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 …
“Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood.”― Alice Miller, “The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self.”
My three-year stay at Riviera Junior High School, in retrospect, is best described as a cordillera full of emotional peaks and valleys. From the day I arrived on campus as a seventh grader in the fall of 1977 till the day I left as a ninth grader on the way to senior high, I experienced “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” while facing daunting challenges at school…and at home.
In most respects, my experiences at Riviera were not too different from the average American middle school student in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was a young teenage boy with cerebral palsy, struggling with the same emotional, physical, and academic problems that my peers faced.
I was getting taller – I reached my full height of 5-8 by the beginning of eighth grade – and my voice was starting to deepen from its pre-pubescent treble to its present baritone. (The resulting “breaks” in my singing voice manifested themselves as embarrassing squeaks and descents into the bass range and made me sound like a frog that had inhaled helium.)
These physical changes were unavoidable, but at the time they made me feel even more freakish than I already felt. My longer legs and upper trunk made me taller and more grown up, but my sometimes-squeaky voice gave me such a complex that I didn’t sign up for chorus classes at Riviera.
I did develop an eccentric sense of humor in order to ingratiate myself with my non-disabled friends in school. For instance, I tried to mimic President Carter’s distinctive Georgia accent and went around saying, “Hi, my fellow Ah-mericans. Mah name is Jimmuh Cahrter and I’m here to promise you this, that, and the other thang.”
I also began to exhibit a certain rebelliousness that I thought I’d squashed when I was in fourth grade at Tropical Elementary. I didn’t go around picking too many fights; the only time that I came close was when a boy named C.J. – one of the few enemies I made in sixth grade – tried to resume hostilities and chased me around Riviera’s entire campus until the principal, Mr. Davis, stopped us. We both earned a stern lecture in Mr. Davis’ office, and C.J. had to stay in detention because he was the aggressor.
However, I sometimes indulged in rather childish and disruptive behavior in class. When we watched filmstrips in class, I liked to make “balls” out of notebook paper and toss them across the darkened room when the teacher wasn’t looking.
I usually had good timing even though my cerebral palsy robbed me of badly-needed accuracy and balls that were intended to go one way often landed somewhere else. As a result, I got away with this stunt many times. Eventually, though, the law of averages caught up with me one day while I was lofting paper balls across Mr. Day’s third period science class.
We were watching a filmstrip about, of all things, the periodic table of elements. I was bored beyond belief – I liked such science topics as geology and biology well enough, but I hated physics with a passion. So as soon as Mr. Day turned his back to the class for a moment, I decided to start Paper War II with another student across the room.
I crumpled up a sheet of ruled notebook paper as quickly and stealthily as I could, then launched it, ICBM-like, toward my opponent across the dimly-lit classroom.
Remember the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones hears the click of a pistol being cocked by a traitorous Peruvian guide behind him? Remember how Indy reaches for his bullwhip, uncoils it fast, and disarms his would-be killer?
Well, that’s pretty much how Mr. Day reacted when I tossed the paper missile into the air. His football player-like body did the fastest 180-degree spin I’ve ever seen, and his dark eyes fixed on me with an if-looks-could-kill stare of anger.
“Mr. Diaz! Did I just see you toss a ball of paper across MY classroom?!?!” Mr. Day boomed in nearly Biblical Jehovah-style anger.
Pale with eighth-grader in trouble horror, I could only manage a squeaky, “Yes, Mr. Day.”
“You have earned a detention, Mr. Diaz. Report to this room at 7:30 a.m. on Monday morning!” he bellowed as he wrote my name down on a yellow Dade County Public Schools detention slip.
He was so angry that his hand shook visibly as he handed it to me. “And don’t think about skipping this, because then you’ll earn a week in detention. IS THAT CLEAR, MR. DIAZ?”
“Yes, Mr. Day,” I squeaked meekly as I took the detention and slunk back to my assigned seat in a daze of guilt and embarrassment.
Of course, I agonized over the weekend about how my childish behavior had gotten me into this fix. I had not been in this kind of trouble in school since elementary, and my mind swirled with scenes of the Spanish Inquisition as I speculated about the punishments Mr. Day was probably planning for Monday.
On D-for-Detention Day, my mom – who was not amused by the whole affair – had to drive me to Riviera so I could meet Mr. Day’s deadline of 7:30 a.m. We arrived on campus with 10 minutes to spare, so I walked into the classroom in a fugue of shame and fear.
