Monday, November 1, 2010

A glimpse into the past.

I was nervous but I felt like I shouldn't be.
I mean, who was I kidding? I was the grown up. Supposedly anyway.
She was just a kid. A teenager. A pregnant teenager.

She was fourteen years old. Fourteen?

What the hell? What was I doing when I was fourteen? I think I was still playing with Barbies. OK maybe not, but probably I still wanted to be playing with them. I was just starting the ninth grade. I was one of the younger kids in my class, scared and anxious and uncertain about starting high school.

I hadn't even been kissed.

I'd been on a couple of dates but they were ridiculous--to homecoming, to the Valentine's Dance--things were awkward and gawky and maybe there was hand-holding but not much else.

And now this girl--this fourteen year old--was pregnant? As in, she'd had sex? I could hardly get my mind around that, and it was a good thing I didn't know a whole lot more before going to the apartment for that first visit.

My boss has told me Katherine was special.

Mmmm, okay, special? What exactly did that mean?

Special meant special. As in, Forrest Gumpish. A little slow.
But sweet, most definitely sweet. That much I'd been assured.

It was my first official day on the job. Officially. I was a teacher but my job wasn't in any classroom. Unless you counted my trunk as my office and my kids' living rooms as the classroom. It sounded a lot better/cooler than teaching in any traditional classroom--during student teaching (OK let's be honest: during pre-student teaching) I knew teaching wasn't going to be for me. But I was young, married, finishing up college and didn't want to start all over. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Did anyone? So I finished the degree, got the certificate, enrolled in graduate school in a different field but still needed a job and voila! this one fell into my lap.

Alternative school homebound teacher for pregnant and parenting students. Officially.

I imagined the stories I'd have! The rapt attention I'd get at parties as I talked about my students, the poor pregnant darlings I'd be entrusted with...I envisioned myself befriending them, saving them, opening up worlds for them, making their lives better.

Excuse me? Who was I kidding? I was barely older than they were with zilch in the way of life experience. I had nothing to offer other than a way to fill an official requirement to stay in school.
So Katherine was my first. And she was special.

I knocked on the door and despite my best intentions, I was most definitely nervous. My heart was beating hard, my armpits were damp with sweat. JoAnn, my boss, was already there, we'd arranged it that way. We were going to share the first visit--I was going to observe and see how things were done. JoAnn would transition out and then the next visit I'd be on my own.

At least that's how it was supposed to go down.

Katherine's mom answered the door. Lois, as I'd later learn her name to be--she certainly didn't introduce herself-- did not look delighted to see me, to say the least. She looked me up and down as I smiled nervously and thrust my hand forward.

"Hi!" I squeaked. "I'm Ashley!"

"Oh there she is!" JoAnn yelled out from across the room. She was sitting on the couch, all teachery. I felt such relief seeing her there, hearing her familiar sing-songy voice.

Lois moved aside with a grunt and I took that as my invitation to enter the apartment.

My eyes could scarcely take it all in. Sensory overload indeed.

Filth. Trash. Crap.
No surface was spared, it was equal opportunity disgustingness. The kitchen table was piled high with food and food items, empty fast food bags, half-eaten sandwiches, bags of chips--open. Dirty dishes, dirty utensils.

It was a dimly lit apartment and I saw two sagging couches in an L-shape formation with a long rectantgular battered coffeetable in front of one of them. A large older woman--later introduced to me as Katherine's grandmother (soon to be a great grandmother y'all!)--was sprawled out across one of the ratty sofas. JoAnn sat smiling on the other, and I was introduced to Katherine, who sat next to her.

My first official student, Katherine.

Her belly was enormous. Her t-shirt was stretched beyond it's limits and I'm sure I was staring. Katherine did not look at me but I took her in. She had long stringy hair and greasy skin. She wasn't pretty.

I couldn't help but think about her and some boy--the soon to be father--doing it. I swallowed.

"Hi Katherine!" I sounded like such an overenthusiastic idiot. A Pollyanna.

Katherine looked at me and gave a half-hearted smile. Lois had lumbered into the living room and squeezed herself onto the couch next to Katherine.

I stood there awkwardly, my bookbag on my arm.

JoAnn suddenly jumped up and started talking about how she was leaving.

Excuse me? Had I heard right? She was leaving? Me? There? Alone?

It seemed so. She had 'accidentally' made another appointment that was starting in, oh, five minutes so she had to head out. Accident my ass. She was ready to drop this student on me like a hot potato. But she'd left us with a video and an assignment to work on together so no big deal--her words. She kept nodding her head up and down, up and down, looking from Katherine to me and back again. I wasn't listening. I just kept thinking 'don't leave me here, please.'

