I Had to Leave

I blurted out the truth, and my life changed.

by Jorge Alvarez Lizardo

Small apartment window in New York City NYC urban Bronx, Brooklyn brick housing, guard rail, security bars, grunge poverty

It was November 2019, an ash-gray morning. The car smelled like gas. I was in a new school for 7th grade, and my mom was driving me there. Neither of us had eaten anything. I could tell she was stressed and angry. Suddenly she was shouting at me. I can’t remember why, but I remember her ferocity, her flaming words of anger. Then she struck me.

She’d hit me before. This time though, her plastic nail scratched the side of my face and drew blood. My cheek oozed but my expression stayed frozen, like a statue. She didn’t say a word, so neither did I. When she dropped me off, and my feet touched the concrete in front of the school, tears fell down my cheeks.

Later that day, my music teacher saw my cut and asked me what happened. My mother hated when I spoke ill of her. She said I never defended her, and she instilled the belief that any talking about her was betrayal.

I told the teacher my cat had scratched me. “I like to hold him very close to my face, and sometimes he gets scared and tries to scratch me. I’m OK.”

My teacher replied, “Please don’t worry. Things will get better, I promise.” She wasn’t talking about my cat. I didn’t know how to respond.

My mom was often stressed. Her job was hard and had long hours. She also had gotten into quarrels with my teachers at my old school. She fought with them because I was a special needs student. I didn’t know it, but I had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) when I was young. Despite notes from my doctors, some teachers at my elementary school wouldn’t accommodate my needs.

For 7th grade, my mom got me into a more prestigious and challenging school, which was for 7th through 12th grade. It offered students the opportunity to get into a pre-International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which colleges really like. This school also had better accommodations for my ADD. I was given extended time and noise cancellation headphones for tests, which helped me concentrate better.

The accommodations in the new school helped me stress out less, but the work was more challenging than I was used to. My grades dipped slightly in the first semester.

So my mom cracked the whip on me. She had gone through hell researching and negotiating with teachers to meet my needs. So when I didn’t excel, she feared that I was wasting a valuable opportunity and squandering my future.

The pressure was too much. I preferred spending time with my father. He never yelled or hit me like my mother. Every weekend he would take me to my vocal lessons, and then I would sleep over at his apartment.  My dad seemed more emotionally secure than my mom, and I could relax. Plus, singing always came easy, unlike school.


Then, in March of 7th grade came the pandemic, and I stopped seeing my dad. In the first week of isolation, I sat in my bedroom at my mom’s, on my bed, schoolwork on the computer on my lap, and my cat on my pillow. I would sit and stare at the unfinished school work on my computer screen, gaze at the blue light, and zone out, getting lost in my river of thought.

My room had two doors, a wooden one that led to a hallway, which then led to the kitchen and dining room. The other door led to a metal spiral staircase and that staircase led outside, to overgrown bushes. The massive plants and swollen leaves chased up a fence. Beyond that tiny gate of thin steel, freedom beckoned. But we all had to stay inside, day after day, week after week.

My trouble focusing was drastically exacerbated. It is easier to study in an environment cultivated for studying, especially with the accommodations my new school had given me. At home, my wires were crossed because my work, entertainment, and social life all came from one place—my laptop. Without the old separations, my life lacked organization and made everything chaotic. Everything was overstimulating, which paradoxically, made my life feel numb and monotonous.

My mother surveyed my productivity, and it made me feel trapped. I badly wanted to run away from the pressure and claustrophobia, down those spiraling stairs, and be anywhere else.  I longed for something different and novel.

I told my mom I was working. But I did not work for weeks, and the school emailed her about my lack of activity. She erupted like magma. “What the fuck have you been doing all this fucking time!?” she exploded.

My mom decided that to get my work done, I’d have to sit at the dining room table where she could see my computer screen from the couch while she watched TV and worked on her own computer. I had a few bathroom breaks and sometimes I could get up for food, but otherwise I sat there until it was time for bed, when she let me get up. I still never finished my work on time. So I sat at that table from morning to midnight, just to go to sleep and wake up early the next day to do it all over again.

Time dripped like melting wax as I crawled through my fruitless efforts, as if through a damp, murky tunnel. I’d look at the poor results of my work sometimes. My missing assignments and my low-quality writing. The shame I felt pushed me further away from my responsibilities.

I felt trapped. I wasn’t going to get a change when I got to high school because my middle school was a high school. Having low grades was embarrassing; I felt stupid and incompetent. I didn’t want to look at my grades anymore.

One day instead of emailing my mother, my math teacher contacted me personally. He asked me for my cell number, and we spoke on the phone. I was dreading his disappointment in my lack of progress. But he didn’t sound disappointed or bring up my failures. Instead he asked me how I was. He asked me how well I was eating and sleeping.

The freedom my dad allowed me forced me to change myself. It was now up to me to transform my own life.

I began to cry because of how smothered I felt. I said my life felt worthless. I had no idea how those words would change everything.

What I said felt emotionally true, but I had no plan—and no guts—to harm myself in any way physically. That didn’t matter though. My teacher believed I had a plan for suicide. The school urged that I be moved. I said I would be happy with my father.

Freedom, Responsibility

Though it wasn’t my intention, I got what I wanted most of all—the chance to leave my mom’s for the first time in several months. But it all seemed so unreal. I hadn’t lied about my feelings to the school. I was sincere in my emotions then, as I am sincere now. But that moment would scar my relationship with my mother forever.

Next month I moved into my dad’s apartment in the Bronx.

Living with my dad, I feel more relaxed and free, but sometimes he’s a little too “hands-off.” For example, he doesn’t look at my grades at all. I found that I had to parent myself in a new way, to find structure and self-discipline that my mom used to impose on me. 

The freedom my dad allowed me forced me to change myself.  It was now up to me to transform my own life.

Practically speaking I would work harder when I was being monitored, but I never really got the chance to figure out anything for myself. Since I got to my dad’s house, I’ve learned to control myself better. When I was still doing online school, I compartmentalized my tasks by compartmentalizing my environment. I got myself a fold-out desk: When the desk was out, it was time to work, and then I’d put it away when I was finished. When I got the urge to check my phone, watch YouTube, or clean the dust off my desk, I’d ignore it. I found that no matter how strong the temptation, it usually went away in under 15 minutes.

I am also trying to do things that are scary, like rapping at karaoke, because it makes doing hard things easier. I’m continuing to develop this habit, in order to change my behavior, and break bad habits. It makes me braver.

What happened with my mom happened. I didn’t intend to be removed and sent to live with my dad, but what I said was honest, and I’m better off with my dad. My mom still helps me with things like doctor’s appointments and extracurriculars, but she is understandably upset. For now, I plan to stay living with my dad.

Mom, I’m sorry. I know you care about me, but I had to leave for me.

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