The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Hiding My Talent No More
Jesselin Rodriguez

When I was in elementary school, doing well in school was the only thing that mattered to me. I always thought that being the smartest meant being the best.

I got this idea because when my family used to ask me if I had done my homework and I told them “yes,” they would say, “What a good little girl!” Every time they said something like that, it would go straight to my head. It made me feel like I was number one.

In my elementary school, a lot of kids seemed to share my attitude. It was common to see kids always wanting to do their best so that they could be teacher’s pet. I would sometimes hear a teacher say to someone else, “Oh, this is so wonderful, you’re the best student in the class, I’ve never had a problem with you.” I wanted to hear a teacher say those things to me, too.

When I got to junior high school, this all changed. The mood and the atmosphere of the school were totally different from what I was used to. I saw kids walking in and out of the building like nothing, hanging out in the auditorium when they did not belong there, and even screaming at teachers. There was a fight almost every day. No one seemed to care about their classes.

In that environment, you looked crazy if you were doing any work. The important thing was to have friends. If you didn’t have any friends, then you were nothing. You would get picked on, cursed out in the hallways, and if you were to have a fight it would never be one-on-one. I decided schoolwork wasn’t going to be my top priority anymore. Instead, I made it a point to have friends.

Instead of always going to class and doing my homework, like I had in elementary school, I got into a new routine. I started thinking of school as a playground. It was like I could do anything there—cut class, write on the walls, hide in the bathrooms—and nobody would know about it because there were so many kids in that school.

When I did go to class, I’d walk in 20 minutes late, sit with a friend, and talk the rest of the period away. When the teachers would ask me why I was late, I’d tell them that I was in the bathroom or that I was talking to another teacher about something. They wouldn’t really bother me after that.

This doesn’t mean that I never did any work. I did just enough to pass. But I never let my friends find out. On the days when I did my homework, I used to wait until after the class to give it to the teacher so my friends wouldn’t see. If they knew, I was sure they would give me a hard time. They would be like, “What are you doing the work for? What, you think you’re better than us?”

I’ve always cared about what other people thought. In elementary school I was liked and respected for being smart and always doing my work—not just by my family and the teachers, but by the other kids too. But in junior high, I thought my classmates would like me better if I acted more like them—lazy and not caring about anything except going home to watch TV.

After pretending to be lazy for a while, I started to actually get lazy. By January of 6th grade, I hated school. I hated the fact that I had to get up so early. I hated to do my homework. After class, I just wanted to go to my bed and sleep or watch TV. The less work I did, the harder it got to do any work at all.

A lot of my teachers said that I had the potential to get high marks if I spent more time in class and got rid of my friends. But I didn’t listen. I thought that they were just saying that. I didn’t think that they really cared. When I brought my report card home, my mom would say, “I know you can do better; next time I want this to be higher.” I didn’t listen to her either.

Then something happened. My class was divided up. The kids with the worst behavior and grades, including most of my friends, were sent to a different building. Since I didn’t have my crew to do things with anymore, I felt I had two choices—I could either not go to school at all, or I could start doing my work.

I knew my mother would kill me if she ever heard me say anything about not going to school. So I started to go to class every day and began to do my homework on a more regular basis. My teachers were happy and, inside, so was I.

image by Julio Juarez

By the time I was in 8th grade (my last year in junior high), I had worked my way up to a ‘B’ average. I still felt that I could do better, but I didn’t want to get higher grades than most of the people in my class. I thought that they would get mad at me and be like, “Oh, now she thinks that she’s smarter than me.”

Then came 9th grade and a big reality check. I had thought that high school was going be the same as junior high, only more so—a bigger playground to roam in. I was wrong. Even though most of the kids were the same, the atmosphere was very different.

You see, my high school had been closed and several new, smaller schools had been started to replace it. My new school was so small that there were only about 50 students in the whole place. There was no chance to run around because every teacher knew who you were and where you were supposed to be every minute of the day.

My teachers knew that I was smart and saw right through my front of acting like I didn’t care. Still, I thought that as long as I handed in a couple of pieces of work where I did my best, they would be satisfied and not bother me all the time. But they wouldn’t leave me alone. For my whole freshman year, I was constantly told that I could do better. It just went in one ear and came out the other.

Then, over the summer, I was talking to a friend of mine who was in college. My friend started telling me that there was no way I would get a scholarship the way I was going. Then he told me that I should probably just forget about college because it seemed like I would never even be able to finish high school if I was so lazy.

He put so much fear in me that I spent the rest of that summer thinking about what he said. It was the same thing my teachers had been telling me for years. It finally started to sink in. For a long time, it had been my dream to be the first one in my family to graduate from high school and go to college. Now I realized that I was going to have to work to make that dream come true.

A week before school started, I promised myself that I was going to bring my grades up till they could not get any higher. And that’s exactly what I did.

For my whole 10th grade year, I did nothing but work. I used to be in school from 8:00 in the morning until 5:30 or 6 in the evening. I did so well that most people were like, “I knew you had it in you, but I didn’t realize how much.”

I was staying after school so much that my adviser started to worry about me. The principal even started kicking me out because I was there really late practically every day. (I could never figure out why they were complaining about my staying after school. I thought that was a good thing.)

Breaking my lazy habits wasn’t easy. In fact, I think it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to get used to doing my homework every night, not just when I felt like it. And I had to make a lot of sacrifices. I could not sit home and watch TV all day. I hardly listened to the radio.

And I didn’t see a lot of my old friends outside of school. Every time they’d say, “Jesse, let’s go downtown so I can go buy this shirt,” or, “Let’s go downtown and just chill,” I was always saying, “No, I can’t, I have to stay after school and finish my work.”

I’ve made a lot of new friends since junior high and I think they’re part of the reason why I’ve been able to change. Because of them, I don’t worry so much anymore about what other people will think of me if I get good marks. They accept me the way I am. If they don’t see me studying, they will be like, “Why aren’t you doing any work? That’s not like you. You better hurry up, this is due Friday.” That makes me feel good. Because they really care, they want to see me work.

So, here I am, a junior almost ready for college—not at all ashamed of how bright I am, and not caring who knows it. It feels like that good girl I once had inside me has come back.

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