The Last Interview; Has Anything Changed?

teen-births-in-washington-county-prevention-may-2009I interviewed Rochelle for the last time yesterday. She has been coming into my living room on a weekly basis for almost two years for an hour-long interview, and we have become good friends. “You know more about me than anyone,” she told me. “I usually keep all this stuff to myself.”

In Meet Rochelle, the introduction to this blog, we explain why this project got started. Now it is over. The original and most immediate purpose of the interviews was to provide Rochelle with a dignified way of making a little extra money when she was working at a part-time job for minimum wage. We also hoped that her story might be a useful tool in informing more privileged people about what life is like in the culture of poverty. Now that Rochelle has reached something of a plateau,  it is hard not to evaluate where she is today as opposed to where she was in her life two years ago. We started by discussing teenage pregnancy, and we spent part of our last interview with that discussion again.

My first question to Rochelle almost two years ago was to ask why she had continued not to use birth control even though she had delivered her first child while still in high school without support from the father. Two years ago Rochelle was not really sure of the answer. Now, she is really not sure how she is going to prevent the same thing from happening to her daughters. Though she is supervising her children much more closely than her mother supervised her and her siblings, she doesn’t seem to understand that it will take much more than that to prevent her daughters from becoming pregnant too early and to prevent her son from impregnating someone at a young age. Part of this is probably due to the fact that early pregnancy, without male support, is the rule rather than the exception in the world Rochelle and her children inhabit. Some of it is probably due to Rochelle’s lack of understanding of the complex of factors that resulted in her early pregnancy, and that will probably cause the same thing for her daughters. It is also due to the starvation Rochelle felt as a teenager, and her children feel now, for affection, approval, and acceptance, a hunger for which a teenage boy seems like a perfect solution. Finally, if Rochelle’s daughters have no future to protect, as Rochelle did not at 16, they will see no reason not to get pregnant, especially if all around them their friends are doing just that.We have discussed the need for goals in life, and Rochelle now has some for herself, but I am not at all sure she is confident about being able to develop goals for her children’s lives.

So, two years later, Rochelle has a much better job. She has gone from $7.25/hr and working part-time in a dead end position to $11.25/hr and working full-time on the promotion path in a new company. She has been there over a year and qualifies for benefits. She has graduated from the company’s beginning management classes and is preparing to enter their official management school next year. This is a truly positive difference in Rochelle’s life from where she was when I started interviewing her.

Rochelle is also developing a relationship with a credit union so that she might improve her credit score and be able to function within a normal banking system instead of the payday loans, finance companies, and sub-prime car dealerships she currently is forced to deal with. Unfortunately, after our last interview ended, she was going directly to the sub-prime car dealership she had bought her last car from in order to trade it in on another car. This time, however, she has in her hand all the customer complaints recently levied against the company, and she will go in with her eyes wide open and questions to ask. Her current car, as blog readers will already know, was a lemon. “I change the oil every 3,000 miles,” Rochelle had always said when new problems developed. “It is just a bad car,” I would tell her.

Rochelle is still poor; she still has car problems and credit problems; and her mother’s health will not be improving. But the most troubling thing is that despite our discussions of teenage pregnancy and how it has affected her life, she still has not discussed sex and early pregnancy with her 12-year-old daughter; the probability of breaking the cycle of poverty in this generation seems unlikely. Rochelle’s problems are just too complex for her to overcome by herself; addressing all the problems is overwhelming. Still, to have a job that is turning into a career is a big step forward for her.

I will still be seeing Rochelle for lunch every month. Perhaps the blog is really not ending yet. Perhaps I will log in for new posts after our monthly lunches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preventing Teenage Pregnancy: Breaking the Poverty Cycle

