Decision Making and Dragon Moms

I was thinking about an old friend, the other day. I met Little Joe during the Summer of 1968. I had a Summer job between my second and third years of law school tutoring “Upward Bound” high school students.

That was a program that brought bright by disadvantaged high school juniors to the ASU campus for eight weeks of summer classes taught by the best high school teachers in Arizona. The class content was the same as they would see their senior year. The idea was that if they had already had the class from really good teachers, they would make better grades during their senior year. The goal was an eventual university education. As Dean Hamm, our dean of students, put it, “if your heart pumps blood, you can have a Bachelor’s degree, and should.”

Joe had decided to give up his Summer to attend eight weeks of classes. He lived in the dorm and ate university cafeteria food, went to classes and attended my tutoring sessions each day. On weekends, he went home to study.

The neighborhood was very poor, very rural and very tough. The “men” often shot doves right in the front yard, which always made a nice dinner.

His home was an 800 square foot, three room adobe in South Phoenix. His parents and the younger children slept in the one bedroom and the older children slept on the furniture and floor in the living room/kitchen. Joe’s parents came directly from Mexico, legally. They waited years to come to America and were determined to be the best Americans they could. All eight children were born in Arizona and the family considered its record of never having taken any public assistance as just another everyday situation.

That is because this family had a “dragon” mom. She could swear in Spanish like a fountain, could twist ears, pull hair and generally make her will known very loudly, very often. The evil eye was used prolifically but the “finger in your face” explanation of how things should be was her favorite weapon. She would be obeyed or her children would hear (and feel) her wrath.

Dad worked all his life as a “hod carrier.” He carried mortar and brick and blocks to the masons who actually laid it. Dad was an outstanding mason, but union rules at that time prohibited a Mexican from actually laying the brick; he could only stage the materials. So, that is what he did. Joe often helped him. Needless to say, it was minimum wage work and never made enough to support a family.

However, Joe had two wonderful talents: he was a terrific artist who could draw beautiful portraits and landscapes with anything that would make a mark. Pen, pencil, chalk and crayon were all part of his toolbox. Since they didn’t have a television, Joe would entertain
his brothers and sisters by drawing pictures for them and of them and their friends. I still have a chalk picture he drew for me in 1969.
Joe’s other talent was that he loved math and science. He was a sponge. Joe read incessantly and knew things about science I didn’t even know in graduate school.

In the Spring of 1968, Joe’s counselor recommended that Joe take the Summer away from his family and enroll in our program. He was with us for eight weeks and did very well.

The following year, he made straight A’s again. Near the beginning of his senior year in high school career and my last year in law school, he came over to my apartment one evening in his fathers’ old, beat up pick up. He wanted to go to college and remembered what Dean Hamm had said. But, he didn’t have any money. He asked me to help him find a way.

So, we mounted a campaign to apply for entrance to and scholarships from a number of universities. Though community college was an alternative, the Valley of the Sun had only two of them, in those days. And, with his record, there was no reason to “dumb down.”
In the midst of our campaign design, I decided to ask our law school dean if he knew anyone that might be able to help. He looked at Joe’s record, picked up the phone and called his good friend, who was the Provost at Stanford. It was nail biting time, but Joe got into Stanford as a freshman. By the beginning of his second year, he had made enough of an impression that the school gave him a fellowship in cash to help out. Since Joe was working while attending school, he took that cash and started paying for his brothers and sisters to go to college.

Eventually, by hard work and determination, Joe was able to help all seven of his brothers and sisters have Bachelor’s degrees, four of them have Master’s degrees and one a doctorate. Joe is now a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in California and has a wonderful family of his own.

A few years ago, Joe’s father died and South Phoenix was being rebuilt into yuppie housing. So Joe led the family in getting enough money together to buy Mom a house, free and clear. Enough of the children still live in the area to take care of her very nicely and they all still get together on weekends. While there is no longer any shooting of doves for the dinner table, there is still Mom twisting ears and instructing grandchildren about how things should be.

One decision by a “disadvantaged” skinny little sixteen year old in 1968 has made all the difference in the lives of more than thirty people and untold future generations. A child is never too young to learn how to make good decisions.

Categories: Miscellaneous