Published March 21, 2012
Jasmine Smith’s dark brown eyes widened at the flurry of men and women passing Tidewater Community College buildings or disappearing into busy restaurants on Norfolk’s downtown Granby Street. It was the second downtown she’d ever visited – the other was in the nearby, smaller city of Portsmouth, her home – and she said, “I’ve never seen this many people.” The 17-year-old mother of two girls mused that Norfolk, an urban, Virginia city about 240,000 strong, must be like Manhattan.On this June afternoon, Jasmine and I strolled along Granby as she marveled at the sights, told me about her health woes – she’d just finished a downtown appointment for a heart valve problem - and shared her expectations for her upcoming senior year at Portsmouth’s Wilson High.
I first met Jasmine when she was 14, just a few months after the birth of her first child and near the end of her freshman year. She was one of several students I profiled for a story on Wilson’s dropout problem. At the time the school had the second highest dropout rate of a regular high school in Virginia: About one in four students didn’t finish. The reasons varied, but common themes included poor reading skills and a naïve disregard for consequences. Jasmine, who was at risk, fell into the latter camp.
Then, Jasmine aspired to attend highly respected historically black Hampton University and become a pediatrician. Today, Hampton remained her dream school, though she was talking about becoming a nurse.
She’d never visited the school, but had heard great things about it. As for going into the medical field, she said she didn’t know why she wanted to do it, but in the next breath said, “I don’t like seeing people sick.”
Jasmine was focused on graduating high school on time in spite of setbacks, including suspensions and some failing grades. Most recently, she flunked eleventh grade English, a casualty of her second pregnancy. “When I fail myself, I feel like I’ve failed my kids,” she said.
She was going to retake it in summer school in a few weeks and was confident she’d do well.
“I’m so ready to be a senior,” she proclaimed.
Her last semester of junior year, she’d earned some B’s and even an A. She aimed to make more high grades in the coming school year. When she spoke about her ambitions, her cherubic face broke into a smile.
By national measures, Jasmine is exceptional. More than 60 percent of teens who become mothers before 18 don’t earn high school diplomas, according to Child Trends, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit focused on childhood development. Weigh that stat with the fact Jasmine has two children and is pushing to graduate on time and enroll in college, and it’s clear she’s reaching for a heroic goal.
It’s hard to say how Jasmine stacks up against other teen moms in her school division, however. Neither the Portsmouth Public Schools nor the state tracks those graduation statistics or, for that matter, the number of teen mothers attending school.
Anecdotally, one longtime Wilson High staff person said she’s seeing more teen moms on target to graduate on time from Wilson this year. School officials say the rescinding in 2010 of the division’s longtime 2.0 grade average requirement for graduation ¬– a move that put Portsmouth Schools in line with all other school divisions in its community of South Hampton Roads - and other changes, including offering credit recovery classes after school, have helped more students overall become graduates. Certainly the changes boosted Wilson’s class of 2011, which posted a dropout rate of a little under one in five students compared to one in four when Jasmine was a freshman.
The new ways of doing school business have helped Jasmine too. Another major factor in her success is a more human one: the help of compassionate adults.
Jasmine’s mom, Karen Smith, has been one of her biggest supporters. She’s pushed Jasmine to stay in school and graduate and done the best she can with limited means to provide a home and help for Jasmine and her children.
Karen knows all too well the hard-knock life that can result from an education cut short, and she’s determined Jasmine will have better.
“If you don’t have an education, you don’t have nothing,” Karen preaches.
Karen had Jasmine when she was 15, and a year later, a son.
Not long after becoming a mother, Karen left her parents’ home in Portsmouth to relieve them of the burden and moved in with family in North Carolina to qualify for welfare. She re-enrolled in high school, but motherhood and a lack of adult supervision led her to drop out a few times. Only after a guidance counselor came to her home to tell her he believed in her, that she was intelligent and she could succeed, did she re-enroll for good. The counselor’s encouragement gave her the lift she needed. He was the first person she felt ever believed in her. She graduated at age 20.
Karen enrolled in North Carolina’s Edgecombe Community College, but the obligations of single motherhood forced her to leave school and go to work.
