The boy who defied odds after a 1999 shooting that left his mother dead and left him with cerebral palsy and brain damage is now a happy, adjusted adult who loves to smile and …
In early September of 1976, after a glorious three-month summer vacation, I returned to Tropical Elementary to start school as a sixth grader in Mrs. Mildred Vaughan’s class in Room 10. I had passed fifth grade with unimpressively average grades, but I managed to remain mainstreamed in the regular classes rather than getting a transfer back to Tropical’s Special Ed department.
That last year of elementary school was the hardest I’d experienced in my young life. First, I was aware that at 13 years of age, I was the oldest kid in my class. I’d been the oldest kid in my fifth grade class the year before, too, but back then I didn’t think it mattered much.
Now, because I was a bit gangly and somewhat clumsy, being 13 in a classroom full of 11- and 12-year-olds made me feel more awkward than ever.
Second, Mrs. Vaughan seemed to be intimidating as all get-out. She was a middle-aged teacher who hailed from Kentucky; she had red-brown hair and old-school Southern mannerisms.
She didn’t have a Dixie twang in her voice, but she had an unnerving way of smiling even when she was serious. I used to call her expression the “Jimmy Carter smile” because it reminded me of the Georgia governor who was running for President that fall. But woe to the student who tried to pull the old “my dog ate my homework” dodge or misbehaved in class!
Her eyes would flash with anger and the smile would vanish, and you’d either get after school detention or a trip to the principal’s office. She was stricter than Mrs. Brown had ever been, and she demanded nothing but the best from her students.
At the time, from a shy 13-year-old’s viewpoint, Mrs. Vaughan was a Dragon Lady. (Of course, this wasn’t true; she was a loving person and wanted her students to do well in school.)
Third, those Special Ed classmates who were a year ahead of me – including Betsy Matteis, Raul Fonseca, James Miller, and Kerri Ellsworth (who was my girlfriend at the time) – were now seventh graders at Riviera Junior High. Though Riviera was next door to Tropical, it was as though my closest friends existed in another dimension. I missed them terribly, even though I still saw Kerri occasionally on the odd weekend that she wasn’t busy with junior high-related stuff.
This combination of factors caused me a lot of emotional turmoil. I found myself struggling to keep up academically in Mrs. Vaughan’s class. I did well in my reading and spelling classes, but because I couldn’t use a typewriter like I could in Mrs. Chambers’ class, I didn’t do so well in English composition. I also did poorly in note taking because I had lousy penmanship, and math continued to be my academic bete noir.
Of course, there were some good things that happened to me in sixth grade. I was still involved in Scouting, and that year I earned a promotion from Bear Scout to Webelos, which was the intermediary rank from the blue-uniformed Cub Scouts to the olive green clad Boy Scouts. I wore my uniform to school on Fridays; if I did all my classwork with passing grades (or at least with 1s for effort), I was allowed to go over to Mrs. Chambers’ Room 29 and attend the Scout meetings.
Also, that year Tropical hired a new music teacher, Mr. Back (pronounced “Bach”). Mr. Back was younger than old Mr. Green, who had retired in June 1976, and he wanted to try new things improve Tropical’s music department.
The biggest innovation Mr. Back proposed was the creation of a school choir. We didn’t have one when Mr. Green headed the music department, so many of us, including me, were excited when Mr. Back announced his plan during our first class.
“Okay, students,” Mr. Back said. “The principal liked my idea to start a chorus for Tropical, so we’re going to have auditions as soon as we take attendance if enough students want to join. Raise your hand if you’re interested!”
About 20 students, including me, raised our hands enthusiastically.
“Great!” Mr. Back said. “Okay, now, I want each one of you to come up here and sing a couple of lines from your favorite song. I need to see how well you can carry a tune and if you can sing in front of others.”
For the next 20 minutes or so, I waited to take my turn. I was at turns excited and nervous. I had never sung in public before, but I’ve loved music all my life, and I really wanted to be in the new chorus.
After six or seven kids had sung their audition tunes, Mr. Back said,
Next up, Alex. Would you please step up to the front of the class?”
I got up and walked up a bit unsteadily to where the music teacher stood. “Okay,” Mr. Back said. “What song do you want to sing for us?”
I froze for a second and stared nervously at the music teacher. I felt like I was two separate individuals; one that wanted to sing in the chorus, and one that wanted to slink back and hide in the crowd. Mr. Back didn’t say anything, but he gave me a look that seemed to say,
Well, say something, Alex. We don’t have all day. Either you want to sing or you don’t.”
- I didn’t want to look like an idiot, so I took a deep breath and said, “I want to try ‘Yellow Submarine.’”
Good song by The Beatles. Excellent. Please sing the first lines.”
I took another breath and pretended that Mrs. Vaughan and my classmates were not there. Heck, I pretended the entire room was empty. Then I sang the first verse of Lennon and McCartney’s song about the man who sailed the seas and told stories of a land of submarines.
