The day that profoundly changed my life – for good and ill – was October 31, 1984. It was a typically warm and humid fall day in South Florida, and as luck would have it, the same day that Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister, was assassinated by two of her Sikh guards at her official residence in New Delhi. For me, though, it had started as yet another long, dreary day full of uncertainty, boredom, and post-high school graduation angst. But by sunset of that long-ago Halloween of ‘84, I had taken my first step into a larger world: I’d applied for admission at what was then called Miami-Dade Community College.
At the time, I was battling the ever-present demons of depression, insecurity, and uncertainty that show up whenever I have to make life choices. I had graduated from South Miami Senior High 15 months earlier with only vague plans to attend college at some point in the future.
I didn’t have any clear notion of how I was going to get into college; no one in South Miami’s Guidance Department had ever discussed my post-graduation plans or told me about such things as Pell Grants, and although Mom clearly wanted me to go to either Miami-Dade or Florida International University (FIU), it soon became clear that our financial situation wasn’t good enough to pay for college.
I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my unsuccessful efforts to find summer jobs at the nearby Miami International Mall in order to earn money for tuition, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that for the best part of 1983, and quite a few months of 1984, I filled out a good number of employment applications at nearby businesses – including the neighborhood Winn Dixie supermarket – and was constantly rejected.
Perhaps this was because the managers probably believed that a person with cerebral palsy would not be able to perform tasks as well as a non-disabled employee.
Of course, it never occurred to me to ask any of my friends – and I had quite a few – that were already at Miami-Dade, about the college’s open admission policy, how to get financial aid, or what services are available on campus for people with disabilities.
During my last months as a high school senior, I was too focused on the “here-and-now” minutiae of graduation and didn’t show any real interest in my long-term plans. In short, I became my own worst enemy and ended up wasting 15 months of my life waiting for something to fall on my lap.
Fortunately, I had two friends that looked out for me during that strange and sad period of my life. One of them, Betsy Matteis, had known me since I was a fifth grader at Tropical Elementary School. She and I had been mainstreamed to regular classes from the Special Ed department at Tropical at around the same time and she was one of my then-girlfriend’s best friends.
We didn’t become friends till we were students at Riviera Jr. High a few years later, but our shared interests in science fiction and movies were the seeds of a friendship that is still ongoing. Because Betsy was an academic year ahead of me in school, she was already at Miami-Dade when I graduated from South Miami.
The other key player in How I Got to College was my buddy from drama class, Juan Carlos Hernandez. He was a junior when I got my high school diploma in June of 1983, but he registered at Miami-Dade for the Fall Term of the 1984-1985 academic year almost as soon as he graduated. He had a car and a summer job at the Miami Seaquarium, so he often picked me up and took me to his place of work so I wouldn’t be stuck at home watching TV or playing video games on my Atari 2600-compatible console.
Now, I’m not sure why Juan started taking me to Miami-Dade Community College’s South Campus occasionally after he started attending classes in late August of ‘84. Maybe he thought that getting me out of the house and experiencing a taste of campus life – however limited the experience actually was – would do me some good.
At least I’d be away from the still-tense situation at my house (my mom was still dating an alcoholic and abusive ex-pilot named Joe B., who hated me just as much as I hated him) and sometimes I could even go inside his Drama I class and listen to his professor’s lectures on acting methods.
Juan’s Drama I class was on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday (M-W-F) schedule, so when he picked me up a little after noon on October 31, 1984, we both figured it was just going to be another trip to the South Campus out in the Kendall area.
Now, Juan’s first M-W-F class was English Composition I (ENC-1101), and although I’m sure that his professor would have let me sit in on the lecture as long as I was quiet, I usually waited for him at either the campus library or at one of the tables in Building Three, home of the Registrar’s office and Disabled Students Services. Building Three was not as cozy as the library, of course, but Beth, the hot dog vendor, had a cart at one of the corners.
I had a little bit of money on me that day – a friend of the family had recently given me $2000 in an unexpected gesture of kindness, so I happened to be carrying $30 or so in my wallet – and I loved Beth’s hot dogs; they were top quality frankfurters and they were always hot and tasty. So…Building Three it was.
It was, as I mentioned earlier, a typically warm and muggy October day, but as I sidled up to Beth to buy my “usual” dawg – a “plain Jane” hot dog with only a smear of Heinz tomato ketchup tucked inside a warm bread roll – I noticed there was a lot of activity in front of the registration area.
“What’s going on, Beth?” I asked somewhat distractedly between bites of my hot dog.
“Oh, it’s the first day of registration for the Winter Term,” Beth said.
“Wow,” I said. “Those lines are long. Is it always this busy during registration?”
“It can get busier, especially during the first days. Everyone is looking for the best class times and make sure they get the professors they want, because if they wait too long, they’ll have to settle for hours they might hate and teachers that they don’t want.”
“Oh,” I said.
