Words are to be taken seriously. I try to take seriously acts of language. Words set things in motion. I’ve seen them doing it. Words set up atmospheres, electrical fields, charges. I’ve felt them doing it. Words conjure.
—Toni Cade Bambara
On one of the many days that I stood at the front desk in the Minneapolis South High School office signing in my tardy daughter, the assistant principal asked me to come into her office. I braced myself, expecting to be warned of possible consequences for Ebony’s habitual lateness. But instead Ms. Rudel said she had been observing my relationship with my daughter, which she characterized as close, loving, and “beautiful.” She said there were many other African American girls at South who could benefit from having a mother figure like me in their lives, then asked if I would consider taking one or two of them under my wing.
Relieved and surprised, I was pleased that the way I relate to my children had caught Ms. Rudel’s scrutinizing eye. But there were things about our circumstances that she was not aware of. Ebony was just beginning to recover from a struggle that had begun two years earlier when Tania, my middle daughter and her closest sibling, left home for college. In some ways Tania had been the mother figure to Ebony that Ms. Rudel hoped I could be to one of the young women she had in mind.
She didn’t know that when Ebony was in middle school and Tania was in her junior year of high school, I had accepted a full-time position working outside our home. This was new for Ebony, because until then I had been working at home her entire life.
Tania and Ebony were the last of my five children still at home, and they spent a good two years together after school doing homework and watching After School Specials on television until I got home from work every day. But Tania was accepted to a prestigious college in New York during her senior year. While our family was proud of her and very excited, Tania’s good fortune was devastating for Ebony. All of her older siblings had left home, I was no longer working at home, and now the sister that she was closest to was a thousand miles away. For the first time in her life she was home alone after school every day. She was feeling lost and abandoned, and I felt like I needed to keep her close, to protect her. I didn’t want to disrupt her life any further by bringing a strange girl into our lives, but I wanted very much to find a way to honor Ms. Rudel’s request. There were plenty of options for ways to get involved at South High. It is still known for its diversity of educational opportunities—from its exemplary academic, fine arts, and world languages programs to its resources to help troubled teens finish school.
After some thought, I decided to volunteer to teach a creative writing class in the Mother Infant Care Education program (MICE), the school’s program for teen parents. Ms. Rudel and the director of the program agreed, and with the help of my friend Julie Landsman, who had recently published a memoir about teaching in an alternative school, I developed a ten-week course that I was pretty proud of.
When I entered the classroom on the first day, I was surprised and pleased to see that, countering stereotypes, the students were not all Black and were not all girls. There were several responsible, caring young fathers who were in the program with their babies’ mothers.
The first two weeks were tougher than I anticipated. Those kids’ daily lives were full of chaos. Some were in foster homes with their babies; some still lived at home, and whether or not they felt supported by their parents, they were responsible for the care of their child or children. Some were emancipated and were trying to work, pay rent, and go to school. Some of the girls were in unhealthy relationships and couldn’t imagine a different way to live. The teacher told me in advance that she never knew from one day to the next who would show up.
Creative writing was the furthest thing from those students’ minds. Nevertheless, I tried to connect with them. I used prompts Julie suggested that had been successful for her. I also used prompts I had designed based on things I heard the students say to each other and to Sue, their teacher. I also came up with prompts based on items I saw in the classroom: colorful posters of famous people or nature scenes with inspirational quotes scrawled across the bottom in large, decorative fonts; pictures of celebrated elders or smiling babies; and items strewn randomly around the room. But nothing worked. I was not able to interest them.
One day one of the girls cleared her throat and gave her glasses a gentle nudge to keep them from sliding down her nose. “Um, Ms. Holbrook,” she said. “You’re nice, but this is boring! No disrespect, but you don’t know nothin’ about us. Why you think you can come in here and help us by trying to make us write about things that don’t mean nothin’ to us?” Around the table, heads nodded in agreement, and I suddenly realized that in my effort to be professional and to avoid disappointing Ms. Rudel, I had denied those young women and men the very thing they needed from any adult who worked with them—to just be my authentic self, to just be real. I made a split-second decision to drop the lesson plan I had so carefully put together and to come clean, show them that I knew more about them than they thought—that the reason I wanted to work with them was because I was one of them. I had my first child when I was seventeen.
