I don’t know if I was born with drugs in my body or not. But my moms used drugs while she was pregnant with me. So it wasn’t long before kids at school were calling me a “crack baby.”
It started in fourth grade. My teacher asked me to read from a Dr. Seuss book. I struggled with the first word. Maybe it’s because I actually was born with crack in my system. Or maybe it’s just because my home was chaotic and my parents never sat me down and read me stories or taught me the ABCs.
At the time, I lived across from one of the most notorious crack houses on 125th Street. My pops was a well-known pimp, and he and all my uncles hustled in Harlem. The fact that my home was filled with chaos showed, and not just because I couldn’t read. I went to school every day looking like a bum, and my clothes smelled like cat piss.
As I struggled trying to read, the other kids began to giggle. This one kid, who lived near me and knew about my living conditions, said, “He can’t read because he’s a crack baby.” Everyone turned to stare.
I had never heard the expression “crack baby,” so I sat there looking plum dumb, trying to figure it out. I thought: What, babies who sniff crack? I didn’t do things like that.
The other kids were looking at me like I had a disease, and the teacher was having a hard time keeping them quiet. Eventually she gave up and apologized. I kept wondering, “Is there something wrong with me?”
The next day no one wanted to sit next to me during lunch. They pointed fingers at me. I couldn’t eat.
From that day on, just about all the kids in fourth grade began calling me “slow,” “dirty” and “crack baby.” I started to believe those things about myself and I constantly imagined what the kids were saying to each other about me. I felt stupid, worthless.
So I stopped going to class. Soon the only time I came to school was to get free lunch and go to the gym. Even that I didn’t do too often. I started staying out on the street or at my man’s crib helping him cut cocaine.
Then I moved to Queens when I was 10. That’s when I went into foster care and moved in with my aunt. I missed my family and friends in Harlem, but in some ways I was really relieved to move and change schools. No one in Queens knew about my home life, and my aunt gave me good clothes and made sure I was clean.
My first day of class, the teacher asked me to read. I still didn’t know how, so I hesitated, remembering what happened to me in Harlem. I asked the teacher to ask someone else to read. That was a relief, but I knew I couldn’t keep dodging teachers forever. I’d need to learn how to read and write. To do it, I had to let go of the label “crack baby.” I had to believe I could learn.
And basically, with my aunt and teacher’s help, I did learn to read and write at age 10. It took a lot of time and work. Sometimes I thought it was too hard. Some nights I cried myself to sleep because I missed my family and it was too hard to catch up with the other kids in my class.
But I didn’t quit. And it wasn’t long before I was in the top classes in the school. Now, 10 years later, that kid who was called a “crack baby” is in college about to get his associate’s degree. I am not done yet. I have a lot more things to accomplish in my life, and I am not letting no one or no label hold me back from achieving anything.
Sometimes I go back to my old neighborhood and see some of the kids from that class where I got labeled a “crack baby.” Though a lot of them are in trouble now, and a lot haven’t accomplished anywhere close to what I have, I still feel really angry when I see them. Those two words almost cost me an education. It’s crazy how powerful two words can be.
This article, which will appear in Represent magazine’s March/April 2004 issue, is the next installment of Antwaun Garcia’s ongoing series about his life in foster care.