I decided to sit at one of the benches across from the hellaciously busy registrars’ area to finish eating my hot dog and wait for my friend Juan to get out of his ENC-1101 class. I had seen similar scenes at South Miami High at the beginning of each school year – lines of students in front of the advisement and counseling department as we waited for our class schedules or to request changes in same.
But I’d never seen so many people – mostly incoming freshmen my age or a bit younger, but also older adults, some of them with white hair on their heads – milling about in a “hurry up and wait” fashion. It was a large crowd, to be sure, and the sounds of many voices talking at once combined to create a wall of ambient noise like the one that one hears at a football stadium.
I was engrossed in this bit of people-watching when I heard my friend Betsy’s voice say, “Alex? What are you doing here?”
Betsy, I should say, had been in Special Ed because she has dwarfism and suffered from arthritis even at a young age. But her short stature has never been much of an obstacle for my friend, and she possesses one of the keenest minds I have ever known.
I don’t remember what her major in college was, but she always earned good grades in her courses. She had already been in college for over a year and was only three semesters short of getting her two-year degree. We hung out on weekends or on days when she didn’t have class, but we had not crossed paths on campus – until now.
“Hi, Bets!” I said in a cheerful tone. “I’m here waiting for Juan to get out of his English class so we can go home.”
Betsy knew Juan from parties we had all gone to together. “How’s he doing? Still pursuing that acting career?”
“He’s okay. And yeah, he’s still taking drama courses. I met Professor Weigly once and he lets me sit in on some of the classes. It’s kinda fun.”
“That’s cool,” Betsy said. She had taken drama classes back in high school and acted in a few class plays, so she nodded in quiet agreement. There was a brief pause, and then Betsy looked at me with a more meaningful expression. “And you? Are you ever going to register for classes here? I mean, it’s been over a year since you graduated from South Miami. You need to do something with yourself.”
Now, I had been hearing those words from my mom for a while now, and I usually reacted to them with a mix of resentment (after all, she hadn’t really set aside any money for my college tuition, or even pushed me to study hard and be better prepared for the real world) and anger.
Maybe it was unfair of me to feel that way then, but I believed that Mom didn’t know how scary the post-high school world was for me, and I certainly felt that her relationship with the hateful Joe B. was creating a hostile home environment. So naturally, whenever Mom (or even Joe) gave me the You need to do something with yourself speech, I simply ignored it and went out of the house for long walks.
But you know what they say, “You can hear things from your friends that you can’t hear from your parents.” Here was a classic case of that. And instead of anger or resentment, my face became red and extremely hot as I blushed in shame.
“I – I don’t know,” I stammered. “I have been thinking about starting college soon, but –”
“You’ve been saying that since graduation, Alex,” she said, exaggerating just a tad. (In fact, college was not a topic I particularly liked to discuss then.) “I’m only three semesters shy of graduation, and then I’m heading off to FIU. You….you’ve been trying to get jobs, I know. But you also want to be a journalist, and for that you need to go to college. So stop thinking and start doing.”
She gave me a meaningful come with me glance, and without a word she started walking toward one of the registration windows.
Without hesitation, I followed Betsy as she made her way up to Window Three to speak to one of the registrar’s aides. “Can you give me a new student registration form for my friend?” she said to the young woman on the other side of the glass partition.
“Just a sec,” the young and pretty Miami-Dade employee – probably a College Work Study participant, from the looks of her – said. There was a momentary pause while the young aide searched for the right form, then she slid a two-page document out through the little slot below the glass partition.
“Thanks,” Betsy said, and with the form in her hand, she led me to one of the nearby benches. We spent 30 minutes filling in the blanks, starting with the usual name, address, date-of-birth questions down to the obligatory “Name of high school you attended” “What field of study are you majoring in?” queries. Betsy did the actual filling-in-the-blanks bit because my handwriting is atrocious – another consequence of living with cerebral palsy; I simply dictated the answers as we went along.
When we finished, we checked and rechecked the new student registration form; satisfied that every question had been answered correctly, we walked back to Window Three and handed it in.
The young registrar’s aide smiled politely and asked for me for my State of Florida ID card. I hesitated.
“Does it matter,” I asked, “if I register using the English language version of my name as it appears in my school records and Social Security card? Cos my state ID card has my name in Spanish.”
“No, it doesn’t matter,” the registrar’s aide said. “I just need to check off that you have a valid government-issued identification. You can register as ‘Alexander’ if you prefer.”
I took my state ID out of my wallet and passed it through the small partition at the window. The young lady took it, looked at me, then at the card, then jotted something down on a form she was filling out. When that task was done, she handed my ID card and smiled again. “Okay, you can wait over there -” she said, pointing to a spot about 15 feet away, “and we’ll let you know when your papers are ready.”
Fifteen minutes later, I heard my name being called over the PA system.
“Diaz-Granados, Window Five. Diaz-Granados, Window Five.”
Betsy and I exchanged a here we go glance, then walked to the appropriate window. There, another young registrar’s aide, possibly a work-study hire, handed me a computer printout which identified me as DIAZ-GRANADOS, ALEXANDER J. It also had a seven-digit Miami-Dade Community College student number.