imagesI have been interviewing Rochelle for well over a year, and I wondered how her thinking about teenage pregnancy had changed over that time. I wondered if there had been any change at all. Her eldest daughter just turned 12 this month and is in middle school. When we first discussed it, Rochelle had said she thought her daughter was too young for a conversation about sex, even though Rochelle’s own sister had a baby at 14 and Rochelle had a baby at 17. Her daughter was 10 at the time. Over the last year and a half I had brought the subject up a few times, but it never went very far. Rochelle said she knew she needed to have “the talk,” but either thought her daughter was too young, or she thought the school would handle it. Her answer to the same question was very different when I again raised it a couple of days ago. We have only two more interviews until our agreed upon interview period is over, and I wanted to see what she now said.  “I think everything will be fine,” she told me. “My children have adult supervision at all times. My sisters and I didn’t; and we had a mama who was bringing different men home all the time. I don’t do that; I’m raising my children better than that,” she emphasized. “Anyway, black people just do things differently from white people,” she told me. In Rochelle’s world, having a baby or several babies while still in your teen years is more common than not. She talks about wanting to break the cycle of poverty that her family has experienced for generations, but still doesn’t seem to understand how becoming a teenaged mother has contributed to this cycle. One hundred percent of her female relatives had become mothers while in their teens. One hundred percent of her relatives that I am aware of are living in the culture of poverty. Her eldest sister is not on government assistance, but her family of six, plus a relative’s baby, live in a cramped two bedroom apartment.

“Adult supervision is good and needed,” I told her. “But it is not enough. What will happen when your children start dating?” “They don’t date now,” Rochelle said. I told her I thought she was also uncomfortable about having “the talk” with her daughter. “Yes, I am uncomfortable,” Rochelle said, “The school will handle it.” “That didn’t stop your sisters or you from becoming pregnant,” I replied. “But I’m supervising my children, and I don’t bring men home like Mama did,” she repeated. “If you are going to break the cycle of poverty in your family, you’re going to have to stop teen pregnancy in your family,” I said. And then we moved on to other subjects such as how her job is going.

Her job is going well. Next week she will graduate from her work sponsored management-training program. She had given her “final exam” which was a five-minute presentation of what she had learned and how she was going to use the knowledge going forward. In that presentation she held up a magnet I had given her, which said: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”   Several of the managers who were watching her presentation came up to her later and said they loved the quote. “I think I did good,” Rochelle said. She is comfortable talking about her progress at work, but not about the subject of teen pregnancy. A year and a half ago she could just think it wouldn’t happen to her children, but now, with her daughter reaching puberty, she is still so uncomfortable with the idea of discussing sex with her daughter that she cannot bring herself to deal with the problem. Clearly, despite Rochelle’s hard work and impressive successes at work, the power of the culture she grew up in continues to exert its influences.

Paying for Poverty on the Installment Plan: Stunting the Mind and Imagination

imagesThis is Jessie, again.  Ever since my sister told me about Rochelle’s daughter and her school project I’ve been preoccupied by the differences between the experience of my daughter, Rachel, at eleven and that of Rochelle’s eleven year old daughter, Kalinda.  For Rachel, eleven was the age at which she made two major decisions that have guided her life ever since.  She decided that after she finished college she would go into the Peace Corps, and she decided that after she finished her Peace Corps service she would go to medical school.  She did both.

 Rachel was a smart child and did very well in school, but all her friends were also smart children who did well in school.  So were her cousins.  So had her parents been, and her aunts and uncles.  Rachel never had physical fights with other girls at school, like Kalinda.  But then, Rachel was an only child, born to two professors with PhDs, both in their late thirties, without great wealth, but with plenty of money for all of life’s necessities and many of life’s pleasures.  Rachel lived in the same house for her entire childhood, the same one she visits now as an adult.  When her second grade teacher said she was having trouble with arithmetic, we practiced every day until she was confident about it.  In middle school she started learning both French and Spanish and then went on a school trip to Europe during spring break, where she was able to use these languages in real life—albeit on an extremely limited basis!  Before she left, her travel group had explored the countries they would visit, and we had taken down the globe from its shelf in the dining room several times, to examine the route she and her fellow students would take.  Both of Rachel’s parents and her aunt and uncle had served as VISTA Volunteers in the 1960s and 1970s, and several cousins had been Peace Corps Volunteers.  Both her parents and her aunts and uncle had advanced degrees.  She grew up with the tradition of both service and advanced education.  By the time she was eleven, it was clear to her that this is what life involved.

