How homeless mom's fight to educate her child hits home

OPINION - I have never met Kelley Williams or Tanya MacDowell. I know their stories not only because I read about them, but because I lived it...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I lost my job.

For the next few months, we got by on small consulting contracts and what was left of our savings. It will get better, I told myself, as I picked up boxes of food from a local church.

It didn’t.

Day turned to night, and soon we lost our home. My children and I moved into a small, rodent infested apartment. I put the kids to bed, scrubbed the walls, fixed the toilet, taped the windows and patched the holes in the baseboards with steel wool and duct tape. It had to be enough.

In a post 9/11 economy, there were few opportunities for an out of work communications executive. It didn’t matter that I had cut my teeth as a vice president with one of the world’s largest public relations agencies. A bevy of stock options earned in Silicon Valley weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.

Four months later, I sat in the middle of the living room floor clutching an eviction notice. The electricity had been shut off. I started to pray. The tears became sobs. Then, there was wailing. I shouted at a God I swore either didn’t exist or didn’t care that we had no food, no place to go. “If you are who you say you are, you wouldn’t do this to them!”

We left almost everything. Our dog, Claire, was taken to a local shelter.

That night, I packed our clothes and a few essentials into my car and drove to the closest, cheapest extended stay motel. A friend had just enough room on a credit card to pay for one week. Thanks to another friend, that week turned into a few months just long enough for me to find a new job and begin to pick up the pieces.

My kids were in grade school then and for them Sarah Smith Elementary and Sutton Middle were among the few constants they could count on. I swallowed and did what I promised myself I would never do: I broke the law.

Every morning at 7 am, I loaded the kids into the truck and drove nine miles across the county and city lines to the one safe harbor they knew. Fearing reprisals from other parents at the already overcrowded public schools, I told no one and swore the children to secrecy. Sarah Smith, you see, is the best elementary school public or privatein all of Georgia.

I was willing to do anything to earn a living, including push a broom, to get us out of that motel room. I swallowed what was left of my pride and cleaned houses to get by. In what I can only call a miracle, I was hired for a new senior position at a Fortune 500 company located just across the street from the motel.

For the record, I knew several wealthy families who rented empty apartments in the district so they could use the address on enrollment forms. That was cheaper than paying for private. I had chosen the school and moved into a home across the street because of its reputation for excellence including deep parental involvement. On any given day, there were dozens of parent volunteers helping out in classrooms, putting on PTA fundraisers and even tending to the grounds. The teachers and staff met their investment with a dose of passion and dedication that I will not soon forget.

Before coming to Sarah Smith, my daughter’s previous first grade teacher had deemed young Katherine “un-teachable”. She said my daughter had complex learning disorders because she refused to paste letters together to form words. This was the same child who was reading chapter books at the time. They said my kindergarten son needed special education classes.

They were wrong.

Katherine was elected class president in elementary, middle and high school each time graduating at the top of her class. Today, she is a rising junior at Brown University where she won early admission. Joshua is a budding filmmaker who talks public policy as easily as he laughs at an episode of The Family Guy. The youngest, Haley, is a brilliant photographer and a gifted writer. Sarah Smith and Sutton Middle gave them a passion for learning. Being homeless, I believe, taught them to fight. I wouldn’t take anything for that journey now.

I have never met Kelley Williams or Tanya MacDowell. I have never been to Akron, Ohio or Norwalk, Connecticut. I know their stories not only because I read about them, but because I lived it.
Williams, who put herself through college to earn a teacher’s license, was convicted of using her father’s address to enroll her young son in school. McDowell, a homeless woman, was charged with theft for sending her son to kindergarten with an illegal residence. Her friend, who lived in a Norwalk housing project, was evicted. McDowell now faces a $5,000 and a 20-year prison sentence.

We are not alone.

Across the country, thousands of parents face tough choices. We can wait for another “sweeping” cast of school reforms and watch our children flounder in broken schools or we can do something about it. Let’s face it. Super Man isn’t coming. And if he does decide to do a fly by, it won’t be soon enough to save a generation of kids who are forced to swim upstream on a daily basisto survive, cope and make it against the odds. Children, mostly living in inner city communities, are often locked up and locked out before they ever get a chance to see their full potential.

There are a myriad of factors that drive the current state of education in this country. But 57 years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools are still largely separate and unequal. Only now, it isn’t simply a question of black and white. It’s about economic status, the destruction of the family unit and, some would say, a culture of anti-intellectualism that pervades far too many communities.

My own mother packed her car and moved us out of East St. Louis in search of something better when I was a second grader. Because of her choices, I got something better across the river in St. Ann, Missouri. When I returned to East St. Louis some years later, I was so far beyond my classmates academically I did not need to go to class to ace a test. A ninth grade English teacher quickly figured out what was happening to me and inundated me with more advanced work.

Our collective stories say more about the state of the American education system that they do about us as parents. Surely our choices were imperfect, but to send an unemployed cafeteria worker to jail should be a crime in and of itself. There is no justice in that.

It isn’t often that I quote Newt Gringrich, but I agree with him when he says, “if a foreign power did to our children what we were doing to them we would consider it an act of war.”

I want to know when the war on parents stops. I want to know when we will begin fighting, in earnest, for our nation’s future.