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 …
“It’s like high school holds two different worlds, revolving around each other and never touching; the haves and the have-nots. I guess it’s a good thing. High school is supposed to prepare you for the real world, after all.” ― Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall
Over the next 10 months, I gradually allowed myself to stop worrying and love South Miami Senior High. It wasn’t easy – for eight long school years I had been on the Tropical-to-Riviera-to-Southwest track, only to find myself at a totally different high school where I only knew a handful of students. I was (for a while, anyway) a stranger in a strange land, trying to make lemonade out of the handful of lemons that the Dade County School Board had handed me.
At first, the only incentive that I had to stay at South Miami was my growing crush on Mary Ann, the first new friend I made on Day One of my sophomore year. She was a beautiful Latina (her dad was Puerto Rican and her mom was Cuban) who was robbed of her ability to walk eight years earlier when she was hit by a car in her hometown of Detroit. Mary Ann not only rode the same bus that I did, but she was in my homeroom. I tried to resist the attraction that I felt for her – partly because I was afraid of rejection – but it was impossible. I was, after all, a lonely teenage boy, and Mary Ann was a pretty and sweet teenage girl.
To my surprise, I also discovered that I liked my Newspaper Production and Editing class. This was the mysterious “writing class” that my ninth grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Katims, had chosen for me when he was setting up my class schedule for 10th grade. I hadn’t taken any journalism courses at Riviera Junior High, but I had been asked to submit a handful of articles for the school’s student newspaper during the 1979-1980 academic year. So even though I didn’t know what picas, double trucks, or graduated headlines were, I had a few bylines under my belt.
More importantly, I wanted to know what picas, double trucks, graduated headlines, and other elements of producing and editing a newspaper were.
Like many big city high schools in the United States, South Miami had a student newspaper, The Serpent’s Tale. It was, at least in theory, a monthly publication and was divided into several sections. These included News, Sports, Features, Editorial, and Entertainment.
Like everyone else in Newspaper Reporting and Editing, I was automatically a staff member of the school paper. Not an editor, mind you; the editorial staff had been chosen shortly before the start of the academic year. I was, however, a “staff writer” – a wet-behind-the-ears and as yet untrained one.
I was shy and somewhat reluctant to do interviews, so I didn’t want to write for the News section. I also didn’t think I was qualified to write editorials or opinions columns, so I passed on the notion of working in Editorials. I have never been much of a sports fan, so I declined to write in that beat. The only section that appealed to me was Entertainment – I liked movies, TV shows, music, video games, and books, so I decided I’d write for that section.
As I would later write in my book, Save Me the Aisle Seat, this choice was serendipitous:
“It’s not that I don’t like school newspapers; in ninth grade I had been asked to submit two articles to my junior high school’s official publication as a guest writer; both pieces were published, and I was happy because those were my first articles read by a wide audience. But the notion of writing under deadline pressures and dealing with editors was a bit intimidating, so I never thought about signing up for Mrs. Heller’s journalism class before going on to senior high school.
“Now, as my classmates return to class from our assigned lunch period, I am glancing through the hardcover textbook we have been given for study purposes. Much of it is devoted to the basics of print journalism – the Five Ws and H paradigm and the inverted pyramid structure of news stories, how to take and crop photos, editing, sports reporting, and how to write articles for the entertainment and features sections.
“At first, I stick to checking out the chapters which Mr. Bridge has already assigned – they’re written on the classroom’s blackboard – and not get ahead of myself. Eventually, though, I wander over to the chapter on ‘How to Write Reviews,’ which not only has the basic rules of review-writing at its heart, but also contains a sample review of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
“I’m not sure if I believe in predestination, but for some reason I find myself glued to that chapter until Mr. Bridge begins his classroom lecture on how most news articles require three reliable sources and how to get good quotes. I listen, knowing that I will need to know every reporting technique if I am going to pass this course, but in the back of my mind I am thinking: I want to be a movie reviewer!”
