Written by Ray Sugarman (c/o 2007)
I don’t know if the motivation I possess today began the day my friend saw my mom and me submerged in thrash while dumpster diving; or the day I witnessed my grandparents murdered while watching the news; or it could have been the first time I saw a man hit my mother. Regardless of when it happened, the fear of failure and having to return to the life I left behind has fueled me to overcome anything that would hold me back. I recognize I come from a life most people would cringe at. Society has thrown its worst at me and even though I’ve overcome so much, my story has been one I’ve carried with such disgrace and embarrassment for the majority of my life.
My mom to this day tells me, “Boy, have no shame, ‘cause that’ll only slow you down.” Yet shame was all I felt. My mom exemplified that motto well though and always did her best for my sister and I, even if that meant having us live out in the middle of a desert in a shack run by a generator or moving around so much I thought changing schools once or twice a year was the norm. My mom taught me one thing though, if nothing else, and that is perseverance.
The willpower my mom embedded in me has carried me through one life tragedy after another. I’ve come face-to-face with death more times than I can count, been on life support, had a gun placed in my face more than once, and lived in a family where suicide was viewed as the only way out. Yet I’m still here, still managing to make the next day a little better than the day before.
Although my drive to persevere didn’t come until much later in life, it’s brought me from living on welfare to working more hours a week than sleeping and being in class combined. Working full-time throughout college is something I’ve grown accustomed to. Since I was the first in my family to graduate high school, let alone make it to college, I never took it for granted. I realize it was my mom who laid the foundation that set me on this path yearning for more out of life than she was able to ascertain. Still, there were many things she was incapable of preparing me for or teaching to me.
Being a black male, while growing up with a white mother, created much confusion for me. That confusion didn’t fade but actually grew as I got older. Without ever knowing my father, who was black, I didn’t know what it actually meant to be black, except for what I had seen on the media. By the time I reached high school, I let other people’s stereotypes and opinions of me dictate who I was. I covered up my insecurity with my passion for basketball. Even though I was on track to an International Baccalaureate degree, I couldn’t escape the stigma of being just another dumb, ignorant jock. Fortunately, I had a teacher, Ms. Berman, who saw the potential I had and helped me identify my self-defeating ideology. She forced me to not only recognize and confront it, but to challenge it! No longer did I want to be seen in the same light as my peers who were drug dealers, gang bangers, or slackers. This was the first step in my life down a path of overcoming stereotypes, racial profiling, and discrimination; which continued on when I got to college.
At my university, I quickly realized I was just one out of a handful of black males on campus and I soon recognized just how privileged I was for even making it this far. I wanted to help others do the same, especially other young black males. I started being an advocate and a leader on campus and in the community. By simply being an example of someone who has overcome and persevered through many tribulations, I realized that I could inspire and show those who don’t believe it’s possible that they can do it too.
I feel that giving up is a luxury for the privileged and financially secure. I hope to get to a point where I can help others who come from a background similar to my own to succeed even further then I have. I’m often told I’m a miracle for having just made it this far but I refuse to stop now. I see becoming an attorney, and then eventually a policy-maker as my goal, and won’t accept anything short of reaching it. I realize now that my story is worth being told and it can be used to contribute to the community that feels like it doesn’t have much hope. It’s a burden that I feel privileged to carry.