What has poverty meant for Rochelle’s eleven-year-old daughter, Kalinda, and in fact, for all her children?  They have moved from apartment to apartment and school to school all their lives, as Rochelle has attempted to find rents she could afford and housing that was safe.  There are few books in their home, and despite a valiant recognition of the obligation to go to school, no tradition of learning or excitement or exploration of what is presented at school.  When Kalinda began having trouble with arithmetic, Rochelle, preoccupied with work, economic difficulties, and extended family problems, has had no spare energy for intensive tutoring.  She had always been good at arithmetic, and her attempts to deal with her daughter’s mathematical shortcomings frustrate her.  I don’t know what Kalinda’s plans for her future are, or if she has any.  I doubt she has ever heard of the Peace Corps.  Her academic experience has not been enjoyable, and I’m sure she has no thought of attending college.  She is in the “slow group” at school, and she often gets low grades.

If Kalinda’s economic circumstances were different, would she be the bright little girl Rachel was?  That all of Rachel’s friends were?  If Rachel’s circumstances had been like Kalinda’s, would she have been the reluctant student, aggressive and uncooperative in school, like Kalinda?  I can’t know that.  I have met Kalinda only once, when she and her mother and siblings all went out to lunch with my sister and me more than a year ago.  Kalinda sat across from me in the restaurant, and we talked throughout the meal.  I was struck by both her good manners and her appropriate conversation.   She was friendly, lively, and outgoing.  She certainly didn’t seem “slow.”   Rochelle is the third generation of single mothers in her family, and it seems very likely that Kalinda will be the fourth.  Rochelle is the first person in her extended family to have graduated from high school, though it has done her precious little good.  At this point it is hard to imagine that Kalinda will graduate.

Now the federal funding for SNAP, aka food stamps, and for the after-school program that Rochelle’s children attend has been cut.  And of course, there are the many states, like Texas, that have decided that increased Medicaid eligibility (which would cost these states very little) is out of the question—mostly to make a political point.

So, though impoverished children are covered, impoverished adults are not, and their extremely low incomes make them ineligible for Obamacare.  Less money for food.  No money for afterschool care.  No money for adult health care.  Rochelle’s children are perfectly normal in stature.  We rarely see starving children, short and emaciated, in our country.  We do, of course, see many who, like Rochelle’s children, eat far too much of the wrong foods: too high in fats and carbohydrates, too low in protein, vitamins, and minerals.  But those foods are tasty, filling, and comforting, and cheap enough for their mothers to afford.

The stunting we see in 21st century America is different from the stunting of bodies that existed in the past in this country, and that still exists in too many other countries.  Today’s American stunting is the stunting of the mind and the imagination that comes from our addiction to paying for poverty on the installment plan.  Apparently we Americans are willing to save a little money today by cutting back on social benefits for Rochelle and Kalinda and the millions like them, and pay for their stunted lives in high interest installments in the future: poor health, handled through high cost emergency rooms; an eternal parade of school dropouts with no job skills whose lives must be subsidized by grudging and inadequate state and federal benefits; babies born to unmarried mothers who can’t support them and whose entire youthful lives must be maintained by a different range of grudging and inadequate public programs; and worst of all, the high and tragic cost of lives destroyed by drugs and other criminal activities, and mediated through the criminal justice system    These national installment payments promise to be the eternal price paid by a country that refuses to guarantee decent lives for all its citizens.  And the price doesn’t begin to cover (because costs like these are always in the fine print) the pain and stunting of each individual life, like Kalinda’s or Rochelle’s.

The Nightmare of Poverty

The ultimate terror for white people is to leave the highway by mistake and find themselves in East St. Louis.  People speak of getting lost in East St. Louis as a nightmare.  The nightmare to me is that they never leave that highway so they never know what life is like for all the children here.  They ought to get off that highway.  The nightmare isn’t in their heads.  It’s a real place.  There are children living here.”

 Jonathan Kozol, St. Louis Dispatch, 1991

 

1557604_10152220740161654_935384944_n “She told me the worst thing that had ever happened to her in her life was when her parents divorced three years ago,” Rochelle told me last week, punctuating the statement with a loud laugh. She was talking about a conversation she had had with a co-worker whose position is one step up from hers.  The woman is 19, married with no children, and attends the state university.  Her husband has a job with the same grocery store and also attends the state university.  Rochelle had a very hard time understanding how a parent’s divorce could be the worst thing a person could have gone through.  “I’ve never even had a father,” Rochelle said.  “I don’t even know who my father is! I’ve lived through my house burning down and a little baby dying in the fire when I was 11.  I’ve had no Christmases when I was growing up, or birthday parties, or food.  She at least has two parents.”  For Rochelle, the divorce of one’s parents didn’t seem to compare with many of the events of her own upbringing.  How could divorce have had such a strong impact on her co-worker?  Rochelle keeps her difficult life to herself, so she didn’t say anything to the woman.  She saved her amazement for me.