I closed the page on the book of poems I had planned to use for the day’s prompt and looked from one student to another: the light-skinned black girl who was unable to see her own beauty and her partner, Corey, who adored her and their baby; the blonde girl whose seven-month fetus bore down on her bladder causing her to get up every few minutes to use the restroom, thankfully located in the classroom; and then to the teacher, who nodded slightly, wondering how I would handle the situation.
“I wasn’t one of the popular girls in school,” I told them and went on to say that I didn’t wear pretty dresses or go to school dances, like the Central High Prom or the swanky debutante ball like my sister Joanne. Nor was I surrounded by adoring boys like Joanne and her friends always were. Secretly, I wanted to be like my sister, but it simply wasn’t in the cards for me. My personality wasn’t the type that attracted popularity. Instead, my friends and I got into fights and talked back to our parents and teachers. And the boys in our south side neighborhood pretty much ignored us.
My mother and stepfather were strict, but one thing my siblings and I were allowed to do without supervision was to take the bus downtown for Saturday afternoon matinees. My friends and I looked forward to those weekly excursions because a group of boys from the north side projects also went to those movies. It was 1961, and they reminded us of the gangs in West Side Story; the rough, sexy white boys we saw on reruns of James Dean movies; and of Sidney Poitier, the gorgeous actor from the Bahamas who played Greg in Blackboard Jungle. And, unlike the south side boys, they liked us.
Before the 1960s, when I became a teenager, the north side was like a family. Everyone looked out for each other. It didn’t matter if you lived in the projects or in one of the middle-class homes near the projects. But by the time we were in our teens, the projects had become more isolated, with poor Black, Native, and Mexican families making up the majority of its residents. We were forbidden to go over north, which made the boys from the projects all the more intriguing. We often lied to our parents, telling them we were going to the movies, and spent Saturday afternoons with the project boys instead. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with a boy named Lonnie. He embodied what we saw in the movie bad boys, and I found him utterly intoxicating—the way he shaped his words in a rough, raspy voice that seeped out of the left side of his mouth, his upper lip turned up in a permanent grimace. And the crackling energy he exuded when he moved with a badass swagger was irresistible. He was so full of life and so daring—so different from the sons of the Black bourgeoisie whom my sister attracted and our parents expected us to date and eventually marry.
Even though I wasn’t a model teenager, I wanted my parents’ approval. I was sure they would like Lonnie if only they would meet him. Boy, was I wrong! They made it unmistakably clear that they didn’t want him coming around, did not want me to see him under any circumstances. But like teenagers since the beginning of time whose parents tried to keep them apart, we found ways to be together. Lonnie had a car and he would pick me up after school several days a week. We made out in his car and made plans for later in the night before he dropped me off a block away from home. “Meet me in the alley,” he would say before speeding off, promising to call from the pay phone near my home when he arrived later, after my family was asleep.
Joanne and I had a pink Princess phone that sat on a nightstand between our beds. Luckily, she always fell asleep first. So on the nights Lonnie was going to call, I was able to slip under the covers with my clothes on and hide the phone under my pillow with no worry that she would hear it ring. Like clockwork, his call always came right before midnight. “Ready, baby?” he rasped and then whispering as though he feared that Joanne would hear him, “I’ll be there in five minutes.”
My bed rested against the wall by our bedroom window, which made my next steps easy. I quietly placed the phone back in its cradle and returned it to the nightstand, glancing over to make sure Joanne was still sleeping. Then I slowly opened the window and crawled out onto the slanted roof and closed the window, leaving it open just a crack to ensure that I would be able to get back in. I’d jump down from the roof and creep out to the alley where Lonnie was waiting.
