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 …
“Everybody remembers what it’s like to be in high school. We really never leave those years behind.” – Nikki DeLoach
My first few days at South Miami Senior High were marked by a mixture of resentment, regret, and a weary acceptance of the whole situation. I was angry with the Dade County Public School Board because I’d been given a Hobson’s choice – either I attended a high school where at least I had a handful of friends in its Special Ed department or I would go to Coral Park Senior High (the closest school to my house), where I had no friends at all.
I felt regret because I knew I would never see my friends from Riviera Junior High School – most of which were now at Southwest High – unless it was by chance. Finally, even though for a while I had a “Southwest or Bust” label stuck on the cover of my brand-new Mead Organizer, I grudgingly accepted the fact that I’d spend the next three school years in “Cobra Country.”
Looking back on those long-ago days, my attitude about my new high school started to change as I rode the bus home on the afternoon of that disastrous first day at South Miami. And as Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker says in Spider-Man, “It was all about a girl.”
Her name was Mary Ann. She was 16 that fall, and she was beautiful. Mary Ann had long dark brown hair that fell past her shoulders, fawn-like caramel-colored eyes, a nearly-flawless complexion, and a dazzling smile that would make even the grumpiest high school sophomore smile back. She rode an Everett & Jennings wheelchair – she had been run over by a car when she was eight years old in her home town of Detroit. A junior, Mary Ann had gone to Southwest High the previous year and was one of the students who had had issues with that school’s lack of an elevator and wheelchair ramps.
Because of my cerebral palsy, I was, and still am, incredibly shy in the presence of women I don’t know well, but for some reason I decided to sit in the seat right next to the wheelchair ramp. And although I was still feeling despondent about not being with my friends at Southwest, I felt compelled to introduce myself.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Alex. I’m new at South Miami this year.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m Mary Ann Pena. What grade are you in?”
“Oh, I just started 10th grade. I was at Riviera Junior High last year. I was supposed to go to – “
“Southwest,” she finished for me in a somewhat somber tone. “Yeah, me too. I was there last year as a sophomore and I wanted to stay there, but you know….” She gave me a shrug as if to say What can you do about these things, right?
“Must have been really bad for the kids in wheelchairs to get around, then.”
“You have no idea,” Mary Ann said. “Getting from one floor to another was a big hassle, and we were almost always late to class. I didn’t want to leave because my boyfriend Phillip is at Southwest, but I didn’t have any other option except accepting a transfer to Coral Park – and they don’t have an elevator or ramps.”
“Hey,” I said, “I know a guy named Phillip. He was a year ahead of me at Riviera. What’s your boyfriend’s last name?”
“Moore,” Mary Ann replied. “Phillip Moore.”
No way! That’s the same guy! I have – er, had a huge crush on his sister.”
“Yeah,” I said sadly. “She was a cheerleader at Riviera. She was also in my math class last year. I liked her a lot, but she just…wanted to be friends.”
“Oh,” Mary Ann said. “Well, maybe you’ll meet someone at South Miami. It’s a big school, you know, and there are lots of girls there.”
Maybe. We’ll see.”
The bus slowed down. It was almost at my stop on 97th Avenue, so I hastily gathered my Mead Organizer and the few textbooks I’d been issued that day. “It was nice meeting you, Mary Ann,” I said as Mrs. Nolan stopped the big aspen yellow Blue Bird bus, activated the STOP signs on the side of the vehicle and opened the door so I could disembark.
“Bye, Alex,” Mary Ann said as I walked past her on my way out.
I can’t say that it was love at first sight for me; I was still upset about the whole Southwest High-related mess, and I wasn’t quite over Kelly Moore’s rejection. But I did like Mary Ann a lot, and eventually I did develop a huge crush on her. Mary Ann was the first girl I ever bought flowers for, as well as the first to have a candlelight dinner with me. But the spark of romance never quite took, and our relationship was one of the many unrequited love situations that I’d find myself in between 1980 and 2000. However, the friendship that ensued from our first meeting made my transition from Riviera to South Miami High a little less painful.
Although there were a few times when Mrs. Nolan’s bus broke down on the way to my stop, I usually arrived at South Miami High before homeroom started at 7:30 a.m. For my sophomore and junior years, Mrs. Billie Bernstein was my home room teacher. She taught English and Drama, so the first classroom I stepped into every morning was the school’s Little Theater (Room 230). As in junior high (or middle school, in today’s parlance), we students didn’t do much in homeroom – Mrs. B took attendance, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, listened to the morning announcements, and chatted a little with other students before the bell “rang” (it actually hooted) and ushered in First Period.
