Baltimore, Maryland, United States (Winter 2013)
|Photography by Sarah Browning|
“You’re not like other white people,” she told me. “You come to my house.”
It was true. I gave her rides frequently: to her daughter’s high school interviews, for example, and to other important school events.
That was part of my job as the graduate support director at a middle school for girls. I helped eighth graders apply and get accepted to good high schools. This was the school’s goal—to help students continue their education and one day break the cycle of poverty that plagues so many underprivileged youths.
It was true, too, that I was probably the only Caucasian person within miles of her home; for in some places Baltimore is as segregated as it was during the 1960s. Nevertheless, we would set off in my car, two mothers together, airing our views about politics, education, and insane television shows about pregnant teenagers.
Many people fail to realize that there are all kinds of families who live in poverty. Most of these were represented at my school: college students, retirees, ministers, election judges, immigrants, young mothers, old mothers, the unemployed, dealers, gang members, incarcerated parents, absent fathers, and crazy aunts—not to mention the plain old working poor who labored all day just to get what they needed to survive. Unfortunately, many of these families were like cars stuck in the snow, whose spinning wheels dug deeper and deeper grooves that kept them from getting anywhere.
But this family was different—it had traction.
It was because of this mother: a short, fat, sassy woman with dreadlocks, who had been on drugs herself when she was younger. Despite, or perhaps because of, her experience she was heart sure, hand-to-God, sweat-on-the-brow determined that her children would not live the way she had.
She would not permit it.
When her daughter was in eighth grade, she applied to the oldest Catholic high school in the city and had to go for an interview, the worst torture this quiet, dreamy, story scribbler could imagine. I drove her and her mother to the school and waited with them in a parlor filled with girls and their parents. We took the last seats—an unfortunate choice as it turned out; we were seated in just the right place for the child to survey the whole of the competition and decide that there was no way she would ever measure up.
But then her mother leaned across the posh sofa, took her daughter’s hand, and gave the best pep talk a mother could give a child. She told her how special she was and how much she believed in her. She made this girl feel like a queen.
It worked. The daughter was accepted, got a scholarship, and started high school with great success.
I wanted every one of our mothers to be like her—honest, determined, and selfless. She was not perfect, and admitted that outright, but she did not want her faults to ever hold back her children.
Then, out of the blue, the police came and raided the family’s house while the daughter was alone. She was talking on the phone to her mother at the time, and the girl’s frightened screams could be heard clearly as two officers grabbed and handcuffed her.
The mother thought her child was being attacked by hooligans.
The cops found a scale, but no one was arrested. The given story was that the police were looking for an older brother who no longer lived with the family.
Despite these assurances, I was concerned about the girl. Now in high school, as quiet as could be, secretive, and deflective, I wondered what effect this incident might have had on her. How did it feel to be a fifteen-year-old girl whose house was searched, whose family was considered suspect?
Then the mother came to see me.
Seething with anger, she told me there some things she wanted me to know. Her daughter had talked to a school counselor the day before and as her mother, she did not like it. She wanted everybody to keep out of her family’s business. Her daughter did not need to be talking to anybody or sharing any secrets with anyone. She was just fine.
With these last words, the mother looked right at me and I could see her red-rimmed eyes. I looked down at her hands, which were trembling.
It was obvious she was high.
Sitting right in front of me, this woman of strength, whose drive had empowered her daughter to succeed, was shaking her way through a drug-induced adrenaline rush. All along I had admired this woman, and all along I had failed to see how much pain she really was in.
“You must hate it when they disappoint you,” one of my friends said to me when I told her about my job. “All that work you do to help those kids and their families—you must really hate it.”
Mostly, I feel sad.
Even as we rode along in my car, agreeing on everything, seemingly viewing the world through the same lens, I never realized that she was still using, and maybe even dealing drugs. All that time, I wished that everybody could be as strong as she seemed to be.
In fact, she was just slipping and sliding like so many others, hoping to get somewhere and praying not to crash.
JESSICA GREGG spent more than a decade working as a reporter, covering crime, natural disasters, and other human interest stories, before she became an educator. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and on the Baltimore Sun’s MDReads, the best of Maryland blogs. Her own blog is www.charmcitywriter.wordpress.com. Her fiction can be found in the Midway Journal, Seattle Review, and on Amazon Shorts. She currently is the director of graduate support at Sisters Academy of Baltimore, a private middle school for girls from the city’s under-served neighborhoods.