When Violence Is Your Normal

This post originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub.

I never realized I was different until I got to Yale. I thought my life experiences were normal — that everybody had to face adversity and overcome challenges. Most people did in their own ways, but then I realized their struggles weren’t like mine. Their struggles weren’t matters of life and death. Their struggles didn’t pose any threat to their physical body. I guess it was because they weren’t from Oakland, California.

Oakland has a long history of dealing with violence, and so have I. I was born to two loving parents, one with scars from multiple gunshot wounds after being shot on the streets of East Palo Alto. Even their love couldn’t shield me from the dangers of our neighborhood.

I was seven years old when, while riding my bike in the street in front of my house, I heard the shots ring out. I saw the men run out of the house, the tires screech off, and seconds later, heard the screams. I witnessed my neighbor’s murder that day, and it has never left my head.

At eight years old, a similar scene: I woke up on a normal school day to some commotion outside of the house. As my brothers and I cleared the condensation from our bedroom window, we saw our neighbor running for help, suffering from a stab wound to the neck, blood gushing onto the street. We opened our door to him. We wrapped his neck and called an ambulance. On this day, we saved a life.

At 15 years old now, on a Sunday afternoon, I get a call from my parents saying my brother is in trouble. They told me not to panic. My brother went to prison that day. He didn’t get released until I was 19. I went four years without being able to see my biggest role model, my best friend, my keeper. I spent the bulk of those four years thinking about how I could get our family to a place where my brother never felt the need to commit a crime again.

At 16 years old, my brother was out on bail. I got a call from my godsister, crying, struggling to get the words out. My brother had been shot in front of her house, alongside her big brother and two other family members. Luckily he lived. I think of what could have happened to me — I was supposed to be with them that day. I was in that same place with them the day before. But I had an essay to write — an essay that may have saved my life.

Through it all, I somehow still prospered. I always viewed education as my way out. School was where I felt I belonged, and I wouldn’t let anybody taking that away from me. I knew why my brother was shot. I knew I was at risk too. But I never took a day off from school. I was there with perfect attendance and straight As, graduating with a 5.0 GPA and heading to Yale.

When I got to New Haven, I realized my life was truly different. Practically everybody I knew in Oakland had a family member who had been killed, or at least shot. Everybody had been exposed to violence. Everybody went through our public school system. Everybody thought that the way we lived was normal.

When I tell people at Yale these stories, their reactions prove me wrong. Their reactions tell me that I am not normal — that I have been desensitized to violence, and that I will never be like them. We will graduate with the same degree, but I will also move forward with life experiences that have taught me more than I can learn in any class. And even if it’s jarring to hear these stories, they need to be told, and they need to be listened to. My voice will be heard.

*This essay is one of five first-place winners of Jopwell’s 2016 Black Student Experience Essay Grant.*

Images courtesy of Clark Burnett

Originally published at www.jopwell.com.