December 12 — 1:49 pm, 2018

Undone by family losses, he finds adults to help him rebuild

“There’s always a chance to start new.”

Alphonzo Lake

Alphonzo Lake and Sydney Coffin. Photo by Bill Hangley

During my last year in junior high, I was consistently on the verge of getting held back because of behavioral issues and low grades. Much of the time, I was suspended or in trouble at home, fighting students, having problems with teachers and staff, and establishing myself as “too aggressive” with people.

Honestly, I believed I wasn’t doing any harm. I thought I was being myself, having fun as a pre-teen. But I also just couldn’t cope with two deaths in my family. I was 8 when my sister and I were sent to live with a family in the foster care system. At that age, I didn’t have a true understanding of the emotions I was feeling. Therapy was set up for me to express myself, but I didn’t feel that I needed a therapist. What I knew I wanted was a friend.

Then, 2½ years after I went to foster care, my father died. I was 10. Four years after that, I lost my grandmother. When that news was delivered to me, I just couldn’t stop crying. At her funeral, I tried to stay strong. But who knew that our eyelids and lashes are not even strong enough to hold back tears?

Nonetheless, there I was, dealing with these problems as a 14-year-old kid, trying to cope with death. Within just six years, I lost the father I hardly knew and the grandmother who was my best friend. Throughout the tragedies happening around me, football was my only outlet. Whether it was street football or playing with the team at Sulzberger Junior High, I felt like I found a group of guys and coaches who I could call family. For those two hours at practice or 60 minutes competing with another school, I felt like I could be myself.

Unfortunately, the pleasure I was getting from football couldn’t change the fact that I was still behaving outrageously in school, especially after I moved up to high school. After just 45 days at the School of the Future, I was expelled. The list of offenses was long – inciting a riot, damaging school property, acting harmfully toward other students – and it felt like everything bad was happening all over again. I had to leave a good school for a disciplinary school. I was losing my family, again.

Into the system

On my first day in disciplinary school – Community Education Partners (CEP) in North Philadelphia – I felt like I was just a step away from prison. Metal detectors, non-teaching assistants with wands, a gender segregation policy. Remove your belt, empty your pockets, take off your shoes.

Some students were used to it. Others like me were trying to adjust.

I was assigned to a “section” based on a general education test, so I could get the classes I needed to leave CEP and go back to regular school. But every day was like walking on a tightrope, making friends and potential enemies. Every day, there was fighting before school, during school, or after school.

I just tried to listen to what my oldest brother told me the first day he dropped me off: “There’s always a chance to start new.” Second chances, he said, give you the opportunity to avoid what you did the first time.

Those may seem like simple words, but to me, it was either keep doing what I was doing until no one wanted anything to do with me or flip the script.

CEP didn’t offer much counseling about how to get back to a regular school and succeed. Our teachers informed us about the transition dates of going back to regular public schools. But for half a year, I didn’t talk to anybody.

Fortunately, somehow, football had found its way back into my comfort zone. Here, my personal outlet was played on 30 yards of concrete gym floor. The setting didn’t matter as long as a group of other students wanted to play. After going six months without making friends, these informal indoor football games connected me to some people that I still see.

It also made me believe that in order to change my future, I had to change inside myself. I wanted to become a better person for my benefit and my family’s benefit. At CEP, I spent time reflecting on everything I’d done up to that point, from elementary to high school, and in the streets. I wanted a better me.

But I soon learned that finding out who we are is more of a challenge than I thought. To me it’s like finding love. Discovering things about yourself that you know you cherish – even the flaws.

So when I heard my name called at CEP, and I was told that I was going back to public school, I was excited – very excited. So excited that I kinda scared myself. I had to ask myself: Am I ready for this?

Back to school

When I finally got back to a regular public school, University City High, I felt disoriented and uncomfortable. I couldn’t just shake off the time I spent in CEP within a few days. I felt strange, as if everyone was looking at me. I didn’t like it. It felt like I had to put my guard up again.

Plus, imagine trying to flirt after not talking to girls in school for 2½ years! It makes you overthink what you’re going to say and wonder whether what you’re saying is cool enough.

A teacher recruited me to a mentoring program called Peer Group Connections that helps students transition from junior high to high school. Another teacher met me for a counseling session. But I wanted someone to talk to, not someone who would give me suggestions without really understanding my issues. I refused to go to more
counseling my first couple weeks. I had to figure it out for myself.

But I stayed focused. I had some friends at U City, but I didn’t want them to get me in trouble or bring me back to the days that got me into CEP the first place. I wasn’t having it. I wanted to show my family and society how much I had grown.

And within just a few weeks of being back at U City, I started thinking about what the School District was or wasn’t doing to help me. Why aren’t there any letters or people coming to my house explaining to my family how I shaped up enough to be let back into the regular public schools? Why aren’t there more mandatory orientations for incoming freshmen and their parents?

I met my mentor, teacher Sydney Coffin, after I broke my leg during my junior year. He was trying to ease my pain with writing and poetry. At the time, I really didn’t want anything to do with it. I told him, “I don’t write poetry. Why would I write poetry?”

But he explained the wonders of poetry: how it’s the root of hip hop; how with time and practice, writing poetry can be a way of life. You can write about anything you want, the way you want it to be. It was like he was telling me that I can be myself and express myself.

Before graduating and being accepted into college, I performed a few poetry pieces I wrote at slam leagues around the city. And now at age 25, I still do, but it is as a man who is experienced in writing and performing poetry and music and who still has a great friendship with his former teacher and mentor.

Adults who deal with students who have behavioral issues like mine need to know that sometimes kids are saying that we’re going through things we don’t know how to express. In that moment, we all just want a parent or a friend who’ll listen and understand us. And we need our schools to help build that connection between students and adults. Let students believe that talking to their parents and school staff is worth it, whether they’re feeling down or they want to share some great news.

I don’t know what it took for me to become the person I am. But I know I won’t forget how I became the human being that I am.

Alphonzo Lake, 25, graduated UCHS in 2012 and attended Cheney University. He now works in the restaurant industry, performs poetry and music, and runs the label OTTR Records. He can be found on Twitter (@_RealPhonzi) and Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/offttotheraces).

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