We never stayed out longer than an hour or two. I wanted to be sure I was back in bed in my pajamas before my family or our neighbors woke up. But one night, Lonnie said he had been watching a small gas station that was open late. The guy who worked there seemed bored and weary, so Lonnie assumed he would be easy prey. He said was going to teach me to drive his old two-tone Buick. I knew he meant that I would drive the getaway car. Something inside of me trembled in fear at that thought—but only for a moment. The biggest part of me was excited, knowing I was about to become a bad guy’s girl like Maria and Anita in West Side Story.
We drove around an empty lot until Lonnie felt confident that I could handle the Buick. Then he drove to the gas station and parked a few houses away. He got out, leaving the engine idling, then kissed me. “You know what to do.” I slid over to the driver’s seat, heart pounding, shoulders tense. With sweaty palms gripping the steering wheel, I began to question what I was getting myself into. Sure, it was thrilling, but what if we got caught? Was jail as romantic as the movies made it seem? Was this boy worth the possible consequences?
I didn’t have much time to wonder. Soon, a noise that sounded like popcorn popping came from the gas station and Lonnie ran out holding a pistol. He jumped into the passenger seat and I took off. We didn’t get very far before we heard sirens blaring and saw red and blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror.
THE YOUNG PARENTS stared in amazement when I told them how that night resulted in my being sentenced to the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, about a hundred miles northwest of Minneapolis. The doctor there soon discovered that I was three months pregnant and, because of the heart murmur I was born with, sent me back to Minneapolis to spend the remaining six months of my pregnancy incarcerated on the maternity ward at the University of Minnesota Hospital in a bland room with white walls, a cold linoleum floor, and four beds. A steady stream of women came in with labor pains and left within a few days with their newborns. There were also long-term patients, juvies like myself, and women who were there because of difficult medical problems.
I will always remember Dorothy, a woman I became close to who stayed for three or four weeks before her baby was due. She had a weak heart and explained that the doctors wanted to ensure that she would be strong enough when it was time for her to give birth. She went into labor one morning the week before my baby was due. When her husband arrived, I watched him take her hand as she was rolled out of the room. He turned and offered me a smile that contained a mixture of excitement and fear. Sometimes I am still haunted by the helpless look on his face when he returned alone later to pick up her things, his shoulders slumped, his face a flood of tears. Despite reassurances by doctors, nurses, and my social worker that my heart murmur wasn’t nearly as serious as Dorothy’s condition, I wasn’t able to sleep until my son, Stevie, was born on April 23, 1962, and he and I were pronounced healthy.
Tongues clucked and grunts gurgled from the students’ throats when I told them that my mother and stepfather wouldn’t let me bring my baby home. I had no choice but to put him in foster care or give him up for adoption. I chose foster care. However, I was only allowed to see him once a week, on Saturday afternoons, one hour at a time, for the first fourteen months of his life. Before my mother passed away, I asked her why. “We were afraid of Lonnie,” she explained, saying that they didn’t think they would be safe if little Stevie and I were in the home and he had ready access to us.
I was awarded custody of Stevie on my eighteenth birthday, but I didn’t have a clue how to be a parent. Back then, teen parents didn’t have programs like MICE to help us learn parenting skills. I had already dropped out of school and, with less than a high school education, struggled to keep a roof over our heads, cleaning with a motel housekeeping service to supplement my monthly welfare check and selling high-end cosmetics to wealthy white women in Minneapolis suburbs. Trying to manage my frustration was hard. There was so much I didn’t understand about babies, and all I knew about being a mother was the example I was raised with. Keep the child clean and fed, but when he needed emotional nourishment, spank him first. It was all the more difficult because Stevie didn’t have a clue who I was, this stranger who until now he had only seen on those brief weekly visits.
When Stevie was three years old, I packed up our few belongings and with only eighteen dollars in my pocket took a Greyhound bus to Springfield, Massachusetts, to live with my father and his second family for a while. In many ways, it was a good move. Dad and my stepmother had two daughters. They were gentle people, and for the first time in my life I saw children being treated with love and kindness. I was grateful to see that there was a different way to treat children from the way I had been raised. This is not meant to be a criticism of my mother and stepfather: I truly believe people raise children the way they understand. My mother’s childhood was difficult. She had lost both of her parents by the time she was in her early teens and spent the remainder of her childhood separated from her siblings, forced to live with unloving relatives. I can only imagine the extent of what she suffered.
