Monday, December 13, 2010

"Fighting for the RIGHT to go to college!"

By Taina Wagnac

“It’s my life ok, not yours. I should be the one making this decision,” I said.

“You’re still a kid! You don’t know what you’re doing,” yelled my aunt as she waved the acceptance letter from the University at Albany in the air. “Do you even know how far away this school is?”

“Yes, it’s at least three hours away,” I responded angrily.

“Three hours? You’ll have to live on campus. Soon enough, you’ll be going to parties, drinking and even smoking,” she said. “You’re not going and that’s that.”

“Oh my God, you’re so fucking stupid!!” I screamed at her. “Not every college student smokes or drinks. Besides you’re not my mother. You have no say in this.”

I never saw it coming. One second I was standing before my aunt and the next, my head snapped back and a jarring pain flared on my right cheek. I fell down on the carpeted floor with hot tears rolling off my cheeks. My aunt stood before me, her fingers clutched angrily, fuming.

“Six years. For six years, I treated and loved you as if you were my very own daughter. I gave you everything that you needed and this is the thanks I get?” My aunt's eyes were on fire. “I ought to hit your head against the wall, snapping some sense into you.”

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime and I won’t let you ruin it for me!” I sobbed. In a quick movement, I got off the floor, grabbed my keys from the end table and ran out of the house. Blindly, I ran down the streets; drivers honked and swerved their cars to avoid running me over. But I did not care for my safety. I only cared about getting as far away as I could from that house.

Soon I found myself standing in front of my safe house, the public library. With trembling hands, I opened the double doors and entered the air-conditioned room. I walked down to the fiction section, running my fingers down the spine of each book as I walked by. Memories flowed from my fingertips to my brain; battles, adventures, new worlds and new people flashed before my eyes. At the end of the row, my hand wrapped around a single book and I pulled it down.

I sat down on the floor, clutched the book, Black Boy, to my chest and rocked back and forth. I willed Richard Wright to transport me from my life to his. I wanted to walk with him to his school or travel north and work at a prestigious hotel as a porter. I wanted to fall in love and protest for my rights. I wanted to “…tramp with a gang into the woods, to rivers, to creeks…” (Wright, 127). I willed the words to take shape and become my life and a part of me. But nothing happened. I remained the same person, unable to make my own decisions.


For years, my family made every decision for me, from the clothes I wore to what I bought. But when it came to my education, I wanted to be the one making the decision. My family should have been happy for me. I had been accepted at a good school where I would be paying less than what the other schools demanded. I was the first generation in my family to graduate from high school and the first to attend college.

But the family wasn't happy. They wanted me to remain home and attend LaGuardia Community College. They wanted to map out my future just like they had done for the past few years. But enough was enough.

I wanted my freedom. I aspire to be as courageous and determined as Richard Wright. I remember reading Black Boy how Richard defied his grandmother. He wanted to work so that that he could afford decent clothes and school books. His grandmother, “…an ardent member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church,” did not want him to work on Saturdays. But Richard was determined; he threatened to move out of the house and search for a job. He didn’t care that he had no money and nowhere to go. He held his ground and I admired him.

And now I was holding my ground.


A gentle hand rested on my shoulder and I opened my eyes. I found myself staring into the eyes of my sixteen-year old cousin. He sat down beside me with a grunt and softly nudged my foot.

“I knew I’d find you here,” said my cousin. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What does it look like?” I snapped.

“Weren’t you the one always telling me to stop acting like a child?”

“You’re not making any sense, Tom.”

“Look,” Tom said, taking a deep breath. “So, you didn’t get what you wanted. There’s no need to throw a tantrum.”

“A tantrum? For God's sake Tom, she’s keeping me from going to my dream school,” I said, getting up on my feet. “I can’t let her destroy my life.”

Tom grabbed my arm and pulled me back down to the floor.

“Do you even know why she’s so upset?” he asked and I shook my head no. “It’s because she’s scared, Taina.”

“She’s scared? Why is she scared?” I asked. “I’m the one who would be living in a completely different environment with different people and professors. I’m the one who’s going to be all alone with no one to help me. Not her.”

“She’s just scared. Mom is afraid that you won’t do so well in college and she doesn’t want you to go into the world all alone. She’s also afraid that you’ll get hurt and she won’t be there to help you." He got up on his feet and started brushing lint off his pants. “I think you should go talk to her.”

“So she can hit me again?”

“Not if you watch your mouth. You should at least reason with her and explain to her that this is a good opportunity. So come on.”

Tom grabbed my arm and yanked me to my feet. He tore the book from my prying hands and placed it on a table. Together, we walked out of the library and out into the street.


The minute I caught sight of my house, my whole body tensed up; I could not move. I did not want to go home for fear that my aunt would beat me up again. As I begged my cousin to let me go back to the public library, I began to think of Richard Wright. I remembered how he would dodge his mother, his grandmother and father. He even went so far as to “…crawl under the house…into a dark hollow of a brick chimney…” (Wright, 5). He did this just so he would avoid getting beaten. But I was no longer ten years old. I was an adult and as an adult, I decided that I had to accept the consequences of my actions.

With my head held high, I walked to the front door, grabbed hold of the cold doorknob and swung the door open.


