Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
In the winter of 2002, when I was 16, my family of seven was evicted from our one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, N.Y., and we were homeless. I went to stay with my aunt in Manhattan while the rest of my family moved in with my grandmother in the Bronx until we could find another place to live.
Three months later, my mother and my aunt had an argument, and my aunt told me to leave. I'm the oldest, so I thought I had a responsibility to help my mother—even if I had nowhere to go. To avoid arguments, I lied and told her I could stay with a friend. For two nights, I rode the subway, riding the trains with the longest routes from the first stop to the last.
On the first night, a flirtatious passenger asked, "Yo, gorgeous, what you doing here so late?" "Oh, I'm a bartender," I lied. I got off the train, pretending to be an exhausted bartender heading home, and then sneaked to the other platform to ride the other way. I would have felt so embarrassed if he had figured out I was lying and that I was homeless.
After those two nights, I had had enough, so I stayed at a friend's house until my mother took us all to the city's emergency housing center, which places homeless families in shelters until they find housing. The center was filthy and chaotic. People physically fought over things like being skipped in line. I remember my mother arguing with the workers because one night we weren't placed in a shelter until 1 a.m. Having a normal life was impossible.
At school, I looked at my classmates and boiled with envy. They had homes that probably smelled like fabric softener, homes where they could watch TV and surf the Internet without worrying about the electricity bill. They had stable, normal lives, and I didn't. So I stopped going to school.
During that time, I became close with a 19-year-old girl whose family was at the emergency housing center. She had also stopped going to school and told me how she planned to go back to the emergency center someday when she got pregnant. "I ain't going back to that filth, that hell house!" I told her.
I suddenly realized that I was not like her. I liked school. I didn't want to be a teen mother (like my mother), and I didn't want to be poor. I realized that I was cutting, failing, and dropping out of high school. I said to myself, "This is not me. I like to learn."
I went back to school, more focused than ever, and made the honor roll for the first time. Meanwhile, my family was placed in a semipermanent shelter, so some sense of normalcy returned.
I graduated in June, and I'm now a freshman at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., my first choice of the eight colleges I applied to.
Tabitha Ferrer grew up in New York and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.