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She got her Sway on

Student artists in residence program at the house is something of an experiment breeding educated artists with full fledged self-esteem.
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This lovely young lady accepted our invite to come live with us in July of 2016. She had already lived with me once before working on her life when she was 18, now she was 20 and her life still needed a push. Her desire was to finish high school, as I would say, the real high school. The adults around her were saying “just get the HISET plus and move on”. The HISET is the modified GED. I knew her ego too well and knew that she would not let herself off the hook for life if she went for that only. So I took it on.

I know her and I know that she has had more than her fair share of disruptions – totally out of her control. Her mom was sent back to Guatemala when she was in grade school-middle school for two years. She was parented by older sisters who were teens themselves, headed toward teen mothers. Suffice it to say, she was lucky when she arrived at school everyday with a lunch, a breakfast in her stomach, homework done, uniform on, a good night’s sleep and a ride… her luck ran around 25%.

Here she was, a 20 year old with 13 classes to go before graduation. Her awesome continuation high school, John R. Wooden High School, was gracious enough to allow her to return in the fall but really thought she should just take the remaining 7 classes and test out. That’s when I said – “what does she need to do the full thing?”

The difference was Algebra II and Spanish.

Only she hadn’t taken Algebra I yet. I told her to come live with us, we’d take on Algebra during the summer and have her take Spanish at the community college. I knew she was fluent and that she could pass it no problem… why was no one watching for this?

She moved in without hardly telling her mom. It was July 1.

It was hell finding a class for her locally. After much to do, we got an online class and began the summer of rigor and resistance.

You know that sinking feeling you get when you undertake something that, once you’ve taken the bite you realize you truly may not be cut out for it – like severely overestimated your ability to wing it? Like sewing a new outfit, or caulking the bathroom, remember that speech you said you’d give? By the first two days I felt like those things plus an ALS water bucket challenge.

WHAT HAD I DONE? Promised this girl I had her back, when what I saw in front of me was perhaps a girl who had a severe disability in learning.

She’d look at the most basic of math problem and could not get to the answer – so I’d do what I do, push more. WTF? I called in a tutor in a panic. The tutor had no issues working with her the first day, didn’t see any problems. Polite as it all ways. But then when she’d leave I saw the spiral in her brain. She’d look at the page and back up at me and back down and then get up and do something else. I was livid. WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME IF YOU AREN’T GOING TO TRY?

I’d sit with her and she’d not come up with the answers, like a wet noodle. It came across like apathy and dismissal. Nothing we like more than that when giving our time to someone’s life, huh?

I just sat there watching her, scream yelling in my head, knock down drag-outing her with my thoughts. Then said some actual words until she yelled back tantamount to, “I don’t know how to do it” and I yelled, “Do what? Multiply?!” Incredulously not believing her, until the stare she stared back said, “DON’T you ask me again.”

She didn’t know how to multiply, like no idea how. No wonder her head was spinning. No wonder the past three times she tried to pass this class she couldn’t. NO ONE SAW that she didn’t know how to do something that every 4th grader knows. I looked at her and said, “Girl, you were supposed to learn that so long ago!” and she said, “Well. I didn’t.” To which I said, “I bet you can’t tell time on a clock either.” She said, “Nope.”

I downloaded a multiplication table and we were off to the races. How could she tell time if she didn’t know her fives tables??

That was hurdle number one.

>>> Hurdle two was “What? I got 67%, that’s fine.”

This type of student… one who has had some tough breaks, created some others and ultimately got shut out of “regular high school” have a knack for deciding to not work hard. Many obstacles have proven not worth climbing over because something will always go wrong, or someone will always screw them. Lots of baggage around effort.

But she was in my house, during my summer and on my time… so to speak… I had a lot of baggage too. Called deliver or bust. I made her till some land too. (results in the OTWG pic) I made her blog weekly and take photos about her journey.

Thankfully, when I was out of my wits around the push, Paulie would come in, lean over her shoulder and work out a problem with her. The big brother arc that he would cast was both protective and pro-active. She wanted to impress him and she knew he was there to help should she need it. He would say, “that’s good, a 67 is good.” So I could say, “Are they personal errors or learning errors?” Once we distinguished between the two, she was not settling for 80%. The practice tests allowed for three times. Once we got her to take the test until a 100% was achieved – she was hooked!

Suey strolls out to the backyard one afternoon – and let me say, we had a full house of people coming and going. Her age. And cute. And she was glued to the laptop from 8:30 am – 11:30 pm doing her work. When she came to the backyard I was having a photo shoot. She stopped at me, said, “I got a 98%” by this point I was applauding her announcements. When I did, she said, “Fuck that, it was a personal error. I’m so mad! I’m doing it again.”

She got a B+ in the class.

>>> One day I saw her squinting. I handed her my magnifiers. She said, “Oh, well that’s nice being able to see.” I got her on Medi-cal and got her an appointment and got her free glasses. Only to have her be outed by her sister one day when they were visiting and she says, “Oh, she has glasses at home.”

Lying is another thing they perfect. It’s how they get through it all I suppose. It was a while before I let that one go.

Going every morning to Pierce college for five weeks during this time – she got an A- in the Spanish class – AND college credit for free.

On the day that we were deciding how the rest of the fall might go, me not sure what would happen if she left now – her mom called. She wanted her home. NOW. The next day she was gone.

The reports are good. She’s taking her second Spanish class at the college. Goes to school everyday-ish…almost, mostly, a lot. She’s got work to do. But we both know that she knows what it feels like to push herself far beyond her normal way of being.

Multiple times she would say, “I had no idea it would feel like this. I really had no idea.” We talk about it being a mountain and once she’s on top, she gets to walk for a while at that height to the next plateau but the trajectory is never as steep.

What if we had a boarding school-like space where we could do this for multiple student artists?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Perla

    Life is a train and sometimes we need to make little stops on the way.
    While I was reading this, I was tearing up.

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