Authors: Erica Mena
couldn’t sit still in school. I was always all over the place, into everything and full of life. I remember my Pre K teacher at P8, Ms. Livingston, as this beautiful black lady with a very nurturing spirit. I was tested for ADD and autism and it was later confirmed that I had a developmental reading
disorder, better known as dyslexia.
Once we had a name for my disease we were able to understand why I was the way I was when it came to my studies and inability to focus. I would be taken out of my regular class and Ms. Livingston and I would sit in a different room so she could work with me one on one.
I would get picked on and teased because the other students thought I was the teacher’s pet, or that for whatever reason I was special. They would tease me and call me stupid or a giraffe because of my height and at first I didn’t pay it any attention but little kids can be so cruel and as I got older the bullying became harsher. I would get my hair pulled by other girls, tripped, and when I would go into the bathroom they would wet toilet tissue and throw it at me.
I hated school. Eventually I was sent to special classes so I could be around other students with learning disabilities and not feel as though I was an outcast amongst those that were seen as “regular”. I felt like I was once again back in the Wicked Witches house and I was in that horrible highchair. I pictured her and all of the other kids circling around me, pointing and laughing while repeating, “you’re not one of us” in a singsong kind of way.
Regardless of what you may see on TV or what you think you know about me I don’t like to fight, never have. My first fight was with this girl named Kenya who I thought was my friend. She had this really pretty dark skin, chinky eyes, and she used to wear beads at the ends of her long, thick, black braids. Kenya was the popular girl in the neighborhood and I thought she was the coolest thing ever, that’s until she started being mean to me. She would take my toys and not give them back until she felt like it, or she would randomly kick or spit on me for no reason, she even had the boys that hung around her chase me home.
On this one particular day Kenya was sitting on the curb playing with this toy fish tank. The fish were floating inside of it as if they were real and if you didn’t know any better you would think that they were. Anyway, I was pushing one of my baby dolls in my toy stroller and out of nowhere she came up and kicked my stroller in the street and casually walked back to the curb and sat down. I just remember thinking this is enough, I was so tired of her picking on me so I walked up to her and smacked the fish tank. This was a bad idea because Kenya socked me and we started fighting. I didn’t like the feeling I was getting by having to defend myself against someone I actually liked so I found myself blocking her punches more than I was fighting back. When it was finally over I ran home crying.
When I saw Linda and Pedro sitting outside I felt a lot better but the look on Linda’s face let me know that I wasn’t going to get the reaction I expected.
Linda took me by the hand and led me
into the house. Once inside she grabbed a belt and instructed me to lie down on the bed.
I was holding my hands behind my back trying to cover my bottom because I knew what was going to happen but I couldn’t understand why I was the one about to get a whooping when I had already gotten beat up. Why wasn’t she hugging me and telling me I would be okay?
After she whooped me she looked me in my face and told me that if I ever came home crying after getting into a fight she would beat me again and then take me back outside to fight the person again.
I don’t think she knew the monster she was creating back then. Getting whooped by my sister instilled in me the fear of “rather them than me” and I damn sure wasn’t going to keep coming home to get my ass beat by her so I had to fight as hard as I could to make sure that didn’t happen again.
After Linda cleaned me up she took me back down the street to face Kenya. This time I fought with everything I had because I knew that if I didn’t, I would have to go home and deal with my sister. After the fight was over Kenya never bullied me again, crazy enough the roles were suddenly reversed and she wanted to be my friend.
I’m not saying fighting is the solution to all your problems but as a child it definitely solved some of my major issues, especially in school.
Brian eventually moved all of us upstate to a house on Stoney Run when him and my mother married. We finally had our own space and didn’t have to worry about anyone above or below us. We didn’t have to worry about Mr. and Mrs. Dominguez banging on the walls because my music was too loud or being awaken by the younger girl that lived upstairs that I believed was a prostitute.
The commute to school was a little longer but we did what we had to do. It was at Newburgh that I fell in love for the first time. I was 14 and he was 16 when we first met. Of course adults don’t think teenagers know what love is but when I saw Trent Zachary my heart fluttered. He was tall, slim, and dark skinned, he had these big Jay-Z lips, a big nose, and he used to wear his hair cornrowed straight to the back. He was always very well dressed but basic at the same time, he always wore a fresh white tee and the latest shoes. It’s funny because no one else seemed to think he was as handsome but it didn’t matter because he had my full attention.
When I first saw him we were in school and I was trying to find my way to a class. He was walking out the boy’s bathroom and we made eye contact. We didn’t speak to each other at that time but I began to ask my friend’s questions about who he was and eventually I befriended him. Our interaction with each other was always very natural, there was never any awkward moments, we just seemed to click, our chemistry was on point from day one and pretty soon we became inseparable.
In high school the bullying I thought I had gotten away from during elementary school got worse. My hair was still very long and I was tall and very slim. I’ve always been into the performing arts. I was always participating in a play of some sort, dancing, playing an instrument, I liked to do everything that allowed me to express myself creatively. As girly as I was, I was also a tomboy and I played ball with the boys and had more male friends than I did girls. This caused a lot of problems because some girl would always assume that I liked her boyfriend or that I was sleeping with him and that would kick off some bullshit. I had to deal with jealous girls who were mad that my belt matched my sneakers, that my hair was long, or that I had gotten the lead in a recital.
