It was a Wednesday morning of the year 2015, when the usual announcement sounded on the rusty speaker in my daily 5th grade life.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen … raise your right hand over your heart … ready, begin,” was the usual morning routine.
It was spirit week, something I was always excited about. As I was about to drink my daily milk, I stopped my hand holding the milk because I heard something I hadn’t heard before. I thought I misheard, because there was the usual group of students talking and laughing with one another and screaming at games on their phone.
That’s when the teacher got up from her desk and wrote on the white board, “Friday: Wear your college shirt,” with a blue marker.
I looked at the words thinking about them. Where would a nine year old want to go? The answer was easy for me, my ambitions were set when I was five. “Of course, Harvard University, duh,” I thought to myself.
I never even thought of my dream job or anything which was something to be worried about but I didn’t care. I just imagined the diploma in my hands in 2027 when I was going to graduate. When I was on my way home on the usual back seat, I realized something. “Wait hold up, where am I going to get a Harvard shirt!?” I thought with exasperation.
I never thought of how poor I was in this new country until that day. My dad spent his youth working in the dark factories where the freezing night air warped him up like an itchy sweater on a Christmas Eve. I would never get to tell him how my day went like the other kids who would tell their dads what they would want to do with a delighted smile on their faces, much less ask him to go to the store during the day and waste his precious sleeping time. But my own persistence was cooking me up in an oven, I really wanted to do something.
So that day as I was doing my homework, I went to the back of my notebook and ripped out a blank page and started cutting. The scissors were red and smelled like old metal as they had fallen into the damp floor the day before. I cut out a “H” which was the same height as my thumb.
I was embarrassed of my own background. Embarrassed by the fact that the “H” meant Honduras to some and Harvard to others. Embarrassed by the fact that I couldn’t buy a single shirt like the other kids.
I glued the fragile letter to my chest with both despair at my own background and fondness of my quick-thinking. The paper figure was fragile and could rip at any moment. It was a mixed feeling of shame and astonishment at my actions.
I colored the “H” red and took it to school that Friday. At the same time, I couldn’t believe I was being so dramatic over a simple thing.
No one noticed my shirt throughout the day but as soon as we lined up for lunch my teacher looked at it and became curious. She had been talking to her teacher friend and was now walking around with loud steps, making attendance.
She was looking and admiring other student’s shirts when she stopped in front of me and looked at mine. “What does that represent?” she asked, pointing at the “H.”
I was inspired to place a letter there after seeing her USC college shirt. “Oh, I wanna go to Harvard University,” I said.
She looked at me shocked and then asked, “Why didn’t you buy a shirt?” and I replied, “I couldn’t.” I looked directly at her eyes wanting to show her my thoughts as if with telepathy.
“Oh,” she said, kind of understanding my situation. Just looking at my shoes, one could tell that my family’s financial status is impecunious. She continued to take attendance and then made a call.
Later on that day, my teacher called me. She had talked it out with her fellow friends and one who was the principal who had attended Harvard.
I was amazed. It’s not everyday that you meet a Harvard graduate. She gave me two pencils and a shirt and said, ”Ms. Bernal gave me this to give to you, I notice you didn’t want to tell me why you couldn’t buy one but the one thing I want you to keep in mind is don’t be afraid to share your story. You might want to draw back because it’s personal now, but I hope one day you can open up about it.”
She then told me she had come from a similar background like me. Her mom worked three jobs just so that she could finish college.
Years later, I now hold my pencils with optimism and share my story with pride.