It has been six years since I retired from a job I loved—helping low income single teen parents as they struggled to complete their high school educations, prepare themselves for jobs, and raise their children on very little money. I became close to many of these women and decided that each of them had a story that needed to be told. Their stories follow, with minor changes to protect their privacy. The first three are in my words. The rest are told by the women who experienced them.
I’m thankful for Lindsey because knowing her makes me grow in my job, keeps me humble, and prevents me from becoming complacent about what I do.
Lindsey is 19 and the mother of Derrick, age one. She quit school in the ninth grade, had a stillborn child at 17, married at 18, and is now sometimes separated from her husband, sometimes not. She has an open lovely face and long curly, all-encompassing brown hair highlighted with blonde streaks. Dark piercing eyes sparkle behind gold-rimmed glasses. Two pregnancies and a fondness for Mountain Dew and Snickers bars probably account for her turtle-like roundness which she disguises behind baggy shirts and mismatched pants.
One day she brought a pale pink, lavishly-frosted, homemade cake to share with her classmates. She listens intently when the other teen parents in the class talk about fights with boyfriends and problems with child care or transportation, and she offers advice freely. She is the one who is willing to drive her fellow students to and from class when she has a car available.
Ours is an intimate program where the emphasis is on intensive one-on-one help and self-paced academic study in a supportive atmosphere. Taking is allowed in class, and so is roving around, snacking “big gulping” and helping each other with school work. Because all the young women are preparing themselves to enter the world of work, our attendance policy is firm. If they don’t get to school consistently and on time, how can they expect to be successful in a job? No one goes to work until they have proved themselves.
Lindsey is often late. Some days she doesn’t show at all. She schedules make-up times, and then doesn’t appear. She has so many hours to make up that her chances of being placed in a job are fading fast. She schedules GED tests, but to date has taken only one out of the five tests.
When Lindsey does come to school, she’s disruptive. She has a hard time concentrating for more than a few minutes, and she loves to gossip. In a truck driver voice, she shares the juicy details of the latest bar brawls, arrests, separations, and liaisons with a captive audience who devours her words like open-mouthed baby birds. I weary of asking them all to hold down the volume.
No one, including me, likes to confront Lindsey. She’s angry, obstinate, threatening at times, and she’s bigger than I am. She tests me daily, and try as I might, there are times when her behavior forces me to change mine in ways I do not like. I hear myself arguing, cajoling, insisting, all the while knowing that I might as well be talking to a mound of red Jello.
During her years in public school, Lindsey says she survived by fighting. “My teachers finally decided to ignore me just like my mom does. Here it is different, I’m not used to this,” she said to me. “I want my GED, and I want a job, but I want to do it my way.”
I’m learning. I can be kind and polite, even sympathetic and understanding with Lindsey. She’s teaching me that cajoling and insisting do not work. She makes me realize that although I can crack open a door for her, I cannot drag her, or anyone else, through it.
There have been special days at my job when I’ve felt that I’m pretty good at what I do. It’s not easy work, and I don’t expect miracles. Sometimes I congratulate myself as I see a young mom take the first steps on a long hard climb toward maturity, financial security, and good citizenship.
Complacency can set in after you’ve been at a job for a while. What worked once will surely work again, you reason. Not with Lindsey. I’m stubborn enough to know that I am going to see Lindsey complete her GED if it takes until the last day of class.
I’m thankful for Lindsey. Without her I might have just a job. As it is, I have a mission. That is more exciting.