Excerpt for The Compton Diagnosis by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Compton Diagnosis

Natalie C. Houser, MPAP, PA-C

Copyright © 2018 by Natalie C. Houser, MPAP, PA-C

All rights reserved.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or unauthorized use of the material (except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal) herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Published by N.HARV

ISBN: 978-0-692-15001-6

To anyone that’s been told no, you can’t, or you never will, I dedicate this book to you.

I also dedicate this book to the loving memory of Dr. William I. Young.


By Keith Black, MD

I had the opportunity to mentor Natalie when she volunteered as a high school student at Cedars-Sinai, where she observed our neurosurgical clinic and worked on a research project. Natalie showed an extremely strong desire to learn and is one of the most inquisitive and persistent young ladies that I have ever met.

In this book, she shares her journey to adulthood, her successes and failures, and her unrelenting pursuit to fulfill her dream of practicing medicine. She talks about being raised by a single-mother who struggled to support her and her two siblings, having an absentee biological father, building strong connections with father-figures/mentors, and finding her true life goal. She looks back at having been raised in Compton not as a hindrance but as motivation to succeed. All through it all, her determination coupled with the support of those around her, pushed her through many adversities.

I have always been impressed with Natalie, but after reading her story, I am in awe of her steadfast commitment to fulfill her dreams and to surmount whatever surprises life throws her way.

Natalie Houser is a girl from Compton, and this is her story.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Compton

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word riddle is “a mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed.” Ironically enough, riddle is the name of the street I grew up on. Not by design, but I definitely felt like my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood years were a riddle; one that not only tested my ingenuity, but challenged my problem-solving skills. I tried to figure out my life in logical terms, but little did I know, my life wasn’t meant to be figured out logically. From August 1, 1985 until now, I’ve lived an odd-defeating life starting with me overcoming the stigma of growing up in Compton, California.

With a population of 97,000, Compton was once ranked the eighth most dangerous city in America by TIME magazine. Less than a decade ago, the city’s murder rate was nine times the national average. As if the loss of physical lives wasn’t enough, Compton also experienced a city-wide loss of hope and upward mobility. In 2010, less than six percent of the city’s residents completed college; only 50 percent finished high school, and nearly 30 percent lived below the poverty line. While these statistics may sound devastating, there are other facts about Hub City that are worthy to be highlighted, like the fact that this city birthed creatives and thought leaders who are impacting America today. For instance, Compton is the hometown of award-winning American film director Ava DuVernay, who is the first African-American woman to direct a live-action film with a budget exceeding $100 million dollars. Compton is also the hometown of rapper Kendrick Lamar, who is the first non-classical and non-jazz artist to receive the Pulitzer award for music. You know who else calls Compton home? Yours truly, Natalie C. Houser. This book will reveal my personal and professional accomplishments and lessons learned while taking you through the ups and downs of my journey to physician assistant (PA) school.

Chapter 2: It’s Still Up for Discussion

Born in the eighties to a Belizean mother and an American father seems like the perfect start to a perfect, hardworking life story, right? Oh, but wait. There are just a few twists:

  • I was raised in Compton, California.

  • My dad was a victim of drugs during the nineties.

  • I spent my childhood summers in a foreign country.

  • My parents divorced when I was eight years old.

  • The one person who made a great impact on my life since the age of 13 died during my second year of undergrad.

Now, we can officially begin my “perfect” story.

“I got tired of renting from people who would pop up at my house any time they wanted to and go up on the rent any time they felt like it. Right after I had you, my landlord at the time just popped up unannounced and told me he was there to do a walk through. That was it! I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to move. I knew I could only afford an $80,000 house, and the realtor I worked with told me about this city right outside of L.A. I heard of Compton in the news and it mostly highlighted crime, but I didn’t care. I was ready to have my own house. The schools were walking distance away from the house I liked, so I felt the location was perfect.” That was always my mother’s response when I asked her countless times as a young child, “Why do we live in Compton?” Feeling as though I had no power in deciding where I grew up, I was often ashamed of this city and its negative connotation, especially from people who did not live there. I carried this feeling of hometown shame throughout grade school. During high school, however, I realized that because of my surroundings living in Compton, I was equipped with motivation, determination, and dedication…qualities needed for success.