About 15 years ago I drove my friend, Dick, through an old and very poor neighborhood of Laredo, Texas.  Laredo is a border city on the shores of the Rio Grande, where a huge proportion of the population lives below the poverty line.  I thought it was something Dick most likely had never seen, and I thought he needed to see it.  I’ll never forget Dick’s comment:  “No wonder they all vote Democratic,” he had loudly exclaimed.  Dick is a Republican and even called Social Security “the dole” when he was eligible to receive it.  That was as close as Dick ever came to seeing the nightmare of poverty, but he still doesn’t understand it, and he sure doesn’t want to get closer to it.  This, of course, is a great part of the problem when searching for solutions to poverty in our country. We can’t fix what we refuse to see and understand.

If you are new to reading this blog, I suggest you go to some of the very first posts so you can better understand Rochelle’s life.   The earlier blogs set the stage for the future ones.  They depict a life that happened right here in my town.  Not all that far away from my house, on the other side of the tracks, or in this town’s situation, the other side of the interregional highway.  Life is different on that side of town, as Rochelle’s conversation with her co-worker points out so dramatically.   Poverty won’t find solutions until more people understand how this nightmare of poverty develops and continues.  And lest we comfort ourselves with the thought that poverty is simply a fact of life that can never be eliminated, let’s rethink that notion.  For one thing, poverty never existed until cities developed; it is not a natural human condition.   And for a second thing, poverty has been all but eradicated in some countries, notably in Scandinavia; if a society has the will to eliminate poverty, it can be done.

Breaking the Cycle of Teenage Pregnancy

images“You always tell me you want to break the cycle of teenage pregnancy and poverty that has been going on in your family for generations,” I mentioned to Rochelle at the beginning of our last meeting.  She had been successfully working to improve her financial situation since we had begun our interviews a year and a half ago; last April she got hired by a good company with opportunities for advancement, but it had been quite a while since we had discussed the teenage pregnancy situation that had helped cause her poverty.   Teenage pregnancy was the norm in her extended family; how did she plan on preventing the cycle from repeating in her children’s generation?  Her eldest daughter, Kalinda, is now 11.  I had thought she was 12 because she is tall and looks older, but she won’t turn 12 until the summer.  Rochelle has not talked to Kalinda about sex yet.  “ I think maybe 7th grade is a good time,” she had told me about a year ago.  Kalinda is now in 6th grade; she mixes with 7th and 8th graders in her junior high school; Rochelle’s eldest sister got pregnant in junior high at 13.  “She is around older girls and I’m sure they are discussing sex,” I said.  “If your sister can get pregnant at 13, it could happen to your daughter just as well.  What do you think prevents young girls from going down that path?  What will prevent your daughter from becoming pregnant?”  I asked.

“Well, I think the parent needs to be home or to have the kids supervised when you aren’t there,” Rochelle said.  “When I was growing up there was no adult around.  My sisters brought boys home and I saw all that.  My mother brought men home all the time as well.  We weren’t supervised at all.  When I got pregnant I just went into denial and told no one.  Never went to the doctor.  But then, of course, I had to go to the hospital when I went into labor. Being in denial didn’t keep the baby from coming.”  I told Rochelle that supervision was needed but it took more than that to prevent teen pregnancies.  “Did you ever think about how a child would change your life or about how much money and effort is involved in raising a child?”  I asked her.  “No,” she said, “I was totally unprepared.”

“If Kalinda has a child as a teenager it will also become your problem,” I suggested.  “It will be a huge change for Kalinda, but it will also be a huge change for you because that baby will be in your house.  It is your responsibility to share all this with your daughter; to tell her how hard your life became because of a pregnancy at 16.  She didn’t make it hard for you, but being 16 at the time did.  You need to talk to her about all this and to talk to her about sex and contraception as well.  Kids grow up fast.  You grew up fast.  You need to find the time to talk to her; the sooner you do it the better for both of you,” I said emphatically.  I knew she had a lot going on, but without her moving forward in the education of her daughter, the same cycle will repeat and repeat sooner than she may think.

