Behind the Spotlight, Part 1

question whether people really understand what it means to be in the spotlight. When you live in the spotlight, you feel alive and worthy of the attention. But there’s a dark side that’s rarely discussed.

I stepped into the spotlight because of my unique story. I was illiterate, and underachieved in my academics because I missed school repeatedly. I was not able to start and complete a full academic school year until the seventh grade. In spite of my lack of literacy, I worked hard and was able to become an honor-roll student. My drive for education became my identity.

My story gained recognition, and I was thrust into the spotlight. I shared my experience of achieving academic success while struggling with literacy. And by the time I reached eighteen, I became a “poster child.”

When I stepped away from the spotlight, my life spiraled downhill. I was lost not being identified as a “poster child.” I hit a rock bottom depression because I thrived off being in the spotlight. As a poster child, I found my voice in the foster care community. And so, my validation and self-worth were completely defined by being in the spotlight.

Passing the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) was my desperate attempt to remain in the spotlight. I remember vividly the first time I took the LSAT.

I stood in a line that dragged around the building. We all stood there with the same hope of passing the LSAT. The test center was located in downtown Berkeley, Calif. It was a spacious hall set up with square tables and foldout chairs. The air conditioner provided a cool atmosphere, but the spirit of the people left a warm feeling of excitement.

I immediately made my way to the front row, and sat on the left-hand side of the table.

“What law school do you want to attend?” a young man asked me with enthusiasm. As I glanced to my right, I replied, “I’m partially accepted into the University of San Francisco School of Law. All I need is a score of 156.”

“You don’t have to worry about anything.” As he spoke, my thoughts immediately slipped into familiar territory; in my mind, I had a great deal to worry about. My entire being was filled with worry and uncertainty. Although I had been partially admitted, I still had work to do.

“What prep course did you take?” he asked. I smiled and quietly told him that I had taken the Kaplan Review course.

“I took the Kaplan Review, too,” he stated. “They are expensive. I paid $2,500 for a ten-week course.”

Our conversation was interrupted by the announcement that the test was about to begin.

“Please place your bags aside. Cell phones are not allowed. Place your ID upright to the left of your test booklet and remove all items from your table.”

I sat in front where I could hear the test prompter clearly. I could feel my heart racing a thousand miles per hour. My palms grew sweaty, and my throat slowly tightened. I took a deep breath and paused, and as I looked down at my test booklet, my thoughts began to reminisce about my journey and how far I had come to be at this place. My mind drifted back to a time in 1991.

I remember staring at the refrigerator at home, and thinking, “I’m hungry but there’s no food. I need to figure out what I can do with my life so I can eat and never worry about being hungry again.”

I was 8 years old, and the presidential election was at its peak. In that moment, I remember hearing Bill Clinton’s voice from the TV. The thought surfaced, “Presidents make a lot of money, I’m sure Bill Clinton is not worried about where his next meal is coming from.”

Then I thought, “Okay, I will be President of the United States.” I paused and asked myself how was I going to accomplish that? Then the second thought emerged: “I will be a lawyer, then senator, then President of the United States.” Then, “How the hell can I be a lawyer? I can’t spell. I don’t even know how to spell refrigerator.” In this moment, I was a child trying to wrap my mind around the recent death of my father and having a mother who I believed was on an extended vacation, but who I would later learn suffered from drug and alcohol addiction.

“Please have a seat. We will now begin testing. You will have 35 minutes for each section. If you finish early, please place your pencils down. Do not move to the next section until you are instructed.”

I looked around the room and wondered what the stories of each individual test taker were. How did they arrive at this point? And what ignited their passion to be a lawyer? For me, it was a long journey. I had come so far from that 8-year-old child who was timid and clouded by self-doubt.

When my father died, I remember going into complete shock. The adults around me were not aware of my internal suffering, and for six months I remained silent, literally not speaking a word to anyone. I was isolated, and I believed no one knew I existed because on my father’s side, my paternal grandmother suffered from mental health issues, and many of my aunts and uncles either had mental health disorders, drug addictions or both. And on my mom’s side, my maternal grandmother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and my uncles suffered from drug addictions.

At the end of the day, no one saw me in my misery; they were unaware I had been silent for six consecutive months.

I was able to escape sorrow by watching TV for countless hours. I watched morning talk shows, soaps and the evening news, which helped to fill my days. I was left unattended and lacked proper adult supervision, but television helped me cope with the dysfunctions that surrounded me. I had missed school repeatedly, and eventually stopped going because no one was available to take me regularly. I did not bother to ask because I had grown tired of being teased for wearing dirty clothes and not having my hair combed.

I was left scared and alone, wondering why no one would ask me, “How are you feeling?” Or, at the least, greet me with a smile to signal that they saw me.

I was able to maintain a peaceful state of being because all I knew was silence. My maternal grandmother was the same. She would sit in front of the TV in a daze. I often wondered what she was thinking because at times it seemed the TV was watching her. I know now that my grandmother was consumed with worry.

We were poor in every way imaginable. We stayed in a motel where I slept with my grandmother and older sister in a twin bed. There were times when I woke up in the middle of the night hearing my grandmother cry in her sleep. I would look at her with deep sadness; her cry was painfully raw.

