not much of a writer, but I'd like for you to know a little bit about
this great kid and why he's so important to me.
Ten years ago I met and became good friends with Dan, who had legal custody of and was raising his nephew James. James is the youngest of Dan's beloved sister Carmen's three children, all with different biological fathers. James's mother Carmen was brutally murdered in a horrific random act of violence in 2002, just after James turned 5. It took a full year before they located her remains, so you can imagine the impact that would have on her three young children. I met Dan in 2006 when James was 8, but it was over a year before he felt comfortable with me meeting James in person. Dan is a loving, devoted parent and was very protective of his child at the time. I was finally allowed to meet James, shortly before his 10th birthday. Dan and I were already very close, so I immediately bonded with James. To me, they were a family and it was impossible to separate one from the other. My commitment to both of them was instant and life long.
James has one older brother, Jonathan with cognitive learning disabilities and one older sister, Karly. Jonathan is 24 and now resides permanently at the Texas State School. Karly is an amazing, brilliant, beautiful 22 year old young woman. She and her partner Alex have a 1 year old named Ethan. Ethan is James's first and only nephew.... so far!
James's biological father is part of his life, but the unusual circumstances of James's childhood made it difficult for him to be involved and have the kind of relationship with his son that he would have liked. Because the three children had different fathers, their mother's relationships resulted in the children being moved around a lot. Shortly before her death, the children were with her in Louisiana, when the two boys were removed by Child Protective Services and put in foster care (James was 4). The girl's biological Grandparents were awarded custody of her, where she has grown up separated from her brothers. Their mother did eventually get her life back on track, returned to Texas and regained custody of the children for a brief time before her death. After her death and an initial custody period for James where he lived with his biological father, Dan was eventually awarded final custody of James. Karly was already with her paternal grandparents and custody of Jonathan was given to Carmen's mother Mary.
By the time I met Dan and James, the entire family had settled into a loving, stable, nurturing routine. They had healed somewhat and found a way to move forward, but there is no getting over losing a daughter, sister and mother in that way. Dan was suddenly and unexpectedly a parent. His new responsibilities began with an unimaginable amount of pain and heartbreak for both of them. Dan is also legally blind. The new job of parenting and the fact that he couldn't drive made it impossible to work outside of the home when James was small, so he functioned on a limited income. All the while he was assisting his mother Mary with the care of James's disabled brother, so that she could work full time. At a very early age, James was a brother, caretaker, guardian and counselor dealing with the challenges of his brother. It was during those years that I began to see that I could assist Dan with the things we both knew James needed to grow up strong, healthy and have a chance in life.
Over the years, I have watched him grow up with a combination of love, admiration, amazement and pride. He was always respectful and well behaved. He never complained or begged for things. He was always grateful and appreciative for everything in his life. He has always been a true joy to be around. As he reached his teen years, Dan and I worried that the proverbial "other shoe would drop" and he would turn into the trouble making, whining, burdensome teen monster that you always hear about. We struggled with decisions and many times argued about what was best for him. We cautiously waited for him to become a problem, but he never went through that stage. Starting in middle school and continuing through high school graduation, he was self-motivated, did his homework on his own and almost never had to be pushed to do his schoolwork. By the time he was in high school at NESA (Northeast School of the Arts), he got himself up in the morning and got himself to school. Dan was working by this time, and had to leave the house long before James was up. He responsibly got himself through high school without us ever worrying about him. Well, we worried a lot, but not about his schoolwork! He graduated in May with honors, magna cum laude. He took driver's ed at 15, got his liscense and first car at 16. He also got his first job at 16 working for Amy's Ice Cream and was able to help Dan with expenses and the responsibilities of maintaining their household.
Like most kids, he had many interests and tried a variety of sports, instruments, choir, and at 13 discovered acting. His interest in theatre was a total surprise to us, but it somehow seemed to fit for him. He spent middle school through 9th grade in the Say Si after school theatre program. He signed with a talent agency and gained the experience of some professional acting jobs. In his freshman year at Lee High School, he auditioned for NESA and was accepted into the musical theatre program, which confirmed his commitment to continue studying theatre. NESA is ranked as one of the top ten arts high schools in the country and it has been an incredible experience for him.
In his junior year, like other families we began the lengthy and complicated process of college research and applications. We visited New York and NYU. I guess it was more my idea that New York is where he'd want to be. He did love New York, but I got the feeling that the reality of college there was a little overwhelming. He considered many schools. He and his friends had similar interests and were all applying to the same series of Theatre schools. At the Junior year college fair, Roosevelt University from Chicago had a table. He had already talked with all the schools that he and his friends were interested in, so I suggested we take a look and see what they had to offer. Neither one of us knew of the school. As we talked with the representative, I kept thinking "this is the school for him". It just seemed like the right fit.
