“We make a living by what we get – but we make a life by what we give ” (Sir Winston Churchill). When I heard this quote for the first time, it was from one of my high school teachers. Growing up in the Mission District of San Francisco I was surrounded by poverty and violence on a daily basis. In fact one of my earliest memories as a child was playing outside of my house and hearing gunfire, then seeing the gunmen running across the street from me with their guns still clutched in their hands.
I understood from a young age that my next door neighbors who stood outside all day were drug dealers, as were the people across the street that stood outside the liquor store. As I learned to become accustomed with my environment, I remember thinking that this is simply the way of life and that it was my place to grow up to live life exactly the same.
As quick as I was to understand this, I was still a bit unsettled. The question remained, why? I understood the violence, the drugs, the gangs, but I also saw an underlying constant. Apart from the all the conflict, I saw a community. I knew best friends from elementary school who became enemies in high school only because they were from different blocks of the neighborhood, and I did not understand that. I understood the effect but not the cause.
I always used to get into trouble as a kid, but when I entered High School my life began to spiral out of control.
I started to live my life, not necessarily trying to be like the older kid from the neighborhood, but just acting on everything that I learned throughout my life growing up in the Mission. At the age of thirteen I was coming home at four in the morning, if at all. I was hanging out on the corners. The list of things I did goes on and on. No matter how much my parents, or anybody, tried to discipline me; I just couldn’t check my behavior. It was as if I were on auto destruct.
One day during my sophomore year in high school my History teacher, Mr. Roth, pulled me aside and asked me to meet with him after class. At first I remember thinking that I was in trouble and that this was some kind of teacher conference to tell me that I was going to fail, which I already knew I would. I couldn’t be more wrong. “So I suppose you want an explanation for why I’m not taking school seriously,” I said. He responded with, “Actually Cristian, I’m more interested in just hearing what you have to say about anything.” For the first time ever, I actually heard the voice of true concern come from a teacher. I mean, I’ve met with teachers and counselors who tried to get me to start coming to school and start performing in class, but this was different. When I was done talking he had answers for questions that I didn’t even ask. He understood the way things happen, but he also questioned why. Apparently Mr. Roth somehow saw that I questioned why as well because there were many other students in the class who were also failing, but he felt it necessary to single me out.
After that I never once missed any of his classes. I began meeting with Mr. Roth once a week; during that time he opened up my eyes to the world greater than what I was exposed to. During one of our weekly meetings, he quoted Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get – but we make a life with what we give”. From that moment forward my life was changed. I now understood that it didn’t matter where I grew up; I have the ability to choose to create my own life. I was always able to see the good through the bad, but up until this point I never knew why. It was because I chose to see the good.
One day, while my cousin and I were standing outside my house, a Fire Truck came roaring by with its sirens blaring. We decided to hop on our bikes and follow them to where they were headed. When we got to the scene, I was amazed. I never really watched firefighters in action before. It was as if they were protectors of the community. I had always been taught to look down upon law enforcement, but Firefighters are apart from the law, they cannot judge, and they do not care who you are. They do not care if you are a drug dealer, a gang member, or simply a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time; they are there to selflessly save your life. Firefighters see that underlying constant in people, as a community, just as I do. I felt empowered.
Soon after, I began doing little things like tutoring and mentoring. Mainly I was organizing after school baseball games in empty lots around the neighborhood. It didn’t matter that these empty lots we were playing on were made of concrete or gravel, kids were coming out to play. When we first started it was just three of us, but soon after, we were drawing enough kids to have two full teams. Even some of the “older kids” and a couple of adults joined up. Unfortunately we were eventually run out of all the spaces we had to play. Lots were either developed into condos, or we were simply locked out.
This was all years ago. Although my makeshift baseball program failed, I look back and I am proud of what was accomplished, even for that short period of time. Now that I am older, I want to help the community on a different level. I am not sure yet of how I can, but I am sure of the route I will take. One day I plan on moving back to my city, my hood. When I return I will be supplemented with a college education, and a well respected job. I want to get back to creating things that bring people together, and I want to join neighborhood leaders in giving a voice to the community. Who knows, maybe I can even convince city officials to start a legit baseball program.