No light, no water, but a determination to succeed
As we spoke with her mother on a small, dark sofa which she also uses as a bed, a young girl looked on shyly.
In a chair next to us, sat the girl’s teacher, Dezree Taylor, of Stephen Dillet Primary School on Wulff Road.
Taylor has long inspired us with her obvious love for and attention to the children who cross her path.
We asked her to introduce us to her student’s mother, after Taylor posted on Facebook about the girl’s commendable performance and demeanor notwithstanding very challenging living conditions.
The family lives in a small house with a dirt yard behind an old, wooden gate, off Palmetto Avenue.
There are cats in the yard. There are two very small and very dark bedrooms. One room we peeked inside has two small beds close together.
It is not a place where we imagine children should sleep, but it is all they have.
There is a small bathroom and a small kitchen too, with a low ceiling.
On a table next to the sofa, a Holy Bible — the large, old-fashioned ones with large colored drawings — is open.
The house has no electricity or running water.
When we visited on Saturday, the August heat and humidity made conditions seriously uncomfortable.
The mother — a 40-year-old woman with four children — has wounds about the body. She raised her shirt and showed us them, telling us she was stabbed nine times by someone she knew about a year and a half ago.
An older daughter came over and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek before walking out.
The girl looked on.
It is her job to fill the drums with water from a community pump. She uses two gallon bottles, going back and forth to the pump until the drums are filled.
It is steady and necessary work.
“That made me emotional to know that,” Taylor told National Review, “because we have some kids with everything and they come to school, but this kid is in this type of situation, she is coming to school and she’s very respectful [and doing her work].”
Although there is no electricity or running water, Taylor told us, the woman’s children are always clean and their clothes are always pressed.
She said the girl has never been late for school and always does her homework.
It is mostly done by candle light, the mother said.
The woman, who asked that we not use her name so as not to make her children the subject of ridicule in school, said she heats the iron atop the gas stove to iron their uniforms, which are hand-washed.
The woman has a cell phone — nothing fancy — but it’s a smart phone. She’s able to read WhatsApp messages from her daughter’s teacher sometimes.
With no power supply and no job, we wanted to know how she charges the phone. She said when her son goes to his job as a packing boy at a nearby food store, she sends him with the phone to charge.
The money from the packing job helps support the family, and sometimes she gets an odd job cleaning a house here and there, the mother told us.
“Sometimes, I don’t have the lunch money; sometimes the school give them the lunch,” she said.
“Sometimes when they make money [they use that].”
Taylor has been helping the girl get ready for the new school year that starts on Monday.
The girl is a part of the Journeys Club, which follows students from Over-the-Hill communities from grade six to 12, helps them to set goals and keep those goals all the way through high school.
“Once they get to grade 12, it is our responsibility to either help them get to college or to help them find a job,” Taylor said.
We asked the mother, who is of Haitian heritage, how she manages to send her children to school clean and on time with their homework done, and what motivates her to ensure all that is done.
“For me, my mother always tell me life is a challenge. No matter what happen, you supposed to stand up for your goal,” she said.
“That’s what I tell my children. What happen is a challenge. Our black people supposed to be survivors. It’s not every time good time will come. I tell my children, stay focused and stay in school because I send them to be somebody, not nobody.”
The woman said if her children don’t stay in school and do something good, they would not be successful and there would be suffering — for her and for them.
Taylor said she was surprised to see where her student lives.
“I was blown way,” she said.
“I told her (the mother) I never would have in a hundred years [guessed this is how they lived] because this kid has never been down, she has never showed any indication. When it came down to doing her work [she does it and even asks for help after school].”
Taylor said her student has great potential.
“But my concern is if she does not have someone working with her she may slip because of this adverse situation,” she said.
The girl is getting ready for junior high school.
Taylor, who has been teaching for 24 years, said while she was surprised that the girl lived without water and electricity, she has seen students come from much worse conditions.
The Journeys team gets up close and personal with the children, staying (or trying to stay) in touch with parents and visiting their homes.
“Because if you are investing time and money into these children you would like to know what they are doing, so we stay on track with them,” Taylor said.
She said the home we were in on Saturday is a “palace” compared to how some other students live.
“When it rains outside, it rains inside as well,” Taylor said.
‘When I see them, I see me’
There are many heroes in our public school system who go unrecognized.
Dezree Taylor is one of them.
She often uses her own money to feed her students, telling us one time when we went to Stephen Dillet Primary School for a reading program that students can’t learn if their bellies are empty.
On Saturday, Taylor, who had initially been reluctant for her name to be used, said, “If you’re a teacher and you believe in the children who are in front of you, you’re going to invest your time and the little money that you have… I believe that a lot of the issues that we have today is because we have children who were broken and we waited until they became men to repair them and it’s better to fix a broken child than to repair a broken man.”
She said she often reaches out to others for help.
“I believe that when we do things with a pure heart and in the right spirit, God blesses us that we can do some more,” she added.
Taylor prepares tuna and other sandwiches, stocks up on noodles and other food for children who have nothing to eat at school.
“If they come to my class, they’re going to get something to eat,” she said. “And I tell my children, ‘don’t ever stay away’; I tell my parents, ‘don’t ever keep my children home because you have nothing to feed them.’”
She has a WhatsApp group for parents. When there is a concern, when they are failing, she lets the parents know right away and tells them what needs to be done.
Taylor, who grew up on Cordeaux Avenue where her parents still live, can relate to what many of her students experience.
“I grew up bathing in a tin tub — and I tell my kids this — going outside to the toilet, toting water to bathe with, having to go to school without lunch. I remember my mother used to do grits and vegetable soup and that was our staple,” she reminisced.
“…I know about being in a house and when the rain comes in the night we have to put plastic over the bed or put a bucket to catch the water, and so, when I see these children, I let them know, ‘You’re me. You’re me like 30, 40 years ago.’ When I see them, I see me.”
Up until seventh grade, Taylor said, she could not read.
Everything changed for her when one of her teachers, an English teacher at C. H. Reeves, took special interest in her.
“One day she looked at me and she said, ‘You’re a bright little girl; you’re bright,’ and she made me stay back after school…for almost two years…so I tell people all the time, ‘This is passionate to me because somebody did it for me.’
“Teachers, I believe, are saviors for some children.”