Allow me to introduce my younger self. I’m Natalie Chanel Armstrong, a newborn child to a young Black couple; a sister to a brother six years older than me with a different dad, and a sister to an older sister twelve years older than me who I later found out was adopted. Things were a bit non-traditional growing up, but I believe it made me the resilient person I am today.

My mom—who my siblings and I call “Ma”—is a resilient Caribbean woman. How she met my dad is still up for discussion. I get a different story each time I ask. My biological dad, Chuck, is a very book-smart Black man from Indianapolis, Indiana. How he got to California is still up for discussion. I get a different story each time I ask. No, you didn’t just read the same line twice. I honestly don’t have a clear understanding of how my mom and biological dad met or made the decision to get married and have a child.

The parentals were a very attractive and exciting couple. Both loved watching sports, traveling, hosting parties, and welcoming people into their home. On the outside looking in, the Armstrong house was the best place to visit in Compton. The food was always good and the drinks were always flowing, thanks to my parents. When it came to the children’s contributions to the household, we each had different talents. My older sister was the chef, my older brother, Russel, was the actor/rapper, and I was the nerd.

Caren Armstrong, my older sister, is shorter than the average woman with a light enough complexion to reveal her veins. She was, and still is, an amazing cook. She would put together a phenomenal meal in a heartbeat. As much as Caren cooked, she never made time to teach me anything about cooking. She said she wanted me to focus on school. Her main goal was to assure that I focused on my studies. There was almost nothing I could do without her mentioning school. If I wanted to nap after getting home from school, she would require that my homework be completed first. If I needed new supplies for a school project, before asking Ma, I would first have to spell out the words of the school supplies I needed to Caren. I will never forget the time in second grade that I needed Crayola crayons for a history project. I knew I couldn’t spell out the word Crayola. Not to mention, the word crayons was also a bit tricky for me to spell. So, I secretly called Ma at work and told the operator it was important. Ma got on the phone, which was very rare by the way, and said in the thickest Belizean accent, “Gyal, what you need?!” Before I could respond, my sister grabbed the phone and said, “Ma, I will get her list and call you back.” I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that I actually got Ma on the phone during work hours. I also couldn’t believe that my sister just let Ma hang up. Caren turned to me and said, “You know the deal, what do you need?” I responded, “Crayons.” She replied, “Okay, what kind?” I responded “Crayola.” Then, she said the very thing I dreaded. The thing that lead me to secretly call Ma in the first place “Spell it.” Oh, man. There I was, seven years old with a history project that was due the next day, in the living room trying to spell Crayola crayons. That evening, we started around 5:00 P.M., and I remember the dialogue going something like:

Me: K-r-

Caren: NOPE

Me: C-k-

Caren: NOPE

Me: C….

Caren: No response

Me: Am I right?

Caren: Chanel, spell the damn word!

Me: Well, I need to know what it starts with!

Caren: You need to know how to spell the things you need.

Me: *Now crying* C-r-a-e

Caren: NOPE

This went on for hours.

Ma came home from work, showered, ate dinner, and watched her Channel 5 Nightly News. Once I noticed it was getting late and I had about two more commercials before Ma locked up the house for the remainder of the night, I changed my mind. I told Caren, “You know, sis, I actually need colored pencils.” I wanted to end the comedy show of me not being able to spell Crayola crayons. You know what happened seconds later? I spelled colored pencils like it was my first name, and we all celebrated by hopping in our station wagon and driving to K-Mart.

Caren was a great older sister. Even though I was much younger than her and the baby of the family, she held me accountable and would always say, “You’re different Chanel, stay focused.” I did my best to make my big sister proud. If I made her proud, she would relay the message to Ma and I would get rewarded. If I let her down, she would relay the message to Ma and I wouldn’t be able to sit down at school the next day. [Insert your interpretation of the previous sentence here.]

