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Disability Life
Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities
 

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Carmelo and Fernando

 

Carmelo's teacher, Mr. Ogormen 

 

Carmelo and Derek

 

Nicholas

 

Growing Up in the Barrio:  The Life and Times of Carmelo Gonzalez - Part III

by Carmelo Gonzalez

In this excerpt from his memoir, we follow Carmelo Gonzalez into his adolescence. Carmelo grew up in a tough neighborhood and his disability did not shield him from its influences. As other young people do, he made friends, had fights with them and mourned their deaths. Often his family and school were dysfunctional. He experienced joy and pain, as well as confusing sexual awakening; yet through it all, he maintained a gritty determination to laugh and play, stand up for himself, and experience the normal developmental milestones that mark the passage into adulthood that all of us travel.

The story of growing up with a disability is not often told. We seldom are taken inside the Special Education classroom, or the special club for disabled youth, or the sleep-over in a friend’s home. And even less often we are told of the sexual development of the youth with a disability. In Carmelo’s world, friends die, children are molested, kids battle for power and prestige, and in the end, their world is very much like everyone else’s. The light that Carmelo Gonzalez sheds on his world illuminates the lives of us all.

1977

After a year in U.C.P., I was transferred to P.S. 118. This is when I met my first teacher, Mr. Ogormen, and my first best friend, Fernando. He was Puerto Rican with Muscular Dystrophy and was in a chair. 

Fernando and I were such good friends that sometimes I used to go to his house on the weekends. In school we used to eat lunch together, and we were always joking around with each other. I remember one time he had a birthday party. I went and had the best time I ever had. Someone gave him a race car set as a gift. We played with it until about one in the morning when the party ended. I stayed over that night. They treated me like I was part of their family.

The next year it was my tenth birthday. I had a party and Fernando and some of my other friends came. Fernando gave me a stuffed rabbit. I loved that rabbit a lot. I loved that rabbit more than any of the other gifts I got.

That year there was a song called “Fernando”. I used to love that song. I used to 
play it every day. Everybody in my house got sick of it. They used to tell me to turn that dumb song off.

1979

The next year, new kids came into my class. About two months went by, then Fernando and I had a fight over nothing. You see, one of the other kids was picking on him. I tried to stand up for him and he didn’t want me to, so he said to me, “I don’t need your help! Shut up!”

“You shut up,” I told him. Then we started to fight. Mr. Ogormen came in the room and saw us fighting and broke it up. When I got home my mother told me that Fernando’s mother called her and told her that I had a fight with him and I scratched him in the eye.

“He started with me,” I told my mother. “I was trying to stick up for him.”

“I don’t care who started it. I want you to call him and apologize to him,” she said. So, she made me call and apologize and we went back to being friends again.

The middle of the next year is when the whole Special Education unit moved to P.S. 223. That is when my friendship with Fernando started to end. By going to the new school, we had new kids in the class. That is when I met my second and third best friends, Nicholas and Derek. They were my first black friends. Nicholas and I hit it off quickly. Derek and I became friends later on in life; a lot later. 

Everybody used to make fun of each other, but they liked to pick on Fernando the most. They used to like pushing Fernando’s arm off of the table when he had his hand under his chin. He tried to get back at them, but he couldn’t because he was too slow. Fernando graduated that year and I never saw him again. He died the summer of ’87 from Muscular Dystrophy.

One day when I went to school, I had a fight with Derek. You see, after lunch we used to have play time. We would play knock-hockey. That’s a game that has a table board and a puck and you have to hit the puck into a hole on the other side of the table. Nicholas and a guy named Michael were playing. Whoever won would play the next player. Derek and I were next, but we both wanted to go first. When Nicholas and Michael were finished with their game, I grabbed the hockey stick. Just then, Derek grabbed the stick, too.

“Let go of the stick!” I told him.

“No! You let go!” Derek said.

“Let go of the stick!”

“I’m not letting go!” So, I punched him in the arm. He grabbed the hockey stick and swung it at me and almost hit me in the face, but I blocked it with my arm. Then Mr. Ogormen came in the room and saw us fighting and started to yell.

“What are you doing?” he asked, breaking us apart. “Who started this?”

“Carmelo started it. I had the next game. Carmelo grabbed the stick and punched me,” Derek told him.

“Stop lying,” I said. “You’re the one who started it with me!”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Mr. Ogormen said. “If you and Derek don’t know how to play, no one’s going to play for a week. Now everybody get back to your desks.”

1983

*When I went back to school in late January, it was nice for about a week, then it went back to the same old thing with everyone putting everyone down and trying to be the big shot in class. I thought it was going to be different. It wasn’t. It was the same as it was when I left.

