side and an abandoned house where crack was rumored to be traded on the other side of Grandma's home at 89th and Superior.
"So, we stayed indoors a lot", Leyni says "but it was good in some ways as I loved to read and listen to music and Emilio loves to play his guitars..so we did fine."
Her Mom has been working nights since Leyni can remember. They were playing inside one afternoon while Mom was sleeping one day. Hearing a commotion, Leyni and Emilio went to the window to see their car being stolen from their driveway.
I am from a weave in my eight year old hands
I am from ignoring rumors and laughing them off
I am from dismissing the past
I am from learning to trust and making friends
I am from the CDs on repeat
I am from the notebook under my mattress
I am from 100 pairs of headphones blown out
Four years ago, Leyni's Mom and Grandma enrolled her at Saint Martin DePorres High School, a grand experiment in the St Clair Superior neighborhood where good people educate poor kids whose guardians know that college could be their ticket out.
Leyni says now that everything changed for her at Saint Martin. Life was still tough, even tougher at times, but it was there she began talking and excelling in her studies and no longer worrying that good grades made her a target of others who thought less of her for it.
I am from 1,000 mistakes huge mistakes and meager relationships
I am from dreams of being someone
I am from frustrated tears on a pillow
I am from the tissues that dried them away
I am from a mother who never gave up
I am from crawling through life but
I am from getting back up as well
I am from pain I thought would never end
Through Leyni's hard work and academic accomplishments and the strong gentle hands of some folks at St. Martin and Oberlin College, she will walk onto one of the USA's top liberal arts schools this fall on full scholarship.
"No, Tim, it won't be hard; actually it will be easier. On my campus visits I can see that I will be with people who care less about my skin or my clothes or my personality and more about my mind and what I might contribute to the world."
I am from victory over my younger years
I am from saddle shoes and out of style clothes
And I am from making them work
I am from a mold of my own
I am from perseverance
I am from never staying down
I am from a fight that will never end
Today, I am writing my own version of "I am From". It will not be nearly as compelling or well written as Leyni's but it will contain my own challenges and inspirations.
And accuse me of plagiarism, but it will close with "I am from a fight that will never end."