Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the remarkable Ramika. It describes her and the school program at Carter High School. It took the first term and well into the second term before she shared some of her troubles with Janet Mayer. She was an average student, which meant at Carter High School and at many city high schools that she passed four or five classes out of six or seven taken each term. It may come as a surprise to the readers to learn that many city teenagers accept the failure of two or three courses per term as the norm. In suburbia, this high failure rate would be a shock as well as a terrible stigma and would warrant a meeting with the student's counselor and parent. Again, this programming problem would never be tolerated in most suburban schools, and yet it occurs over and over again in the city schools.
What you noticed first about Ramika was her large, horn-rimmed glasses. You saw the glasses before you saw her sweet, soft-looking face; she had medium brown skin and was of average height and weight. She could have easily melted into a crowd of students, except for those oversized spectacles. They were the kind of frame that, in the movies, an awkward, shy young woman wore until someone (Prince Charming, probably) discovered that, if the glasses were removed, underneath would be found a “smoldering beauty.” Was Ramika smoldering? I didn't know.
How can I describe Ramika's life? Not that she confided in me quickly. I would say that it took the first term and well into the second term before she shared some of her troubles with me. She was an average student, which meant at Carter High School and at many city high schools that she passed four or five classes out of six or seven taken each term. It may come as a surprise to you, the reader, to learn that many city teenagers accept the failure of two or three courses per term as the norm. In suburbia, this high failure rate would be a shock as well as a terrible stigma and would warrant a meeting with the student's counselor and parent. In the city, failing a few courses per term is so common that it hardly even raises an eyebrow on anyone's part.
Ramika's passing grades ranged from 65 to 80, and I felt that she tried only half-heartedly to pass her classes; as with so many of our students, there was no great incentive to excel. (Sometimes, no one at home cared (p.58) about their grades, and so that made it harder for students to care.) Ramika had told me that she had failed social studies because she couldn't understand the teacher or the textbook. I looked over the book and discovered that it was far too advanced for the average student and that it was very out-of-date, typical of many textbooks used in the city schools. However, Ramika felt “lucky” because half of the class had no textbook at all. Outdated books are better than no books, and all academic subject areas suffered from a paucity of books. (Nursing students, preparing for a state exam, would spend hours at our copy machine in the English office—often the only one working in the building—copying pages out of their shared textbooks!)
Ramika had failed Spanish I in her first term but was put ahead into Spanish II for her second term because Spanish I wasn't given in the February term. (By the way, Spanish was the only language offered in a school of nearly two thousand students, half of whom already spoke Spanish.) What were her chances of passing Spanish II when she had failed Spanish I? You can surmise.
Again, this programming problem would never be tolerated in most suburban schools, and yet it occurs over and over again in the city schools. (Suburbia would often run a small class, if it were needed even by only a few students; the city, grossly underfunded, couldn't afford to run small classes.)
I told Ramika that the trick to learning a new language was that she had to go home every night and memorize all the new words and idioms she had learned that day or else she would keep falling behind. She gave me a long, long, serious look and told me, slowly, so that it would register—that it was impossible to study at home because she shared a room and one bed with her three younger sisters. Not only was there no peace or quiet at home, but also there was not a free moment. She did all the cooking and shopping and cleaning because her grandmother was ill and couldn't do it. Over more time, Ramika revealed to me that her maternal grandmother had taken her in, along with her three younger sisters, when her mother “disappeared.” I asked what “disappeared” meant, and she explained, reluctantly and painfully, that she hadn't seen or heard from her mother in years. She was a crack addict, and one day she left and never came back. Ramika and her sisters had gone to live with her mother's mother eight years earlier, when she was only eight, and now, at sixteen, she was still living with her. The grandmother couldn't work, was on welfare, and—here's the real shocker, as if things weren't bad enough—they had had no heat or hot water or electricity for the past (p.59) two winters! The building was in complete disrepair. The people who could move elsewhere did, but Ramika's grandmother, sick and with four youngsters to care for, couldn't afford to move. (New York winters are brutal; in case you're not familiar with our weather, snow, sleet, and freezing temperatures are the norm for December through March and sometimes even into April.)
Ramika did have a social worker, but she had been unable to help. I asked Ramika if I could tell our high school social worker about her plight, and maybe she could contact Ramika's social worker and perhaps, just perhaps, the two of them could make some progress. Ramika was convinced that it was useless to try. So here comes my philosophy: “Ramika,” I said, “if you try, the worst scenario would be that nothing happens; but the best case might be that something positive happens and maybe with some luck, you might even get some or all of the services restored.” I convinced her to give it a try.