I thought I had flubbed the audition. I carried the tune okay, but my voice wasn’t as steady as those of my peers and I wasn’t breathing like a properly trained singer.
When I finished singing the line, “We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine,” I slunk back to my chair, feeling like the biggest fool in Tropical’s entire sixth grade class.
To my surprise, I made the cut. But there was a catch. Mrs. Vaughan had to approve each student’s application to join chorus, and only if he or she had an average grade of C or better in class.
Considering that my grades were hovering dangerously close to Ds in some subjects, I thought I had almost no chance to get Mrs. Vaughan to sign off on my application.
But Mrs. Vaughan apparently liked me more than I thought she did, and she approved my application. She didn’t say anything as she signed the paperwork, but she did give me a friendly little smile.
My mom wasn’t working at the time, so she would pick me up after school on days when we had rehearsals. The chorus had around 40 members, and we learned how to sing four-part harmony, how to stand and breathe properly while performing, and how to get over stage fright. (Mr. Back’s advice on this subject was to stare at the clock on the far end of the school auditorium and sing as if the room were empty.)
We performed two concerts during the 1976-1977 school year – a holiday themed all-school assembly event in which we sang Christmas and Hanukkah songs, and a spring concert where we performed such songs as Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
However, that school year was marked by several sad events that changed my life.
On the last day of 1976, as Mom, my older sister, and I prepared to usher in the New Year, we received bad news from Colombia. My maternal grandfather Enrique had tripped on his bathrobe’s sash while going to the bathroom the previous night and had broken his left hip. Could Mom please go to Bogota and help care for him?
My mother loved her father dearly, so she said “Yes” without hesitation. Two days later, she bought an airline ticket with an open return date and jetted off to South America, leaving my sister in charge of the house – and me.
I was devastated. I loved my grandfather and hated to think that he was hurt and could even die from his injuries. And if that wasn’t enough, I couldn’t go with Mom to see him. I begged her to take me along, but Mom wouldn’t have any of it. She didn’t know how long she’d be gone, for one thing. Also, she didn’t want me to miss a single day of school during my last year at Tropical.
“But Mooooom!” I wailed tearfully.
“No. You’ll just have to be the man of the house and be good,” Mom said flatly and ended the discussion.
- So in 1977, Mom missed Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration and the cold January day when it snowed in Miami. She also missed my 14th birthday in early March. She returned to Miami in mid-April because I caught a cold that morphed into a serious case of pneumonia.
I missed about 10 days of school, but Mrs. Vaughan sent homework assignments with a teacher’s aide until I got better and returned to class. (Sadly, my grandfather passed away less than a week after Mom arrived. This haunted her for the rest of her life; she had told him she would only be in the States for a day or so before heading back to Bogota.)
Another unhappy development was the end of my relationship with my girlfriend. We had been together since mid-November of 1972, and I thought we would be together forever.
She, too, was a Special Ed student; I don’t remember what her disability was, but she used a wheelchair to get around. I saw past that and only saw a pretty and vivacious young girl with red hair and green eyes, and when we were both at Tropical, we were inseparable.
As I said earlier, though, my girlfriend was a year ahead of me in school. As a result, she was mainstreamed the year before I was, and when I entered sixth grade in the fall of ‘76, she and several others in our group were seventh graders at Riviera Junior High School.
At first, our relationship seemed to be the same as before. We’d have hour-long telephone conversations every night after we did homework, and we’d exchange visits every other weekend. Sometimes I’d go to her house and spend time together, and sometimes she’d visit mine. We never did anything beyond kissing and holding hands, so our parents didn’t object to our being together.
Eventually, though, the tone of our relationship changed. Our phone conversations got shorter as the school year progressed, and she began to beg off on our weekend meetings. When I asked why she was not going to come over or why I couldn’t go to her house on certain weekends, she became evasive and said “Oh, it’s just school stuff. I’m going to be busy.”
Later in the school year I found out that she had a serious crush on a boy in one of her classes and wasn’t sure which one of us she liked more. I didn’t like having to compete for my girlfriend’s affections, so we broke up on the day after my 14th birthday. I was heartbroken and angry, and for the rest of the year I was in a deep funk.
As a result of these setbacks, my performance in school became lackluster. My grades nearly dipped into D-territory, and I began to slack off in the homework department. It took a lot of patient but firm cajoling on the part of Mrs. Vaughan to get me to study harder and get my grades up. Luckily, she was a good teacher, and even though I didn’t make Honor Roll material, I passed all my courses and earned a promotion to seventh grade.
On the last day of school in June of 1977, Mrs. Vaughan took us all to a Dade County park for an all-day picnic. We ate a lot of junk food and did all kinds of silly things, including a shaving cream “pie fight.” When the school day was nearly over, the school busses took us to our respective homes, tired, with traces of shaving cream still in our hair and slightly sunburned – but happy.
My not-so-brilliant career at Tropical Elementary was over. Next stop: Riviera Junior High.