To my surprise, the classroom was empty. The door was ajar. The lights were on and his black lesson plan book was on his desk, but the imposing teacher (who closely resembled “Mean Joe” Green) was not there to give me a fire-and-brimstone lecture or make me write “I will not disrupt Mr. Day’s science class by throwing papers across the classroom” a million times on the blackboard.
7:30 came and went…7:35….7:40…7:45…. I sat at one of the desks in the front row and stared at a poster of the periodic table of elements. I didn’t dare move, and I think I may have forgotten to breathe a few times. If I could have sweated blood, my face would have resembled Stephen King’s doomed Carrie White’s red-streaked countenance.
At 7:55 a.m., Mr. Day walked in nonchalantly. He had a cup of coffee in one hand and his eighth-grade science textbook (Teacher’s Edition) in the other. He sat down, apparently unaware that I was in the room. He put the book and cup of coffee down on his desk distractedly. When he looked up and saw me, his eyes widened in surprise.
Mr. Diaz? What are you….?”
His expression was a comical mix of confusion and a sudden burst of total recall.
Oh, yes. The infamous paper ball thrower. How long have you been here?”
“Since 7:30, Mr. Day,” I said. I handed him the detention slip. “You told me to be here at 7:30, and Mom drove me to school so I wouldn’t be late.”
“Mm-hm,” Mr. Day grumbled. He sounded distressingly like a tyrannosaurus rex stirring from a Jurassic era afternoon nap. He tried to keep his “Mean Joe” glower for a moment. Then, unexpectedly, his expression softened.
“Okay, Mr. Diaz. I believe you showed up to serve detention on time,” Mr. Day said. “Since you stayed here for the duration, I’ll consider this as a served detention. Now get your butt to home room before Mr. Coats marks you as ‘tardy.’”
I managed to give my science teacher a wan smile of relief and started to walk out the door.
As I made my way out into the hallway, I heard him yell,
Next time you throw a paper ball across my classroom, you won’t be so lucky, Mr. Diaz!”
I didn’t quite become a Dudley Do-Right at Riviera after that; I still uttered inopportune wisecracks – some of them rather lewd or rude – in class. Sometimes I annoyed one of my teachers by correcting some of her factual mistakes in front of my peers. But I never threw another paper ball across a dark classroom while school was in session.
As spirited and mischievous as I was at times, I was still a shy teenaged boy who wanted to fit comfortably in two separate and apparently incompatible social circles. I still had many friends in Riviera’s Special Education department, and some of them became lifelong buddies.
I hung out with them in the department’s home room, physical fitness (P.E.), shop, and home economics classes, and sometimes we’d get parents or older siblings to drive us to Dadeland Mall and other venues to watch movies, go bowling, or play arcade games.
But I also desperately wanted to fit in with the “regular” kids in my mainstreamed classes. I often wished (and sometimes, I still do) that I did not have cerebral palsy. I felt frustrated when I couldn’t participate in athletic activities that required agility and dexterity. I couldn’t throw baseballs with much speed or accuracy, and though I could run fast, I could often hear other kids – especially athletically-gifted boys my age – say,
Look at the cripple trying to run!”
Although I wasn’t constantly the target of bullying like some of my more seriously disabled peers, I was not immune from occasional cruel taunts or socially ostracizing comments.
Several boys mistakenly assumed that I was gay because I had a slender build, a right arm that involuntarily curled at the wrist in an effeminate fashion, and didn’t have a girlfriend.
They would whisper the word “h***” at me whenever I happened to cross paths with them. Sometimes I’d try to tell them about my elementary school girlfriends from Coral Park and Tropical, but they’d snicker, roll their eyes, and say, “Yeah, right, h***.”
I knew that I was telling the truth and sometimes tried to argue that no, I wasn’t gay. Some of the guys relented, but others did not, and for the duration of my stay at Riviera, they kept on questioning my sexual orientation.
Maybe that’s another reason – besides my cerebral palsy, that is – why I couldn’t get dates in junior high. I don’t know; I never asked.
My misery at school was compounded by my mom’s decision to start dating Joe B. in late 1979. Joe was a recently-retired pilot who had known my father and had been married to one of my mother’s Colombian friends.
He was a big husky man of Czech descent who bore a striking resemblance to the actor Richard Mulligan from TV’s, Soap. A World War II veteran who had flown C-46 cargo planes over the Himalayas for the Army Air Forces, Joe was about to celebrate his 60th birthday and go into forced retirement.