My aunt was in the kitchen. She had her back to me and was busy washing the dirty dishes. I stood in the doorway of the kitchen. I watched as she wiped grease off each plate. I stared at the hand that had imprinted itself on my face three hours before. To ease my nerves, I took a deep breath and opened my mouth.

“Ma tante, auntie, I need to talk to you,” I said shakily.

“You have a lot of nerve coming back here after what you said to me,” she said coldly.

“You have every reason to be angry with me,” I said. “My behavior toward you was inexcusable and I apologize.” I waited for her to respond but she did not turn around and continued to wash the dishes.

“I know that Albany is a long distance away from home but it is the only school that offered me a lot of money. With mom in the hospital and the medical bills piling up, we won’t have enough money to pay for the tuition.”

“You don’t have to go to a four-year school. You could go to a community college. Nothing’s wrong with community colleges. The professors there teach the same lessons as the professors in those big, private fancy universities.”

“I never said there was something wrong with attending a community college,” I said shaking my head. “But there’s no way in hell I’m going. I have worked too hard not to go to a really good school. I am valedictorian of my school, auntie. It’s not easy being number one. It took time, energy and determination for me to end up where I am. A student with grades as high as mine would attend an Ivy League school, if she had the money, not a community college. You believed in me when others didn’t. Please, don’t stop now.”

“I still believe in you and always will. I just don’t want you living away from home and on campus for that matter. You’re still too young.”

“There’s nothing wrong with living on campus. It’s the college experience and I want it. By living away from you, and from grandma, I will learn to make my own decisions and to become independent. You’re always telling me to stop acting like a child and to start accepting responsibility. This is my chance to prove to you that I am an adult.”

“Each day," my aunt responded, "the women down at the hospital tell me stories of children, good children, who left home to go live on campus. Within a couple months, they have changed into new people. They have started drinking, going parties, and they have stopped going classes. I don’t want that to be you, Taina.”

“That will never be me,” I said reassuringly. I walked toward my aunt and gently placed my hand on her shoulder. I waited for her to remove my hand from her shoulder but she did no such thing. “I have plans of becoming a lawyer and starting my own practice and I have no intention of messing them up. You have nothing to worry about.”

“It’s just that we, me and your mother, placed all of our hopes and dreams in you,” said my aunt softly. “You have a bright future ahead of you, something that none of the women in this family have ever had. We were always busy cooking, cleaning the house, and taking care of the family. We did have dreams to become great women of society but we didn’t have the money or the time to go to school. But you have the opportunity to, one day, become someone great.”


I stood in the kitchen staring at my aunt. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about running upstairs to my room and packing my stuff. But where would I go? With no money, I would have no choice but to live in the streets and beg for money.

The University at Albany was to me what the North was to Richard Wright. It was more than just a school; it was a place where anything was possible. Richard and I both had “…this notion of doing something in the future, of going away from home and accomplishing something that would be recognized by others…” (Wright, 168). We wanted to be something great and we were stubborn.

“I’m sorry but I can’t let you go,” my aunt sadly.

“No,” I said shaking my head. “There’s a mandatory summer program at Albany and as an EOP student, I am required to go. It takes place starting July 5th and I have every intention of going. I’m sorry that you feel this way but this is an opportunity of a lifetime. I hope you understand.”

With that, I exited the kitchen and went to my room.


I didn’t leave home. For several weeks, my aunt treated me like a total stranger. She still fed and cared for me but our relationship was strained. She no longer considered me to be her daughter. Two weeks before I had to leave for the Educational Opportunities (EOP) summer program, I was in my room packing my suitcase. Although my cousin had given me some money to buy the things I needed, it wasn’t enough. I was still missing some things and didn’t want to go to Albany without any money.

That night, my aunt came inside my room.

“You really are leaving,” she said softly.

“Yes,” I replied. “I am.”

“Is everything ready?”

“No, there are some things that I need.”

“How about we go shopping tomorrow morning?” she asked.


“I’m not happy that you’re going to be living on a campus but I love you and I want to offer you my full support.”

Suddenly, her eyes flooded with tears and they began to roll down her cheeks. I quickly got off my bed and hugged her. For several minutes, we stood this way, our arms wrapped around each other, crying silently.

“I want you to promise me something,” my aunt said, wiping away my tears.

“Anything,” I choked.

“I want you to do the best that you can possibly do in Albany. I want you to show the world that Haitians are intelligent and that we have a bright future before us. Promise me that you will remain the same sweet girl that I’ve come to love. I also want you to remember that I will always be there for you, no matter what.”

Taina Wagnac, who was born in Haiti, is currently a freshman at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Taina, who is part of the University's Educational Opportunities Program, which caters to economically-disadvantaged students, is an outstanding student. She earned the highest grade in her freshman literature class this semester. "Fighting for the Right to Go to College," is an edited version of her final story for that class. Congratulation Taina, on an amazing semester! You have a very bright future as a writer!

1 comment:

Lori Cullen said...

I love this story, Taina! Just yesterday I was talking to a high school sophomore who is an amazing student and will also be the first in her family to go to college. Being first is often a difficult and lonely place, but never-the-less a good place to be. Cheers!