Not too long ago, I was invited to speak to a class at USC. I was working at Homeboy Industries, the gang-intervention and support organization based in Boyle Heights, and the professor had asked his occupational therapy class to read Tattoos On the Heart, by Homeboy founder Father Greg Boyle.
Father Greg says as a community we should carry each other, lift each other up with the idea that “If we belong to each other, then no one slips between the cracks.” This applies to every aspect of life, and most important, to education. Providing quality education is one way we can make up for the cracks that develop in an unequal society.
I thought occupational therapy had to do with sports or work injuries, then I learned that it had more to do with overcoming disabilities and other barriers to working. Having grown up in South Central as the child of a single father, I guess I had a few of those. I was at Homeboy because I’d had nowhere else to go after prison.
I’d graduated from high school and was taking classes at California State, Northridge, when I got caught in the middle of a legal mess between my parents. My father asked me to sign my mother’s name on some documents and I was arrested for forgery. After being convicted and serving two and a half years, I ended up at Homeboy, where I became an even bigger fan of Father Greg.
Whenever I think of USC, I think of the tool-and-die factory just down the street from the campus where my father worked for many years. We would drive past the school, and he would say this is where I would go, and how he would come to visit me on campus and we’d have lunch together. Things didn’t quite turn out that way.
Walking through campus triggered another strong memory: it seemed like everywhere I looked were fancy bikes, all of them lying around unlocked. It reminded me of one of my most prized possessions: my beloved pink beach cruiser with its flower-stamped white tires and its cute metal basket.
I’d always wanted a bike like that, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally got one, a gift from a police lieutenant in my neighborhood who was like an uncle to me. I rode it all the time like a giant kid. Then when I was in jail, my best friend was trying to help raise money to cover my legal fees, and she went and sold my cruiser for $50. She was trying to help.
After I got home, whenever I saw a pink beach cruiser I wondered if it was mine. My brother once took me to eat at the Five Guys across from USC, and seeing all the kids riding their cruisers, I joked that I was going to steal one of them. He damn near smacked me.
When it was time for me to speak to the class, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Hi my name is Lily. I am 32 and I am single, and I have two kids.”
Why had I said that? The room broke into loud laughter, and I of course turned bright red. Then I decided to share my cruiser story, and I advised them to lock up their bikes.
I talked a bit about what led me to Homeboy, and about how, after I got out of prison, I hadn’t even been considering returning to college, but Homeboy encouraged me to go back to CSUN. I had to reapply, and after that I checked my mailbox every day for an answer. I was starting to despair, when someone told me to check my email. Little things like this were still new to me, every one reminding me of what I was; a felon, a person re-entering society. But, yeah, there was my acceptance.
Next I applied for financial aid but got turned down. I appealed the decision, but that was denied too. I sent an email to several administrators explaining my circumstances, and got some “We’ll see’s” but nothing else.
I showed up to campus the first day of school anyway, with a list of the classes I wanted to take and no clue how I would pay for them. At Homeboy we say, “You suit up and show up,” so I did.
I sent out a last-ditch email to the office of the provost, saying I was on campus in case anyone would talk to me. I got a reply that I had about 15 minutes to come to the office and make a case for why they should reconsider their ruling.
While I waited for that appointment, I went to see the chair of the Chicano Studies department, who’d also been one of my professors when my arrest went down. He sent a request to the instructors of the classes on my list to see if they’d hold a spot for me. Then I went and made my case.
That evening I got the call: the university had reversed its decision and I was approved for financial aid. Amazing.
The next day I showed up again. I saw all the students in line at the bookstore with their parents preparing to pay for their books and supplies. I was struggling just to get my classes paid for, I had no idea how I’d pay for books and parking. I ran into my old professor, who asked if I had my books yet, and I said no. He said OK, let’s go get them. I thought maybe he had a homie hookup there or could get them for free. At the bookstore I noticed Father Greg’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, as though it was some kind of sign of hope and reassurance. I knew I was at the right place. My prof paid for my books with his personal debit card.
I shared all this with the USC class and talked about other challenges I faced. I told them how I was couldn’t get a campus job because of my criminal background, and how the question that I hate most is “What will you do after graduation?”
I said that I didn’t want to make assumptions about them, but that they should be grateful for the privilege of going to USC, pointing out that it’s in South Central, where most of the people in the surrounding community couldn’t afford to attend.
The students seemed interested and some asked how they could help. Education may be the single most important factor in the fight against poverty, and educated parents are motivated to make sure their children receive good educations too. I suggested that if they were in a position to do so they could donate to Homeboy’s educational department to help students like me cover costs. And if not, they could be, like Father Greg says, empathetic and understanding of the world outside of their own.
That evening, the class made a donation to our educational fund. Their assistance will go to help the people who arrive at Homeboy after me, hopefully coming to a campus near you.
In the meantime, I’ll keep studying. Maybe one of these days I’ll get myself another pink cruiser.
She is a recent cancer survivor and through some years of adversity has risen above all her recent challenges. Lily is a Homeboy Industries graduate and full-time student at California State University, Northridge. She has continued to live her life in South Los Angeles with her two children. She works to show her children that anything can be done with hard work, determination and perseverance even in the face of unimaginable challenges. Her daughter is in a Charter School and she is working to find the right Preschool program for her youngest child.
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- De La Prisión a Graduación: Me Lo Gane, Pero Podría Adueñarme del Título? - June 15, 2017
- From Prison to Graduation: I Earned it, But Could I Own it? - June 15, 2017
- A Program like POPS Needs to be Expanded to Meet the Needs of Students with Incarcerated Parents. - July 25, 2016