It was mid-September when the middle school social worker, Ms. Suthers, asked me to step into her office. “Micah” she said when I walked in, “ I want you to meet Kate. She’s a seventh grader who just transferred here, and she needs some help with math.” I smiled at the fourteen-year-old girl sitting at Ms. Sutton’s desk and shook her hand. I told them both that that wouldn’t be a problem, I’d already been helping two other students with math and one more would be easy. “You can go now” Ms. Suthers said to Kate, who left for class.
Once she left, Ms. Suthers asked me to close the door. “Kate is from Asheville,” she started to explain, “She missed 144 days of school last year, and the courts remanded her to a group home here in town. She’ll be at school for the rest of the calendar year, and then go home to her mom. We need to help her catch up as much as she can. She’s pretty far behind.” I nodded, secretly nervous that she’d be difficult to deal with. Group home? Missed 144 days of school? What kind of a kid would Kate be?
The next day, I pulled her out of math class to work with her one on one on multiplication. We sat in Ms. Suthers’ office and worked through some problems with double digits. She struggled, but she listened and put in an effort. “When you’re done with the ones place, what’s the first thing you do?” I would ask her. “Carry something?” she would ask. “No. What do you do?” I’d respond. We’d go back and forth like this on each problem, with me sometimes giving her the answer until she finally remembered “Oh! Put a zero underneath because we’re moving to the tens place!” “Yes.” I said, smiling.
Here’s the thing about Kate and millions of kids just like her: she’s right on the margin between failure and success. My goal as an AmeriCorps service member is to give her the push she needs to get over that line between a bright future and a dim one. Part of that push is academic; she needs to remember to add a zero when she’s working with the tens place if she wants to do well in high school and get to college someday. But another part is simply emotional.
Early in October, I met a woman who works as a behavioral specialist in an adjacent school district. She told me that poverty isn’t just monetary, but that there are eight categories that determine it, of which money is only one. Each category is weighted differently, and one of them is “social support.” A child with an adult who believes in her is orders of magnitude better off than one in the same economic situation who does not have that emotional support.
The specialist herself grew up without much money in a rural Western North Carolina town. Someone once told her that even though she grew up “in the woods,” she could maybe hope to be a secretary someday. However, a guidance counselor at school believed in her, nurtured her confidence, and helped her apply and graduate from Western Carolina University. Now she does the same for other kids. If she hadn’t had that, she told me, maybe she would still be working as a waitress, maybe aspiring to be a secretary someday.
My task, as I see it, is to be that person for Kate. A couple of weeks after I met her she asked if I would take her to the nurse because she was feeling sick and couldn’t focus. I took her, and the nurse told her there wasn’t much she could do. Kate wanted to call her group home, but the front office wouldn’t let her. Walking out with her, she started crying. I put my arm around her shoulder and gave her a small side hug, telling her it was going to be ok, we didn’t have to work that day, we could just talk in my office if she wanted. When we got to my office, I asked her what was wrong. “My dad died this weekend” she said through tears. She later explained that he had overdosed on meth. Her mom also struggles with addiction; not long after her dad died, her mom had her visitation rights revoked; she can’t come to see her daughter because she failed her court-mandated drug test.
Against my better judgement, I asked what drugs they found in her system.
“Methamphetamines” Kate told me, softly. I wasn’t sure how to react.
“Sorry to hear that. Stay away from that stuff, as I’m sure you know. It destroys people and communities.”
She nodded. “It’s destroyed my community. And in Canton, where I’m moving to with my Mom after here, everyone is on it.”
How does a society expect a fourteen year old girl like Kate to know how to pull herself up by her bootstraps, when she has two meth-addicted parents, one deceased, and a one ravaged by the same drug? With her mom, the primary adult in her life, struggling with her own issues, how can she help Kate navigate today’s complicated world? I asked Kate why she missed so many days of school in Asheville last year.
“I don’t want to be racist” she said “but it was because of my skin color. I was the only white kid there and they targeted me.” She skipped so many days because she was getting picked on so badly. I told her that wasn’t racist; I wouldn’t want to be the only white kid in a school in a poor inner city school any more than I would the only black kid at a school in some backwoods of West Virginia.