I love Caren dearly, which is why my world was shattered when I found out from one of my paternal half-sisters that she was adopted. The drama. I tried confirming the allegations with Caren at the time of discovery, but she either denied it or said things like, “If I was adopted, you would have known by now.” So, I went on living a couple more years in denial.

I remember walking in our bedroom that Caren, Russel, and I shared and seeing Caren cry uncontrollably. Her tears seemed like a reaction to being let down or disappointed, and naturally, I felt guilty. I said to her, “I’m so sorry I didn’t do my homework. I will do it right now.” She responded “Chanel, my dad died.” I froze. After moments passed, I asked, “Who, Chuck? He’s not dead, he’s in Indiana living with his girlfriend.” She wiped her tears and appeared somewhat frustrated and responded, “No, my real dad.” Real dad? What’s that? Now 10 years old, with a little more childhood wisdom under my belt, it hit me. Caren was not my biological sister. There was no blood relation between us. Instead of feeling bad about the passing away of her “real dad,” I felt betrayed. I couldn’t believe the entire family kept this secret from me my whole life. I began to cry hysterically, and I ran to the backyard to get consoled by our two Rottweiler dogs. My fake sister was in the bedroom crying about the death of her real dad and I was in the backyard with our pups crying about not having a real sister.

I thought about all the things she made me do pertaining to school and how I didn’t have to listen to her anymore. After a few hours spent with the dogs, I started to feel…relieved. I felt that I could now slack. It was on! I remember mumbling all of Ma’s favorite four-letter words and ending my rant with “I don’t have to do any of this, I’m grown now.” I went in the house, and at some point, I told Caren I was sorry she lost her dad. I asked her if she knew him and why I never knew him. During that conversation, I felt disconnected from Caren. As heartbroken as I was, I was equally as happy not to have the responsibility of being the perfect student or the smart little sister.

The months after my sister lost her father were very rough. I shared with all my friends at school that she was adopted, and somehow, they all already knew. Very strange. Where was I when the global announcement was made that Natalie and Russel had a fake sister? One of my closest childhood friends said, “Well, you and Russel are super dark and she almost looks White.” To me, that meant nothing. Ma always told us that we are not defined by our skin color, but by the letters that come after our last name. Either way, neither definition changed the fact that my older sister was adopted.

Weeks after finding out my sister was adopted, I started slacking in school. I didn’t turn in homework, and I went outside to play with the neighborhood kids immediately after school instead of studying. Caren never said anything. I thought she stopped caring, but I later realized she was in mourning while I was celebrating my homework freedom. My report card during this season revealed a couple of C’s, and I knew my life was in jeopardy.

To backtrack a bit, I failed kindergarten because I didn’t see the point in tracing letters and felt uncomfortable napping on a dusty rug with a map of the United States. Ma was faced with the choice of having me repeat kindergarten or letting me advance to first grade. After a meeting with the principal, Ma came home and had a very long “talk” with me. Needless to say, I advanced to the first grade and aced everything. From that point on, there was a level of expectation set on me to continue to ace everything. Yes, at six years old, I was labeled “the nerd.” So when this particular report card arrived with more C’s than A’s or B’s, I knew I was going to be faced with more long “talks” with Ma.

After reviewing my report card, Ma looked me directly in the eyes and said, “What is this?” She sat all three of us on the daybed in our room where we all sat in total shock. My sister couldn’t believe she let this happen. My brother couldn’t believe I allowed this to happen. And I couldn’t understand what the big deal was. C’s are still passing grades, right? I was still on track to start middle school. During that time, Ma gave me a chance to speak, and I explained to her what happened the best way a 10-year-old could. I told her my sister stopped paying attention to me, and I played with my friends instead of doing boring homework. I also told her I was annoyed that everyone knew I had a fake sister except me. “A FAKE WHAT?!” Ma couldn’t believe what I said. So, her belt and I became very familiar with one another. Afterwards, Ma explained to me the definition of a sister in the sternest voice you could imagine. She made it clear that a real sister was the sister I had. Someone who loves you unconditionally, someone who is there for you during difficult times, and someone who nurtures you just like a mom would. She went on to say that there is never a right time to tell your biological children that one of their siblings is adopted and no matter what, she was all of our mom. Ma closed the mini lecture by telling me if I said anything else about “fake sister,” she would send me to live with my biological dad.

