About a third of high schoolers don’t graduate in Chicago, and I was almost one of them. When I became a freshman, I couldn’t afford the bus passes to get to school to attend classes, my grades started falling, I became depressed and my dreams disappeared in a sea of obstacles, can’ts and despair. My story is common. I’m the youngest of 7. Only two of us graduated.
At 6’2” basketball was my passion and my life. I was so skilled that one coach asked me to play with the boys. It was my passport to college and a better life from the tough poverty we grew up in. I dreamed of the day I would make my mother proud. In those dreams I saw her hugging me as she proudly hung my high school diploma on the wall. She played basketball too and she was so excited when she talked about me going to college and being in the WNBA.
The dream was never fulfilled. We lacked the money to buy the bus passes to get to school and I missed classes. The poor attendance made it hard to keep up especially in math. Failing grades came next and soon I was kicked off the basketball team. I sunk deeper into frustration and hopelessness. I felt like a failure. The biggest pain for me was knowing I would let my mother down. I felt like a drop out. And finally, I did. I gave up and dropped out of school joining tens of thousands of other African American kids who find their dreams sacrificed to the odds stacked against you if you are poor, Black and lost in the school system.
I do have a strong work ethic – the discipline of basketball. I got two retail jobs and started earning money to help my family. But I was miserable and I was afraid to even remember that I had goals of college and a different life. The emotions that kind of thinking produced were far too painful and depressing.
Then I received a lifeline in the Quantum Opportunities Program. Tutoring helped me catch up. We get homework help and all of us in the program work together to help each other. My amazing mentor Tracy encouraged me to go back to school. She gave me the confidence that I could do it. I could still recover my dreams from the ashes of impossibility. I was given the bus passes that I needed and sometimes she drives me to school herself. I remember looking at that simple little pass and thinking how it had caused so much turmoil and changed my life path. Tracy gets me through emotional struggles too, even coming to my house to help me work through personal issues and literally cry on her shoulder. I was introduced to a world outside of the often stifling confines of my neighborhood. They took us to movies, museums and other events that let us see there is a whole universe to explore. I used to think I had to do it all by myself but now I know there is help. We say “Quantum for life” and that makes me feel safe; if I stumble, the support will always be there.
I’m still working one job and will get my diploma next year. Yaaaaay! I feel my dreams coming back. I feel like I can do anything. Hopefully I can still play ball. The season was over when I got back in school, but I would love to be an assistant coach or get a job with the Chicago Bulls. If you’re listening Bulls, can I please get an internship? Most importantly it will put so much joy in my heart to see the smile on my mom’s face when I walk across that graduation stage because I know that her biggest dream is to see her children succeed.
When I look at the kids I grew up with, far too many of them could have achieved great things with a little help, but far too many left school, some even ending up in jail. I am one of the lucky ones. A program extended a hand to help me get up when I was down. I got it from here, but I would have been part of a sad statistic without that helping hand.
Erica Aviles is a 19 year old Chicago student. (Quantum Opportunities is run by the nonprofit K.L.E.O. [Keep Loving Each Other] organization, funded by Get IN Chicago and technically assisted by the Eisenhower Foundation.)