My first attempt to write a movie review had mixed results. I was not familiar with the journalistic concept of timeliness, so I chose to do a write-up of Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back.
The blockbuster sequel to George Lucas’s Star Wars was still in theaters, but its theatrical run had begun in May and it was no longer newsworthy. So even though my article was well-written, Mr. Bridge gave me a B+ and told me that if I wanted to be a good Entertainment writer I needed to write stories about new or upcoming movies.
I was embarrassed at first, but I realized that Mr. Bridge was right. I meekly took my B+ story and tucked it away in my Mead Organizer. From then on I followed my teacher’s advice. As a result, my grades in Newspaper Reporting and Editing improved, and I eventually became The Serpent’s Tale’s Entertainment Co-Editor.
Slowly but surely, I allowed myself to become a member of South Miami High’s community of students, faculty, and administrators. I attended pep rallies, learned to sing the school’s alma mater and fight song, and bought the brown and white T-shirt that newspaper staff members were entitled to wear. I didn’t order my yearbook in early fall (I was still a bit reluctant to accept my permanence in Cobra Country at the time), but I started making friends in homeroom and all six of my classes, including Special Ed’s Resource period.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Looking back on those far-off Days of Ago, I think I became a fully-committed Cobra when I decided to join South Miami High’s chorus in January of 1981.
When I was in sixth grade at Tropical Elementary, I was a member of that school’s first choral group. I didn’t have a formal education in music – I lack the dexterity, patience, and sight-reading skills needed to play any instrument – but I loved to sing and was happy when I earned a spot in Mr. Back’s chorus during my final year at Tropical.
I probably would have joined Riviera Junior High’s choir, but my voice started to change in seventh grade and I didn’t feel confident enough to sign up for singing lessons. I was also having issues at home due to my mom’s relationship with her alcoholic and abusive boyfriend, Joe B. So by the time I felt my voice was up to the challenges of singing in public, I didn’t have the desire to audition for a spot in Riviera’s chorus.
Why did I decide to join South Miami Senior High’s choral groups – there were several of them – during my second semester in 10th grade?
First, there was going to be an open slot in my class schedule after the winter break. My second period class, Peer Counseling, was only a one-semester deal, so I needed to choose another course to take its place.
Second, I had enjoyed listening to Ms. Joan Owens’ various ensembles – Men’s, Women’s, and Mixed Choirs – at the 1980 Christmas assembly. Not only did I think that the students on stage were talented and the program was varied and fun to listen to, but I longed to be with them, too. I missed being part of a singing group.
Still, I was afraid that my cerebral palsy would make me too conspicuous or – worse still – the butt of malicious teasing by bullies who disliked those who were different or had physical impairments. As a result, on that December day when Ms. Owen invited those students who were interested in joining the Singing Cobras after the winter break, I didn’t rush to the music department to sign up.
“He who sings scares away his woes.” ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
I decided to join the chorus literally at the last minute when I was on Mrs. Nolan’s bus on the way to school at the start of second semester. I had an appointment with Mrs. Anderson, my guidance counselor, after my first period English class to fine-tune my schedule, and I mentioned this to Mary Ann and a fellow 10th grader, Bruce Schulman.
“Guys,” I said, “I need to pick a class for Period Two, but I don’t know what to take. Any ideas?”
Mary Ann suggested that I take a creative writing class; she’d read several of my articles for The Serpent’s Tale and thought I was a good writer.
“No,” I said. “I already have enough on my plate with Ms. Brock’s English class and newspaper. I need something as easy as Peer Counseling; I don’t want my grades to start slipping – I’m already getting Cs and Ds in Business Math.”
“Hey, Alex,” Bruce said. “Can you sing? There are a few openings in Ms. Owen’s first period class.”
I think I can sing – I was in chorus at Tropical in sixth grade. But, I dunno, man. I already have English for first period.”
Bruce stared at me through his thick, nerdy-looking glasses. “C’mon, Alex. Let’s hear what you got. Sing something.”
