The Education Review
Shelter From The Storm
She was a nobody to me. I knew her name (Pat Hyland, "PJ" to everyone) and her position (principal of my California high school), but little else. She was just a woman with a megaphone, clad in school colors (yellow and black), standing in front of the gym during assemblies at Mountain View High.
I was a 15-year-old freshman without much of a home. School, in effect, became my home. I sang in the choir, joined the badminton team, directed and acted in plays, got involved in student government, competed in speech and debate tournaments, edited and wrote for the school paper. The principal noticed.
"You're here just as much as I am," I remember her telling me one night. "Do you ever go home?"
It was around 9:30 p.m. on a Monday, and debate practice had just ended. Unlike the other students, who got picked up by their parents, I usually bummed a ride back to my house. PJ, in that pointed voice of hers, said, "I'll give you a ride." We made a Starbucks stop; she bought me a mocha, and a relationship was born. She gave me rides from time to time. She stopped me in the quad, asking how geometry or U.S. history or chemistry was going. She made it a point to talk to me, and her interest made me feel like I mattered.
It was PJ who told her boss, Rich Fischer, the superintendent in charge of our high school, about me. Rich, the big man on campus, was a gregarious presence at Mountain View, greeting janitors, teachers and students as he walked around in a funky "Three Stooges" tie. But I was a little shocked that he knew my name. He had seen me in "Lend Me a Tenor," he said, and was looking forward to my performance in our next school musical, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." After a Saturday matinee, Rich, his wife, Sheri, and their granddaughter Alexis came backstage to say hi to me.
Together, PJ and Rich adopted me. They nurtured me, encouraged me, told me never to limit myself. That they looked after an immigrant kid named Jose, in a school of more than 1,700 students, meant the world to me. Bit by bit, they got to know my background, and I think that's how they got so involved, so invested, in one student's life.
I grew up in the Philippines, the only child of a Spanish father and a Japanese/Filipina mother. I was 12 when I moved to the United States to live with my maternal grandparents. I'd seen my father, Jose Lito, no more than a dozen times my whole life. My mother, Emily, remarried and wanted to start anew.
I haven't seen her since I emigrated in 1993. My grandparents, immigrants themselves, did the best they could to raise me.
They were hard workers -- she was a food server, he was a security guard -- but they had limited horizons. What they wanted for me was a full-time job of any kind: at the flea market in San Jose, I remember my grandpa once saying, or as a salesclerk at Fry's Electronics. My aspirations were completely beyond their comprehension. A reporter? A reporter in English?
Inevitably, there was tension between us (which has since eased), and toward the end of my junior year, my grand-parents kicked me out. I lived with friends, shuttling from place to place. If I had nowhere to go, I'd sometimes stay with PJ or Rich and their families. Neither hesitated to open their homes. A few teachers at Mountain View knew what PJ and Rich were doing for me, and no one, to my knowledge, questioned it. It was as if the whole school had taken me in.
PJ bought me my first laptop and one too many dress shirts. Rich taught me how to drive and took me on a family vacation in Hawaii. When I told them that I was planning to take a few years off after high school to save up for college, Rich found me a scholarship to San Francisco State University through a venture capitalist; without that scholarship, I'm certain PJ and Rich would have paid for my education themselves.
All through college, I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with them. I have so many memories:
A Thanksgiving holiday when Rich invited me to spend a long weekend with him and his adult sons, Tim and Kevin -- "your older brothers," he said -- at his property outside Sacramento. The four of us chopped wood together for what seemed like hours.
There was a shopping trip to Macy's with PJ after I'd starting working as a journalist and needed more professional clothes. She told the salesclerk that she wanted to buy "the perfect suit" for her "perfect son." It was my first suit.
And there was the night PJ and her husband and Rich and his family came to a cocktail hour organized by friends to send me off to my new job at The Washington Post. Everyone at LJ's Martini Club and Grille -- there were about 25 people -- knew who PJ and Rich were because I'd talked about them so much. They'd started out as school administrators, yes, but they'd ended up as so much more to me.
There is no hesitation on my part, none at all, when I introduce Rich as "my dad" and PJ as "my mom." It's become such a standard thing that I don't recall when I first started doing it. Hey, so-and-so, meet my dad. Hey, so-and-so, here's my mom. In ways so genuine and loving and generous, our bond is unconditional. I am their son, and they are my parents.
Jose Antonio Vargas is a staff writer for The Post's Style section.