There was a spot in the classroom with a big table that we had for the one kid that was too hot to touch. Everyone wanted that spot because all of the other kids knew not to mess with him. Whoever wanted that spot had to fight or try to put down whoever had it. Nicholas was the one that had the table. Everyone was a little scared of him because he was a big kid. He was so big that if you would try to punch him on his body, it wouldn’t hurt him that much. But you would have to watch out when he hit you because his arm was so heavy that when he would hit you, you would feel it. Believe me, I know. He hit me sometimes when we were playing around. They were afraid of him physically, but they would all compete with their mouths, ranking each other out. One kid named Richard wanted Nicholas’s spot, so he tried to fight him, but he could never beat Nicholas.

Nicholas was number one in the class, and Derek and I both wanted to be number two. We were always at each other’s throats. Derek and Nicholas were becoming good friends because they both used to go to a club every other Saturday together. It was like a boys and girls club for disabled kids between 13 and 21. I knew that I needed to get into the club, so I asked them about how I could get in. Derek didn’t want to tell, but Nicholas gave me the number to call. My mother called and got me in and I started going with them every other Saturday.

I didn’t have any idea how much that place was going to change my life. It was a nice place for me; I had somewhere to go every other Saturday. From nine in the morning till six at night I was out of the house when my mother and Ralph used to drink. There were a lot of things to do at the club. You could play sports, do arts and crafts or just meet new friends.

One day I met a man who used to go there to help out. He was disabled, too, but not that much. He was a midget in a wheelchair. He used to talk to me. I thought he was a nice guy. I got to like him, until one day when he came out and asked,

“Do you like boys?” I looked at him like he was crazy.

“What?” I asked him. “What did you say?”

“Do you like boys?”

“Why are you asking me that?” He put his hand on my shoulder.

“I watch you and I see how you look at them.”

“What are you talking about? I look at them like I look at everybody else.” He just patted me on the leg and told me that he understood.

I knew that I had some feelings towards boys, but I didn’t know why I was having them. I thought I was crazy for having those feelings, so I learned how to deny and hide them.

Bill was always nice to me and he got me to trust him. I used to be able to talk to him about what was going on at home, and it helped me deal with it. He told me that he understood how I felt, and that used to make me feel like I had someone I could talk to and trust.

One Saturday I went to the club and it was a little cold because the heat wasn’t working. We had to keep our coats on. So, I had my coat on and I had to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t go with my coat on; I needed some help. I asked him if I could get someone to help me and he told me he would help me if I wanted him to. I said okay, not knowing what was going to happen.

He told me that the bathroom that was for us kids wasn’t working, but there was another bathroom that we could go to. I didn’t think anything of it and we went up to the next floor. When we got to the bathroom, only one wheelchair could go in, so he told me to go and he would get up and walk in. I used the bathroom and went to pull up my pants. He told me to sit back in my chair and he would pull them up for me. As I went to sit down, he pulled down his own pants.

“What are you doing?” I asked him, trying to get up again. He pushed me back down in my chair.

“Sit down and don’t move,” he said as he grabbed me. I pushed his hand away.

“Leave me alone! I want to go back up!” He told me to shut up and sit still. I tried to open the door to get out, then I started to cry.

“Shut up. You know you like it, so shut up or I’ll hit you!” He told me this as he grabbed me again.

After it was over, he grabbed me by my neck.

“You better not tell anybody what happened here because it was your fault. You made me do this. If you do tell anybody, they won’t believe you and I will kill you. I know your address. I will go to your house and kill you and your family.” As he was telling me this, he grabbed my neck harder. I really thought that he was going to kill me. We heard someone coming so he let me go and pulled up his pants.
“Remember,” he told me again. “if you ever tell anybody what happened, I’ll kill you.” I didn’t know what to do. I really thought he was going to kill me. He made me feel that it was all my fault. I went and sat in a corner by myself.

When a counselor saw that I was in the corner crying all alone, she asked me what was wrong. She went to touch me, but I pulled away from her.

“What’s wrong, Carmelo? Are you all right?” While she was talking to me, I saw Bill coming toward us so I told her that my stomach was hurting. Bill asked what was going on. She told him that I was having stomach pains. Then she asked me if I wanted to lie down and I said yes, thinking that I would get away from Bill. As we were leaving, someone came up and told her that she was needed, so Bill told her that he would take care of me. I didn’t want to go with him, but I had to. After she left, he pulled me to the side and grabbed my arm really hard.

“I hope you weren’t thinking about telling her what we did.”

“No,” I said. “I wasn’t. Let my arm go; you’re hurting me!”

