My parents collect cans for a living

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EDITOR’S NOTE:This article was originally published by Youth communication and is republished here with permission. YC is a non-profit publisher of stories and programs written by teens to help educators build the social and emotional skills of young people.

My family collects cans and bottles from sunrise to sunset all year round. I started at 12, watching my parents sweaty, like it had rained on them. Despite the aches and tireless nights, their smiles shone as they worked.

The recycling center is noisy with the chatter of people and the clicking of bottles and cans colliding, and old Latin music playing on the radio. My mother leaves at dawn to collect the cans, and when she returns 12 hours later, I help her pull the cart from the six long blocks to the recycling center through the streets of Bushwick. Three blocks before reaching the center, we are greeted by bees and the stench of beer and compost. Although this center has been like my second home for 10 years, I mostly kept it a secret. I usually did this job after school, except Monday, when I went early to bring my mom breakfast and supplies like gloves, duct tape, and cans of beer.

One morning in grade six, beer spilled on my school uniform and backpack at the recycling center. The smell followed me into the classroom. A chain reaction of “Eww” erupted among the students. I joined in, saying “Eww” too and fanning my face with my hand, trying to play it. My cheeks turned red and I hoped no one had noticed it. Then I sprayed myself with my vanilla scent. From that day on, I brought a change of clothes so that my uniform wouldn’t smell.

My mother would often ask me, in Spanish, “Why don’t you bring your friends here? I smiled and said: “I do not know. ” (I don’t know.) But I couldn’t stand the thought of my friends knowing that our family lived off other people’s garbage. I felt guilty for being embarrassed, but I couldn’t help myself.

The eighth grade was even more financially stressful for my family as I had to pay a membership fee for the seniors, around $ 400. My parents argued late at night over who paid what bills and expenses. But at school I was still hiding from my amigas how poor we were and what my family did for their income. My friends would go out to eat, but I couldn’t afford it. I would say, “I’m too good at fast food” and I apologize.

But these lies started to weigh on me. I felt like I had to tell someone, so I chose my friend Kip. We were in the dining room and I blurted out, “My family collects cans for a living.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!” With these lies you are hurting our friendship, ”she said. I felt so guilty. Before I had time to think about it, I suggested that she come with me to see the recycling center herself. Before going, she said, “No one can know what you told me. You did well to hide it. I would be ashamed too. When she said this, everything around me became silent and I found it difficult to breathe. Within me there was a raging battle. Part of me regretted telling him, and the other felt relieved to share my secret.

After school, Kip and I ran to the recycling center together. As we got closer, the smell of beer got stronger and she started gagging. I wondered if taking it was a good idea. We made it happen and when I saw my mom a smile appeared on my face. But then Kip started to panic about the bees and the flies near her. She started shouting curses in Spanish as she waved her arms at the bugs.

The recycling center is an organized place, but the sticky beer and soda left in the cans attracts bugs. There are 12 containers around the perimeter housing the clear bags of cans organized by brand. It’s crowded with people sorting their cans and bottles, buzzing with activity.

Kip started screaming and circling around trying to get away from the bees. I told her to ignore them and they wouldn’t bother her, but she didn’t listen. Other workers stopped to look at her and asked, “Is she okay?” I could tell my mom was mad at me. My friend was doing a scene, and it was unprofessional.

I quickly pulled her outside before my mom could say anything. When she finally stopped screaming, I was about to say, “It was really not cool of you embarrassing me,” when she said, “This place is rubbish. I’m so happy to. not having to live like these people. I wished I brought her. “I’m sorry I brought you here. You should just go home. Can you forgive me?” She smiled and said, “Loved the adventure! But I’m going to go now. Are you coming? ”I was mad at her, but still felt the pressure to fit in and not lose her as a friend. We didn’t speak on the way home.

But I still lost her as a friend. She avoided me after that. I never asked her why she was avoiding me, because I was afraid of the truth. I don’t think she ever told anyone, because she didn’t want people to think she had a friend whose parents worked recycling bottles. It hurt that I finally trusted a friend and she reacted so horribly.

When I got to high school, the secret was still hidden. Even though I had a lot of friends and was a social butterfly, I wasn’t ready to trust someone else. Then, the summer before my senior year, I took a writing course at Long Island University in Brooklyn. The editorial prompt read: “The lessons we learn from the obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to subsequent success. Share a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did this affect you and what did you learn from this experience? ”

I chose to write about the impact of gentrification in my neighborhood on me, and how it led me to volunteer with leaders in my community who were trying to fight it. At the end, there was only one sentence about collecting cans. One day after class, my teacher asked me to schedule a one-on-one lunch with him to discuss my essay project.

“Your story has potential; however, it is not about personal growth. How about telling me about collecting cans? So once again I was faced with sharing my secret. But he was my teacher and I trusted him, so I rewrote the essay. Two days later, I found out that we had to read our essays aloud after lunch, but I was ashamed that my peers knew. On my way to the cafeteria, I met a friend, Mason, with whom I always have lunch. I was less talkative and Mason understood that I had something in mind. We sat down and he asked me what was wrong. I told her I was embarrassed about my family history and didn’t know if it was important.

“Every fight makes us who we are. Talking to him was the first step in a process of getting rid of your shame, ”Mason said. “My aunt also collects bottles and cans, and you should be proud that your family goes out of their way to take care of loved ones.” Then we kissed and I cried. It was what I needed to hear, and I felt like I could finally breathe after all these years of hiding part of myself.

When we got back to class. I felt ready to read my draft aloud. But rather than read the whole thing, I asked if we could do it popcorn style, with other students reading sections. We sat in a small circle. I was so sweaty and scared of how they would react. As they read, they brought my story to life. Afterwards, I shared that I hadn’t told anyone about it.

The other students have supported me so much! They said things like, “Each of our stories is unique to our experience and shapes us. “” Your shame only hurts you. “” Accept your home and your community, for they are your true family. ”

Now, I’m not ashamed to say that a sticky Heineken box has huge value. This is what feeds me every day and pays for my clothes. It unites my family and helps me understand the value of hard work. It represents my family’s strong values ​​and their dreams for me to have the opportunity to go to college and lead a stable life.

Now when people ask me what my parents do for a living, I answer them not with embarrassment or shame, but with pride. My parents are can collectors. Because my friend is right; my family struggles to take care of their loved ones. It is something to admire.

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