Amid hunger, disease and bullying, teen takes charge of her self-worth
Any of us, me included, should be a little abashed by what Monica Navarrete did. But I’ll get back to that.
Monica is a 17-year-old senior at San Pasqual High School in Escondido. She’s a superior student headed to a four-year college.
But she’s a lot more. The young lady has grit. She doesn’t back down from a probing question, just as she didn’t from schoolyard bullies. She’s quick with words, probably even sharp ones, and that definitely doesn’t please bullies.
She made herself into a school leader and a pixie-pretty girl. She’s probably one of those popular girls that when she smiles at a boy in the hallway, he blushes and grins. However, she wasn’t to that mirror born. In the lower grades she had a “lazy eye” that required corrective glasses, and she was chubby for her 4-foot-11 frame.
Before you scream that I’m obsessed with looks, I have to deal with the fact that her middle-school classmates absolutely were. Every person who had to run a junior-high gantlet knows what I mean.
Monica was also born poor and remains poor — in money, not in soul.
The natural steel in Monica’s makeup began to be tempered at a young age and involved her father.
“He tried to do things that were not appropriate.” Enough said.
The man was deported to Mexico because Monica’s mother turned him in for that behavior.
“He made my mom go through a lot — not having enough money to eat because he preferred to go out and drink with his friends. I grew up with hearing stories of my mom crying over that.”
Do you know where he’s at? And do you care?
“No and no.”
Are you sure? Many times we tell ourselves one thing, but there’s still an emptiness in our heart.
“Yeah, I know. For years, I’ve asked myself that same internal question: like, do I really care? Is there any little section of my heart that would like to reach out to him? The answer always is no.”
In middle school, Monica’s appearance was “plain,” which is a soft adjective that kids never use. They have more destructive words. She was to bullies as honey is to ants. Perhaps worst of all, she was smart.
“I’d always said that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me. But that was wrong. Words do hurt, and they hurt a lot more than anything else.
“On one occasion, a girl took my glasses and broke them in half. She pushed me and called me fat. She called me anything demeaning that came into her head. I went into the bathroom, crying, and that's when I realized it was not the physical hitting that hurt me most, it was the words.”
What did you learn from that?
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but I learned to love myself. That I have the control over how I feel about myself and how far I get in life. I said, ‘I'm not going to let this (abuse) become the truth, because it's not the truth.’”
You were seen as an ugly duckling.
“I still am an ugly duckling. I embrace it.”
Why do you say that, when you know you’re not?
“I don't really have an actual true meaning behind why I say it. I guess if I see myself as that, I won’t become one of those bullies that did that much damage to me.
“If I see myself as an ugly duckling, I’ll remember how it feels. I want to be different. I don't want my appearance to define me. I want it to be the person I am in the way that I treat people.”
When Monica goes home after school, it’s to a small mobile home in Escondido. It houses only her and her mother, Veronica, but even for the two of them, it’s a tight fit.
After Monica’s father was run out of the country, her mother was left with four children, a mailbox full of bills and three low-wage jobs. Monica watched her mother struggle, working one tedious job after another. That taught her to value dedication and honor the sacrifices that survival demanded.
“Being the youngest, I had to tag along with her. I would be waddling next to her and helping her out. I remember her holding the blower and pushing the leaves, and me trying to help. She also worked in a restaurant and at a swap meet.
“It was hard to see her work so hard and get so little in return.”
There was worse to come — that day several years ago when mom Veronica reached up to touch her face and couldn’t feel it. Something was awfully wrong.
It was awfully wrong indeed. It was multiple sclerosis. Dreaded MS.
Veronica was forced to apply for Social Security disability and whatever other assistance might be available. Pride be damned; there were kids to be fed.
The three older children eventually graduated from high school and went off on their own, though they all live in the area and remain a close family.
It’s now just Monica and Veronica, and they’ve drawn even closer in the small home they share. They live on a pittance, as measured by middle-class budgets.
“It's rough, trying to portion out what we eat and me having to cook for her, having to know how to spread it out for a month. Me being a teenager, I want to eat everything. But there are times when there isn't anything and we have to wait for the check. It's just what we have to do.”
Does that depress you?
“Of course it does. There are definitely moments where you're not living among rainbows and unicorns, and you're not always motivated and happy. But in the end, it makes us love each other more.
“There are times when I break down. It's hard, especially where you go to high school with dozens of teenagers that aren't living financially the way you are. They get to drive Jeeps, and they get to live in mansions and have, like, have food all the time.”
Her voice softens, but she does not cry.
Recently, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Mother and daughter will deal with that, too.
Joyce Carol Oates tells us, “There can be too much reality in life.”
Back when she grew tired of being bullied as a junior-high dumpling, Monica did something that shames us adults in our endless weight struggles: She took control of her body. She lost weight, got her eye fixed and her body toned. It took “grown-up” discipline to do all that.
And then she became what should shock and maybe even shame those bullies: She became a varsity cheerleader.
(If you don’t think that’s a big deal, when you go to your double-digit reunions, girls who were cheerleaders will still be on their pedestals — unless they’ve really fallen off.)
“A cheerleader! I would have not believed it. It's funny to think that everything I thought I wasn't going to be during that early time, I am now. I've always thought that if I do something for myself it's selfish, because I don't deserve it.”
You’re describing guilt. Why?
“Because I feel those hours should be put into my mom.”
There are children who would resent their mothers for the burden of caregiving.
“It’s true. I’ve met them. I have unfortunately met people that are in a similar situation to mine, and they’ve run away from that responsibility or have gotten into drugs.”
Monica’s grade point average of 3.8 is impressive, but I am most taken by her academic festival of the printed word.
Her words are an overture to a writer. “I’ve fallen in love with books. Books are what introduced me to words, and I just love different words. I love experimenting with them. I love learning about them. I love reading stories. I love digging my nose into books and being led into wonderful new dimensions.
“I'm not like everyone else, and I’ve dug that deep into my head.”
Monica will soon graduate and head for college. She dreams, as many students do, of ivy-covered walls, tree-lined campuses and sororities, and all that make-believe sort of thing.
However, she knows family responsibilities will likely guide her to California State University San Marcos. Solid school that it is, there’s a shortage of ivy. Even so, Monica will have to scrap for all the student-aid and scholarship money she can find.
Monica is an unusual girl, not easy to describe. I’ll try chutzpah, a word of many nuances. But if you think I mean brassy or overbearing, then I’ve chosen badly. If you think I mean assertive, feisty and jut-jawed toward a challenge, then I’ve chosen wisely.
To fully describe Monica, I need to dip back into my word bag and come up with loyal, bright and compassionate. Then I think we have her.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at email@example.com
Copyright © 2016, The San Diego Union-Tribune