I was in 7th grade and 13 years old when the most pivotal moment in my life took place. Looking back, one could say that this was luck, happenstance, serendipity, or perhaps destiny. But I think it was God, opening a door and allowing me to see and memorialize this moment as a turning point.
I was waiting for my best friend, Vicki, who was querying the librarian about a book she was looking for. After a while, I became bored and, as I looked around the room, I saw a magazine that had been left carelessly on the table next to me. I don’t remember if it was Time or Newsweek, but it was a news magazine of that sort. It wasn’t the kind of magazine I normally read, but I reached over and picked it up. I leafed through it, my hands turning the pages the way young hands wander through books, giving the words and images a chance. I found an article on lawyers and law schools and immediately became fascinated, mesmerized. The text conveyed the sheer power that lawyers exercised in accomplishing societal change and the protection of individual rights. I had never met a lawyer so, until I read that article, it had never occurred to me that I could become a lawyer and change the world. Hope welled up in me. I thought, “Lawyers like to argue with people. I like to argue with people. And I usually win my arguments. So, I would be a good lawyer.” The article also included a picture of Harvard Yard with its stately red brick buildings with pillars and black iron gates and, of course, its ivy. It concluded by saying, Harvard was the “best” law school in the country. That is what I wanted for myself – the best.
I put the magazine back on the table, but from that day forward, my sense of life had deepened and the look of my world was transformed by these new possibilities that arose from the pages of that magazine. I had a new mission. I was going to become a lawyer, and I was going to obtain my law degree from Harvard Law School!
Big dreams for a small town girl whose parents hadn’t graduated high school. All I knew was that in order to accomplish my dream, I would have to be willing to pay the price. To get into the “best” school, I would have to be the “best” student.
I knew nothing about Harvard; not even where it was located. The world in which I lived began and ended in Buena Vista, Colorado. Yet that did not deter me. At 13-years-old, how could I have predicted that my imagination would take hold as it did, sweeping me into a dream of lawyers and law school. Big dreams for a small town girl whose parents hadn’t graduated high school. All I knew was that in order to accomplish my dream, I would have to be willing to pay the price. To get into the “best” school, I would have to be the “best” student. From that day forward, it wasn’t good enough for me to get merely A’s in my classes. I had to have the top grade in all my classes no matter how hard I had to work to set the curve. I maintained this hunger for a better life—a hunger that both strengthened me by providing me with focus and a path to a brighter future, but which also identified me as different from my peers, separating me from them.
From seventh grade through my junior year in high school, I did not waiver in my Harvard ambitions. However, neither did I share my dream publicly with anyone. Deep down I instinctively knew that others would not really understand or accept the idea that this little “Mexican” girl, daughter of Phil the barber, could gain admission to Harvard Law School.
All of that changed one sunny afternoon in late April of my junior year when the trees were beginning to bud and most students were daydreaming about being anywhere but in school. That day, my high school English teacher, Mrs. Cecilia Poplin asked us all, “What do you intend to do with your lives after you graduate high school?” She started at the back of the first row closest to the windows and proceeded to have each student answer her question.
I remember Mark’s reply, “I want to be an engineer and attend the Colorado School of Mines.”
“I want to be a hair dresser,” Debbie said.
I watched my classmates become enthralled with each other’s dreams. The classroom seemed alive with hope and possibility. As I listened with one ear, an intense debate raged in my head. Should I tell them? Should I share my dream? Will they support me?
Finally, the question was directed at me, “What about you, Chris?”
It was my turn. After hearing all the acclaim of my classmates for one another’s big plans, I let my guard down. I assumed they would greet my grand ambitions with the same applause and encouragement they had given to one another. After all, I had the highest GPA in my class, and I was a leader on student government, president of the drama club, and first chair clarinet in band. I forthrightly declared my intentions. “I am going to be a lawyer, and I am going to Harvard Law School.”
I waited to receive some words of encouragement or support. But my revelation was met with stunned looks and silence; deafening silence, for what seemed to me like hours. Then my worst nightmare—a few nervous giggles and then someone broke the silence: “Ha! Chris Martinez thinks she can go to Harvard!” And the entire class erupted into laughter.
The rest of that day was a blur in my memory. Yet, to this day, more than forty years later, when I think about that day, I relive the turmoil of emotions and the sharp stab of pain that struck me to the bone. I remember hiding in the bathroom trying to control my emotions because there was no way I was going to let anyone see me cry.
As I sat in that bathroom stall, doubt cornered me with its dark veil. They are right. Who did I think I was? What made me think I was so special that I could get into a school like Harvard? As the echo of their laughter rang in my ears, the flame of my ambition began to sputter and fade.
But once again, that was not part of God’s greater plan for my life. Instead, Mrs. Poplin intercepted me just as I was ready to walk out of the school. Years later, I realized she had been waiting for me. She stopped me, looked me straight in the eye and unwavering, said, “Chris, I know you can do it.” Those seven words from a person that I deeply respected were all I needed to re-ignite the flame of my ambition. Soon my anger at my classmates rivaled my hunger and desire. I vowed that I would return to my ten-year high school reunion, and my classmates would have to eat their laughter because I would have my Harvard Law Degree.
Over the years, I often thought about Mrs. Poplin. When I graduated from Harvard with my law degree, I sent her a graduation announcement with a letter thanking her for being my inspiration when I most needed it. Over the years, I also wondered whether I would have continued to work as hard as I did to gain admission to Harvard if I didn’t hear that laughter ringing in my ears. As for my classmates, I eventually forgave them because I came to understand that their laughter was not of spite, but rather, of their incredulity and an inability to comprehend such grand dreams. No one from Buena Vista had ever attended Harvard Law School. I later came to find out that I was a bit ahead of my time. The year I decided that I was going to go to Harvard was 1968. The year I confided my dream to my classmates was 1972. Harvard Law School did not admit its first Chicana until 1974. I was admitted in 1977.