Weeks passed. The winter was almost over, and the family finally got heat, hot water, and electricity. I told her that she had learned a lesson for life: just try. She felt so fortunate. Her family life improved, but only to the extent that when Ramika cooked and cleaned, she now had the bare necessities; however, she still slept in the same bed with her three sisters.
She still had no time or quiet place to study. I was amazed by her conscientiousness and willingness to accept responsibility for herself and her sisters. She knew her priorities, and studying quietly, even in part of a room, was out of the realm of possibilities. (Never mind “a room of her own.”) So she did the best she could, and you can better understand why failing two or three classes was not such a tragedy. Her attendance was very good, except when the grandmother's condition worsened or her sisters were sick. She paid close attention in all of her classes because she knew that, once home, she couldn't do anything but be a home-maker. At almost seventeen, she saw a bleak future ahead. She confided in me that she had to keep her younger sisters in school, even if it meant that she had to drop out. Any thought of ever going to college was not only unrealistic, it was totally out of the question.
Ramika had kept her family together since she was a very little girl. That she had successfully assumed all the duties of a mother and father at such a young age was a credit to her tenacity, intelligence, maturity, common sense, inner strength, and diligence. That she made it to her senior year was miraculous. Her ability to defeat the odds and overcome (p.60) enormous obstacles would work for her in the future—I, a lesser person, just knew! She was already my hero and had been so since I first met her.
I spoke to Ramika about going to college, and she called it “an impossible dream.” She said that no one in her family had ever gone; no one had even graduated from high school. Not only did she have no money, she had to take care of her younger sisters. I begged her to apply anyway, explaining that maybe there was scholarship money available, for an “outstanding human being.” (She laughed.) Maybe her fifteen-year-old sister could help out with the two younger siblings. When Ramika approached her grandmother about college, her grandmother cried and said she would make any sacrifice to send her to college, if there were any way it could be done.
Ramika filled out five different college applications and also applied for any available scholarship funds. Her college essay began, “As a young African American woman brought up on welfare with no mother or father, I would be the first in my family to go to college. If I can attain this goal, then my younger sisters can hope to follow in my footsteps.”
Having heat, hot water, and electricity helped keep Ramika's family healthier, and in her senior year, she hardly missed any school days because of family illness and responsibilities. Maybe her grandmother rallied; maybe her sisters helped more. Whatever the reason, Ramika's last year was her best. She managed to make up all her credits and pass all the classes needed to graduate. She was accepted at the State University of New York at New Paltz, a four-year college about an hour's drive from New York City. But there was no scholarship commitment and, without money, there was absolutely no chance of attending that college.
The day of graduation, June 25, was, naturally, the hottest day of the year. We usually held our graduation at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, which had a much larger auditorium than ours. Although it was larger, it was not prestigious enough to have air conditioning, and previous graduations held there had taught us to wear very lightweight, light-colored clothes, and lots of perfume!
Since no scholarship money had been awarded to her, Ramika planned to look for a job. I was sitting on the stage that day substituting for an administrator who was absent. The sounds from the microphone didn't fully reach the back of the stage where I was sitting, and I couldn't hear everything that was said. Most of the scholarships had been given out previously, on Awards Night in May, so most of the athletes and scholars had received their awards already. But a few are left as surprises for graduation day, and the audience and the recipient learn about it at (p.61) the same time. A very slim, very short, gray-haired African American lady was called up to the podium. I heard almost everything she said; she had graduated from Carter High School forty-eight years earlier and had majored in nursing. (In those years Carter's nursing program was quite rigorous with a large enrollment, only to deteriorate in later years.) After four years in college and four years working as a nurse, she said that she decided to go to medical school and become a doctor, the first in her family to not only go to college but, of course, the first to become an M.D. This was the third time she had been asked to be a guest speaker at graduation, and this was the third time that she was going to award a full scholarship to a student who showed the greatest promise and was the first one in her family to go to college.
As she spoke, the microphone became more muffled, and I heard her say that she was extremely proud to award this full scholarship to. … I couldn't hear the name! The audience went wild clapping and whistling, and I asked the colleague near me who the recipient was. She said she hadn't heard the name either. I was trying to catch the attention of someone closer to the microphone when suddenly, unexpectedly, I was pulled out of my seat and hugged and squeezed and kissed by Ramika herself. And that's how I learned who won this scholarship. It was a perfect moment in my life and Ramika's, and neither of us would ever forget it.
Did Ramika go to college? Did she finish college? Well, she decided to postpone going for a year so that her sisters would be a year older and better able to take care of themselves. The money was held for her and could be redeemed the following year. That summer she moved out of the Bronx, and I don't know if she ever completed college. But I do know that she was a remarkable young woman and wherever she is, she's doing well—because she's a fighter—a winner—and my hero.