She never went back to college and she’s suffered in the form of one low-paying, dead-end job after another, everything from putting wheels on trucks to working in an assembly line at a chainsaw factory. She’s used marijuana to blot out the reality – never in front of her kids, she says, but sometimes not far from them. Once, she was hospitalized for clinical depression.
Her children have suffered with her, bouncing around from relatives’ homes in North Carolina to Portsmouth and even landing in a homeless shelter.
No way will Karen let Jasmine continue on that path.
Exactly when, how and why Jasmine spiraled into sex early is a question this story may not fully answer. National research, however, provides some insight: There’s a higher chance daughters of teenage mothers will become teen moms too.
In the same breath Karen pushed education, she also preached against the ills of teenage pregnancy. Jasmine heard her mom’s warnings about becoming pregnant, but they were only words: Despite what her mom said, she too had had two kids by age 16. Was it really so wrong? Jasmine thought.
Jasmine says she didn’t seek to become pregnant though. In fact, she says her first sexual intercourse was unwanted; an 18-year-old man pressured her into it. She says she was 13.
“He was just a person who tried to take everyone’s virginity,” she says.
Not long after, Jasmine became pregnant with her first child – from a different young man about her age, she says - when she was a 13-year-old eighth grade student at Portsmouth’s Cradock Middle School. It happened when the family was staying with a relative who lived in public housing. The boy lived in the complex too, and Jasmine saw him at his home. She wasn’t in love, just experimenting.
It was 2008, the year teen pregnancies nationwide dipped to 7 percent, a 42 percent fall from their peak in 1990 and overall, a 40-year-low, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit advocating reproductive health. All racial and ethnic groups saw pregnancy rates drop, according to the report, though black and Hispanic teens had pregnancy rates two to three times higher than non-Hispanic whites.
More effective use of contraception, the report said, played the biggest role in reducing the rates.
Lax contraceptive use was Jasmine and her boyfriend’s downfall. Jasmine says they used condoms all but a couple of times, but she couldn’t – or wouldn’t - tell me why those lapses happened.
Karen couldn’t monitor Jasmine’s every move. Karen tried to be there for Jasmine, but her work schedule and the family moves left Jasmine feeling ignored.
“I just didn’t feel like she loved me,” she says. “I didn’t feel like she was paying attention to me.”
“She paid attention to me after I got pregnant.”
Jasmine learned she was going to have a baby after the family wound up in a homeless shelter. When she broke the news, Karen yelled and screamed. Then, she couldn’t bring herself to talk to Jasmine at all.
“My heart was broke, because I walked the shoes she was about to put on, and I knew how hard it was going to be for her,” Karen says. “I used to wake up hyperventilating.”
Rumors were spreading about her pregnancy at Cradock Middle. One of Jasmine’s teachers, Amie Davis, had to tell kids the pregnancy was not a discussion suitable for class.
Davis lent Jasmine her ear. She told her to keep her head up and stay in school. Jasmine’s mom also told her not to let the pregnancy derail her schooling and said she’d do her best to help her.
Jasmine entered Wilson High about five months pregnant. It so happens Davis, the Cradock teacher, received a new assignment at Wilson and kept up the pep talks with Jasmine. Davis was one of a chorus of adult supporters. It was good to have the push. Jasmine’s school division has no special programs for pregnant teens, and she didn’t participate in any other programs.
Despite all the family upheaval, Jasmine says she had been a decent middle school student and that she enrolled in the honors track at Wilson. She tried to ignore students’ stares and talk. She earned B’s and C’s her first semester.
Her daughter Osja’Nae Smith was born in January 2009. Medicaid paid the bills.
Osja’Nae was healthy but the birth sent Jasmine’s body into a tailspin. She wound up in the intensive care unit at a Portsmouth hospital, heart beating rapidly and coughing up blood. Doctors said she had a bad heart valve and warned her not to have another child. After she recovered from the immediate threat, she stayed at home to heal, breastfeed and make up schoolwork with the help of a teacher deployed by the school division. She returned to Wilson during the second semester of her freshman year, but new demands made it impossible to earn the grades she had wanted. She failed three of her classes, and made a D in another. She would also fail to stay out of confrontations with students. “If you don’t, they will pick on you,” she says.
Osja’Nae’s father did not play a real role in her life, besides paying child support, Jasmine says. Another young man, then-Wilson student Alland Johnson, stepped into that part.
