As a first-generation college student, my parents experienced the difficulties that most migrant families endure after journeying to the United States. They juggled multiple jobs to ensure that bills were paid on time. They worked late nights to afford groceries at the end of the week, and even took long commutes to rougher parts of New York City.
It wasn’t always an easy path. There were high expenses and countless obstacles along the way. Looking back, we could’ve easily given up, but we didn’t. My parents’ consistent work ethic and determination to help my family succeed made all of the difference. This was my very first lesson in grit, the power of passion and perseverance.
Another major lesson in grit arrived when I was 8 years old. At the time, I was attending P.S. 81 in Ridgewood, Queens. Our elementary school featured a melting pot of students from diverse cultures and contrasting communities, all bringing unique traditions to the school. Somehow, it all blended together. It simply worked.
At the heart of residential Ridgewood was my apartment, 1733 Green Avenue. Our neighbors, fellow migrants and workers, would gather the children every morning for their daily walk to school. It was a two-mile stretch, and I’d walk alongside Stephanie and Megan, my Puerto Rican-Ecuadorian neighbors who I had little in common with, but would soon befriend.
One Friday morning, we found ourselves power walking to class. It was time for the early morning presentation, usually a set of announcements from the PTA. Only this time, we were in for more than the standard announcements. A group waltzed in that would change the course of my path forever.
They called themselves “chocolatiers,” and presented boxes of mouth-watering flavors. Cherry, dark chocolate, and candies of all shapes and sizes. They told us there would be a school-wide competition for who could sell the most. And in return, we had a chance at winning toys from the never-ending booklet of prizes. It was every little kid’s dream.
I flipped through the book and landed on the grand prize: a spectacular CD player with a transparent blue sheen, the very first of its kind. It would take 25 boxes of chocolate sales to win it. For the rest of the day, my friends and I strategized how we would win it. We were willing to do whatever it took.
What we didn’t realize was that selling chocolates was hard. We attempted it all; singing on the train, creating jingles, going door-to-door. But it seemed as if no one had a dollar to spare for a chocolate bar. Slowly but surely, my friends abandoned their dreams of the blue CD player.
While my friends lost interest, I couldn’t let go of the dream. My mom accompanied me throughout Little Italy, Little Puerto Rico, and through the Barrio on my way home from school as I tried to sell little chocolate bars. Determined to make a sale, I learned the language of each place, and spoke to passers by in Italian, Polish, and Spanish. Time and time again, they would respond, “Sorry, kid. I got no money.”
All of this changed when I passed a neon sign reading SEND DINERO. Migrant workers and their families would bustle in and out of the place, sending their hard-earned pay back to
their families in Latin America. I held the door for people as they left, holding my box of chocolates, and asked if they’d like to buy some. Finally, it worked.
Soon I was selling 16 bars of chocolate per hour. At that rate, I could sell about a box of chocolates per day. I was a month away from selling my goal of 25 boxes. It was the dead of winter, and my fingers would turn blue from the cold, but I was determined to finish what I had started.
A few weeks later, I walked out of the principal’s office with a brand new CD player. I was the talk of the town, an 8-year-old star, and the only kid in my neighborhood with a gadget that played music.
When I speak with students, I always want to leave them with a key message. We don’t always have control over our circumstances, but continuing to work hard can bring us to places beyond our wildest dreams.