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I never 100% understood what “poor” meant. I always pictured poor as not having any money at all, or food, or not being able to have a home or clothes. It was little kids in commercials with their bones poking out and people in the street begging for money. When my family spoke of poverty, they’d refer back to El Salvador, the country in Central America that they immigrated from. They talked about war and starvation. I had a home, food, and clothes, so I never felt like I was missing anything.
But things kept nagging at me as I grew older. I remember one day where it was heavily raining and my mother and I were waiting at a bus stop. I was about eight, watching the cars whiz by, and I silently wondered why we couldn’t just jump in a car, drive it home, and leave it on the street for another family in need to take it wherever they wanted.
Wait, did eight year old me invent ZipCar? Shit. Anyway.
That was the first time I noticed that we didn’t have things that other people seemed to have, and it was like a switch had been turned on. I noticed that other kids had different clothes they wore each week, not the same four raggedy outfits on rotation like me. They also had different pairs of shoes, instead of just one old pair of tattered knock-off Converse from Santee Alley. Their moms stayed home a lot of the time, while my own mom cleaned houses and was always trying to sell crystal bowls or Avon makeup through catalogs. I saw other kids being picked up by their dads sometimes, while my dad was too busy because he worked two jobs.
I kept my opinions to myself. I knew better than to bring this up to my parents. I became suspicious of our situation every time I heard my parents fight about bills, but I figured that since they fought about everything it wasn’t that important. My mom took me to the W.I.C. office for low income women, infants, and children (get it? W.I.C.? Took me like ten years to figure out), but when I’d reach for a brochure to read more my mom would hand me crayons or pass me my prized GameBoy. After all, how could a poor girl have a GameBoy? I’d squint my eyes when my mom paid for our food with stamps instead of bills, but she’d buy me cookies so I wouldn’t antagonize her.
But it kept nagging at me. Every time they asked me to be quiet when the rent lady came by, I’d whisper “why?” and my parents would just ignore me. I’d stare at my dolls from the 99 Cent Store with narrowed eyes, quietly noting that they looked nothing like the ones from Toys R Us that my friends had. I didn’t particularly care; dolls were dolls, after all. I did, however, hate the feeling that something was being hidden from me.
“Mr. Marquez, am I poor?”
He stared at me. He was my kindergarten teacher, the first person who had noticed my intellectual curiosity and had taken me under his wing. He had me act as a student teacher’s aide during my breaks, a little eight year old helping out with the five year olds. At the time I thought I was a bigshot responsible cool grownup kid, and looking back now I know he wanted to keep me off the streets, keep me intellectually stimulated, teach me the value of responsibility, and maybe turn me into a mini teacher. Now that I’m older, I’m not even sure the whole “third grader hanging out with kindergarteners every school break” thing was 100% allowed.
He turned to me, his brows raised while pouring soy sauce over his noodles. We were having lunch between the morning and afternoon class of kindergarteners, and he had brought me some noodles as well. He’d been teaching me to eat with chopsticks and I was picking at my food, slowly eating one noodle at a time.
I remember he gave it to me straight. He told me that yes, I lived in an economically disadvantaged area. That my family was from El Salvador, and they were immigrants here, and we didn’t have much. I remember he smiled and said “The only country named after Our Savior,” which greatly surprised me because I never realized he was religious. He told me I was smart, and right now I was a big fish in a little pond. And he told me my parents cared more than most parents he saw. He said someday I’d go to college, and I’d be a big fish in a bigger pond, but I would know enough at that point to keep up. I told him my aunt said college was for rich kids, and he asked me what my parents said. I told him they thought I was smart enough for a scholarship. “Then listen to them,” he said. I can vividly remember him scooping a noodle into his mouth as he leaned back in his chair and said with a smile, “go out and get one. If you try, you will. Eat your noodles.” I ate my noodles and that was that. This is why I loved him; he never talked down to me. My parents wanted to protect me so badly that they’d always tell me, “Don’t worry baby, we’re always here to take care of you” while Mr. Marquez was the one who spoke to me like I was person with my own thoughts and concerns, even when I was a kid. That’s why he was a great educator.
Mr. Marquez passed away when I was 12. I remember my parents telling me after I’d finished a dance recital at my new school, a public performing arts middle school in Hollywood. They said they hadn’t told me before because they wanted me to not have this in my head during the recital, but he’d passed away about a week before. I locked myself in the bathroom and slumped against it, hyperventilating. His funeral had already happened in the East Coast where he was from. Last time I’d seen him was about a year ago and he’d ask me if I’d come back to volunteer now that I was a middle school kid. I told him it was harder now that I was on a traditional August-June schedule, but maybe. I was swamped what with my dance classes, theater classes, and rigorous academic schedule. I remember him being ecstatic that my mom had found performing arts classes for $5 a month, and commending her on her parenting while my 6 year old sister stood near us, herself now in his kindergarten class, chewing on her fingers and tugging at his sleeve.
My mother took me to his memorial a few days later. She had her own car now, and I sat in it while she pulled over and bought some flowers. I listened to oldies radio and chewed on my inner cheeks. “Only you can make this world seem right, only you can make the darkness bright-” I turned off the radio and pulled my sweater over my face.
We arrived at his house. It was a house. A sizable property in a nice LA neighborhood, tastefully decorated and full of people who loved him. I realized Mr. Marquez had money, enough money to not teach in such a poor area of Los Angeles. I saw a wall of his house covered from ceiling to floor in drawings made by kids he taught. His friends had made a Scrabble board to memorialize him and it included the words teacher, friend, love. He did it because he loved it, and in turn he was loved.
I met his brothers and they told me they’d heard of me, asking me about my theater classes. They told me things I didn’t know, like his love for Will and Grace, and they all went “Just Jack!” in unison as I giggled through my tears. They mentioned my first grade teacher who was in fact a very close friend of Mr. Marquez, something I hadn’t realized. Later, when I was applying to college a whole 12 years after I’d first met this man who changed my life, she would be the one to guide me through the process and make sure I achieved that dream. She saw it through, for him and for me.
Mr. Marquez knew enough about me and my life when I was a kid to tell me straight up that yes, I was poor. But he saw a kid who needed help, and who needed to be challenged to reach her potential. He knew my parents were sweet but they coddled me too much, and he knew I needed to learn more about the world. He took it upon himself when he didn’t have to, and he taught me from an early age that the world isn’t rosy but that I was smart enough to equip myself to accomplish anything. I was a kid in knockoff rags, but Mr. Marquez saw through that, and now it was my job to make sure the rest of the world saw it too. He changed my life.
I wish he was here, and I wish I could thank him. I wish he could see that it’s legal for him to marry in California now. I wish he could see that my dreams came true and I am a nice big fat fish. I wish he could see the Will & Grace revival.
One person can make a great difference in someone else’s life, and I’m eternally grateful that he chose me.