Alland and Jasmine had known each other in elementary school and at Cradock. During her pregnancy, he accompanied her to doctor’s appointments and the two commiserated over similarities in their family lives. He brought Jasmine’s favorite dish, pasta, to her at her grandparents’ house where the family stayed for a part of her pregnancy.
Some months after Osja’Nae was born, Karen moved her family, which included her steady boyfriend Roland Hargrove and their son, Karen’s third child, into a run-down looking, two-story duplex in Portsmouth. She paid the rent with a new job making $7.25 an hour helping the mentally challenged at an adult-assisted living home in the city. Roland, who picked up plastering work when he could, helped out.
Jasmine slept on an inflatable bed in a cramped room she shared with a cousin and Osja’Nae. When Alland was over Karen insisted Jasmine’s bedroom door stay open, but nonetheless, Jasmine became pregnant with his child her sophomore year.
Jasmine was in love with Alland, who talked about one day marrying her.
Jasmine says she and Alland “were together” at her house when her mom was asleep down the hall and that she used supposed visits to a girlfriend’s house for cover to see him.
At her mother’s insistence she was getting a birth control shot, she says, but she claims it failed and she became pregnant. Though she’d been warned about the harm another baby could do to her heart, Jasmine didn’t believe in terminating the pregnancy.
For the first five months, she hid her condition from her mom. She stopped dropping by Davis’s room at Wilson, too.
One day, Davis confronted her.
“You’re ducking me because you’re pregnant,” she alleged.
Jasmine admitted it was true. “I’m ashamed,” she said.
Don’t give up, Davis told her.
“You’re going to finish school,” she said. “This is a goal. I want you to go to college.”
Severe abdominal pain, fatigue, shortness of breath and weight loss plagued Jasmine during her second pregnancy. She struggled to walk to classes.
In November 2010, Jasmine gave birth to a healthy girl, A’kirah Johnson. Jasmine made it through OK, though surgery to repair a heart valve loomed.
In spring 2011, Karen rented a ranch-style home for her family on a quiet street in the black neighborhood of Cavalier Manor, home to strivers and the successful. Paid training provided by the assisted-living homes helped her move up to the role of a medical technician. She says she was making it by on welfare and on $24,000 a year working anywhere from 56 to 64 hours a week. Roland continued to pitch in with the money from his plastering jobs.
The house was packed with relatives. Some family members slept in the living room, but Jasmine and her children now had a room of their own. Jasmine and Osja’Nae shared a box spring mattress. A’kirah slept in a toddler bed.
Karen, Roland and other relatives took care of Jasmine’s children when she was at school. Karen insisted to Jasmine, however, that when she arrived home at 2:50 p.m. “your kids belong to you.”
Jasmine juggled her schoolwork with feeding and bathing her children and reading children’s stories aloud. After she got them to sleep, she’d sometimes do homework until nearly midnight. As she worked and dreamed of Hampton University, her children slept within reach under the bright bedroom light.
Karen also dreamed. She wanted to enroll at Tidewater Community College and become a registered nurse. Further, she wanted Jasmine to give up her Hampton aspirations, at least for now, and join her at TCC. Hampton is too far and too costly, Karen told Jasmine. The nearby community college is a better option, she said.
Karen’s community college talk irritated Jasmine. “I understand what she’s saying, but now it’s time for me to make my own decisions,” Jasmine said.
Jasmine wanted her independence, but she wasn’t facing up to some realities. She had been suspended several times - once, she said, for fighting a girl who harassed her about the identity of the father of one of her children. While she had earned B’s and C’s, she also had her share of F’s, though she made up the classes. She might not be Hampton material yet.
Karen believed Jasmine was no where near ready for Hampton or her independence. Jasmine is “flighty and needs to do a lot to show me she can live life on her own,” Karen said.
Karen’s words brought to mind something Jasmine once told me. She said her life “hasn’t changed at all,” since she became a mother.
Karen shook her head at her daughter’s immaturity. She was determined to see Jasmine go to and get through community college.
Karen didn’t want Jasmine to walk in her shoes. She wanted her to walk in “designer shoes.”
Last July, Jasmine sat quietly amidst a din of boisterous students in her English summer school class at Portsmouth’s Churchland High. Teacher Orenda Aiken asked them to write an essay touching on where they’d like to be when they are 30.
