Sunday, May 28, 2023

Josian’s College Essay

Note: Josian was my student in 7th grade and it’s fair to say that my heart exploded when I saw him take the stage two years ago to share his future plans with the world. I published this last year at Good School Hunting and today, in honor #CollegeSigningDay and the countless students who rise above adversity to achieve their goals, Project Forever Free is sharing it too. The young boy on stage with him, and here beside him, is his little brother, Franco.


We spent long nights at my grandparents’ house every Friday — my aunt and uncle and their kids; my mother, my little brother, Franco, and me. Those nights became a tradition for almost 16 years and were full of laughter with Las Caras Lindas blasting from the speakers in the living room. Learning how to play the güiro, a small washboard instrument; arguing with Franco to decide who would tell the next story to my grandparents; hosting plays for our parents that always made them burst into laughter. It was these little but memorable moments that defined our Friday evenings. We always drove home laughing, reminiscing, story-telling.

I remember the first Friday we didn’t go to my grandparents, and then the next, and then the next. Gradually, in our home, ashtrays began to cover the countertops, window sills, and coffee tables. Empty bottles, the golden Modelos catching the evening light, cluttered every inch of our house, practically leaving no room to walk. Each family member retreated into their separate corners, isolated from the others who were also avoiding the truth. Soon, I too pushed away from others. My room, with the walls covered in college pennants I had brought home from school, became a hiding place. And my beloved baseball glove sat next to my little brother’s dresser, collecting dust.

My mother became unemployed and responded by locking herself in her room. I began to emulate her, keeping to myself, and immediately barricading myself in my room after school, punching holes into the wall, and honestly, giving up.

Slowly, I seemed to drift away from myself. I rarely played basketball anymore, and found myself quitting the team halfway through the season, losing my connection with close teammates.

My grades dropped. My mentor wondered why my work ethic had suddenly dropped off, why I retreated behind my headphones. My response was always to shake my head and keep walking.

One night Franco and I were home alone. He was eight. I had spent that whole afternoon playing video games, disregarding the responsibilities that my mother had assigned to me. Franco came in, telling me how he had cleaned the house already, so that I would not have to worry. I didn’t reply. He excitedly asked, “can you please play Parcheesi with me?” Sternly, with cruelty in my voice, I told him to get out of my room. Crestfallen, he replied: “you never want to play or hang out with me.”

The response hit me hard. Franco’s eyes glistened with tears, and I could tell he was wondering where his big brother, his hero, had gone. Fortunately, he had not followed my lead in imitating our mother by withdrawing and shutting down.  He continued to carry his light and enjoy school, sports, his friends, his family. I saw in him what I wanted to be.

I realized that no one was actually taking care of Franco, the youngest and most vulnerable member of our family. So I told myself I could again be his hero. In the mornings, I put myself in charge of making sure he showered, had breakfast, and most importantly, attended school. In the evening, I made sure he did his homework, had dinner, and did something fun before bed.

My responsibility for my little brother helped lift me out of my own sadness and made me feel a real sense of purpose. I tried out for the baseball team, earned a spot as a starter and was named a captain. Franco and I still spend our afternoons doing homework together, then we watch movies, play games, or go for walks with our dog, Machi. He has also begun to sleep beside me again. We have rediscovered the laughter, the story-telling, and the reminiscing that had defined Friday nights for so many years and while it isn’t the same as it used to be, it has become our own tradition.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Her blog is Good School Hunting and her Substack is Sanzi Says. She occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons and calls Rhode Island home.


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