By Eddie Ruiz, Principal, North Springs Charter High School, Sandy Springs, GA
Eddie Ruiz was a speaker at this year’s Summer Institute in Orlando. Below is his speech as prepared. You can also watch his speech!
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
My name is Eddie Ruiz and I was until recently the Proud Principal of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, a school I attended as an early teen and one that was much different back then than it is today. Today, Jackson Middle is one of the six National Demonstration Schools in Florida as well as an International Baccalaureate MYP World School.
My AVID journey begins with my Cuban immigrant mother. She came to this country with only a 5th grade education and left this world with a degree in hardship and struggle. My story, her legacy, springs from adversity and bears the fruit of determination and resilience. All my life I grew up surrounded with poverty. Due to my mother’s lack of education, she had worked as a hairstylist to put food on the table and provide us with shelter. I use the word shelter intentionally as no place I lived as child ever felt like a home. As I was growing up, it was normal to move four to five times a year, sometimes making it back to the original place we started. Once we were settled, a few months would past and we would be back at square one, because my mother always struggled with finding money for rent. I was not the only one affected by my mother’s choices. I have two sisters, one older and one younger. My older sister ran away with her boyfriend when she was 15 and I did not reunite back with her until several years later. I was the caretaker of my younger sister. I was the one who dressed her, fed her and took her to school every morning. I was still at the age where someone should have been taking care of my needs, and I was responsible for the needs of my sister.
The lifestyle we were used to seeing was one full of drugs, alcohol, abuse, and neglect. It was in this environment that we first learned to have a distorted view of the role of a man. My sisters and I would experience men who would be in the house for a few weeks and then leave. We were witnesses as a man abused my mother to the point she would have to drink from a straw. We were victims of a man who would abuse and take advantage of children. Because of this lifestyle, I grew up and received my education from the streets. It was the streets that taught me how to get a bite to eat when there was no food at the house and the food stamps had not come in. It was the streets that taught me how to earn money by washing cars, pulling weeds, and sometimes taking it from the guys who were passed out in my house the next morning after a huge party. Even at a young age I had individual determination. If only I had the support to channel it differently.
In high school, I was what you would call the perfect AVID candidate (If AVID had existed in the school at that time). I had never heard the word college; no one in my family had even graduated from high school. I definitely had the potential, but lacked the skills and support needed to excel. I was enrolled in a few honors classes and made B’s and C’s. One of the critical junctures in my life occurred in my 10th grade year. I had gone to the hospital to meet my family because my mother had just given birth. When I walked into the room and noticed everyone crying, I was scared and asked what happened. It was the doctor who stepped up and stated that my mother and baby sister were both HIV positive. Despite this tragic news, I dedicated myself more to my school and my studies. I got involved in nearly every club and organization in order to occupy my time and avoid going home and seeing my loved ones suffer.
My story is full of adversity, but also one of hope. I had several adults in the school that did believe in me and saw potential in me that I never did. I can remember the assistant principal at my school encouraging me to take the SAT in 11th grade because if I did well, he could get me scholarship to one of the colleges. I can honestly say that I really did not know much about the test or even how to study for it. I eventually took it and, from a possible 1600, scored an 890. When the results came out and the AP saw them he encouraged me: take it again, try to do a little better. The second time I took it I went down to an 850. I was discouraged and did not understand why I did so poorly when I did so well in my classes. The reality is that I was not prepared with the test-taking skills necessary for high achievement on standardized tests. I refused to allow my discouragement and a single test score keep me from success.
My senior year in high school on Feb. 7 my mother passed away from PCP Pneumonia. The following week, although at that time I did not know it, marked the next critical moment in my life. On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, an all-call at school was made for me to report to the media center, when I arrived the principal greeted me and walked me in to a room full of teachers and staff. They presented me with a wallet that had $2,000 in it and a basket of food that for the next month I received at home. On that day, the family I did not have at home was demonstrated and defined to me. That semester I worked the hardest I had ever worked and got the first set of straight A’s in my high school career. That summer another tragedy occurred, my sister - three at that time - went into the hospital due to a fever and it was discovered that she had an infection in her blood that would immediately take her life.
I started college two months later with the help of several scholarships and grants, and what an eye opening experience! I realized very fast that I was not prepared. I did not have the skills that I was currently offering my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. My first day in class, as the professor was talking, I realized I did not know how to take notes. I struggled to keep up, and when I went home to read the textbook—did not have the strategies to effectively pull out the important ideas and concepts. I lived in the tutoring lab for almost one year. One thing after another, I realized my writing was horrible. My experience in college taught me that I needed help across the board. As a guest speaker in my AVID classrooms, I tell my students not to take the support they receive in school for granted and to work hard because it will and does pay off!
I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a BS in Science Education and became a high school science teacher. I taught and loved it for several years and then was pulled to work as a dean. I started to work with a different population of students, those that typically got in trouble and started to mentor them. The message I shared then and continue to do so today as an instructional leader is, no matter the circumstances you have thrown your way—you do have a decision in which path you take. It may be hard, but it will be rewarding. I share with them that to end the cycle of poverty or problems, a high school diploma is the minimum they need. I push students to look at college and become the person they dream to be. The road you take does make all the difference.
Although very hard on me, my youngest sister took all of these events in our lives and took another path, one that was a mirror image of my mother. She dropped out in 9th grade and had her first child at 18 years old. With no job and no education she followed a lifestyle of drugs and crime. Her life saw many challenges including living in woods, a women’s shelter, giving up her second child for adoption, and having an abortion that nearly ended her life. I stand before you today, proud to say that she eventually received her GED and at the age of 30, and although she has lived a hard life, is about to graduate Valencia College next fall.
In closing, my life story has brought me much pain, but also much wisdom. In borrowing from Oprah Winfrey, and taking from my life’s experience, I want to leave you with what I know for sure:
- Culture doesn’t define you; it enhances you.
- You will pay now or you will pay later, but you will pay.
- Everyone experiences adversity. It’s how you handle it that matters.
- Students will live up to the expectations that we set for them. We have to be mindful of our expectations.
- Individual determination is a deciding factor in the outcome of our lives.
- Relationships and rigor matter.
- Our past does not have to be our future.
- Every child has a story worth telling.
- The road you choose truly does make all the difference.
- AVID can change lives.