One student said, “I want to make it through school. I want to make 30.”
Another said, “I want to live happily ever after.”
Jasmine didn’t stir.
I was checking in on Jasmine’s progress and was going to give her a lift home. After class, she asked for a few extra minutes to search for her father’s high school athletic jerseys. Family legend said they are on a wall at Churchland.
These are the halls Jasmine’s father – she says he is the late Lindsey Harris Rodgers - and mother walked when they were Churchland students in the 1990s.
Karen was a very different person when she was dating Lindsey: “I wanted to be in with the in-crowd, and party. I wasn’t thinking about career and college.” Karen had looked at her long-married parents – her father, who labored as a shipyard worker, and her mother, who toiled as a seamstress - and she didn’t want what she saw as their dutiful, unhappy lives.
Karen says she and Lindsey always used protection and that her pregnancies were accidents. Not long after Karen became pregnant with their second child, she says, Lindsey died of an enlarged heart.
When Jasmine was very young, she cried a lot about not having her father. His death is still a source of great pain.
This day, Jasmine didn’t see the storied jerseys. A trip to a cabinet filled with trophies, photos and other memorabilia proved fruitless too. Before giving up, she stopped by the library to check out some yearbooks.
She turned up nothing in one of them. She cracked open another book. She found a picture.
“Yes, I see him,” she exclaimed. “Thank you, Jesus! That’s my daddy.”
She perked up for the first time today. “Lindsey Harris Rodgers – and they have his whole name in here!” she said.
Jasmine found other pictures. Before today, she’d only seen one photo of her father.
Jasmine told me that the roots of her anger and what she called “attitude problems” when she was much younger, existed because her father had died.
“I grew up knowing my father is dead. You don’t know what that means,” she said. “I used to think it was my fault that he’s gone.”
Finding her father’s pictures provided a small moment of happiness. It was a triumph in a tragic time. Jasmine and Alland had just broken up over a misunderstanding. Alland would pitch in to watch Osja’Nae and A’kirah, but essentially he would be out of Jasmine’s life.
“I just miss Alland so much,” she told me later that day, crying.
There was turmoil at home, too.
For nearly two weeks, Karen had been jailed over a warrant for failing to appear on a driver’s license-related charge from the previous year. She said she was caught after driving a friend home late at night, turning a corner and almost hitting a police officer.
“Once he ran everybody’s name, he seen that mine came back hot,” Karen said.
Karen arrived back home from jail the same day Jasmine found her father’s photos. She paid the rent from her previous earnings, but her incarceration forced her to cut items from the family’s budget. A rented living room furniture set, for instance, had to go back to the store. “It was either pay the rent or pay for the furniture,” Karen said.
More time fighting in court lingered over her head, and ultimately, she’d wind up performing community service on the weekends. There was a bright spot: She said she kept her job in the adult-assisted living homes and was promoted to supervisor with a pay increase to about $32,000 a year; however, she was working 76 hours a week.
In the midst of these changes, Jasmine learned she’d soon have to undergo surgery to repair the heart valve.
It was the eve of her senior year, and the world was falling apart. At least she’d passed her English summer school class. She earned a C minus.
Jasmine says she made it to school for the first few weeks of her senior year, but then was out for nearly two months to have the heart valve repaired and to recover. Eventually, she tried making up her work after school and at home, but her grades fell far below her expectations.
During the first semester, she failed math and Spanish, a class she’d earned an A in her junior year, and made a D plus in chemistry and a C in government. That left her with about a 1.8 grade point average. Her last semester, she’d need to pass most of her classes to achieve the minimum credits required to graduate on time.
Jasmine had some big decisions to make. Her health issues, low grades and the break-up with Alland forced her to rethink her college aspirations.
She decided to apply only to TCC. Last summer, the school’s bustling downtown Norfolk campus had dazzled her. She plans to try to transfer to Hampton later.
Jasmine’s college choice isn’t the only thing that has reversed course, not even the biggest.
I remind her she once told me her life hadn’t changed after she became a mom. For the first time, she tells me she was in denial. She had struggled accepting that she was someone’s mother.
“I had to say to myself, ‘Jasmine, you have two kids’,” she said. “I’m the one they’re going to be dependent on.”