THE STUDENTS LISTENED in silence as I told them the next part of my story, the part where I moved to Boston once I was on my feet to find work, and to follow my dream of getting involved in the arts. When Stevie was seven, I married a man I met in an arts program. My child and I experienced unbelievable violence at his hands. If you have read Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, or if you saw Tyler Perry’s film adaptation, you no doubt cringed and maybe gasped, cried, or screamed when the Lady in Red’s boyfriend, Beau Willie, hung her two children by their ankles from the living room window in their high-rise apartment in the projects, then dropped them, killing them. But as horrifying as it was, you probably thought it couldn’t be real, that it was just an overly dramatic scene in a play. I’m here to tell you that such scenes are very real. It’s very likely that they occur more often than anyone knows. The man I was married to hung my son from a sixth floor window by his ankles to strengthen a point he wanted to make after having beaten me bloody. And that was just one incident.
Clearly, the brief time of peace I had experienced in my father’s home wasn’t enough to instill a new sense of positive self-worth in me. It took me ten years to find my way out of that marriage. We moved from Boston to New York City and then to his hometown in North Carolina. The beatings continued, and over time I gave birth to three more of my children, feeling more trapped with each birth.
A surprising turn of events eventually showed me the way out. One Sunday morning our small church’s pianist was sick and couldn’t make it to the service. Remembering my childhood piano lessons at Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House in North Minneapolis, I made a feeble attempt to try playing the songs. Afterward, some of the elderly women in the congregation encouraged me to practice, and before long I was able to relieve the pianist from time to time. After a while, I decided to go back to school and earn a GED, which boosted my confidence even more. And finally, scary as it was, I made a decision to strike out on my own, to return to Minneapolis, now a single mother with a new struggle—to raise four kids on my own and a fifth child, Ebony, who would arrive a year later, the result of a failed attempt to reinvigorate a relationship with an old boyfriend.
I DEFINITELY HAD the young parents’ attention now. Questions flowed one after the other, most centering on why I had stayed in an abusive relationship for so long, how I dug myself out of poverty, and how I got where I am now, in this classroom with them.
I answered all of their questions candidly and was especially thrilled to tell them about Miss Johnson, my eighth grade English teacher. She played a major role in my eventual return to education. Miss Johnson had somehow made me feel like she saw more in me than just a girl who so often gave teachers good reasons to send her to the principal’s office, or to simply ignore me, making me feel invisible. She always had a smile for me when I entered her classroom, and she enjoyed the poems I wrote in her class. And even though there are a lot of well-educated people in my family, she was the first person to make me feel like I might someday be college material myself. Her belief in me stayed in the back of my mind throughout my years of struggle. She is the reason why today I look for the light in the students I work with at the private college and the community college where I have taught. Because of Miss Johnson, I know how important it is to focus on that light, even though it may only be shining dimly when students first enter my classroom. I know firsthand that a spark I light may someday catch fire. I also know that, like Miss Johnson, I may not be the one to witness the flames I may have ignited.
AFTER THAT DAY, the mood in the classroom perked up. The students began responding energetically to my prompts, producing lots of interesting work. And our conversations about our lives continued.
One of the young fathers in the class was a quiet, rather surly young man named Andy, who never wrote or participated in our discussions. He also never missed a class. Andy seemed more sullen than usual the day after then–Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich announced the Republican right wing’s so-called Contract with America, which among other things suggested that the nation could reduce the welfare rolls by placing the children of welfare mothers in orphanages. The idea was to prohibit states from paying welfare benefits to children whose paternity was not established and also to the children who were born out of wedlock to women under eighteen years of age. The savings, according to this proposal, would be used to establish and operate orphanages and group homes for unwed mothers.