“Did you have any future plans for your life when you were in high school?” I asked Rochelle.  At her job, during the recent interview for a promotion, she had been asked what her five-year plan was.  No one had ever asked her that before.  I told her it was a common job interview question.  Luckily she was successful in her interview and is now promoted to a first level supervisor over cashiers.  She starts training this week.  The company has asked her to elaborate in writing about various things, one being her goals for five years from now regardless of whether she is still with the company.  “If you had had long term goals in your life do you think you might have thought more seriously about preventing a pregnancy when you were 16?” I asked.  “Yes, I love my kids, but my life stopped when I got pregnant,” she told me.  “You need Kalinda to have goals and to see what can happen to them if she becomes a teenage, single parent,” I said.  “I do,” Rochelle said, “I sure do.”

 

 

Interviewing for a Promotion

images“I think it went well, but seven other people are interviewing for the job, too,” Rochelle told me.  She had applied for a part-time hourly management position at her store.  They would keep her as a full-time employee, and she would work half-time as a manager over the cashiers and half-time at her normal cashier position.  At first I was concerned she would not keep her full-time job with benefits, but she asked and they said all would be well.  “We don’t do our people that way,” her manager told her.  Basically Rochelle would be monitoring the lunches and breaks of the other cashiers and handling problems at the check out stations.  “I won’t be real upset if I don’t get it,” she told me.  “I still have my full-time job, and I haven’t been here very long.”  She called me after her interview and said she thought it had gone well

At first I thought I would wait until the results of this job application had been decided before I made another post.  Rochelle will find out the results later this week.  But this is a major event in Rochelle’s life.  She has never been able to apply for advancement before.  She is saving a bit of money and has the possibility of moving up in her job.  I sure hope she gets the position, but if not, eventually she will move forward if she sticks with it.  I think we will get back to a discussion about teen pregnancy in our next interview.  I’ve got real concerns about her 12 year old daughter.  Rochelle has yet to talk to her about sex, and the girl seems to have friends who are already involved with boyfriends and either potentially or actually sexually active. Several of her Facebook “friends” say they are “in a relationship.”  At 12.  Rochelle and I have discussed this before, but nothing seems to be happening on the sex ed front, either at home or at school.  I think it is time to get back to the original subject of this blog, which is the problems of single black mothers.  Her 12 year old daughter may be one soon, and it would be a good thing if Rochelle can prevent it from happening.

The chances are far from good for Rochelle’s daughter.   In 2011, the last date for which I found conclusive figures, 72% of the African American mothers who gave birth in the United States were unmarried.  (So were 35% of the white mothers and 53% of the Hispanic mothers.)  Another way of looking at this is to note that in the same year (2011), only 51% of all Americans had ever been married (compared to 72% in 1960).  And if we look at the stats by race, we see that in 2011, only 30 of all African Americans had ever been married.   Fewer Americans are getting married now than ever before, and more babies are being born to unmarried mothers than ever before, and these two trends are most pronounced among African Americans. Just statistically it is possible to say that Rochelle’s daughter will probably be an unmarried mother, and that she will probably never marry.  If we add to this the facts that most of Rochelle’s female relatives are single mothers, that most of her daughter’s cousins and friends are or soon will be single mothers, the picture looks grim, indeed.  It is simply the norm for poor, African American females to become single mothers, and to do so when they are quite young and have no job skills.  Rochelle’s daughter does not do well in school, either academically or socially.  She is classified as a “slow learner,” and she has trouble controlling her temper.  School does not offer her a rewarding experience in any way.  She has no obvious future to protect.  It seems inevitable that she will be a mother sooner rather than later, especially if Rochelle does not have a serious talk with her about sex..

 

 

Blogging About Poverty

UnknownIt has now been slightly over a year since I started doing weekly interviews with Rochelle, and I’m feeling a little blogged out.   I don’t “get” blogging, actually.  People who go on and on about their routine lives seem pretty boring to me; reporting day to day activities just isn’t very interesting.  I had to opt out of a friend’s blog for that exact reason.  I have good friends; we discuss our lives when we get together, but we usually don’t discuss them on a weekly basis.  The question, then, becomes what to do now?  Rochelle is still only working part-time at the grocery store, and even should the job become full-time, poverty will remain what constantly causes Rochelle to live from crisis to crisis. I have interviewed her for about 60 hours.  We have covered a lot of subjects.  Those who have read all posts should understand how difficult day-to-day living is for Rochelle.  So as the second year of interviews begins, I will be working at discovering new themes and new strategies for exploring Rochelle’s world and its implications.