She continued, “Before them, I didn’t have anybody to call me Mommy. They look up to me to have Mommy make things better.”
Their innocent gaze makes Jasmine more determined than ever to graduate this June. And not far off is the thought of her own mother, the woman Jasmine looks up to.
“No matter what God threw at her, she was always moving. I can’t stop and say I can’t keep on going. I have to keep moving.”
Photos courtesy of Cheryl Ross.
Published July 13, 2012
The gleaming, diamond-shaped encrusted high heels would go perfectly with her prom dress, Jasmine Smith thought. When she tried to jam her feet into them, however, they didn’t fit.
It was Saturday morning, May 5th, 10 hours away from Jasmine’s senior prom. The previous day, her mom, Karen Smith, had bought the high heels without the benefit of Jasmine being with her to try them on. Now the shoes were throwing a wrench into Jasmine’s crazy schedule, packed with hair salon and nail shop appointments. Jasmine knew the “stop” at the hair salon would take hours by itself. She didn’t have time to swap out the shoes.
At least her $200 silky-blue and leopard-print accented strapless dress fit, though it too had been bought without Jasmine to try it on.
“Look at my mom,” exclaimed Jasmine’s oldest daughter, three-year-old Osja’Nae Smith. “She looks pretty.”
Osja’Nae and Jasmine’s other child, one-and-a-half-year-old A’kirah Johnson, watched their 17-year-old mother model the dress in the bedroom the three of them share. Then the little girls stepped into the sparkly, ill-fitting prom shoes and practically slid out of them. They giggled.
Jasmine was smiling this morning, though her prom date, a co-worker at a McDonald’s, had canceled on her earlier in the week. She speculated he didn’t have the money to go. She told me matter-of-factly, “I’m going by myself.” The fathers of Jasmine’s children had not been prom date possibilities. Neither is in her life any longer.
Boy or no boy, Jasmine had made up her mind to have fun at the prom. She felt she had earned the right to celebrate this rite of passage, an event signifying the transformation into adulthood and that she was likely to graduate high school. Graduating would be a feat many teen moms, let alone one with two children, don’t achieve.
Her dream to graduate with a strong grade point average had no chance of happening, though – not after she’d failed a couple of classes the first semester of her senior year after heart valve surgery forced her to miss weeks of school.
Still, Jasmine hadn’t let go of a key ambition: to graduate on time from Portsmouth, Virginia’s Woodrow Wilson High School. But there was some question whether she’d reach that goal or if she’d have to attend summer school. Jasmine said she had missed classes because of medical appointments, oversleeping, and staying home to watch her children when family members couldn’t. She was failing English, too, she said.
It was clear: the trick to graduating on time would be to reprioritize and to not let life get in the way.
In March, Jasmine began working more than 30 hours a week at a McDonald’s a few miles from her family’s home in Cavalier Manor. Karen was proud that her daughter wanted to take on this job, but the next month, when she learned Jasmine was failing English, she threatened to call her manager and insist he cut her hours. Jasmine cried and promised she’d turn things around.
For Jasmine, the job – her first ever – was teaching her how to juggle the many responsibilities she’d bear as a single mother and was a means to help her escape home and build a future: after graduation, she wanted to move, with her children, in to an apartment and to attend Tidewater Community College – the school her mom had encouraged her to go to – to get on the road to becoming a registered nurse.
Meanwhile, Karen, who is 33, continued to harbor her own aspiration to attend community college and to eventually become a registered nurse – a dream deferred after her own teen motherhood delayed her from reaching her career goals. Karen looks forward to the day she can claim a college education, instead of the high school diploma she earned at 20, is her highest level of academic achievement. She believes TCC will help her say goodbye to her $32,000 a year, 76-hours-a-week job supervising adult-assisted living homes in Portsmouth, and to leave the small, rented Cavalier Manor house packed with struggling family members.
While Karen clings to her goals, Jasmine’s future takes precedence for her. She desperately wants to see her daughter get through community college, so Jasmine’s recent talk about leaving home has become a new source of stress. Karen doesn’t believe Jasmine is mature enough to be on her own. She feels she doesn’t get that a minimum wage job won’t square with paying for rent, food, children, school, and transportation, just to name a few things. She’s told Jasmine to stay under her roof.
