July 28, 2008
But for the baggy trousers, Devore could be off to a tennis match after class in her white polo shirt and baseball cap, although she’d have to swivel the visor around front to lose the rapper look.
She looks up and smiles when I give her a welcome-back hug. She’s already seated in a cubicle, writing in a math workbook. “So, how was your vacation?” she asks. “You look nice and tan.”
This woman always surprises me. I’m amazed by her good spirits. I had driven over today, my stomach in a knot, wondering which Devore I would find waiting. I had pictured the Devore of November 2006, defiant and blank-eyed after a grand mal seizure prevented her from taking the GEDs. It has taken almost two years of tutorials with me and her math teacher, four two-hour sessions a week, to get her back to that point. She’d planned to take the GEDs two weeks ago. Instead, she’s been shuttling back and forth to the hospital because efforts to wean her from a medication triggered a series of seizures.
“You’ve had a rough time lately, I hear,” I say as I flump down my book bag after slipping out the orange GED language arts workbook and a pack of vocabulary flashcards.
“Yeah,” she says, playing idly with her pencil. “Yeah. Did you hear about what happened?”
“Some of it. They were trying to cut back your medication?”
“Yeah. But it didn’t work out so well. I’d have a seizure; my sister’d call the ambulance; I’d go to the hospital; then they’d send me home after I rested a bit. But I kept havin’ seizures. I knew I had to get myself to Yale. They have my records there and I figured they’d know what to do.”
“I didn’t realize you’d been to Yale,” I say. “Did somebody drive you?”
“Nah. I took the train.”
“The train! But it sounds like you weren’t feeling so good.”
“Nah. I was pretty messed up. But I needed to get help, you know what I’m sayin’? Like I said, I had to get to Yale. So I got myself over to the train station. Got on the train. Told the conductor, ‘Get me off in New Haven.’ Luckily, it only cost $1.50, ‘cuz that’s all I had. And the conductor, he let me know when we got to New Haven just like I asked him to.”
I listen to Devore and imagine the scene: I see her in a polo shirt – maybe her lavender one - baggy jeans and her brand new white sneakers. She is foggy after the seizures and shifts in medication. Energy low. But resolute.
“How’d you get to the hospital?” I ask. “You said you used all your money on the train.”
She laughs quietly, “I walked.”
“Yeah, I walked. I kept goin’ up to people sayin’, Can you tell me where the hospital is?’”
Her eyebrows seem to frame her eyes like hands might cup a child’s chin. She repeats softly, “I just kept sayin, ‘Can you tell me where the hospital is?’ And I found it. They ran some tests and kept me overnight.”
“You’re so brave,” I gush. And I mean it. I don’t know that I could find my way to Yale-New Haven on a good day. I don’t know that I could get myself back to this school to work on comprehension and grammar after such a setback. I don’t know that I could walk a day in her new white sneakers.
I think back to the school’s recognition ceremony in June. Devore and I sat together in the cavernous auditorium of one of the city churches. The speaker, Sharon Lewis, had talked about “WHIGMIT” moments – “What have I gotten myself into?” moments. Moments when poor choices and listening to others’ negativism hold you back. “There’ve been times when I’ve been down and people I thought were my friends didn’t support me,” said Ms. Lewis. “At first, I was discouraged and hurt, but then I said to myself, “Maybe they don’t deserve to have a front row in my life. They belong in my balcony!”
One voice, Devore’s, called out, “Amen!” to a burst of appreciative, knowing laughter.
Following the speech, awards were distributed to those most improved and those who’d passed their GEDs. The silence was heavy beside me. Then Devore murmured, “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at 1:00. I gotta go.”
“What? Can’t you wait ‘til it’s over?”
“No. Gotta go.” And she was up and striding down the center aisle. Gone.
On my way out after the ceremony, I ran into Michele, Devore’s math tutor. “What happened with Devore? I saw her stalk out,” she said.
“She mentioned a doctor’s appointment, but she’d said nothing about it before.”
“I think she was upset. She had that face on.”
That face. Michele and I know that face.
At our next meeting, Devore said, “I s’pose I owe you an explanation. I was listenin’ to that lady talkin’ about her - what did she call ‘em? Oh yeah, WHIGMIT moments, and I was thinkin’ that I shoulda been up there with the others who passed their GEDs. I waited too long to go back to school. Even now, I listen to too many people who say, ‘Why you keep goin’ to that school?’ I shoulda been up there.”
Her expression is tight, not closed, but tight.
“Omigod, Devore. When else could you have started? You’ve been here at the school for, what, three years? You’re showing up. You’ve had to deal with seizures, family issues, personal issues. These aren’t excuses; they’re reasons. You’re right on time, given what life has dealt you.”
She looks at me thoughtfully and nods. “Maybe. Maybe I am.”
Meanwhile, two months have passed and her bout of seizures may have cost her a shot at this summer’s round of tests.
“Well, let’s do some work,” I say. “We’ll review your vocabulary. Between the month-long break and your seizure-wearied brain, it may take time before you remember all the words, so don’t worry about it.”
I flip through the deck, making sure that a few of the words she has told me she knows “to the depths of her soul” are near the top so she won’t be discouraged. I hold up a card and she nails it. I flash another and her answer is swift and correct. We continue on until the pile of words she has identified correctly is about double those she has missed. I hold up a card.
“Res… resil… hm. I don’t remember that one. Can you put it in a sentence?’ she asks.
I grin. I always use the same example. “It’s what you are…” I say.
She smiles back at me. “Oh yeah. You can’t keep me down. ‘Resilient.’”
To be continued...