Last week we had only a short interview.  In thirty minutes I discovered her elder sister is now caring for a year and a half old child who is unwanted by a relative.  This sister has five of her own children and got pregnant at 13.  She has had a long and stable job, recently divorced her husband, but by no means has much money.  This, of course, is what the culture of poverty is all about.  Rochelle’s disabled mother moved back in with Rochelle full time to care for this baby while Shondelle, Rochelle’s sister, is at work.  Rochelle is surrounded by the problems poverty brings.  It is hard to be hopeful for Rochelle’s children; their role models are their aunts, their cousins, their grandmother, and their neighbors.   All of them are all in the same boat of hand-to-mouth poverty.

During last week’s interview I gave Rochelle a globe.  It was a gift from Jessie, my anthropologist sister, who is the reason for these interviews.  Kalinda, Rochelle’s eldest daughter, had done poorly on a social studies test.  The test required that she place continents on a map, among other things.  Jessie thought a globe would be useful and sent it.  Rochelle’s eyes just lit up when I gave it to her.  “I’ve never had a globe,” she said.  I showed her where some countries were and said it should help her kids learn about the world.  I grew up with a family globe and know I was always looking at it.  “You know I’ve never been out of the state,” Rochelle said.  “Do you think some time, when I’ve saved up some money, you could take me and the kids on a trip somewhere?”  It had already occurred to me to try to do that.  I’m not yet sure how or when, however.  “That would be a good idea,” I replied.  Then I felt very sad; she had sounded so wistful when she asked me the question.

So the blog will keep blogging, because the world of poverty keeps on grinding its inhabitants.  I am afraid that in this blog we are mostly preaching to the choir, something that is probably true of all blogs.  But with luck some readers are becoming more aware of what a huge trap poverty can be for those who have never lived in any other circumstances.  And perhaps gaining a better appreciation of the texture of lives stunted by poverty will inspire us all to do our part in the struggle against it.

 

 

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: Learning in the Culture of Poverty

images-2It was 7:30 a.m., and I was knocking on Rochelle’s apartment door.  It was dark inside, but she had asked me to take her to work and then to babysit her children until her mother returned from her doctor’s appointment.  Her elder daughter, Kalinda, opened the door.  She and her sister were dressed, and her brother just needed his shoes put on.  Rochelle was not quite ready.  It was the first time I had been to the apartment.  “I want you to come over, but I want to have it clean first,” Rochelle had always said.  This morning she said,  “We picked up a little bit for your visit.”   She had called me two days earlier when she realized she had a babysitting problem.

The apartment was physically in very good shape, but there were clothes and toys and boxes of food all over every room except Rochelle’s bedroom.  Four people make for a lot of laundry and a lot of mess.  It is a four-bedroom apartment; however, two of the bedrooms are used for storage for bicycles and toys.  The two girls sleep in bunk beds, and the five-year old boy sleeps with his mother.  I wasn’t quite sure where the grandmother slept when she was there.

When Rochelle was ready I drove her to her work with the children in the back seat.  I took the kids to breakfast after we dropped their mother off.  It seemed easier that way, and I knew the children sometimes didn’t get breakfast.  After breakfast we went back to the apartment and I discovered the reason it had been so dark when I had arrived.  There are no overhead light fixtures in the apartment.  The living room had two end table lamps, but when I tried to read a book to the youngest children I didn’t have enough light to read by.  The lamps needed higher wattage bulbs.  “Why didn’t you open the curtain?” Rochelle asked when I told her about my predicament.  That would have solved my problem, but it only works in the daytime.   I began to wonder where and how the children ever did their homework.  I also wondered how the children could read books on their own.  Rochelle told me that she sometimes did read books to them, but that looked like a difficult thing to do.  I finally sat on the floor under an end table light and the two youngest sat on the couch and looked over my shoulder.