Most of the time, Joe was a genial giant of a man. He was over six feet tall and weighed around 250 pounds, and he was in good health at the time Mom began dating him. He was funny and liked to do magic tricks, such as “pulling” dollar bills out of my ears and telling me to save it to buy a book, Star Wars figure, or an LP record. He was also a good cook and loved to make huge meals that could have fed half a platoon of soldiers.
Beneath this happy-go-lucky exterior, however, lay a dark Mr. Hyde personality that emerged when he drank alcoholic beverages. His “good old Joe B.” persona was a mask that disguised an inner core of rage, resentment, and bigotry. I had never known such a person before; sadly, however, I’ve known many Joe B. types since then.
The short-term roots of Joe’s discontent were the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules that pull airline pilots at age 60 even if they are physically and mentally able to fly. Joe argued that he was still capable of flying multiengine aircraft and had passed his last physical, but the FAA officials in charge of his case nixed the notion and grounded him permanently on his 60th birthday. Older pilots have slower reflexes, they said, and they didn’t feel comfortable with the notion that the rule should be applied on a case by case basis.
He’d also been married several times. One wife died of cancer, and several other marriages – including the one with Mom’s friend Olga – had ended in bitter divorces.
Shorn of his wings and unable to find work in Miami because he didn’t speak Spanish, Joe was frustrated and angry. He didn’t go into full blown rages about these difficulties at the beginning because he was trying to be sober while job hunting and appealing his grounding. Instead, he’d mutter “Damn desk jockeys!” when he was thinking about the FAA officials or “(Expletive) Cubans!” when he couldn’t land a job because he spoke English, German, and Czech – but not Spanish.
So when Joe gave up looking for jobs in South Florida and began to talk about moving to Central or West Coast Florida to escape from “Cuba II,” as he called Miami, he started drinking heavily. He didn’t need to be sober all the time, and he needed booze to “relax and recreate.”
Even if Joe had been a so-called happy drunk, things would have still gone the way they did between him and us. He was constantly angry. If it wasn’t about his inability to get work, it was about his “greedy” ex-wives, ungrateful children, or the (expletive) Cubans who had “taken over” Miami.
Drinking didn’t douse the fires of his rage. Far from it. The more beer, whiskey, or vodka that Joe drank, the redder his face got and the louder (and fouler) his cursing became. Instead of calming Joe down, alcohol made him more violent and abusive.
Unfortunately, at some point between my eighth and ninth grade years at Riviera, Joe B. turned his fury and antipathy at me whenever he’d come over for week-long visits at our house or when he rented the house next door for a year or so while he moved to Sebring, Florida.
Maybe it was because I was a teenager with no taste for military-style discipline or enforced neatness; I was used to Mom’s gentle but firm way of running things and I have never been the world’s tidiest person.
Or maybe it was because I tried to protect Mom from his vulgar tirades; he often called my mother a “wh***” or worse. I didn’t like that at all, and I incurred his wrath whenever I came down from my room, half-asleep but shaking like a leaf with red-hot anger. “Don’t call my mother that, you sick s.o.b.!”
“Oh, look, Mona!” Joe would sneer mockingly, calling Mom by her nickname.
“Look who’s here to protect you – the skinny cripple who can’t even keep his room clean like the Marine he can’t ever be!”
He’d laugh maniacally at his own utterances as if he were a Czech-American version of Bob Hope, then wave contemptuously at us and stumble out of our house.
When he still lived next door, he only had a few steps or so to make it home. But when he lived 162 miles away in Sebring, he would get into his Ford Falcon and drive up U.S. 27 for four or more hours till he reached his destination. How he managed to arrive alive with all that booze in his system, I have no clue.
My mom was lonely and needed male companionship after being widowed in her mid-30s when my dad’s C-46 crashed near Miami International Airport shortly before my second birthday. She was in her late 40s now, and I suppose she thought that if she loved Joe B. enough, if she prayed hard enough, and if she held on long enough, she could save him – and their relationship.
As for me, I was now in a situation where I wanted the school year to be longer than 180 days and to stay on campus – whether it was at Riviera or the high school I’d attend in the future. For as much as I disliked some aspects of school, it was now my safe place. Home, I thought, was now the worst place on Earth – at least when Joe was in town.