The morning Andy read about the Gingrich proposal, he sat planted in his seat, legs crossed, arms folded tightly across his chest, his thick blonde eyebrows furled in a deep frown and his lips glued together in a scowl, all making him look much older than his seventeen years. Then, in the middle of a writing exercise in which, as usual, he had not participated, he suddenly blurted out, “I’m tired of the way people like Newt Gingrich and doctors and social workers treat us. I wanna write a letter to the editor!”
A brief silence came over the classroom, followed by agreement from the other students—all who had experienced offensive treatment by doctors and social workers and even some of their teachers. Sue, the MICE teacher, joined in, confirming that she could tell by a student’s demeanor if they had come to class from an appointment or a class that hadn’t gone well. And now Newt Gingrich and his “Moral Majority” were insulting them again by promoting a plan that would exacerbate the nearly unbearable restrictions that teen parents were already living under. For instance, for the few hundred dollars they received every month in a check and an electric benefit card to cover only the bare necessities, they had to spend inordinate amounts of time doing paperwork to continue proving month after month that they were qualified—time that ate into the hours they could be caring for their children and completing their homework so they could prepare for self-sufficiency.
Moved by their passion, I once again tossed out my lesson plan. I didn’t have a clue how to teach anyone how to write a letter to the editor, but I knew someone who did. The previous summer I had served as interim editor of the Whittier Globe, my neighborhood’s newspaper, and had put together a series of community journalism workshops taught by seasoned feature writers, sports writers, food critics, and others. One of the journalists was Eric Ringham, then commentary editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I called Ringham and was happily surprised by his response. I had hoped he would give me a few pointers, but instead he offered to visit the class the following week, saying that what the kids really needed was instruction on how to write commentary and an effective opinion piece.
When Mr. Ringham came to visit, he went much further. He gave the students a deadline and promised to publish all of the commentaries that were completed by then, and to pay each student whose work he published $100. I would work with them in the weeks after his visit to help them revise their work and prepare the commentaries for publication.
While he explained his work at the Star Tribune and his expectations for their commentaries, and even during a writing exercise he gave them, he couldn’t help noticing a young woman who kept laying her head on her desk. He called her out on her behavior, letting her know that he thought she must have been bored or just plain rude. She replied that neither was true: she was tired. The journalist in him took over and he became curious, wanted to hear her story.
“Why are you so tired?” he asked.
“I overslept and missed my bus so I walked to school,” she replied with a yawn.
No big deal, I’m guessing he thought to himself. But he asked the next question anyway.
“How far do you live from school?”
Now Ringham was even more curious. “Why didn’t you catch the city bus or just stay home?”
“I didn’t have any money and I need to get my education.”
A dumbfounded look came over his face. He stared at the girl for a moment and then asked when her baby was due.
“Next month,” she replied and placed her head back on her desk.
Later, Ringham told me that those kids, especially that young mom who wanted her education so badly that she had walked twenty blocks to school in the eighth month of her pregnancy, changed his view of teen parents. Until then he, like so many others, had bought into the myth that teenagers like them are lazy and promiscuous, uninterested in educating themselves or their children. The intelligence and determination he witnessed that day caught him by surprise.
The students eagerly spent the next few weeks revising their essays. Andy, thrilled that he had been taken seriously, fully participated, taking ownership of the project by sharing valuable feedback on his classmates’ work and prodding them through the revision process while he also wrote his own commentary.
The article, “Kids with Kids: Teenage Parents Find Power in the Pen,” was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sunday, September 17, 1995, and a few days later we celebrated. Sue brought treats and the kids showed up with their $100 checks in hand, along with a few choice words about negative letters to the editor that had followed the publication. Most of the letters were positive, but I guess it was unrealistic to expect that some readers wouldn’t slam the paper for encouraging those awful little slackers by giving them (gasp) money to buy expensive sneakers. Sue and I drew the kids’ attention to the letters that praised their determination and those that showed that some readers were inspired and enlightened by their words.
And I learned that by coming clean myself, I had inspired students to find their own voices.