Not Born in the USA
I came to the States when I was 8 years old and during most of my adolescence felt like I didn’t get the memo on how to be American. I still cringe looking back on how much I didn’t know and how lonely it all felt. I am one of six girls, and my mom, one sister and I came to New Jersey, leaving a comfortable, middle class existence in Jamaica. Immigrating to America took a lot of getting used to. We lived off my mother’s paltry income, even though she worked many double shifts as a nurse’s aide. I was very aware that as hard as my mother worked, we were poor. It was difficult to come to terms with our socio-economic state, especially knowing that we had life much better in Jamaica. Negotiating the disconnect between once having and now not-having, I had polished my introduction. Before stating my name, I could hear myself saying, “My two eldest sisters are in medical school.” This made it clear that we weren’t regular poor folks
I can’t write about how I lived in a church basement and was on public assistance before making it to the Olympics aka Lolo Jones. Mom paid our bills on time, we always ate really well (she’s a terrific cook), and I am an amateur athlete. However, we lived in a tough neighborhood where entertainment was street fights, so much so that when I was in middle school, one girl stabbed another to death two blocks from my bus stop. I was not among the crowd that watched because my sister and I were always to come straight home after school. Sheila, my mom, had rules for us, and one of them was not to act like we didn’t have any “brought-ups-y.”
When I had the opportunity to interview at The Peddie School for high school, I ironed a crease down the middle of my pin-striped jeans and laid them out with a crisp white shirt. I slept in rollers that night so my hair would be smooth and properly feathered. This was dressing up. At least I knew not to carry my purple vent brush in my back pocket the way I did at my public school. I had convinced my mother, who was quite fashionable and proper in her day, that this was the appropriate outfit to wear. We were in America and the rules were different. I can only imagine what the conversation was between the admission committee. I was certainly out of my league at this new school. I didn’t even know this was a league. Again, no one had sent the memo. The only way I could attend this ten thousand dollar a year school was if they offered me a full scholarship. They offered me a full scholarship for all four years.
Fast forward almost 30 years and there I was in France representing The United States of America at the Duathlon World Championships. This is as American as it gets (I suppose the Olympics would be more American, but you get the point). To hear people scream, “Go USA” was supremely powerful, and I felt proud to be representing the country. It’s not lost on me, however, that my race wheels cost more than the car my mother drove: a station wagon that she would drive my sister and me, with the trunk open, at 5:30 in the mornings. Kaye would take one side of the street and I the other. We delivered the local newspaper The Trentonian to two streets of neighbors. I doubt that the little money we made amounted to much, but my mom thought it important that we have a work ethic and understand the value of money. We loved and hated that job.
There is every indication that I am now American. I am a citizen; I have a uniform that reads “USA” ; I have brought home a medal for this country; and I have a certificate from USAT that says not only am I American, I am “All American.”
As I replay the race, and think about my helmet error which cost me precious seconds, I think once again that I just didn’t get the memo. How could I not know? How could I wear jeans to an interview? I often talk about putting things in the memory bank in order to be a better athlete. My memory bank consists of all the sacrifices that have been made for me and all the memos that I now have. It’s no longer lonely out there. I have the support of my incredible family and friends. And I am always learning.