“Ma, one day you will never have to work again! I will be a famous football player and I’ll buy you a house, a car, and you will never have to worry again!” These are the words I used to tell my mother, a single parent who raised my three siblings and me. I can still picture the big smile on her face and the way her eyes would start to tear up. Everything I did in life was — and still is — for her.
My mom worked long hours for the East Boston YMCA, and although she struggled, receiving Section 8 housing and food stamps to make ends meet, she made sure our family had everything we needed and more. Sure, we didn’t have the glamorous birthday parties that some of our friends had, or the newest pair of Jordan sneakers, but we still got a cake and brand-new shoes from Al’s Shoe Store in East Boston. And although we didn’t get many presents on Christmas, we did get some on Three Kings Day, the holiday my mother’s family celebrated in Puerto Rico. Ma would speak Spanish to us every day and sing a variety of Latino songs from dusk to dawn. We may not have had much, but Ma did everything in her power to make us feel her love. And we did.
I come from Orient Heights, the small neighborhood in East Boston. The street I grew up on, Waldemar Avenue, was home to the Orient Heights housing projects. Once in a while, I drive by there and reminisce about the many kids running about in my childhood. Whether we were in the street playing Manhunt, riding bikes, shooting hoops, or playing “tackle the man” with the football, we were children having fun outside. Many of us eventually moved on to other neighborhoods, some stayed. When I return now, it’s nice to see the new generations running around.
If you grew up in Orient Heights, your friends became family. I can still hear mothers call out the windows for their children to return home once the street lights went dark. “Anthony!!” my mother would shout, at the top of her lungs, her voice ricocheting off the buildings and the red wall leading to the next street of buildings. “I guess it’s time to go home,” we’d say to each other. “Same place, same time!” was usually everyone’s reply. That’s why, when people ask me what I think of East Boston, I tell them it’s a beautiful place with rich traditions and history, along with amazing people of different backgrounds.
My siblings and I went to the neighborhood schools. We attended after-school and summer programs at East Boston Social Centers, where we’d get homework help and stay out of trouble while our mom was at work — or so she hoped. But there are many ways for young children to get into trouble. On a field trip to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, I walked into a store that sold everything a young teenager would want. I purchased a butterfly knife there and carried it every day for “protection.” Why? Although I was a good kid, I was still a young Black Hispanic teen who looked much older than I was. I never planned on using the knife, but growing up in the city, it just made me feel safe.
One day, I was caught showing the knife to another student at school. That incident landed me at the Barron Center, a place for troubled youth in the school system. Seeing how much this hurt my mother, I never wanted to do wrong again.
I was given a second chance and gained a different outlook on life. But many of my peers did not, and many didn’t learn from their mistakes. On top of that, many didn’t think they had the option to venture outside of East Boston — to explore opportunities that would help them grow as people and support healthy careers. The paths many chose kept them from seeing beyond our hometown, which is OK. But I felt I needed to get out. I wanted to be like Terrell Davis, a University of Georgia graduate who became a running back for the Denver Broncos. I would go to college and fulfill my dream of playing in the NFL. That’s how I would take my family out of the projects. I’d come back to East Boston as the “hometown hero” and tell all the young kids that no matter where you came from, or what your living situation was, you could also experience life in other places — and you could take your family with you, too.
Wanting to take care of my family and one day, children of my own, drove many of my decisions. It meant going to school every day and maintaining a high GPA. It also meant giving total effort when it came to playing sports. Just doing the minimum was unacceptable; success would not come easy. With all those pressures, I faced a lot of anxiety. I didn’t want to fail. I wanted to be known as the kid from East Boston who “made it.”
After my high school graduation at 17, I was ready to attend UMass Amherst and attempt to join the football team as a walk-on freshman. I just knew that my ambition coupled with my work ethic would lead me to succeed. I packed up the car and drove to Amherst with my mother and godmother. I stared out the window and daydreamed about the thousands of fans cheering my name as I ran for touchdown after touchdown. As the ride got longer, I started to see the buildings turn to trees, and the trees turn to open land. Where are we going? Why does this seem like a different world? I thought.
I’d never been away from home, away from my mother and siblings. When we arrived on campus, I was overcome with a feeling I’d never experienced before. My heart began to beat out of my chest. No one knew who I was. I was scared.
After I unpacked, my mother and godmother gave me hugs and kissed me goodbye, and I watched them drive away. I instantly broke down into tears and wanted to go home. The life that I had wanted so badly suddenly felt like much more than I could handle. I called one of my high school basketball coaches, and confided in him. He picked me up from campus that night and I withdrew from UMass Amherst.
Change is a common fear, but once people grow comfortable with change, life can be limitless. My mother urged me to further my education and to get back on the football field — I was too smart, too talented not to, she insisted. After a brief stint at Salem State (brief because there was no football team there), I transferred to Framingham State. It was too far to commute to every day from East Boston, so I would have to get over my fear of leaving.
I made the football team, and the basketball team, becoming team captain. We won multiple championships in football, and I was named a second-team all MASCAC (Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference) player. More importantly, I got my degree in business and graduated cum laude.
But it wasn’t until I got my master’s degree in education and started to both teach and coach that I realized I’d “made it” — even though I didn’t make it to the NFL. I view my success as being able to crush some of the social barriers and stereotypes that society has built for young men of color. Being a Black Hispanic man already meant the odds of going to college were stacked against me. Yet I’m not only a first-generation college graduate, I’ve paid off all my student debt, purchased a home, and am working toward buying a house for my mother, just as I once promised her.
Last year, a student came to tell me, “Mr. Figueroa, I got into my dream school, LSU!” With her face full of excitement, she said, “Thank you for never giving up on me. Thank you for seeing me when I was at my lowest point and pushing me to be better!” I could see a lot of myself in her. She’s earned opportunities to explore far beyond East Boston and may one day be in a position to support and inspire her family, too. These are the moments that mean the most to me and have made my entire journey worth it. Giving back to my students and my community has made me richer than I ever could’ve imagined.
Tyrone Anthony Figueroa teaches ninth-grade geometry at East Boston High School and is head coach for the boys’ junior varsity football and varsity basketball teams, and assistant varsity football coach. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.