“Great!” Betsy said.
“I’m in?” I asked, a bit surprised that the process had been so easy.
“No, not quite. Now I need to take you to Advisement and Counseling, where you’ll meet your adviser. Since you were in Special Ed and…obviously…are a disabled student, you’ll need to talk to him.”
Just then, I felt someone tapping me on my shoulder. I turned around. It was my friend Juan.
“You ready to go home, buddy?” he asked. “I’m done for the day and I have things to do.”
I held out my Miami-Dade computer printout with my new student number. “Sorry, Juan, I gotta stay here and finish my application.”
Juan looked at me, his eyes wide with happiness and surprise. “You signing up for college? It’s about time!” He gave me a friendly high-five, then looked at me with a worried expression. “How are you getting home?”
“Don’t worry,” Betsy said. “I’ll drive Alex back to Fountainbleau.”
“That’s awesome, Betsy. Okay, call me when you get home, buddy. Maybe we can figure out how to bring you over here next semester.”
A final celebratory high-five, then my friend melted into the crowd and was gone.
Betsy then led me into the warren of cubicles that made up the Advisement and Counseling Department at what was then called Miami-Dade South Campus. (Since the 1990s, it is known as the Kendall Campus; the opening of the Homestead Campus caused the renaming because the city of Homestead is farther south than the Kendall area.)
Within that department lay the Disabled Student Services (DSS) section, which was headed by Dr. Bob Joyce. Randy Schleef was one of the DSS advisers.Tall and lanky, Randy (as he told everyone to call him) had limited vision; he wore thick glasses (like I do sometimes), but even with those he had to hold any document you handed him close to his face in order to see it. He had a quiet, somewhat disarming personality, and you wanted to like him from the moment you met him.
‘Hi, I’m Randy Schleef,” he said as he gestured for Betsy and I to sit on the two chairs in front of his desk. His office was no more than a large cubicle, and it was crammed with books, folders, a couple of impressive college degrees and certificates of achievement hanging on one wall, and a phone that rested on one corner of his unpretentious government issue desk. He peered at me myopically through his horn-rimmed glasses. “And you are….?”
“Hi. I’m Alex Diaz-Granados and I’m here because I’d like to study journalism,” I said.
Randy sat back on his chair and waited a few moments before he spoke again. “Journalism?” he asked. “Print or broadcast?”
“Print. I used to write for my high school’s student newspaper and worked for one year on the yearbook,” I said.
“What high school did you go to?”
“South Miami, sir.”
“Well, Alex, we have a fine journalism program here at South Campus. I suggest you take the core classes before you sign up for Basic Reporting, though. ENC 1101 is a prerequisite course that you have to take before JOU 1100 anyway.”
I must have looked dumbstruck, because Randy paused in his presentation and said, “The core classes are the courses every freshman has to take during their first few semesters. English composition, humanities, social studies, environmental science, and so on. Some majors, like journalism, add other must-take courses besides the ones you think you need. So in addition to, say, Basic Reporting and Advanced Newspaper Reporting and Editing, you’ll have to take Survey of Radio and TV Broadcasting and Intro to Mass Communications.”
He paused again, probably picking up on my nervousness.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Now, did you have your high school transcripts sent over?”
I had not, and I told him so.
“Don’t worry. Most college-bound students often get better orientation from their high school counselors before graduation and have their transcripts sent over when they first apply. I can tell that your counselor at South Miami didn’t even discuss college with you, am I right?”
“No, she did not, sir,” I replied.
“Okay. This will slow down the process a bit, but here’s what you’ll do. Tomorrow, you head over to South Miami and ask the office to give you a copy of your official transcript and you bring it here in the afternoon. Okay?”
Before I could say a word, my friend Betsy spoke up. “I went to South Miami with Alex; I will take him.”
I felt – and must have looked – crestfallen. I mean, I had just been told that the guidance staff at South Miami had never even considered me college-worthy, so they had not told me what I should do to apply for post-secondary school. By the same token, though, I had not shown any interest in going to college – at least, not to anyone that mattered.
Again, Randy Schleef tried to calm my fears.
“Look, Alex. It’s not a big deal. This is an Open Admittance college. You don’t need to take the College Board’s SAT or the ACT. All you have to take is the MAPS basic skills test – which we’ll do tomorrow – and dot the i’s and cross the t’s with your transcripts. You’re going to be accepted, and from what I can tell about you, you’ll do fine. And Winter Term begins in January anyway, so one day’s delay in processing you is not going to be a problem.”
I managed to give Randy a smile. A wan one, admittedly, but a smile nonetheless.
Randy got up on his feet, signaling that the meeting was over. He ushered Betsy and me out to the vestibule of the A & C department and gestured to the next would-be student, a girl in a blue Everett & Jennings wheelchair, to join him in his office. Before he turned around to walk back to his cubicle, he offered me his outstretched right hand.
“Welcome to Miami-Dade, Alex.”