Karen likes to think Jasmine’s “not going nowhere,” but admits that if Jasmine tries to follow through with her plan, there’s not much she can do, besides dissuade her, after she becomes 18. That special birthday is around the corner, just 19 days after the prom.
For now, though, Jasmine is still Karen’s little girl; and Karen has worked hard to provide her a beautiful senior year and make the poverty she’s known for so long seem like a distant memory. Karen is paying for practically all of Jasmine’s prom expenses and she covered her senior class trip to Florida in April, all for more than $800.
Before the trip, Jasmine only recalled stays in Virginia and North Carolina, the states she’s lived in. In Florida, she visited SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Daytona Beach with other Wilson students.
What was the best part of the trip?
“I think everything,” Jasmine said.
Karen was proud she could give Jasmine that.
A friend dropped Jasmine off at Flayvur Beautique, a Chesapeake salon owned by Rhonda Wiggins, a cousin of Karen’s longtime boyfriend, Roland Hargrove. Jasmine sat in a chair and whipped out her cell phone to show 21-year-old salon assistant Shaquina Felton a photo of a popular singer sporting a curly, bob-type style: what Jasmine wanted.
Shaquina knew Jasmine was getting ready for her prom some hours away. As Shaquina prepped Jasmine’s hair for a chemical relaxer, she mentioned that she did not graduate high school. “It’s a long story,” Shaquina said. Shaquina said she learned the hard way that graduating and attaining a higher education is important to achieving certain dreams.
“I like doing hair, but I don’t like doing hair,” she said. “All day, every day with no problem – that’s just not for me. I don’t like it.”
What she really wants to do, Shaquina said, is to earn a GED and enroll in college to become a business accountant. She told Jasmine she’s doing the right thing to graduate high school.
As Shaquina continued working with Jasmine, I chatted with Rhonda, the shop’s owner. Rhonda knew I‘d reported stories about Jasmine’s quest to graduate and that I was at the salon to chronicle another aspect of that journey. What could Rhonda add? Rhonda said she didn’t know a lot about Jasmine, so what she shared was telling. “I know she’s very ambitious,” Rhonda said. “She wants a lot out of life. She has a sweet personality. Her mom does, too.”
Then Rhonda said, “Attitude will take you a long way.”
Hours passed as Jasmine’s hair, under the direction of Shaquina and, finally, Rhonda, evolved into a straightened, colored, shampooed and trimmed mini-masterpiece. Some five hours after Jasmine arrived, she looked in the mirror at her new ‘do and said, “I like it.” Women agreed her hair was more picture perfect than the celebrity’s she was trying to emulate.
“Have fun tonight,” Rhonda said as Jasmine prepared to leave.
Back at home, after the long day of hair styling and afterward, a trip to a nail salon, Jasmine received a gift: Her mother, who had run back to the shoe store, gave her a new pair of sparkly heels. They fit.
In a main room, Jasmine took a seat on a swivel chair and friends and family fussed over her as they began putting final touches on her look.
Soon, Jasmine disappeared into her bedroom and minutes later emerged in her prom dress to the oohs and “You look pretty” of loved ones who packed the living room.
Back in the swivel chair, Karen applied eyeliner on her daughter and then, with her bare hands, dusted eye shadow on her chest and back to create a sparkly mist.
“Your mommy is going to be a princess for the night,” Karen told Osja’Nae and A’kirah. “Doesn’t she look like a princess?”
A’kirah ran to Jasmine, who pulled her daughter against her chest.
Before heading out, Roland, Karen’s boyfriend, completed Jasmine’s transformation by placing a corsage on her wrist.
Soon after, Jasmine caught a ride with a couple of friends to the Norfolk Waterside Marriott Hotel in downtown Norfolk where she did what she set out to: have great fun at the prom.
In the weeks after the prom, the pressure to step up her game in school – or lose the fight to graduate on time – bore down heavily on Jasmine. Her mother kept academics front and center, hounding Jasmine about her schoolwork. Jasmine wanted to reach her graduation goal for herself, her children and her mom. She worried that she wouldn’t.
It hit her: she was in the homestretch and she was slipping. Finally, she made up her mind that she would not let obstacles take her down. She was ready to truly complete her metamorphosis.