Kalinda, the 11-year old, has problems in school.  She had an after-school tutor towards the end of the past school year to help prepare her for the State of Texas tests that were coming up.  She did not understand multiplication at all.  “She just doesn’t get it, and I don’t know why,” Rochelle had told me in an interview a few months ago.  Rochelle had always done well in arithmetic and just couldn’t understand why her daughter had a problem.  “I just don’t have the patience to work with her; I get frustrated,” Rochelle explained.  At that time I suggested flash cards; we went to a store and got multiplication and division flash cards.

When I finished reading the book to the youngest children, I suggested to Kalinda that we do some flash cards.  She looked excited and stopped looking at Facebook on the computer.  She went to the bedroom closet and brought the flash cards to me.  They obviously had never been used, but she wanted to show me what she had learned with the tutor.  “I never used to understand multiplication at all,” she said.  Kalinda did get the right answer on some of the flash cards, but when we tried 9×12 she had a problem.  She had a problem with 8×9, as well.  She starts division when the fall semester begins in four weeks, and without multiplication she will have difficulty with division.  If there is not a breakthrough at the beginning of the school year, which seems unlikely, Kalinda’s ability to handle basic arithmetic will go downhill fast from there.  “You just have to memorize these things,” I told her.  “If you use the flash cards you will learn the answers.”  She asked if she could use some paper to figure out the answer.  I told her that would be fine, but I didn’t understand how that would help.  It didn’t.  Kalinda has memorized the smaller numbers but seems to runs into problems above 5.  The combinations she knows may be the result of familiarity.  I’m not sure anyone has ever explained the process and necessity of memorization to her, or sat with her while she mastered her flash cards.

Rochelle’s apartment has four bedrooms, but no place is conducive to studying or learning.  There is very little light for reading, and flat surfaces are covered with clothing and other possessions.  The computer has its own corner, and the television, as in many homes, is the focal point of the living room.  When Rochelle came to my house for her weekly interview the next morning I asked her where the children did their homework.  “On the dining room table,” Rochelle said.  That wasn’t really available the day I was there because it was piled with clothing.  Four people plus a visiting grandmother can turn an apartment into a mess very quickly.  I mentioned the fact that Kalinda didn’t really understand that multiplication required, especially at the beginning, just memorization.  “She has trouble with her memory,” Rochelle told me.  This child has been diagnosed with learning problems, but I suggested if she had no problem memorizing 4×5 (and she doesn’t), she could memorize 8×9.  “Just use the flash cards,” I said, and offered to spend time working on flash cards with Kalinda.    Rochelle nodded, but Rochelle had no support at all when she was in school and doesn’t see how crucial that support could be to a child who is struggling in school.   “I just don’t have the patience,” she again told me. The coming academic year will not be easy for Kalinda.  She starts at a new school, and she can’t handle multiplication.  The youngest two children also seem eager to learn.  They have done well in school so far, but I fear for the future.

I wasn’t surprised by the difficult environment for learning I found in Rochelle’s apartment, except that Rochelle had not described it to me that way.  Rochelle has never experienced a supportive learning environment herself, so she doesn’t recognize the problems her apartment presents to her children.  After all, she has provided her children with a secure and relatively comfortable home, something that was entirely missing from her own childhood.  Education may be a key to finding the way out of poverty, but the obstacles blocking educational achievement are huge from the earliest years of childhood.  The lack of money in a poor household is one thing, but if one has lived in the culture of poverty for generations, as Rochelle has, the key is very difficult to find.

David at Age Twelve

maxbaby1c“How many cats would you have if you could afford it?” Rochelle had brought her twelve year old nephew to my house. He loved animals and asked me this question after playing with my two cats. Rochelle had called at 6:45 a.m. to say she wouldn’t be able to come for her weekly interview because her sister, David’s mother, was in the hospital. I called back later and suggested she just bring David with her and we would all just go out to breakfast.

David’s mother is a stripper and frequently brings men home. David’s father has been in prison the past nine years. David and his mother have moved frequently, and he was held back a year in school. He seemed polite, nice and intelligent. Rochelle tells me he is beaten at home when he can’t do his homework or when he gets bad grades. His focus seems to be on his pet rat. He loves that rat and told me all about it. I told him they are great pets and that I had two when I was a child and even had one when I was in my twenties. He would like a dog but they can’t afford it. I told him his rat was perfect.

