June 6, 2008
“I’m not lookin’ to aggravate you, Jane, but I wanna take the test. I’m tired of waitin.’ I wanna take it now.”
Devore’s eyes are dark pools, inscrutable, beneath the Corona baseball cap pulled low on her brow. The shoulders of her oversized navy sweatshirt are damp from her walk to the school through the rain. She speaks quietly, but with an edge of determination.
I watch as Jane, Mercy Learning Center’s director, studies Devore’s face.
Jane’s appearance is as no-nonsense as her demeanor. Her steel gray hair is close-cropped. Her striped oxford shirt and navy-blue slacks are business-like, but casual. She turns to me and says solemnly, “There are no cubicles available. I’m due in court in five minutes. One of the other students is sick and I need to make arrangements for her.” I can guess the thoughts that go unspoken. This is not a simple matter. I want Devore to succeed. The test-taking circumstances have to be optimal. Will the stress trigger a seizure?
Jane comes to a decision. “Okay Devore, you can do the science portion. It has twenty-five questions.”
To me she says, “I’ll set you up in an office on the third floor. She can have extra time, but watch the clock so that we get an idea of the time she needs.”
Devore tucks her head to her chest in agreement. She is smiling.
Devore sits working at a round table by the window. She is focused, but her mood is light. Taking this practice test is a step toward getting her GED, or certificate of General Educational Development.
The Corona cap is on the table. A black do-rag stretches like shiny skin over Devore’s skull. She taps the test booklet with her pencil as she tracks each word and skims the bridge of her nose with an index finger.
Beyond the rain-spattered window, eighteen-wheelers and a steady queue of cars stream by on Interstate-95. From my seat on the couch, I am eye-level with the elevated highway a block away. The hum of engines, the strained kiss of tires to wet asphalt, the shriek of a chill wind probing for entry harmonizes with the ticking clock and Devore’s whisper as she reads.
She jiggles her foot. The table trembles as she erases.
The traffic slides by, hushhhhhhh, scattering water.
Devore and I met a year and a half ago here, at the women’s literacy center. She’d just turned twenty-two. Prior to our meeting, the director filled me in on Devore’s history. “She has a seizure disorder – multiple injuries and scars sustained from falls and mishaps during seizures. She’s served jail-time. Her father’s deceased. Her mother’s in and out of rehab. Two years ago, Devore was ready to take the GED, but suffered a grand mal seizure. After six months of treatment and medication, she needs stimulation. She needs to get her brain back on track.”
Out of my league! I thought. “I’ll do my best,” I said.
At our first session, Devore’s face was impassive. She wore a do-rag, low-slung baggy jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and heavy boots. Pink patches - burn scars - mottled the dark skin of her long, graceful fingers. Thin lines crossed her jaw and neck – more scars.
She has the face and statuesque frame of a runway model, but chooses to dress like a man. “I’ve always been a tomboy,” she says.
At that first meeting she made her goal clear. She wanted to pass the GED as soon as possible. She didn’t want me wasting her time with any childish stuff. I’d read some of the excerpts in the GED workbooks Jane had provided; there was nothing childish about them.
In fact, I worried that the material was too difficult for me. I like to think I’m smart, but I was stumped by some of the questions; I had to check the answer sheet at the back of the book at least once for every excerpt.
Would I be able to help this young woman?
Devore continues to fill in the circles in the booklet. She looks up and says, “Miss, I might’ve messed up the order.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I erased some and I’m not sure if I put the answers in the right spaces.”
“Go back about four items and see if the answers match up.”
“Already did that.”
“Okay, you can do a full check at the end.”
Discouragement tinges her words as she adds, “I’ve only done half the items of this part.”
I glance at the clock. “Then you’re right on track. Jane figured it would take you double the allotted time and it’s been just over forty-five minutes.”
“Oh!” Her face brightens. “You’re right! I forgot I was only doin’ the science section. I was lookin’ at all these other columns.”
She bends over the table and returns to work.
As I wait, I think back over the months we’ve spent together, over what I’ve learned about this woman. Devore has described arguments with her sister, confrontations with her mother. “I speak my mind. I can’t just let things pass, y’know what I’m sayin’? People tell me, ‘Girl, you got attitude. You always have that face on.’”
I know the face they’re talking about. It’s the expression she wore at our first meeting. Closed. Sullen. Intimidating. A face without light. Dark eyes unreadable, seemingly all pupil. Jaw tight. Shields up, fighting mode.
For Christmas, I gave her a copy of The Secret. The next time we met, she said, “That book’s the bomb!” and she meant it in a good way.
We talked about the ideas discussed in the book: gratitude, the law of attraction, the fact that we can control our thoughts. From then on, we started each session reviewing the events of our week, specifically, things that had happened that made us happy.
One day she said, “I saw this nature show on TV. It was about butterflies and it showed their mouths. I was walkin’ the other day and I saw the same kinda butterfly. So I followed it to try to find its mouth.” She laughed. “People musta thought I was crazy! Runnin’ after this butterfly, tryin’ to find its mouth!”
Another time she said, “This boy in my neighborhood came home from shoppin’ with his daddy. He got out of the car with new sneakers on and he was proud of those shoes! He kept sayin’, ‘I got me some new shoes!’ All the neighbors were in the street and we were grinnin’ at him and sayin’, ‘Just look at those new shoes! Just look at those new shoes!’” She smiled at the memory.
I forgot, once, to ask about her week. She called me on it with a teasing smile. “You forgot to ask what made me happy this week.”
Truth is, I don’t see that closed face of hers very much anymore. I marvel at the strength of hope’s tiny flicker that could battle the harsh elements that created that face.
How has that flicker survived?
She has an older brother, “a fine man” who works hard to care for his kids. He’s the model and rock of the family. Devore also loved her father. “We had a good relationship. He came to visit me at least once a year.” Her grandmother, whom she loved, took care of the children when she and her brothers and sisters were too much for their mother. Another friend stepped in when the grandmother died. So there were arms waiting at every step. Devore has told me, “If you lose someone, I’ve learned there’s always a special person waitin’ to take their place.”
But still, rough kids harassed her when she was younger. As a result, her beloved cousin’s in jail. While defending Devore, he shot one of those kids. She writes her cousin faithfully. “He was just a kid when he went in. Twenty-six year sentence.” As I said, she’s done some jail-time herself, but we don’t talk about that.
She has a lot on her mind. “I wanna pass my GED. Get a car. Move outta Bridgeport.” She started taking classes at Mercy Learning Center three years ago. “People say to me, ‘You still goin’ to that place? What for?”
She knows to put those remarks into perspective. “Huh,” she snorts dismissively. “Those folks’re goin’ nowhere. Still. I’ve been here a long time. I’m ready to take this test.”
Devore rests her elbows on the table and holds the booklet up, eye-level. She murmurs as she reads over her answers. Beyond the window, the trucks and cars, a gray-white stream through the mist of rain, travel north and south.