Make Me Smart

A poem for first generation college students

By Mark Sotelo
Published on LatinoLA: August 14, 2003

Make Me Smart

While playing with a digital camera on Olvera Street, I came upon this cork message board right next to the entrance of Our Lady Queen of Los Angeles Church, Los Angeles oldest church where, coincidently my brother, was baptized. On it were messages, bits of clothing, photographs, symbolic pins and emblems among other things. I found it to be a fascinating document about people's fears, loves and hopes.

One note in particular -- a small message on the left hand side of the image on this page -- caught both my eye and heart. It simply said "make me smart". As an older student, the first in my family to receive a degree or go to any college, I recalled the pressure, desire and discovery of being a first generation minority student who secretly wonders if he/she is smart enough, or blessed enough to do well in school.

I have taken literary license and inspiration from those small three words to say what so many young people or late bloomers, like myself, feel as we wander through the maze of college with little help, encouragement or knowledge of the intricate system of higher education, financial aid, loans and the burden of expectations that we place on ourselves

We hit the ground running and learn as we go without siblings or parents to tell us when we are on target or way off course because we are blazing a new trail in our family's name, going where many before us were told they could not. Then there is the schoolwork itself, but that's another story.

I dedicate this poem (if you can call it that) to all Latino students who are on this lonely but ultimately glorious -- well, at least till those loan repayments come due -- journey.


There I am
In an old apartment
In Pico Union
Staring into a schoolbook for an answer
At two in the morning
'Til the ink on the page begins to run together like black ribbons
Or gazing into the crystal ball of a second-hand monitor whose flicker burns my eyes
It's because I want something
A future

Maybe I am 17
And I know my childhood is ending
And I have to make plans
While my friends leave me alone
Calling me a bookworm or something far worse in Spanglish
With their new babies, old addictions and unintentional intention to stay
But I know something is ending for me

Maybe I am older
And I don't want to make $5.75 for the rest of my life
Not because I am ashamed,
There is none of that in me
But it's because being poor makes me feel tired
Right down to the very blood in my veins
And I want to live
Just a little bit
Before I die

So I sleepwalk in the American Technicolor of dreams
Though I no longer talk about it
When I did, everyone laughed
And said college was for other people
From other neighborhoods
Of other colors
Whose fathers are not gardeners
And whose mothers graduated high school
People who are
Not us
Not poor boy
Sometimes those people
Who say this
Are my family

Sometimes I think they are right
Maybe I can't do it
I cannot see the prize from here
I cannot see my own house
In which live my own children
Who will not worry
Like I had to worry
And still worry
I cannot imagine that walk
Across a podium to get a piece of paper
While that corny old grad music plays
For me
And then walking into a job interview
And saying "Yeah, I'm qualified"

And to not have to always worry about evictions, bills. Food stamps, seeing a doctor for my diabetes,
Selling cd's blood, junk
To make it
That's hard to see and feel
To not feel that knot in my stomach
That tells me I am almost poor enough to vanish from America like people always do
And almost no one notices
That lonely eviction from dreams to naked survival

But I think I might be wrong
Teachers tell me
Whisper in my ear
That I play too small
That I could become
Not what's left for me
But what I want to be
When I hear that
I feel like one of God's winged creatures

So I sit hear for hours
With these books
Or on this old, slow humming computer
Whose heart is about to stop beating
I give it my words, my brains
And some blood
And I believe in myself
Like a child does Santa Clause
Feeling something burning inside of me
That can only satisfied when I can say
I really tried
To become a man
With a future

I am so close, God
So very close

About Mark Sotelo:
Mark Sotelo is a writer for hire who would appreciate your
buisness, support or ideas about creative ways to cook Ramen and other bachelor food. He can be reached at: mlsotelo2002@yahoo.com

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