I asked Rochelle if we should take David to school but Rochelle told me the school he went to was a secret. He had changed schools about six months earlier, and his mother told him not to tell anyone where he went. Rochelle has no idea why this happened, and her sister wouldn’t tell her.

At age twelve, with a difficult life, David still seems like a very nice and friendly boy. It is hard not to wonder how long this will last in his environment. It is very unlikely things will get better at home. Twelve is a rough age for a lot of children, but it is rougher for a boy whose father is in prison and whose mother strips for a living and beats him for bad schoolwork. At least he does have his pet rat to talk to and play with at home.

We went to breakfast and I asked David what subject he liked in school. “Hands on science,” he said. Then his mother called and said she was being released from the hospital. He looked relieved. As we went our separate ways I told him it was nice to have met him. “Nice to meet you too,” he said. “I really liked playing with your cats.”

Constant Movement and Change

moving-house-04-06-11It took only a few interviews to realize there was a constant in Rochelle’s world.  There was constant movement and change.  By the time she had reached the age of eighteen she had moved more than twenty times.  When I tried to get Rochelle to put these moves in chronological order about six months after we had begun the interviews, she had a difficult time.  She would start describing the places but then would remember another one that she had forgotten:  “No, that’s not right.  I know we lived in the south part of town at one point,” she said.  So she would then try to figure out when it was that she had lived there and I would put it into the list of places.  She also had difficulty remembering all the different people who had lived with her at the various places.  Sometimes it was just her mother and sisters; sometimes she was living with her great grandmother; sometimes it was with her mother’s boyfriend, once it was with her mother’s boyfriend and his wife and child.  There was a time she was living by herself with some friends or relatives she didn’t know, and her mother rarely came to visit.  Rochelle remembers that well.  She doesn’t know why her mother didn’t visit often.

There were people coming and going at the different places Rochelle lived.  It was a constantly changing mix of roommates: different relatives, boyfriends of her mother, boyfriends of her sisters, and friends of friends or relatives.  Once there were at least 13 people living in a two bedroom place.  These people were also living unstable lives and needed places to stay at times.  “I think I now let other people stay with me sometimes because I had to find people who would let me stay with them when I was growing up,” she explained to me.  Often she does this even though she usually comes out financially behind from doing so.  The people she has mentioned  staying at her own apartment have been needy, but not the best influence on her children.  An uncle who stayed with her is now in jail on drug charges, and an aunt who lived in her apartment for a while is a drinker and moocher.  Rochelle’s mother, who lives with her two days a week and whom she pays to take care of her children while she is at work was absent from her own children’s lives and is lax with the care of her grandchildren.  “I need to set up a chart so the kids can see what they need to do and check it off,” Rochelle told me recently. “ My Mama isn’t making them brush their teeth when she takes care of them,” she explained.  Now a daily schedule chart is posted, and the children check off their daily duties such as homework and tooth brushing.

One of the most traumatic places Rochelle stayed was in her great grandmother’s two bedroom house when she was twelve.  Her great grandmother had taken to drinking, had had a stroke, and was in a nursing home.  Rochelle, her sisters, and her mother were living there, but her mother went out drinking and partying most nights.  One night Rochelle and her sisters were asleep with two neighbor children they were babysitting.  Both mothers were out at clubs.  Rochelle awoke to a fire that had been started by an open flame gas heater.  There was no phone in the house, but they ran to a neighbor’s, and the fire department was called.  The house burned down completely and when Rochelle’s mother returned late at night she started screaming. She thought her children were dead.  Rochelle and her sisters were alive, but the youngest neighbor child had died in the flames.  Rochelle burst into tears when she told me this story during the fourth interview:  “I always think none of this would have happened if Mama had just been home and not gone out that night,” she told me through her tears.  I learned then to keep Kleenex nearby.

“After the house burned down, Mama never had a real place to stay again,” Rochelle told me.  “She just drifted and I drifted with her.”  The constant movement and constant change intensified.  Rochelle was in the 6th grade.  Her sisters drifted off with boyfriends, but Rochelle was the youngest so she went wherever her mother put her.  Schools changed; where she lived changed; who was living with her changed; but what remained constant was the moving from place to place and school to school.  Movement remained a constant in her life.