‘As a kid, I hated being black’: Student overcomes addiction, poverty, ADHD and mental illness to excel, attend HARVARD

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“This is a story of failure but not failure per se. It is a story of failing forward. It is a story of maintaining the audacity to hope what one envisions will one day be. I share this story if only to inspire someone facing some of the same struggles I faced.

From 1st grade to 8th grade, I lived in Pomona, CA. My dad was a truck driver and my mom was a social worker and nurse.

Courtesy Matthew lyskawa

I am one of five children and the only black member in my all-white family; I am the product of an affair. Initially, we lived in Ontario but moved to Pomona after being approved for Section 8 housing. Governmental assistance, federal day-care and a deteriorating home were common features of my childhood. There was always food on the table and a roof over our head but that came at the expense of my parents working countless hours and, sometimes, multiple jobs. My parents lives consisted of work, sleep, and paying bills. The latter of which sometimes did not happen. I can remember my mom essentially begging the water/electric company not to turn off our water or electricity and that the bill would be paid at the end of the week. We also had several cars repossessed.

I was diagnosed with ADHD around third grade. I was prescribed Ritalin. I didn’t like it, however, because it made everything seem grey and lifeless.

Courtesy Matthew lyskawa

Granted, it helped me focus, but it made me feel… nothing. I was given Ritalin because of my restlessness and inability to focus in class. Looking back, I think the reason I was restless was because of my constant boredom. I found class material easy, so, I would lose interest half way through a lesson and start distracting other students.

Another reason for the medication was the bad behavior I displayed in school. I bullied, fought, cussed out teachers and received suspensions galore. One time I lost my recess for a month for cussing out one of my teachers. Rather than ADHD, I think the best explanation of my bad behavior was the troubled home I lived in.

My brother was diagnosed with bipolar at a young age. His mental illness would manifest itself in slur-filled outbursts towards whomever he was angry at; which was often me. ‘N*gger’ and ‘slave’ were the names he gave me. I was called these names so often, that I would actually notice when a day went by wherein I was not called these names. Further, my sisters were ‘bitches’, ‘sluts’, ‘whores’, and ‘fatties.’ These outbursts continued until I left for the University of Rochester.

Courtesy Matthew lyskawa

As a kid, I hated being black. I saw it as the cause of my suffering. I was nothing more than a ‘slave’ and ‘n*gger.’I felt like a house slave. And slaves aren’t educated, so why should I try to learn in school? Why should I learn geometry when I would just go home and be reminded of how worthless I was?

For a large portion of my life I wondered why my parents didn’t do more, why didn’t they surrender my brother to the state? Why did my brother hate blacks? Now I am aware that surrendering kids to the state only exacerbates their mental illness. The kids who are surrendered are often abused. I also came to the realization that it was mental illness that destroyed my childhood, not racism. Part of my brother’s mental illness is fixation which is to say if he knew a particular name or expression would elicit a response from you, he would say such things to you anytime he had an outburst. ‘N*****’ and ‘slave’ elicited a response from me. I also understand that, while my parents knew what was happening, poverty does not afford low income parents the opportunity to adequately deal with mental illness. Fighting off poverty is a full-time job, particularly when parents have multiple kids. Mental illness is an obstacle to survival; therefore, it is either ignored or delegated to a doctor.

The low-income parent often ignores mental illness by conceptualizing it as a weakness, a part of themselves that is not strong enough to help them win this battle for survival. Thus they tell themselves or their kids to ‘be a man’, ‘suck it up’, ‘you are just sad’, or ‘you need to be tougher.’ The mental illness does not die, however, it worsens resulting in psychological break downs or suicide; and even then, the story told will be that the parent or kid broke down or killed themselves because they weren’t strong enough.

Or the parent attempts to deal with the mental illness by sending themselves or their kid to the doctor who medicates first and treats second. Medication is thrown at the problem until the problematic feeling is gone but it is replaced by a far worse, yet possibly subtler issue. This is the route my parents took, and the consequences were almost fatal.

Around 8th grade, my parents started making slightly more money which caused them not to qualify for Section 8 housing anymore. At this time, our Pomona landlord began raising rent, so we moved to Glendora (we lived on the Glendora/Azusa border). During the move, I started to abuse Ritalin. Reality was too bleak to bare, and sedation provided a momentary escape. I was prescribed 4 Ritalin a day, but some days I would take 13-15; 10-11 was a normal amount on any given day. Initially, the side effects were mild such as insomnia, headaches and night terrors and only occurred while on a pill. But eventually I began to hear voices and experience acute paranoia, these occurred even while not on the pill. One time while at church and while I was high, I had to call a pastor out of the service to pray over me because I thought I was being possessed. At times, I would be so paranoid that I would be possessed or thought someone was trying to kill me.

