As it turns out, we all have a story…and this is mine…
My childhood was anything but kind. I am a descendant of Cuban immigrants, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. When I was 2 years old, my mom was hit by a drunk driver which placed her in a coma for quite some time. As a result, when she recovered, the traumatic event sparked a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This mental illness stole her life and much of mine as well. Her depressive states were filled with suicidal attempts, leaving me witness to sirens, ambulances and more hospital visits than one would ever care to endure. This illness left my family on welfare, bore us witness to upheavals in my parents’ marriage, and deemed physical and emotional abuse on my sister and me. At the age of 12 when my mother was only 33 years old, she died of Lithium poisoning. Five months later, my dad passed away at the age of 40 from a heart attack. As you can imagine, my world continued to spiral in ways that I still try to process to this day.
Unfortunately, the decision of where to live was left to me…yes, I was 12 years old. I lived from house to house with friends and family for short increments with suitcase in hand. Home was a thing of the past and conditional love was what I had to earn. I had to be “perfect” in order to be loved. And when I wasn’t, I withstood physical, emotional, and dare I say, even sexual abuse. I lost my sense of belonging. I lost my will. And I lost my voice. This experience silenced my thoughts, my opinions, and my joy.
I turned to the one thing I believed I could control…school. I remember riding the “L” train for hours so I could do my homework and study. It was something I didn’t have time for at “home” because of the chores I was required to do, but mostly because of the chaos that was going on almost daily in all these various homes. Somehow, in the midst of all this chaos, I got a job at Key Food because I wanted to pay for school events. Turns out my pay wasn’t used for school events, but rather rent to earn my stay. Still, I managed to get all A’s. When report cards came out, I sobbed with tears I thought would never dry. I realized I had nobody to show these grades, nobody that would even care. But I was wrong. Very wrong. Somebody noticed. My 9th grade biology teacher, Mr. Selig Shulman noticed me.
Mr. Shulman was literally an angel that came out of heaven and landed in my horrific life. This man slowly took his time to build me up. He had me start doing homework and study in his office after school hours until I was done, regardless of his professional and personal obligations. He introduced me to a school social worker and helped me become an Emancipated Minor with the state of New York. He introduced me to his wonderful family. He saw something in me I no longer saw in myself. He loved me. I was far from perfect in my teenage years, and yet, he loved me. He taught me that unconditional love still existed. He gave up a transfer to teach at a school nearer to his home because he refused to abandon me. Even writing this, of all the things he has done for me, this is the thing that most makes me cry. HE DID NOT ABANDON ME!!!! He gave me some semblance of belonging and a feeling of safety. He loved to take me to the Bronx Zoo where he would teach me about the various animals and at the same time teach me life lessons. He taught me to laugh again, to find a bit of joy in my days, and to start loving myself again. He helped me apply for college and helped move me in the dormitory. He was there when I graduated. Two years later, Mr. Shulman gave me away at my wedding and eventually became a grandfather to my two daughters. Mr. Shulman was my teacher and yet he became my father. He has since passed, and I was there until his last breath. I miss him terribly. I miss his advice and how he built me up. I know Mr. Shulman had a “one-way ticket to heaven” as we used to jokingly say, because of all he had done for me. How do you pay someone back when they raised you up as he did?…You pay it forward.
My purpose somehow found me. I knew I had to spend my life making children feel safe, feel happy, feel unconditionally loved. I had to give children their voice. So I became a Speech Language Pathologist. When I was working in the schools, many of the students needed to learn to say their sounds. Drill therapy is BORING!!!! I remember Mr. Shulman would always say, “If it’s not fun, stop doing it.” So I listened. Instead of drilling sounds, I created a “Speech Club” where the children put on a theatrical production, giving them the chance to engage with each other, move around the room, and mostly have fun as they were learning. I decided to take my experiences from the Bronx Zoo and create animals to represent the sounds the children needed to learn. A light bulb went off for them and for me. We no longer needed to learn the sound of “S”, but we did need to learn all about Miss Snake. We needed to slither around the room hissing. And if a student had difficulty doing this, and made the “TH” sound instead, we didn’t move to drill therapy. We became Theo the tree frog who sticks his tongue out when he catches flies to eat. We compared the animals, the sounds they made, and the movements they made as well. We created musical strategies to remember how to place our articulators for correct production of the target sound. We created a land where the animals lived. We had fun, and soon Junganew was born.
At times, I still struggle with a sense of belonging, a sense of self love. Neglect and abuse leave behind their residuals. But hope was given to me by one teacher. One person can make a difference and create a ripple effect to help so many others. My hope is that Junganew can help children everywhere to learn in a safe environment where there is respect, acceptance, and unconditional love. I get to teach children everywhere life lessons that were taught to me, amongst loving characters that remind me of the animals that I believe helped Mr. Shulman to “save” me. I get to help children learn and give them their voice to be heard in this world. I get to teach children that they matter because ALL children matter. And every time I see a smile or a laughter from any of these beautiful souls, it continues to heal another piece of me and bring to life the child that died so long ago.
Each and every child I have ever had the privilege to work with has been my gift and I am grateful for allowing me to pay it forward as my thank you to the teacher who gave me back my thoughts, my opinions, and my joy. God bless…