“Good,” he told me. “Don’t forget what I told you. I will kill you and your family. You see, I have your address. Nobody is going to believe you anyway.” Then Nicholas came to tell me that they were going to play baseball and he wanted me to be on his team. I said okay, even though I didn’t really feel like playing. I wanted to get away from Bill, so I went with Nicholas.

Later, Nicholas asked me if I wanted to stay over at his home. I said yes and we decided that we could have the van drop us both off at his house. When we got there, his mother told me to call my mother, so I called and let her know that everything was all right. I was so busy having fun with Nicholas that I forgot about what had happened with Bill. He had video games and we played those until his mom came to tell us to come to dinner. His family made me feel at home. I met his mother, Geegee, his sister, Nicky, and his father, Dan. They were so nice to me that it didn’t feel like it was my first time there. That night went by so fast that, before I knew it, it was the next day and I had to go home.

At school, after we ate, we would go back to our room for our play time. John, one of my classmates, asked me about my father. That’s when Richard started with me.

“He doesn’t have a father,” he said. “That’s why he never comes to school, and his mother is too lazy to come here.”

“I have a father. He lives in Puerto Rico,” I lied. “He works for the Mafia, and he’s rich.”

“Yeah, right! Your father doesn’t work for anybody,” Derek said.

“My father is rich,” I said. “He has so much money that he put $10,000 in the bank for me, and I get it when I’m 21. He also sends me $40 a month.”

“Yeah, right,” Richard said. “You don’t get anything. You’re lying.”

“All right, don’t believe me.”

“How much do you have on you?” Derek asked.

“I didn’t bring any money.”

“You don’t get anything. You’re lying,” he said.

“I get more than you do.”

“I bet you that you can’t even bring five dollars tomorrow.”

“$5? Is that all? I bet you that I bring $10 in,” I said, putting my foot in my mouth.

“I bet that you won’t bring anything.”

“Do you want to make a bet?”

“Whoever loses has to pay for the winner’s lunch for a whole week,” Derek said.

I was hoping that my mother would be able to give me the money. I didn’t know what I’d do if she didn’t give it to me. I knew she was going to ask me why I needed it, so when I asked for it, I told her that there was going to be a party in my class. My teacher asked the kids if they could bring $10 in to help with the party, and she gave it to me without any problem. I asked her for only ten dollars because I already had five. I was so happy that she’d given it to me because I wouldn’t have to hear Derek making me feel bad. I had the money, and they would believe me.

The next day when I went to school I didn’t say anything just to see what Derek would do.

“So, Carmelo,” he said. “do you have the money?” I wanted to play with him so I pretended that I didn’t have it. I looked in my pockets like it wasn’t there.

“I can’t find it. I must have left it at home.”

“I knew you weren’t going to bring it. Your father doesn’t have anything. Now you have to pay for my lunch the whole week, if you can afford it.” Then I pulled the money out of my pocket.

“I’m not paying for anything,” I told him. “You’re the one that has to pay for my lunch all week. See, I’ve got the money. Not just $10, but $15.” He didn’t know what to say, but he had to pay for my lunch that week, and everybody believed that my father was rich.

I used to call Nicholas every day when I came home from school to tell him what went on. One day I got the biggest shock of my life. When I called, the phone was busy. I used to watch “Little House on the Prairie” every day, and I decided to call him back after my show was over. That day, “Little House on the Prairie” was about a fat boy and his family who had moved into the town, and everybody picked on him because he was “the fat kid”. For some reason, when I saw the fat boy, it made me want to talk to Nicholas. When I called him, his sister Nicky picked up the phone.

“Is Nicholas there?” I asked her.

“Um, he can’t come to the phone right now,” she said. She acted like she didn’t want to talk. I heard Geegee in the background asking who was on the phone. Nicky told her it was me and that I was looking for Nicholas.

“Hello, Carmelo,” Geegee said into the phone.

“How are you doing?” I asked, not knowing what she was going to tell me. “Is Nicholas there?” I asked. “Can I speak to him?”

“Um, no,” she said. “I don’t know how to tell you this.” When she said that, I thought that she was going to tell me that he was in the hospital. I knew that he was not feeling that good, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe that she would tell me what she did.

“Carmelo,” she began. “Nicholas died last night.” I couldn’t believe it, so I asked her to repeat what she’d said. When she told me again, I was speechless.

I hung up the phone and went back to watch the rest of “Little House on the Prairie.” At the end of the show, the boy stood up for himself. It ended with him running with a smile on his face. When I saw that, a tear fell down my cheek. That’s when I realized that Nicholas was dead, and I started to cry.

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