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 …
On the morning of Thursday, November 1, 1984, one day after I registered as a new student at what was then Miami-Dade Community College, my friend Betsy Matteis picked me up in her sporty Saturn. We had several errands to run so I could complete the application process; the first one necessitated a quick trip to our alma mater – South Miami Senior High – and pick up a copy of my high school transcripts, which were required by Miami-Dade’s registrar.
Had I planned things properly, I would have done this days or weeks in advance; however, my decision to attend Miami-Dade was mostly a spur-of-the moment one, without much thought given to the admissions process.
There were many things that I had not mulled over when I said I have been thinking about starting college soon less than 24 hours earlier. I had enough money stashed away in my Florida Federal savings account to cover tuition for at least two or three semesters, so how to pay for my first year’s classes wasn’t an immediate concern. But there were other things that I needed to start thinking about, and fast.
One of my biggest problems was how to get from my house in the Fountainbleau Park area to my classes at what was known then as Miami-Dade Community College – South Campus. Of the College’s four campuses then in existence, South Campus was the largest and most prestigious.
Dr. Robert McCabe, the College President, still had his office there when I registered; it was only after I had been a student for a couple of semesters that Dr. McCabe and District Headquarters moved to nicer digs at the Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami. I wanted to go there partly because of those superlatives, but mostly because most of my college-bound friends were there.
South Campus is in the Kendall area of Dade County, 8.2 miles away from my house. The county’s public transportation department’s Metrobus has a bus route – the 71 – that stopped at the campus every hour and six minutes, but at the time I wasn’t keen on taking the bus to and from school every day.
I also didn’t want to depend on my mother, who was in her mid-50s at the time and liked to sleep till eight or nine in the morning. She would have made the sacrifice and taken me to South Campus on occasion, sure, but not on a permanent basis. The commute – especially for morning classes – would have been expensive and time-consuming.
Luckily, my friend Juan Carlos Hernandez (who is now a successful stage, TV, and film actor, as well as a director/producer of independent films) was studying theater arts at South Campus and offered to give me rides to school in the morning until a more permanent solution to the problem presented itself. It would be a hardship for Juan – he lived closer to South Miami High (our alma mater) than to my neighborhood – but he was willing to do it anyway.
Another worry: note-taking. As far back as sixth grade – which in the 1970s was still considered part of the elementary school system in Dade County Public Schools – it was drummed into students’ brain that good note-taking skills were necessary in high school and college.
I still have vivid memories of sitting in Tropical Elementary School’s cozy library with my fellow sixth graders and trying – without much success – to take notes during a lecture by Ms. Lincoln, the school librarian. I was a good listener, but my hands would cramp up after only a few minutes of taking notes with pen and paper. I wasn’t a good note taker then; I’m still not a good note-taker now. My penmanship is atrocious and I am glacially slow when I work with pen and paper. So, yes. I almost sweated blood just thinking about this.
Happily, my worries were assuaged when I broached the subject to my friend Betsy as we made our way to South Miami High on our errand to get a copy of my high school transcripts.
“Betsy, how in the world am I gonna take notes in class? You know how bad I am at writing stuff in longhand.”
“Don’t worry. Disabled Students Services will assign you a note-taker if you need one,” Betsy said. “You can ask Randy Schleef, the advisor you talked to yesterday, when we get back to campus.”
I felt as though a Death Star-sized boulder had been lifted off my shoulders. “Thanks, Betsy,” I said. “I really appreciate your taking time out of your day to run errands and help me register for college.”
“Ah,” Betsy replied. “No big deal. Now…look sharp. We’re almost at South Miami.”
I’d been so worried about the note-taking issue and other weighty matters that I’d lost any sense of place and time. I looked out the car window; sure enough, overlooking SW 56 Street and 68th Avenue, there it was – South Miami Senior High School, home of the Cobras.
I’d gone to school there from August of 1980 to June of 1983. Now, over two years after I earned my high school diploma, I had returned – like some kind of prodigal son – to retrieve my transcripts.
Betsy drove her Saturn to the front of the school and parked it by the curb; we were going to the Main Office and didn’t plan on staying for more than 15 minutes. We made our way to the front door, which I held open for my friend as she walked in. I took a moment to take it all in – the lobby with its huge sculpted cobra looked exactly the way it had looked when I had been a student there two years before, yet it felt…different.
“Hey, Alex,” Betsy said quietly but firmly, “let’s get your transcripts and get to South Campus. We can come back and reminisce some other day.”