Jasmine continued working her hectic schedule at McDonald’s, but changed her academic ways: she strove to do better in school. Jasmine said she burned the midnight oil studying, attended after-school sessions and took a few makeup classes on Saturdays. She didn’t celebrate her big birthday – she spent it at school and at work. She couldn’t make excuses.
A major English paper got her time and attention. She wrote about a social topic she knows intimately. Writing the paper, she felt, “was just so easy.” When she learned she earned a 90 on it, she was happy, but actually thought she’d get an even higher grade. She had the smarts, all she’d ever needed to do was apply herself. And she was doing it.
Jasmine’s renewed investment in her studies helped to tip the academic scale in her favor. By the end of May, she learned she had passed all of her classes. Her final high school grade point average wasn’t great – it was about a 2.0, she said – but she was going to graduate on time, within days.
She was full of joy, and felt “a weight was really lifted off” her shoulders.
The day before graduation, Jasmine told me she couldn’t believe it was finally about to happen. “I hope I don’t pass out,” she said. In that moment, I remembered the first time I met her, three years before when I was writing a story about the dropout problem at Wilson: then, Jasmine was a 14-year-old who had given birth to Osja’Nae just months before and was seeking advice from a school administrator about how to raise her tanking grades.
Jasmine’s passion to go somewhere in life was evident that day.
She was the “hope” of that initial story. She had lived up to the promise.
On the afternoon of June 7, I dropped by the Portsmouth School Board office to pick up my ticket for Wilson High’s graduation, set for that night. Superintendent David Stuckwisch, who had followed my stories about Jasmine, happened to be in and said of her impending graduation, “She’s one in a thousand.” (Later, Jasmine would speak about the significance of her accomplishment: “It’s like, wow, I graduated from school – especially with the predicament I was in.” She defined her “predicament” as “my whole life, two kids, everything that I’ve been through.’’)
A few hours after I got my ticket , Stuckwisch stood on the stage at Portsmouth’s nTelos Wireless Pavilion before about 3,500 people. He told the some 250 soon-to-be graduates, Jasmine among them, that each of their journeys had been unique.
About a dozen members of Jasmine’s family, including her daughters and some relatives who had traveled from Florida, waited with anticipation to witness the big moment.
Forever went by as graduates crossed the stage. As far back as the Smiths were sitting, it was sometimes hard to distinguish one graduate from another.
Then Karen spotted a young woman in amazingly high, white patent leather heels. Karen had bought those shoes for Jasmine the previous day – again, without Jasmine along to try them on. This time, however, the shoes fit her perfectly.
Karen had once said she didn’t want Jasmine to walk in her shoes, that she wanted her to walk in “designer shoes.” At $26.99, these some – my goodness, some five-inch heels!?! – weren’t designer, but they could pass.
“You go, girl!” Karen shouted as Jasmine accepted her diploma from the school principal. As an aside, Karen said, “She’s working those shoes, too.”
Over the din of the family members’ clapping and cheering, Osja’Nae’s little voice rang out: “Mommy!”
Outside the pavilion, Jasmine received flowers and hugs from her family and posed for pictures with them, clutching her diploma. The day before, graduation seemed like a dream to her but now it had actually happened. As Jasmine basked in the moment, Karen said she knew in her heart that her daughter would graduate on time. Karen had put in “a lot of prayer.”
Other good things were brewing this night.
While the question of whether Jasmine would move out of her family’s home was still up in the air, what Jasmine knew for sure was that she had been admitted to TCC. She’d received the acceptance letter the week before and said she planned to start going in August.
Karen had good news, too: she said she had no doubt she herself would be enrolling in TCC in the summer. Her work schedule was, mercifully, freeing up also: she had reduced her working hours by 20, down to 56 a week.
Karen and Jasmine appeared, finally, to have made it to a road that would lead to somewhere better.
As far as they’d come, though, their journeys were really just starting.
Photos courtesy of Cheryl Ross.
Award-winning journalist Cheryl Ross has written for the St. Petersburg Times, the Chicago Reader and The Virginian-Pilot. She is president of Hampton Roads Black Media Professionals (HRBMP), a nonprofit that awards college scholarships. Ross has won awards for her work for HRBMP, a current finalist for the National Association of Black Journalists' Chapter of the Year. Additionally, Ross works with Virginia Beach-based Koehler Books Publishing to cultivate writers with compelling stories about African Americans.