She is a small, perky 18-year-old with Azteca genes spread across her eyes and cheekbones. No doubt, guys at Oceanside High School called her cute. She meets your eyes and grips your hand.
She's Ruby Cruz, recently graduated with an excellent record and looking forward to college without a care in the world.
So you might think.
She's a devout member of an evangelical Christian congregation in Oceanside. I mention that high up because that's where it is in her life.
Ruby is on the edge of starting the next chapter of her life at California State University San Marcos, as are many, but her story is different from most. Tougher. Much tougher. I ask her to talk about it.
She begins with an easy smile. Quickly, however, as memories are bestirred, lips quiver and eyes well up.
The Kleenex box is nudged forward. "It's OK, Ruby."
"My dad was very abusive, because not only would he drink a lot but he would take multiple drugs. He was very aggressive. At night when he thought everyone was sleeping, he would start abusing my mom.
"My sister was two years older; we had bunk beds. I would always tell her that I was scared of something, like a ghost, so she would come and sleep next to me. In reality, I was scared to hear my parents fight and argue. I was 6 or 7.
"One time I woke up, I saw my mom in my room, and she was sobbing."
Ruby falters and draws a deep breath.
"I just pretended to be asleep because I knew why she was crying - because my dad had hit her. Another time, I heard my mom scream, and then in the morning she had a purple lip and I asked her what happened and she said she slipped and she hit herself on the cabinet, but I knew she was lying."
To Ruby, "My dad was just my dad." She learned that her father was not only an alcoholic and a drug user, but also that he later had ties to the drug business. He got into trouble and left for Mexico.
"He went to Yutaka -"
"Are you bilingual?"
"Yes, but not good."
So does your mother now admit all that happened?
"Sometimes. She kind of sneaks it in. She sometimes reveals truth behind everything: My father got into trouble because he was selling drugs."
"Oh, no. Not legal. People were looking for him."
That notwithstanding, Ruby has a hot-and-cold relationship with her father.
"The only way we communicate is by phone. I tried telling him I know what he did to my mom. He didn't want to hear it. He would just shut me off. I stood up. I said, ‘I want you to know that, Dad. I let you talk, now it's my turn.'
"I forgave him instead of arguing with him. I forgave him. More for myself than for him. Now my relationship is better with him.
"My family doesn't like him, but I love him. He's still my father, regardless of what he has done. I can't judge him."
Ruby's mom worked for an insurance company, but when it closed its Carlsbad office five years ago, she was out of a job. She soon had another daughter with another man, and has stayed home with the child. The man does not live with them.
Now, Ruby's mom makes a small amount of money baby-sitting.
Ruby says she and her sister urge her mother to find other work, knowing she is struggling to regain her confidence after having been beaten down. She has learned there are a lot of wounds in life that heal slowly and don't leave visible scars.
"I know she needs to get a job. When my sister and I joke around and tell her that, she takes a little offense, but at the same time she knows it's true."
Meanwhile, they live in poverty. Ruby's grandparents have a second home in Oceanside and made it available for the family. However, that house is also a source of much needed income to augment child-care income and food stamps, so the home has to be shared with renters.
Ruby says, "We used to have a lot of renters. My sister, mother, my older sister and I, we would share the master bedroom. Other people would live in the other two rooms. It's a three-bedroom home. Also, people would live in the garage.
"Renters would steal our stuff and steal our food. Thank God they moved out. Now my older sister and I have our own room, and my mom has her room with my little sister. In the third bedroom are my uncle and his daughter. Renters that we don't really know well live in the garage. It's more bearable now, but it still kind of sucks."
Griping aside, she says of the overstuffed home, "It is a house that I hold dear. It is not the best house, but to me it is wonderful."
Fortunately, school comes rather easily for Ruby. She finished with a B-plus average. Her academics and life story earned her a scholarship from the Simon Family Foundation.
The scholarship will help. Still, the cost of college today, even at a state school, can drag down a poor student like a swimmer in work boots. Just getting from north Oceanside, where Ruby lives, to the San Marcos campus by public transit will be time-consuming and expensive.
When asked, she acknowledges $129 in savings. That's it, the only money she has in the world.
She is training for a minimum-wage job at a bakery-café in Carlsbad. That just adds another stop to her transportation challenge.
Her mother has an old car that she might be able to use - if she can get it fixed.
Ruby also lacks medical insurance. Apparently, there's some sort of mix-up with Medi-Cal that she hopes will get resolved. Meantime, she has a painful in-grown toenail and an ache in her throat when she sings in church that will have to wait.
Even so, she looks forward to college, especially to develop her writing style. "I love writing," she says. "Growing up, I didn't really have a voice, especially when it came to my father. But when I write, I feel like I have a voice. I like to write poetry. I'm not the best poet, but I love it."
Who's your favorite writer?
"Edgar Allan Poe. I know he's creepy, but I love it. Also, Robert Frost."
She instantly recognizes the Frost line: "I took the (road) less traveled ..."
"Yeah. I know that one," she says happily. "That's me."
Maybe it's youth, maybe it's faith, maybe it's grit. But Ruby doesn't quail as she faces her challenges. She says, "I'm a Christian striving to reflect the Lord's light. I'm someone who tries to stay optimistic despite the obstacles. The Lord has given me a positive attitude to face life."
Ruby's sister, with whom she is close, is a junior at Cal State Los Angeles. Their goal is to someday form a nonprofit to serve the type of misguided and neglected kids she grew up with and knows very well.
Ruby has learned that emotional trauma has a time-delayed fuse.
"I kind of shut everything out, I packed everything in a box and I locked it. I went through everything, not knowing what was happening, I was blinded by innocence. I was so young, I didn't know what was going on."
The turmoil, struggle and abandonment of her formative years finally caught up to her as she turned the corner of her senior year. The result was depression, despair and weight loss. She fought through it by turning to her faith.
"Depression pushed me to pray more, and I would feel the Lord's presence. It gave me the strength to keep going, and thank God I can say that. I'm really happy where I'm at right now."
What do you fear as you enter the challenging world of college?
"I just fear giving up because I know I'm doing everything for my mom. I want to go to college so that I can get a good job, not necessarily for the money, but to help people, to help kids and also to repay my mom, even though I'll never be able to repay her. I was the little rebel kid. Now I'm not.
"I'm a Christian striving to reflect the lord's light. I try to have a positive attitude to face life. I don't know how to explain it. I'm sorry, it's hard. I don't know how to describe myself."
Well, then, let me try.
Ruby, you will learn that life thus far has given you a gift, that of knowing yourself. You have walked through the fire and survived - singed, maybe, but intact. You will be sitting in class with students who want to learn what life is all about. You could teach the course.
At this point, your character is formed: You are not bitter. You are not angry. You have bedrock values. You are standing before us with nothing, yet you talk about giving.
By observing such a spirit, we are the ones taking.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]