“Okay, I’m going,” I said. I gave the cobra sculpture a last glance, then followed Betsy into the school’s main office.
Fifteen minutes later, we emerged from the front entrance and walked to Betsy’s car. I held an unimpressive-looking 8X11 white envelope with the school’s name and return address. The only remarkable detail that I remember about it was that it had an embossed rendering of the school coat of arms on the front.
I had imagined that the process of getting the transcripts would be time consuming, but it only took about five minutes. Perhaps it was because we had arrived after the third lunch period, and all the students were in class and the staff was not swamped with kids coming in with notes from their parents to explain why they were late to class and things like that.
All I had to do after I greeted Ms. Olive, the school’s receptionist, was to say, “I need a copy of my high school transcripts, please.”
Somebody from Advisement and Counseling (I don’t remember who) walked up to me and led me into the office’s warren of desks and file cabinets. “Name?” she asked in a businesslike manner.
“Alexander Diaz-Granados,” I said.
“Year of graduation?”
She typed the data into a utilitarian-looking computer – this was at a time when personal computers were not as commonplace as they are now – and looked at the results on the screen. “May I see some identification?”
I pulled out my state ID and my old high school student card from my wallet and handed them to her. She glanced at the photos on both cards, then up at me. It felt strange to be on the receiving end of her inquisitive gaze, but I guess she was making sure I was who I claimed to be.
For a seemingly long time she examined my IDs and the information on her computer. Then she handed them back to me with a tiny smile and said, “Wait right here, Mr. Diaz-Granados. I’ll be right back with your transcripts.” With that, she walked briskly to a “Staff Only” section of the office and vanished from my sight.
Sure enough, in less than five minutes the lady from Advisement and Counseling was back with the unimpressive 8X11 envelope with my transcripts. I was a bit disappointed; I’d expected to see a large manila envelope stuffed full of impressive-looking documents.
“Thank you, I said,” looking at the envelope in her hand. “Is that it?”
“Well,” said the A&C lady, if the college needs any more information, we can send the registrar your student records. But these transcripts should suffice, I think. Good luck, Mr. Diaz-Granados.” She handed me the envelope, then went back to her office in Advisement and Counseling.
Twenty minutes later, Betsy and I were in the office of Miami-Dade Community College – South Campus’ Disabled Student Services. Once again, we were in the presence of my new advisor, Randy Schleef.
“Hi, Mr. Schleef,” I said as I handed him the envelope with my transcripts. “Mission accomplished.”
“Excellent. I’ll take these to the Registrar’s office and then you’ll be all set as far as paperwork is concerned. In the meantime, why don’t you go with Betsy to the testing area and get started on your basic skills test?”
“Sure,” I said with a cheerfulness I didn’t really feel. Miami-Dade was, and still is, a public college with an ‘open door” policy; anyone who wanted to earn a college degree (Associate in Arts or Associate in Science back in the ‘80s) was admitted without having to take the ACT or SAT.
However, the College’s Advisement and Counseling did make incoming students take the MAPS basic skills test to see what we were able to handle academically…and what we were not.
I won’t bore you with a detailed account of my MAPS experience. Suffice it to say that I passed the writing and reading comprehension parts easily, and that by a small miracle I passed the math part (no algebra questions were involved).
And, to my surprise, my MAPS scores impressed Randy so much that he wasted no time in setting up my first semester schedule on a red-and-white course selection form.
This is what my tentative Winter Term schedule looked like:
- English Composition 1 (Required)
- Social Environment 1
- Humanities 1
- Algebra 1
These were, of course, the core requirements for most freshmen in the mid-1980s. In the 21st Century, freshmen at Miami-Dade College (the school dropped its “Community College” identity when it began offering Bachelor degrees in certain fields several years ago) have different educational requirements.
I must have looked flabbergasted when I lifted my gaze from the course selection form. “What’s wrong?” Randy asked.
“Um,” I said hesitantly, “You want me to take algebra during my first semester?”
“Why not, Alex? You passed the math part of the MAPS. You are smart enough.”
“I don’t know, Randy. Algebra was the only class I failed in 12th grade. I’m not sure if I could handle that during my first semester.”
“Well, I can’t make you take algebra, but I do think you can do it,” Schleef said quietly but firmly. “Just keep it on your schedule for now. If you run into too much trouble we can drop it and you can retake it later.” He looked at me through his thick eyeglasses. “Do we have a deal?”
I was tired. It was already past four in the afternoon – the MAPS had taken two hours of my time – and all I wanted to do now was register for class and go home. “Okay, Randy. We have a deal.”