As it turned out, I didn’t get disciplined for my report card. I got disciplined for giving up on my family. After listening to what Ma said a sister was/is, I realized I was the fake sister. I didn’t show my older sister unconditional love. I was not there for her during her tough time, and I definitely wasn’t nurturing. I later apologized to Caren and she said, “It’s okay, Chanel. You’re different. Focus on school, I know you love me.”


Russel Armstrong, my older brother, is very talented and very good looking. His caramel skin complexion pairs well with his brown eyes and soft curly hair. Russel stands around 5’9 and was the crush of all of my middle and high school friends. He was involved in Disney movies and featured in clothing magazines as a kid model. He can dance, sing, rap, tap, and literally, do it all. I could recall trying to mimic him and it was like my body wasn’t able to do those things. It’s safe to say that early on in life, Russel and I were very jealous of each other. I wanted to be able to do the creative things he did, and he wanted to be able to perform academically as well as I did in school. I remember one night, when I was seven years old, I was watching the movie The Bodyguard in our living room. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a scene where Whitney Houston walks away from Kevin Costner to get on the plane and the song I Will Always Love You begins to play. I’m not sure what happened to me this particular night or what had gotten into me, but I sang that song from the bottom of my heart. I didn’t know where the desire to sing came from, especially since every time I tried to sing my family would say something like, “Please stick to your books.” However, this particular night, I just let go of every insecurity in my seven-year-old world and began singing. To my surprise, I knew all the words and while singing, I really felt like I was in love. I had the remote control in one hand serving as a microphone, while my eyes were closed shut. My other hand was on my lower abdomen, helping me commit to hitting the high notes. The credits scrolled as I sang my heart out. Once the movie was over, I opened my eyes to Ma, Russel, and Caren standing in the doorway. They all applauded and cheered me on. Russel turned to Ma and said, “Yes, Ma! She CAN sing!” Ma responded, “Yes, but first she needs lessons.” For the first time in life, my brother and I had a connection…a common denominator. With him being six years older, it was difficult to share a common interest, but this particular night shined a light on an area we could potentially share together.

Ma always goes the extra mile to provide resources if she knows what a person’s interest are, especially if the resources are for her children. After my solo performance in the living room that night, she enrolled me into singing lessons with my brother. We went to Carson twice a week, stood next to an elderly lady while she played the piano, and sang vowel sounds. It wasn’t very exciting, but I enjoyed this time with my brother. Learning how to sing together allowed us to connect in ways that I never knew were possible. I was also able to see that even though he had what I considered natural talent, Russel had to work very hard to perfect it. There were times that we would have two-hour sessions with the instructor and only sing “A-E-I-O-U” in different notes. Once I got to a place of knowing how to really hold a note, our instructor enrolled us into a recital. Finally, I was on stage. My brother performed first. His long curly hair and freshly-pressed suit and tie preceded him. Not to mention, his natural engagement with the audience. I was presented next as Russel’s sister. I walked out with my ponytails that pointed in every geographical direction except south. I wore a pink dress, black shoes, and the classic white-ruffled socks that Ma loved so much. I walked to the center of the stage, stood at attention, and searched the crowd. The pianist cued me in, but I was still scanning the audience. I couldn’t find Ma and Caren. After the pianist started the song over for the tenth time and what seemed like forever, I found my mother and sister! I waved, and everyone laughed. I forgot the words to Earth, Wind & Fire’s September midway through the song. I sang the song in multiple notes, and eventually, it clicked. At the end of my performance, I took a bow, thanked the pianist, and walked off stage. I remember my family being very proud and my brother bragging all day. I also remember feeling like I wasn’t as cheerful as everyone else. Yeah, I was able to get on stage and sing a song, but I wasn’t as happy as my brother was walking off stage.