My grandmothers were polar opposites of one another. My maternal grandmother was peaceful and had a graceful disposition. She had a passive spirit, never cussed, yelled or showed any signs of anger or frustration. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother, who suffered from mental health issues, was filled with anger and bitterness. She was emotionally abusive, and would say to me, “You slut … you will never be anything in life.”

I couldn’t understand why a grandmother would speak such harsh words to a child. I often blamed myself for doing something to cause her to hate me. Now I know my grandmother couldn’t help herself because she suffered from schizophrenia and was often drunk when she would rant and shame me for my existence.

Growing up with uncertainty was my norm. I never knew when my mom would return home from being gone for days, then weeks, which eventually grew into months and later became years. By the time I stood in front of the refrigerator door, dreaming of being a lawyer, I had concluded my mom had died just like my father. I was unable to identify and process the grief I was experiencing from my father’s death and the abandonment of my mother.

“Excuse me, can I talk to you?” I said, in a timid voice, to my third grade math teacher.

“Yes,” she replied kindly. I informed her that I would be absent from school because I had to attend my father’s funeral.

“Oh my God! Are you okay? I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said in a shocked voice as she threw her hands over her mouth.

I was numb to my teacher’s reaction. I thought that I should have broken down in tears or had some kind of emotional reaction. But the truth was I had no emotional connection to my father because he was an abstract character in my life. At that time, I was clueless about what role a father played in a child’s life, especially since my father was mentally ill and suffered from drug addiction.

“There goes your kids,” my paternal grandmother would say to my father, as my sister and I would chase him around the coffee table.

“I don’t know them. Get these things away from me,” my father would say, running as fast as he could away from my sister and me.

I opened my test booklet and the first section that appeared was the Logic Games. This was the section I struggled with the most. I took a deep breath, and said to myself, “You can do this, Lanette. Take your time and focus, think the way the test maker thinks, and you will be able to pass.”

As I silently spoke those words, my mind traveled back to the community from which I came.

Double Rock Projects was the first home I knew. It was an area comprised mainly of African Americans. I kept to myself most of the time; I knew it was not a safe place because I often fell asleep to the sound of gunshots. However, I wanted to create a sense of peace, and the only way I knew how was to stay indoors – there wasn’t much to look forward to outdoors.

The environment was gloomy, the streets were dirty, buildings were covered in graffiti art and the smell of urine was pervasive because homelessness was prevalent. I walked with my head down, ashamed that I was a product of my environment.

“Hey, you Will’s daughter?!”

“Umm … yes, I am.”

“I’ve known your father for many years. I’m sorry to hear the news. You keep your head up, ok? And watch out for these cars – you almost got hit!”

I was lost in a daze, wanting to block out the scenery that surrounded me. Many people knew and recognized me as the child of William Scott, although he was referred to as Will. He was known for being a crazy crack head and most drug dealers would beat the shit out of him because he was in debt to many of them. So I walked with my head down, not wanting to be recognized.

But my father was extremely popular within the drug community, and it was hard to go unnoticed. My father owed so many people money. Drug dealers would often come after close family members to send a message. So I often walked in fear because I was uncertain whether I would be that chosen family member to suffer the consequence of my father’s drug debt.

The Double Rock community was very small yet extremely dangerous. Often the gunshots I heard at night resulted in the loss of innocent lives of people who were not a part of the gang-bang life but they suffered the consequences. I was scared to leave the house. I didn’t want to go to school, socialize or even try to conform to what’s considered a normal life. Instead, I internalized my pain and became self-destructive.

People in Double Rock were mean-spirited, and looked for opportunities to project their pain onto anyone who crossed their paths.

“There she is … let’s get that bitch!”

Neighborhood bullies would stomp, kick and beat on anyone who looked at them the wrong way. I heard a scream for help as I passed a violent scene, and I carried a heavy load of guilt because I didn’t have the courage to stand up and proclaim that violence was not the answer.

Instead, I kept my eyes on the sidewalk, making no eye contact because if you saw anything you became a target.

I stayed paralyzed by fear when I visited my paternal grandmother in the projects. I can recall standing behind my grandmother many times, watching her pay off my father’s debt to drug dealers at gun point. I was around 5 years old. My father received his social security check on the first and 15th of the month, which was terrifying for me because on these days a group of neighborhood drug dealers would knock down our front door, forcing their way into our place.

“William owes me 200 dollars, and if he don’t give me my motherf–king money, I will shoot this place up.”

I would hear the drug dealers shouting my father’s name, and threatening to shoot if my grandmother refused to pay. They were ruthless thugs who took advantage of my father’s mental illness. They didn’t care that I was an innocent child and was frightened by their acts of terror. These events taught me at a young age to remain silent because it was a technique that kept me safe. When our house was being invaded, I didn’t utter a word; I feared if my presence was acknowledged, I would be shot dead.

Lanette Hodge
currently lives in Texas where she enjoys living a simple country life. She finds great pleasure at being a wife, mom and pet owner and finds comfort in taking a step back from the fast-paced city environment. She is now expecting her second child.

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