But leave she did.
And I did stay.
After all, I was the teacher. This was my classroom.

And no one made room for me--the interloper--on the couch. Katherine had somehow filled up the space JoAnn had left when she got up and there was simply no room.

After standing there for what seemed like an eternity I sank down to my knees and placed my bookbag on the coffee table.

OK. I was the teacher. I could do this. The pregnant fourteen year old, her mother and her grandmother were not in charge of me. I was in charge. All twenty-one years of me.

I mumbled something to JoAnn and waved her away, annoyed once again at the fakeness of my own voice. Why couldn't I just sound like a normal human being?

And then I noticed them.

Small brown roaches, a few here, a few there, just skittering here and there across the floor, across the television, across the table.

It took every ounce of restraint I had in my every cell in my body not to scream, not to run out the door. To not have a major freakout. No one else noticed them, or if they did, they weren't bothered by them.

I was sickened. I fumbled through the lesson--which consisted of watching a newborn babycare video and answering some questions about it--a nice easy break-in first visit type lesson. More on that little activity later.

I just wanted to get out of there.
I just wanted to take a shower.


  1. Wow! I'm a teacher and my last job (ten years ago) was in a really tough area - parents on drugs, dealing drugs, prostitution. But at least I got to stay in the relative safety and cleanliness of the school. That sounds like a serious baptism of fire you had there!! Looking forward to hearing the next installment!

  2. Wow. Seriously? I can't even imagine...I mean, I can...but as a young, just-out-of-college idealist? I can't.

  3. Oh wow, I just had serious special-ed flashbacks. I too taught for a few years, mostly inner-city special ed for emotionally disturbed kids. Whew. While I never went to their houses, I did see many dirty, god-knows-bitten-by-what bites on them, hungry. It was a hard job. Really hard.

    Makes me wonder what happened to many of those kids. What happened to Katherine and her child too.

  4. Holy crow, woman. I honestly don't even know how to respond.

    Nothing like a little perspective to brighten up my Monday.... woo.

  5. Wow... and yuck. That about sums it up for me. Very sad that this baby was to grow up in a place like that. I plan to return home tonight and feel thankful for my clean home!

  6. Speechless... for you, her and her child. What a way to come into this world and it happens everyday. This is when I think "the Gods must be crazy..."

  7. Ashley, I'm just speechless...and amazed that at 21 you didn't go screaming out the door. It's heartbreaking the situation that baby was born into. What chance does he/she have? :-(


  8. Uuuggghhh... my stomach was literally turning, waaaay before you got to the part about the roaches. :(
    My brain knows situations like this happen- far too often- but I just don't want to even know anyone that it's "happened to"....
    It makes my heart hurt, for those babies, and the children having those babies.

  9. *shudder* when i used to work at the preschool i would take summers off and they would run a summer program out of our rooms. one sept i came back to a roach infestation, like move a piece of furniture and twenty would scatter! it was the most disgusting thing i have ever seen in my life, but all i could picture was my poor babies sleeping on their cots all summer, not three inches from the floor.
    im sure you didnt write to hear everyone's roach stories! im looking forward to reading more of this story, though. im sure you made a big difference in this child's life.

  10. How very sad. For Katherine and for her baby. I know these situations occur, but I have no idea what the solution is. Just sad.

  11. Wow. Just wow. So many avenues for these kinds of memories to lead us in our now more experienced selves. I haven't been around for awhile and haven't been able to tell you how amazing of a person you are. Just so you don't forget, you are.

    This reads a lot a snippet from a life memoir. Will there be more of this we might get to read? (-;

  12. What an experience....I cannot imagine what that must have been like for you. It's hard to believe people live in those conditions and then I have to remind myself that people live in even worse conditions than that. They at least had a place to live, so many don't even have that. So, so sad.

  13. Yeah, wow is right. I can't imagine how hard that must have been, and how hard it is even now to think about it and realize the irony in the world, that allows a baby to born into such an awful situation. Life is so unfair. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Wow, this was a really intense read. Sounded like an intense situation all around -- for you and for the young girl. Also sounds like your own young self handled it with grace under fire. I want to know the "silver lining", but I fear this story may not end with one. Intensely, beautifully shared.

  15. There is just no way to make these things fair, is there?

    My fingers are always crossed for you, though - I figure if there is any kind of poetic justice in this world you deserve some fantastic good luck now!

  16. Wow. That is definitely a healthy dose of perspective. Thank you for sharing this - I love your writing!