On the car ride home, Ma asked why I appeared to have an attitude, and I told her, “This is not what I want to do, there was a science fair today.” I could see the disappointment on my brother’s face, but he leaned over, hugged me and said, “That’s okay, Doogie Howser.” I was relieved to know that he appreciated the fact that I wasn’t interested in singing vowels and performing on stage and that my true joy came from school.

Shortly after that recital, Ma hired contractors to work on the house and I built a miniature house out of the scraps they left around. I sat down with the electrician and he taught me how to run the electricity in my miniature house. I must say that sitting down with the neighborhood electrician was more exciting than belting out A-E-I-O-U. I submitted my miniature house project into my school’s math and science fair that year, and I won first place. Later in the semester, I was invited to the Compton Unified School District Math and Science Fair. I didn’t win anything, but I remember feeling more satisfied than I did walking off the stage after singing September a few months prior. My miniature house project sparked my interest in math and science.

Math and science weren’t the only interests that were sparked during this enlightening time. I had noticed my brother’s group of friends and their unconditional love for him. These guys were very well structured with their hangouts. Same neighborhood. Same neighborhood corner. Same Chuck Taylors. Hmm, Russel has real brothers outside of the home, I thought. I would pass them Monday through Friday walking home from school and they would say, “What’s up, Lil’ Russel.” Their recognition of me made me feel safe, and I felt like I wanted to be a part of them. So, I started hanging with them for a couple of days. Then one day I went to meet up with them and they said, “You gotta go.” I didn’t know what happened, so I left. I walked home and stopped to hang out with the girls my age who hung out at the park near our home and got the same response, “You gotta go.” Troubled by this, I asked one of the guys that was in my class at school, “Why can’t I hang out with y’all?” He explained to me that I had to be “put on” in order to be a part of the gang. GANG? I was shocked! Knowing how strict Ma was, I couldn’t believe Russel got away with it. My curiosity got the best of me. I heard of gangs in the news but didn’t know a thing about them. I asked around to see how someone gets “put on,” and I went to the local park the day I thought it was going to happen for me. Ready to take a beating, my best friends from school intervened and said, “Aye! Your brother told one of our big homies that you’re off limits.” I was as confused as any 11-year-old could be trying to make friends. How did my brother know I was doing this? I never talked to him about joining a gang, and I really just wanted to impress him. I told my classmate, “I think you got the wrong brother, my brother didn’t say anything to me.” Because I put up a big fight about the rejection to join, they had “the big homie” come talk to me. He arrived at the park, looked at me, and said, “Nah, girl. Get out of here. Don’t you have homework or some science project to do? Your brother said you can’t join. Basketball and school…that’s it for you. We will look out for you whenever you come to the park, but he made it very clear that you are not allowed to join.” This made me very upset, but also very proud to know that I had an entire gang looking out for me. I confronted Russel and told him how mean and selfish he was to deny me the chance to share the same friends. I expressed my desire to be in the gang and my brother said the same thing I had been hearing from my sister, “You’re different. Do well in school, and make us all proud.” Early on in life, this really motivated me, but I didn’t know that trying to make everyone proud would hinder me later on in life.


Ma was born and raised in Belize, a small country in Central America. The country’s primary language is English, but over half the population is bilingual with Spanish being the second most common language spoken. The English spoken is called Belizean Creole or, simply, Creole. Most Belizean natives have a very distinct accent. It’s very different, but also very similar to what you’d hear in Jamaica or the Bahamas. This accent can sound very nice if the person speaking is in a good mood or being playful. This accent can also send chills through your entire body if the person speaking it is in a bad mood or means business. Ma mostly spoke the later version of Creole. She meant business all the time. She also understood the importance of cultural competency and being humbled. She never wanted me to just be smart or just get A’s, she wanted me to have good character while doing well in school.