In seventh grade I decided to run for school president. I thought I could change things and turn things around for the girls who didn’t feel as important or as popular as everyone else. I wanted to bring all the girls together and have a girls day in the gym to get everyone acquainted and try to eliminate the assumptions and misconceptions that everyone seemed to have towards each other.
I thought the girls in the school would want to get to know me and that they would appreciate me more for trying to find a solution to the problems we faced amongst ourselves. Of course running for president put me at the forefront and what were good intentions soon backfired on me.
On the day I was elected I was ecstatic; it brought me back to the feeling of wanting to belong and be ‘one of them’. I felt like I had finally won something and this was just one of the things on a list of goals I had for myself. I felt like I could do anything I wanted to do if I put my mind to it. After school I stayed behind to go over preparations with the counselor, I was so excited to start implementing my changes. All I wanted to do was try and create a more positive environment for the students who felt afraid each time they came to school.
I was on my way home when five black girls who were much bigger than me suddenly surrounded me. They all had their hair pulled back into ponytails like they were ready for war. One of them asked me my name and as soon as I told her, all I remember is my face hitting the concrete. I balled up as tight as I could but that didn’t stop them from kicking, punching and stomping me. They kept telling me that I wasn’t special, that they didn’t like me and that no one cared about me being president because it wouldn’t change shit.
In between blocking my face I could see that there were adults across the street but not once did one of them attempt to come over and break things up. The more they hit me, the more I stopped caring. The reason I had ran for president in the first place was to get these same girls, all the girls in the school not to be so evil and hateful, not to be so jealous and catty with one another but instead to try and lift each other up. With each blow that connected I became numb emotionally. Why should I continue to care for people who don’t care about each other or me?
The next day I went to school and resigned. I no longer participated in school activities and I no longer wanted to help anyone. I told Trent that I had turned in my resignation and he told me I was stupid. He would always tell me that it was something about me, that I had something in me that set me apart from everyone else. As much as I wanted to believe him it seemed like this something he was talking about was only good for getting me beat up.
I confided in Trent a lot. He was always easy to talk to and we would often share our dreams of what we wanted to be like when we grew up. I always liked fantasizing about the future, I would dream of becoming famous, the kind of car I would drive, what kind of house I would live in. I guess you could say I always had the vision of what I wanted to do since I was younger.
I could never figure out how certain girls would know what role I was auditioning for at school or they would know what part I was going after in the recital and Trent made me realize it was because I ran my mouth too much. I never thought anything of sharing my plans or ideas with anyone but after he brought it to my attention I could see how I had in a way, been my own enemy. He taught me how to move in silence, he said that whatever I wanted to do, that I should keep it to myself and just do it. Talking to him gave me the spark that I needed to start researching modeling.
After pleading with Brian to help me I subscribed to Backstage Newspaper. I spent the night thinking about what it would be like to be able to provide for my family. My family didn’t struggle but I feel like if we were more financially stable then my mother wouldn’t have went to jail, I would’ve never went to foster care and Linda would’ve finished college and maybe Lisa wouldn’t have moved out. To me, money was the solution to preventing things from going wrong in my future. Never did it cross my mind that the love of money would also become my biggest down fall.
When the paper finally arrived I rushed off to school to show Trent only to find that he wasn’t there. Some of the air deflated from my balloon because I was so excited to tell him but I soon found him on the corner shooting dice. As soon as he saw me he came up to me and gave me a hug. I never said anything about Trent gambling or hustling because he did what he had to in order to help his grandmother with his siblings. Being with him gave me the courage and guts to want to do the same thing in respect to grinding it out and doing whatever it took to make it.
I waved the paper frantically in his face and told him that I was going to stop going to school and start pursuing modeling instead. He gave me this sideways look and asked me if I knew what I was doing. I met his gaze and told him that there was something in this paper that was going to get me on the road to where I needed to be.
That night Trent took my virginity. I had nothing else to compare to this experience aside from the perverted touches I received while in foster care and even that didn’t compare. This was different. Trent touched me with caution, with such care and passion that I instantly felt safe. He kissed me, whispered in my ear that he loved me and I believed him. I knew that together him and I could take on the world and it was nothing I wanted more.
The next morning I decided to skip school and go to all the auditions I had circled in the paper. I was armed with my metro card, $5 and my book bag. I was turned away at the first audition because I was unprepared. The second audition was for a Sears catalog and although I didn’t have a portfolio they saw me and I landed it. The only problem was since I was under age I needed a guardian with me and this was an issue. The casting director really wanted to hire me so she said she would call my mom and pretend like she saw me out somewhere and scouted me. Later that night my mother got a phone call and after speaking with the casting director she agreed to let them shoot me.
After the first job I paid close attention to how my mother filled out the forms and I started to manipulate the paperwork and say that I was either eighteen or nineteen to prevent from getting questioned about my age or having a guardian present. After the Sears shoot I started getting other requests from other agencies and at fifteen I landed my first commercial with Tommy Hilfiger.