Courtesy Matthew lyskawa

I would not be able to sleep for four days straight. The voices and paranoia started around 9th grade and ended when I got off Ritalin in 11th grade.

I began high school at Azusa and immediately did poorly. I ditched often, failed courses, cussed out teachers, and was suspended frequently. What became more apparent to me in high school was how most of my teachers did not care about the education of their students. The expectations were also low for the students: so long as they graduated, were not in jail, or slanging, then they were a success. College was scarcely talked about, and when it was, there didn’t seem to be any genuine belief that the students would actually make it there. Priority also seemed to be given to getting through class material and not so much educating students. Schooling is what mostly occurs in low income schools, not so much education.

Because of my behavioral and academic issues, I was removed from Azusa and sent to Sierra High School for my junior year. At Sierra, neither my grades nor my behavior improved. I was caught ditching a few times, the police had to take me to school in the morning because i refused to go and the problems with my brother persisted. Insofar as Ritalin was concerned I was not doing well. As a junior, I was close to destroying my mind, at least that’s what it felt like. From wake up to shut eye I was experiencing paranoia. I couldn’t even be alone in a room because I would think that something, somehow would happen to me. The realization that I was destroying my mind was a major part of why I quit Ritalin.

I wanted to stay at Sierra for my senior year, but I don’t think the administration wanted that (my mom, more or less, hinted at that) nor did Azusa want me. So, I went to Gladstone High School.

It was at Gladstone that my life changed. I would finish my work early in Sheryce Long’s class and begin disrupting students or playing on my phone. She eventually gave me an ultimatum: read books when I finished my work or leave the class. I needed the class to graduate so I opted for the former. The first books she gave me were Kaffir Boy, A Long Way Gone, and Life on the Color Line. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I fell in love with reading. It was the first time I felt challenged academically. And Long seemed to genuinely care about my education. I would come talk to her about the books and she would engage in discussion with me. She kept feeding me books and I kept consuming them. I decided that I needed to go to college because I had to keep learning.

I remember that as a senior I was obsessed with the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. I used to tell Long that I would end up there one day and she believed me. I will never forget one time she told me, ‘If any of my students could end up at Wharton, it is you.’ When she said this she was fully aware of my past academic and behavioral issues. Before Long, I never felt like a teacher believed in me. I will never forget what her saying that meant to me. I am not even sure she knows what that meant to me.

My obsession with Wharton was short lived, however. I eventually discovered philosophy and knew that was what I wanted to study. I graduated high school with a 1.83 GPA, 10 F’s, 4 A’s and no SAT/ACT’s. I enrolled in Mt. Sac with the intent of transferring.

During my first semester at Mt. Sac I knew I needed a goal to strive for. So, I set my sights on Harvard. I knew almost nothing about the school, except that a lot of famous people went there and it was a top college. When I would tell my mom and dad about my desire to go to Harvard, they believed I would make it. There was never a time in my life that I can say my parents stopped believing I would one day make them proud.

In 2015, after attaining a 3.48 GPA at Mt. Sac, I transferred to the University of Rochester. At Rochester, I did four independent research projects, one of which was as a McNair Scholar, and another at a summer research institute at the University of Arizona. When I applied to graduate school I had 6 available recommenders and I was accepted into Ph.D programs at UC Berkeley Law, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and Harvard. I chose Harvard. This May I will become the first in my family to graduate from college. I will graduate magna cum laude (3.86).

Courtesy Matthew lyskawa

It is possible to fail forward. It is possible for one’s journey to Harvard to be characterized by failure. I think one difference between those who fail forward and those who fail simply is the former has the audacity to hope what they envision will one day be and the latter doesn’t. It was partly because I was stupid enough to believe I would be at Harvard one day that I actually got there. But another difference is that the former is lucky, and the latter is not. I am here today because I had a teacher who believed in me. Many students do not have teachers like that which leads me to wonder how many other students from low income schools would be in my position had they had teachers who cared.

There are many students who are similar to how I was: they are failing courses and cussing out teachers. Everything seems to suggest they will never amount to anything. I think that student will end up at Harvard. I think that student will graduate magna cum laude from a top university. I think that student will be the first in their family to graduate from college. I believe that student will make it.”

Courtesy Matthew lyskawa

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by  Matthew Lyskawa of Glendora, California. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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