Tumbling into Joy

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

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| This is the 184th story of Our Life Logs |

Growing up in Chicago is tough—that goes for any kid. However, growing up in my home in Chicago with my mom and stepdad was even tougher. I was born on August 18, 1988 to a timid mother and a drug-addicted father. My father was in the picture for the first six months of my life before he broke into my grandmother’s home, and stole her VCR, VHS, jewelry, and most of her valuables to pawn, just to buy more drugs. My grandmother got rid of him quickly. Six months after he disappeared, my mom met my stepdad. He moved into our home, and soon they got married. I hadn’t even turned two years old.

My mom dropped out of high school which made it hard for her to keep up with the bills. She made just enough selling the food stamps we got from being on welfare, though, that meant we were lucky if we made it a whole week with dinner each night. I dreaded going to grammar school because the kids used to jump on my siblings and me and talk about our clothes. They’d call us “pissy kids,” which wasn’t true. My mom made sure we were clean, but the kids just saw our faded shirts and worn-out shoes. We couldn’t deny that.

My second-grade school picture, 1995.
My second-grade school picture, 1995.

My stepdad was a great father, at least for a while. He’d play around with my siblings and me, and help us with our homework each night. That all changed when he started drinking heavy liquor. We’d get whippings for anything—even if we got out of bed after we were told to go to sleep. He’d often get into arguments with my mom when he was drunk. Sometimes, he’d beat her, and all we could do was watch. I’d cry loudly to try to get his attention, but it was no use. I remember my screams echoing off the walls the night I saw my mom lying on the floor, with an extension cord wrapped around her neck. Back then, I was no match for my burly, angry drunk of a stepdad.

As the oldest of six kids, I was responsible for changing diapers, cooking, washing clothes every night, and making sure everyone did their homework. If their grades started to slip, I’d get a whipping and be on punishment for a minimum of two weeks. It was my fault if they got in any trouble, because as their big brother, I had to make sure they were on task with everything.

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The first time I truly felt some hope was when I was eight years old.

My family and I went to the annual Bud Billiken Day Parade, the largest African-American parade in the United States, thrown to symbolize unity. Every year since 1929, people line the sidewalks to watch and wave to all the marching bands, dancing groups, drill teams, tumbling groups, and more.

The Jesse White Tumbling Team was there that day—performing right in front of me. The guys in the front of the line stretched out the long foam mat they carried, and one by one, the ones who were far behind flew to the mat with flips and landings that were so…amazing. I so badly wanted to follow them through the parade route and watch them for miles.

Every year after that, I went to the parade just to watch the Jesse White Tumblers perform.

Me (left), my sister, and my brother in the late 1990s.
Me (left), my sister, and my brother in the late 1990s.

After the parade, my fascination with tumbling grew. I’d go outside and watch the teenage boys across the street tumble and would try their moves on my own. My mom would watch me from the porch and challenge me to do a variety of flips. I wouldn’t have gotten so good without her support.

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When I was about 12 years old, my cousin called me. He said the tumblers were performing at his school, and if I wanted to see them, I’d have to come as soon as possible. I ran to my mom and begged her for the bus fare. When I rushed into the school, I was blown away by their performance. After the show, one of the tumblers was passing out brochures with a call for auditions happening that day. I thought nothing of it, but when I got home, I gave the flyer to my mom, who then arranged for my aunt to take me to the tryout.

I remember I was number 1,065 during the audition. It seemed like I had an easier time doing what the coaches asked. First, I was asked to do a back handspring, then another one, followed by a back tuck and a series of back handsprings. It was so easy. My mom asked me to do things way harder than what the coaches were asking. When I was packing up to leave, the coach asked if I could do a full twist. I could, and I did.

After the training, they told me I made the team. I’d never ever been happier—but there was much more in store than I could imagine.

My first show was when I was 13 at a Lebron James’ high school basketball game. It was one of his last games before he went pro. From that moment forward, I was living my best life. I traveled to almost every state in the country and all over the world including Israel, Europe, Hawaii, Belize, and the Cayman Islands. I was like an adult, being able to pay for everything. We didn’t have to worry about food anymore, or if we had enough for bills, or where we’d stay.

Performing at a tumbling show with my team (I’m flying over).
Performing at a tumbling show with my team (I’m flying over).
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Things was moving up. The environment in my house was also changing for good. My mom and stepdad still got into arguments, but he controlled his anger now. He wanted to be a better man and father, so he made up his mind that he was never going to hit my mom again, and he kept his word. It gave me peace to know that I could leave home, and my mom and siblings would be safe and happy. After I graduated high school in 2007, I quit the tumbling team and attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

But it was not meant to be so smooth.

After being responsible for my younger siblings since I was five years old, I began having anxiety thinking about how my family would live without me. Sadly, it had just been a few months after moving into my dorm when I found out that my family was homeless and living in a shelter.

I soon dropped out of school, helped my family move into a new place, and rejoined the tumbling team in the summer of 2008. I worked there full time until 2014 when I got a job at Office Max. Though I longed to further my education at college, I never regretted my decision. Family came first.

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