The very first time I got straight A’s, I was in first grade. These grades came after failing kindergarten, so I was a little proud and boastful. I paraded around the house singing some song I made up about being smart with straight A’s when I knew my siblings were not doing as well in school. Ma quickly pulled me to the side and said, “How do you think Russel and Caren feel with you dancing around with your report card? Not everyone needs to know what grades you got unless they ask. You don’t have to make others feel bad by showing off your perfect report card, besides you’re only in the first grade.” Noticing early on that I boasted about my successes, Ma began sending me to Belize every summer break to stay with family. My aunts, uncles, and cousins who I stayed with all loved having me there and they always made me feel at home, but I couldn’t help but feel homesick every single day. I went from living in California year round to now only living there for nine months and living in Belize for three months. I never paraded around with a report card again after my first summer in Belize. I learned very quickly that being humble was just as important as being successful.

As a person who grew up in a third world country dreaming of coming to the United States of America for a better life, Ma was not one for excuses. I became well versed in her story of how she came to America. This story was told to me many times growing up and was told even more times as I struggled through college. The first time I heard this story, I was in seventh grade and Ma thought it was a great idea for me to start taking college classes. She enrolled me into a bridge program at California State University of Los Angeles (CSULA). I started the program with a college math class. At 12 years old, I attended a lecture with college-aged students. The class started at 6:30 P.M. and ended at 7:30 P.M. One particular night, I walked out with all my classmates like I normally would. Some walked in the opposite direction toward the parking lot and others walked to the pick-up area with me. I witnessed each student get picked up, one after the other. I even saw students from other evening classes get out, come to the same pick-up area, and get picked up by their loved ones. After all the students were gone, I pulled out my Nokia cell phone and played one of my favorite phone games, Snake. I played it for an hour or two before hearing the horn of Ma’s 1995 brown Ford Aerostar van. “Gyal, come on. I ain’t got all day!” I got in the car and was highly upset. It would have been culturally accepting to say “Goodnight” upon entering her car, but I didn’t say one word. I slammed the passenger door shut, struggled to take off my backpack, shoved my backpack on the floor between my legs, and forcefully pulled my seatbelt across my body until it clicked. I ended my dramatic scene with a big exhale while crossing my arms. Unable to look at Ma because of the frustration I built up while waiting, I looked out the window and began crying. She asked “Now what in di hell is wrong with you?!” I couldn’t believe she was mad. I was the one who had every right to be mad, or at least that’s what I thought. I responded, “It’s not fair that you put me in a college class where I don’t know anything that’s going on, and you can’t even pick me up on time. Don’t you know the class gets out by 7:30? It’s almost 11 o’clock. Don’t you know I still have homework to do from my school? How do you expect me to do all of this?” Why oh why did I think it was okay to vent my frustration and dissatisfaction with my mother and end the conversation with an open-ended question? “Gyal, nuh mek I cum ova deh and slap di shit outta yuh! Rememba who bring yuh inna dis world, okay? Okay!” How did I respond to all of that? With utter silence. And that’s when Ma’s story telling about her arrival to the states began. “You know… when I was 18, I had the chance to come to the States, I came here legally after I finished school. I got all the way here ready to start my life and my aunt who raised me did not want to see me succeed. She sent people here to pick me up and take me back to Belize. Do you know how devastating that was? When I got back to my country, she beat me until I was blind. She told me I would never be anything and that I was to stay put in Belize. I didn’t have my mom back home with me because she was here in America working. I had to do everything in my power to return to America, and I did. So don’t ask me how you are supposed to take college classes when I came to the states with nothing and now have college degrees with a managerial position in accounting.” After Ma’s monologue, the rest of the ride home was silent.

As a child, I had never thought of Ma as a foreigner, and I never knew she had to fight so hard to come to America. My thinking was childlike. We lived such an Americanish-dream life, I assumed we were all born and raised in America. I never gave much thought to who Ma was before she was “Ma.” That is, before that particular ride home from CSULA. After mulling over the visualization of someone beating Ma because she wanted better for her life, I felt pained. I stopped complaining about being picked up four hours after class was over. There was/is no need to complain about much after hearing a story like that.