In March of 2015 we all 3 went to Chicago to check it out. James has always loved cold weather and believe it or not, that was part of his selection criteria. I have been to Chicago during the winter, so I planned the trip in March hoping that he would see how brutal the winter can be there. Unfortunately, the weather was beautiful while we were there. The lake was partially frozen and there was some snow, but by Chicago standards it was "T" shirt weather! Oh well, we had a great time and he liked Chicago. We stayed with my best and oldest friends Kim and Kevin. The day before the school visit we spent the day in the downtown, Art Institute area as tourists. At one point my friends pointed out a beautiful new high rise building that they liked. The Wabash Building completed in 2012 was designed and constructed to be an environmentally sensitive building and has received multiple awards including a Gold LEED-certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. To protect birds from flying into the new, mostly glass structure, the façade establishes “visual noise” to reduce the overall transparency of the building. Architectural features such as the undulating east and west façades further help mitigate the impact on migratory birds. It was an impressive part of Chicago's downtown skyline.
The following day we visited the school. As we arrived, I realized that we were entering a famous Adler and Sullivan building. The Auditorium Building built in 1889 is one of Sullivan's best know structures. That was the school! Exactly what you would expect a performing art school to be... Big, lofty, romantic studio spaces... In the heart of downtown Chicago. The doors of the school open onto Michigan Avenue. Across the street and down a ways is the Art Institute. Directly across the street is Grant Park and Lake Michigan. He loved the school and the setting, he loved the people there. Hell, we all loved everything about it! After we toured the school, they took us to tour the dorm..... The Wabash Building!!
Needless to say, when we returned to Texas and he started his senior year, Roosevelt was one of the schools at the top of his list. For a theatre program, the kids are required to do auditions for the schools they are applying to. The unified auditions take place in 4 cities across the country. James and I flew to Chicago for the auditions this past February. Again, I hoped the weather would be brutal enough to show him the reality of school in a cold climate. It was cold, but not miserable. He's still yet to learn how cold it can be. He auditioned for several schools, but the Roosevelt audition was the one he invested himself in. He arranged and set it up himself. I found out about it later and was surprised that he had applied and paid the audition fee with his own money.
He was accepted to several very good school across the country. When he received news that he was accepted to Roosevelt, we were all thrilled. I knew the school was expensive, but we hadn't thought that far ahead. I figured we would find a way to do it if he got in. Once he received his offer, I went back to look at the tuition information. All along, I had been looking at the general RU tuition rates. Once I took a closer look, CCPA, the theatre conservatory of RU was an additional $10,000 more than the basic RU tuition rate. My heart sank and after letting him be excited for a short period, I had to tell him that it was doubtful that he would be able to accept.
It was a difficult, stressful month for us. He was in the last 2 months of senior year, graduation and under a tremendous amount of pressure from all sides. We struggled to find a way for him to accept RU, the full tuition and housing is $55,000 per year. He did receive a generous financial aid package, but it was not nearly enough to make it work for 4 years. He finally, reluctantly agreed to let go of his dream school choice. Like I said, he is always a good kid, never complains and is always responsible. His heart was set on leaving Texas for school. We went through all the possible choices and financial aid offers and tried to find the right solution for him. He refused to accept a Texas school and I will admit that I gave in to that. As hard as he had worked and all he's gone through in his life, I felt he deserved a chance and a school that would be an adventure for him. He had been accepted to Columbia University, also in Chicago and also in the downtown area. Also a good theatre school. The tuition was substantially less and they had offered him twice as much financial aid as RU. Together, we decided it was his best option. It would get him out of Texas, in a good school and get him on the road for his future. He accepted admittance to Columbia University and we were finally relieved that he had made a choice and now had a plan.
As part of the acceptance process, there are several offers from schools that must be declined by the deadline date that all the schools share. He had been offered scholarship money from several, and I felt it was important that he let them know his answer, so that scholarship money they had offered him could be released and offered to other students. I thought about it and realized that if kids were saying no to schools and scholarship money was being freed up, then maybe RU also had scholarship money that might be available. It was very late at night, 2 days before the deadline and I suggested he write to RU. He was so exhausted and over the whole tortured process, that he didn't care to answer any of them. I suggested that most of the other schools didn't matter and he would not have accepted them anyway, but that RU was the one that did matter. At least, keep the door open for the future and a possible transfer if we could find a way. I helped him word the email that would be sent directly to the Dean of the Theatre school. We worded it in hopes that it would get the deans attention and maybe he would take another look at James's application. It worked and the next morning James received an email back from the dean asking what the gap was and he would see what he could do. Again James got excited, but I had to calm him down and make him realize that the gap in funding was so great that it was unlikely that the dean would offer enough. Another couple of very carefully worded, humble emails and the dean made a final offer that was very close to what we needed. The dean increased his scholarship amount by an additional $11,000 beyond his original scholarship offer. I was still worried about making it work, as it was still a lot of money. It brought both schools within the same range, but we were still stretching financially to make it work. I had been depending on my good friend Tom to council me with the decision making process. It was a really stressful place for me to be. I was the only one that could make the decision. James's family loves and supports him, but they weren't able to help with this. Tom pushed me to do what I knew I wanted for James. He reminded me that the cost was equivalent to the sale of some paintings, if I'd get off my butt and work more. The next day, I let James accept the offer to Roosevelt and the rest will now be a chapter in his magnificent history.
Thanks for taking the time to read his story.