My schedule for the first semester at South Miami looked something like this:
Home Room: Mrs. Bernstein
Period One: English 2, Regular: Ms. Brock
Period Two: Peer Counseling, Mr. O’Donnell
Period Three: Business Mathematics, Mr. King
Period Four: Journalism – Newspaper Production and Editing A, Mr. Bridge
Period Five: Special Ed/Resource, Mr. Passman
Period Six: Science, Ms. Guim
I don’t remember much of the day-to-day details of those early days as a Cobra. I do remember feeling overwhelmed the first few times that I had to negotiate the halls of South Miami High in between periods. There were 2100 students, more than twice as many than the student population at my previous school. When the bell rang, the congestion resembled that of a South Florida expressway during rush hour because there were so many adolescents scrambling to get from one classroom to another – quite often from one floor to another – in a five-minute window.
I also remember most of my teachers and their distinct personalities. Ms. Brock, for instance, was a veritable dynamo of wit and energy, two qualities that served her well both as a Language Arts teacher and as the cheerleaders’ coach. She used to say “A busy child is a happy child,” to motivate 30-plus teenagers who were still sleepy at 8 in the morning.
Ms. Brock taught us how to write five-paragraph essays, how to avoid run-on sentences, and the finer points of proper grammar and punctuation. She also assigned us to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird during second semester; I remember that we watched the 1962 movie directed by Robert Mulligan in class. I still have my paperback copy of the novel in my closet, and I have the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird in my Blu-ray collection.
I don’t remember Mr. King as well because he retired after the winter break. He was a soft-spoken older guy who wore glasses, but that’s about all that I recall.
Mr. O’Donnell was one of South Miami’s guidance counselors and my Peer Counseling group’s faculty mentor. I don’t know why I was in Peer Counseling during my first semester; Mr. Katims, my last home room teacher at Riviera Junior High, selected my courses for 10th grade and didn’t bother to tell me anything except a cryptic reference to a “writing course I know you’ll like.”
Maybe Mr. Katims thought that one semester of Peer Counseling would help me deal with the issues I was having at home and the transition from Riviera to South Miami. It doesn’t matter much now, really, and all I remember about Mr. O’Donnell was that he was tall, lanky, and sat cross-legged on the floor of our classroom as he listened quietly to our daily bull sessions.
The Peer Counseling classroom was unusually casual and relaxing. It had bean bags instead of desks and was decorated with posters with 1970s-era motivational slogans as “When Life Hands You a Bunch of Lemons, Make Lemonade” and “Hang in There!” (I remember that poster well: it featured a photo of a cute kitten hanging on to a tree branch with its front claws.)
Mr. Bridge was my first journalism teacher at South Miami. He was new to both the school and to his position as advisor to the student newspaper and yearbook staffs. He was a nice man and a competent teacher, but some of the juniors and seniors in my Newspaper Production and Editing class were not happy because they loved and respected Mrs. Salesky, the teacher he was replacing.
Though most of the 11th and 12th grade students were not outwardly disrespectful to Mr. Bridge, some of them were often sullen and sarcastic in class. Since I was what we now would call a “noob,” I didn’t catch on to this at first, but that would change by the end of the first semester.
Mr. Passman was my Special Education teacher at South Miami. He was a short, balding man in his late 30s or early 40s with a calm demeanor and friendly personality. Mr. Passman had taught disabled students at Southwest, including most of my upperclassman friends from Riviera, so he was – like me – a newcomer to Cobra Country.
He didn’t teach a specific course (i.e. math or Language Arts). Rather, he supervised a “Resource” period in which we received personalized instruction in specific courses or got a head start on homework assignments from our “mainstream” teachers. My weak area was math, so I was tutored in that vexing subject by either Mr. P or one of the two aides, Rochester Bailey and Mrs. Porras.
Ms. Guim was my sixth period science teacher. I don’t remember much about her except that she was the only Cuban-American teacher I had at South Miami. She was in her early 30s and a strict-but-fair instructor.
South Miami hail the Cobras,
Fighting strong and proud
(clap, clap, clap)
South Miami’s number one
So join the Cobra crowd
(clap, clap, clap)
See those Cobras in victory,
Watch those Cobras make history
Hail, Hail, the gang’s all here,
So let’s hear the Cobra cheer! – Fight song, South Miami Senior High
My daily routine at South Miami, then, was almost indistinguishable from that of the non-disabled members of the Class of 1983. During those early months in Cobra Country, I learned how to navigate all of the school’s three floors, diligently attended my classes, bought my school picture (which was also on my school ID card, my newspaper “sig box,” and in the Sophomores section of the 1981 yearbook), went to my first pep rallies, and watched a cheesy motivational film titled “High School: The Best Years of Your Life.”
Again, the passage of time has dimmed my memories about the 30-minute film that was compulsory for all incoming sophomores. However, I do recall my cynical reaction to “The Best Years of Your Life.”
“Really?” I thought as the film faded to black and the lights in the auditorium came back on. If these are the best years of our life, what are the rest of our years going to be like?