Ma was, and still is, extremely non-emotional. She didn’t talk about her childhood at all. She never talked about her time as a little girl, her high school boyfriends, nothing. It was as if she wanted to erase her life in Belize and begin her memory bank from the second time she migrated to America. When I say Ma is resilient, she is in every sense of the word. Having her as a role model growing up is why I am who I am today. She would always tell me that an education was the only thing people cannot take away from you. She pushed education so much that I never knew college immediately following high school was optional until I started applying my senior year of high school. Some of my friends told me they were planning to take time off from school or simply preparing to work and not attend college. Ma’s rule in the house was “you go to school, and I will take care of the rest.” She meant that literally.

Ma paid attention to detail, especially when it came to understanding me. She recognized at an early age that I loved shoes and would practically do any household chores without question just to get my feet in a nice pair of sneakers. My obsession for sneakers started in elementary school. I loved everything about shoes; the different colorways, the stitching, the comfort, the variety, and how they have the ability to complete your outfit while telling a story about your personality. All of my classmates wore the latest and greatest Nikes, while I wore the latest and greatest K-Mart and/or Payless brand tennis shoes. Don’t get me wrong, my shoes were functional; they just weren’t stylish in my or my friends’ opinion nor did they tell much about my personality. I would get made fun of every single day because of my shoes. There was this one kid who was the ultimate comedian. Each day I arrived at school, he would announce, “Oh, here comes Nat with the biscuits! Ladies and gentlemen, let’s check out the newest biscuits on the streets.” And because this kid was so popular, my school nickname became “Nat with the biscuits.” I remember telling Ma how it was not fair that she would send me to school in non-stylish, off-brand shoes. Her response was always, “When you get your education and start working in medicine, you can buy your own damn Nikes. For now, you’re going to wear what I buy.” Education was the answer to every question or complaint I had.

Once Ma caught on to how highly I valued nice shoes, she then began encouraging me with them. When I started high school, Ma made a deal with me. If I maintained straight A’s, she would buy me a new pair of shoes every Friday. What?! This deal had me laser focused in high school, and I easily held up my end of the bargain. Every Friday, we either went to the Lakewood mall or Carson mall to pick out a pair of Nikes. I mostly picked out Jordans and Nike Air Max sneakers. After a few months, I started picking out shoes I didn’t need in California like Timberland boots. I loved going to school on Mondays, I went from “Nat with the biscuits” to “Nat stay in Nikes.” Ma was a genius. I didn’t realize how hard I could work for something I really wanted until she challenged me. Her shoe deal helped me realize that I had to put in the time and effort to earn grades that reflected my hard work in school. But just like with anything else with teenagers, I reached a point where I got comfortable. I had so many shoes that I decided to slack a little bit academically.

There was a time in high school when I played varsity basketball and our team made it to play in the California Interscholastic Federation championship game, otherwise known as the CIF championship game at the Los Angeles Forum. Our team practiced for weeks to prepare for this game, and there were a lot of plays designed around me both defensively and offensively. That same day, progress reports were mailed out. I remember warming up on the court in complete awe. I was on the same court that Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once graced. It would be an understatement to say that I was pumped. As the team was doing layup drills, someone said, “Nat, look your mom is here, but she looks mad.” I turned around quickly and Ma had come onto the court and said in the thickest of creole accent, “LET’S GO!” I replied, “What?” She repeated, “Let’s go! You’re not playing in this game. Your progress report came and you have a C in calculus and a C in physics. You don’t need to be here, you need to be studying.” I was beyond crushed. She didn’t understand how important this game was to my team, my school, or most importantly, to me. I tried arguing that those grades were not official because they were on a progress report, but that just made Ma’s argument stronger. “Well, then you have time to get things together.” As long as I stayed focused on school and did well, I had whatever I wanted. If I was not focused or slacked in any way, I received nothing from Ma. She would take everything I loved away except clothes and books. A lot of people say that I was spoiled growing up, but I simply did what Ma said and she did what she promised. And when I did the opposite of what Ma said, she would make me regret it. Any time I wanted to quit or complain about school, Ma would start her story, “You know, when I was 18…” After a while, I began mocking her as she re-told the story about coming to America from Belize.

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