Kate is a smart kid, and a nice kid, but the odds are very much stacked against her. Without compassion surrounding her, and with parents and a community afflicted by destructive forces, it’s not hard to imagine her falling into the same cycle of addiction.
Kate is on the margin of success and she is great story in the making. I can see this because I’ve gotten to know her: She is good at math— after only a few weeks of tutoring she rarely needs my help on most problems. She can do most of them herself without my even saying a word. Ms. Suthers told me she was really struggling with math when she arrived at school, now she has a solid B in her seventh grade math class. A solid B in a subject she’d struggled with despite her constant worrying about her mother.
The guidance counselor says Kate comes into her office every day to use the phone and call her mom— just checking to make sure that she’s still alive. Most of the time, Kate’s mother doesn’t answer.
A solid B, she tells me, despite not getting enough sleep at her group home because loud alerts sound in the middle of the night when a resident gets up to go to the bathroom. She accomplished a goal she was told she’d struggle with and yet, she persists in math and has achieved a respectable grade.
Kate is failing social studies class because she’s tired. Her math class is in the morning, and the lack of sleep at her loud group home doesn’t begin to weigh on her until the afternoon. Social Studies goes from after lunch to around one, an ideal time for a nap. I’ll walk in to help other students, and see her with her eyes closed, head on the desk. I’ll give her a little nudge and whisper “Wake up. You can do this.”
I’m in the process of working with her to help her catch up on uncompleted homework. If she gets it all done, she’ll have a passing grade. The social studies teacher is a nice man with whom I’ve become friendly, and he is giving the students until the end of an eight-week period to turn in all homework assignments without penalty. She and I are going through the tedious vocabulary lists each day in my office, with her writing down by hand each word so that she can get points for it. When she’s done, she and I talk about the history she’s studying. That’s what always helped me learn social studies, talking and thinking about the time periods with someone more knowledgeable than myself, be it a parent or a teacher or a friend. Right now she’s learning about the Renaissance and Reformation; talking through the period with her, she seems to better understand the significance of helping everyone read the bible, independent of the ruling class of Catholic clergy. Kate, a Baptist, was able to connect the Protestant Reformation to the roots of her own religion.
Despite struggling with her grade, Kate tells me Social Studies is her favorite class because she likes history. She wants to study it in college. “Where’s that?” She asked me one day in our office, looking at the framed print I keep in my office of the school library that Rhodes College gave me on my graduation day. “That’s Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. I went there, and that’s its library. The crown jewel of campus” I told her. “It’s beautiful” she said. “I want to go there and study history.”
She’s curious about the world, asking me questions about Washington, DC and Memphis. “What period of history are you most interested?” I asked her. “The Holocaust” she responded, “how could people do that?” “One of the great questions, and it could happen anywhere. Hatred and fear.” I told her. It’s hard not to comment on how scared I am for the United States these days, but I don’t. I’ve told her a bit about my traveling around Europe. Pompous as it sounds, I think it’s helpful to talk about my travels to give them an idea of what’s out there. “When you were in Amsterdam, did you get to go to the Anne Frank House?” she asked. “Yes, I went with my Dad when he came to visit me. It was really moving” I answered. I told her about some of the inscriptions Anne Frank and her family had made in the walls that could still see, about the lines out the door. She took it in pensively. “I want to go there. Amsterdam sounds interesting” she said. That made me happy. Curiosity and desire to see more are the first steps towards bettering one’s station.
Kate is a great story in the making because she is smart, kind, curious, and wants to succeed. She loves her mother, but recognizes her mistakes and will try to stay away from meth. She’s worried about being placed in foster care if the courts decide her mother can’t take care of her. She’s due to go to Canton to live with her mom when her three-month remand is up. Though things will be hard, I have faith that she’ll be able to stay focused. She certainly has the ability, and has teachers and some other relatives to help push her over that thin line from her present situation to a bright future. She’s close to her uncle, and has a brother my age with a full time job at a car dealership who comes to see her “no matter what”. There are people who will try help her, and I intend to be one of them, not just for her but for all of the kids I work with. Help for children only works if it’s sustained, so I’m going to try and keep in touch with her over email when she leaves, asking about her day sometimes and sending her information about colleges, especially Rhodes.
I think she’s going to make it.