Students were not allowed to sing on Dade County Public Schools buses, but I sang the first lines of Don Black and Walter Scharf’s “Ben” softly enough that Mrs. Nolan couldn’t hear me.
Ben, the two of us need look no more…”
“Hey, not bad,” Bruce said when I finished the song’s first stanza. It wasn’t one of my favorite songs, but it was the only song that came easily to mind at that moment.
“I’m not sure – “ I said nervously.
“Just come with me to the music department as soon as we get to school. You don’t have to give Ms. Owen a full-on performance. She’ll just want to hear if you have a good voice and can carry a tune.”
But what about my schedule?”
“All you need to do is switch your first period class over to third. It won’t be as screwed up as you think it will be. Just go to Ms. Owen’s office with me, audition, and if you get accepted, she’ll fill out a class change slip and we’ll take it over to the guidance office. Piece of cake.”
I still wasn’t convinced, but when Mrs. Nolan stopped the bus at the South Miami High stop, I followed Bruce to Ms. Owen’s small office in the music department wing on the first floor.
Ms. Owen was a short and stout woman in her early 50s. Her graying hair was short and curly, and she had lively blue eyes and a friendly smile that put me a little at ease.
“Well, Mr. Schulman, nice to see you again,” she said. ”Did you have a nice vacation?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bruce replied.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked as she gazed at me.
This is Alex Diaz. He wants to try out for the Men’s Chorus.”
I thought she was going to laugh at the prospect of me singing in one of her ensembles. Instead, she gave me another friendly smile. “Hi, Alex. I’m Ms. Owen. Can you sing the first verse of your favorite song for me?”
I took a deep breath, stood as straight as I could, and tried to square my shoulders like Mr. Back had taught me nearly four years earlier. “S-sure,” I stammered.
Don’t be nervous. Just sing the first verse of a song you like.”
I wanted to sing the first verse of Scott English and Richard Kerr’s “Mandy,” one of Barry Manilow’s earliest hits. Unfortunately, the only song I could think of at the moment was “Ben.” Flustered and worried about being late to homeroom, I took another breath and sang Ben, the two of us need look no more….
Even though I was extremely nervous, I sang the first verse of the sappy Oscar-nominated song from a movie about a killer rat. I didn’t nail it as well as Michael Jackson, but my performance was decent enough for Ms. Owen. Without hesitation, she filled out a class schedule change form, signed it with a flourish, then handed it to me.
“Okay, Mr. Diaz. Report to homeroom – you still have a few minutes. Then take this form to Ms. Brock and have her sign it, then report to Room 136 as soon as you can. Welcome to my class, Alex.”
Bruce and I exchanged a celebratory high five, then I made my way to my homeroom as quickly as my legs could carry me. Once I was in the Little Theater, I fidgeted throughout the daily rituals – the Pledge of Allegiance, morning announcements, and roll call. Somehow, I managed to survive the period without having a heart attack.
The First Period “bell” hooted loudly over the PA’s speakers, and I bolted out the door as if the Devil himself was chasing me. I ran to Ms. Brock’s English class and showed her my change of class form. She frowned at it for a moment, then looked back up at me. “Okay,” she said. “It was nice having you in First Period, Alex. Now get to class before you’re late.” (At the time, we both figured that I wouldn’t be her student for the rest of the year, but when Mrs. Anderson reconfigured my schedule later that morning, I ended up in Ms. Brock’s Third Period class.)
I walked back down to the music department at a brisk pace. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do in Ms. Owen’s class, but I was willing to try my best to earn a spot in the Men’s Chorus. Less than five minutes after leaving Ms. Brock’s classroom, I was standing in front of the heavy door that led to the chorus practice room. From behind the door, I could hear the faint sounds of a piano playing the scales.
I took a deep breath, then slowly pushed the door open. The piano playing stopped as I walked in. As I stood in the threshold, I heard Ms. Owen say, “Good morning, Mr. Diaz. Glad you could join us. Please take a seat – I’ll let you know where I want you to be in a moment. Now, gentlemen, we were doing vocal exercises, weren’t we?”