One day I was perusing Twitter and continued to come across #homelesstohoward, which naturally piqued my curiosities. As I continued to read, the more I read about Jessica Sutherland and how she helped James Ward with college. The more I read, the more I wanted to know about Jessica's background story. Someone who does what she did, had to have a story to tell, so I was on a quest to find her. After emailing her and waiting, she responded and seven months later her story is here! We are honored and were left speechless...Jessica's story in her words:
Preface: When Rachel first tasked me with writing this piece, I recklessly agreed, thinking that finding “My Proudest Moment” would be a simple task for me, since I’ve done so much awesome stuff by this point in my life. I could not have been more wrong. I find it easy to take pride in those I love, and find it so easy to celebrate their achievements, but I can’t say I’ve ever felt that same surge of satisfaction and pleasure from any of my own successes.
I’m not so humble as to say that I don’t have an impressive resume, or that I don’t take pride in my accomplishments—believe me, I can toot my own horn, and I’m fiercely competitive. I don’t however, recall ever having a visceral reaction of joy from any one thing that I’ve done. Was getting my master’s degree really any more worthy of my pride than winning the district spelling bee in fifth grade? Of course not…the spelling bee is much more impressive.
You may notice that I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable. Terrified I would miss my deadline (and I actually did miss my deadline), like any struggling writer, I turned to the Internet. The web is always there for me. I bopped around quote sites, I wandered through a thesaurus trying to find words with no synonyms, then words with no antonyms.
It dawns on me that I’m painting a self-portrait of a real weirdo (wordo?) right now, but stick with me. So there I am, procrastinating by adding to my stockpile of fairly useless knowledge, when it hits me: ASHAMED is an antonym of PROUD. And poof! It all came together in my mind: maybe my least ashamed moment was what I should write about as my proudest moment. Nobody would know the difference!
My least shameful day was easy to remember. In some ways, it’s the day I was least proud, in the context of pride itself. My Proudest Moment is the day I finally accepted that I needed help to save my future, and that it was okay to ask for it. It’s shaped everything I’ve done since, and will likely do in the future.
MY PROUDEST MOMENT
On a Thursday afternoon in March, my senior year of high school, I was summoned to the office of the Vice Principal. We’ll call him Hans Gruber, for now, as Die Hard is my favorite movie of all time. Even though my Vice Prinicpal was definitely a black guy, and definitely not a German terrorist, please, just roll with it. This man was my nemesis, and had been for several years. It was no secret that I had problems at home, though I liked to think that they didn’t actually know how bad things got sometimes.
My teachers were wonderful people who put up with my erratic attendance and occasionally sassy behavior, while always doing so much to help me. All the same, there is no denying that some educators had a more effective approach than others. Vice Principal Gruber was of the more aggressive variety, which led me to resist his determined efforts to help me for years. I would fight against him to keep living in the world that I knew, rather than consider a better situation.
We’d first clashed when he expressed concern about my underweight and bony frame in the cafeteria during sophomore year. He’d said it in front of a bunch of my friends, and I had little options but to react with a level of disrespect that both made me uncomfortable and landed me an in-school suspension. Vice Principal Hans Gruber was a man of good intentions, but I only saw him as a threat to my mother and I as we struggled with homelessness.
So that day, that Thursday afternoon, I already knew that ol’ Hans was going to ask me where we were living, because he always asked me where we were living, and most of the time I lied. Today would be a day for a lie: my mother and I were living in a halfway house near housing projects in the city of Cleveland. This house was outside of the school district I’d attended since third grade, which meant I was an illegal student.
“Sit down,” Vice Principal Gruber said harshly. As I faced my nemesis, I could feel my shoulders square up with false bravado and cultivated insolence as I prepared for battle. I suspected, and later confirmed, that a teacher at the school had reported my mother and I. I’d lived with her for awhile, and she not only knew I was in the halfway house with my mother, she also knew why I was there, and exactly how long I’d been there. I’d slowly opened up to a handful of friends, and even fewer adults, about the sad realities of my life. Doing this meant I was defying my mother, who had adamantly instructed me to create more wholesome and traditional narratives, threatening dire consequences for the truth…that is, she always added, if anyone would believe a silly kid like me.
“Mom was right she was right she was right,” I thought to myself. I should have kept my big mouth shut. They knew. I was going to get kicked out of school, just before graduation. I’d come so very close to graduating school despite all the craziness at home, so I could leave and go to college once I turned eighteen in four months. I’d nearly done it, but now it was over.
I remember thinking about all of these things as I crossed Gruber’s office and took a seat. I just stared at him defiantly, waiting for him to speak. Waiting for him to ruin my life. Instead, he saved it.
“So, where are you and your mom living now?” he asked, as he thumbed through my file. We both knew what was in that file: first I had great, then good, then decent grades, but even despite the steep decline, I was still above a 3.3, and in the top third of my class. A chronic tardiness and truancy problem, which always surfaced in spurts of homelessness, had led to lots of detentions and in-school suspensions, not to mention the constant games of catch-up with my academics. Varsity cheerleader, drama club, and a “big sib” mentor to a troubled sixth grader at the middle school across the street numbered among my activities, all designed to keep me at school as long as humanly possible. School was everything to me. Everything.
I hadn’t yet responded to him, and was still summoning my bravado when he put my file down and looked at me. Something was different.
“You know what? Don’t even answer that, because I know the answer. You have three choices. Pretending that we don’t know what your life is like is NOT one of them.” He then outlined my three choices with a matter-of-fact tone, and sent me on my way with an order to give him my decision before school started the next day.
I don’t know how I got through the rest of the school day, much less my shift at a local restaurant. I waited up late for my mother in our attic room at the halfway house, and, as soon as she walked in, terrified, I told her what I knew.
“They know we’re here, and they aren’t messing around this time,” I blurted out as soon as she walked up the stairs. “Hans Gruber says I have three choices: stay outside the district and go to a Cleveland school, get back into the district within two weeks and they won’t charge us tuition, or…”
“Or what?” I knew she was already mad at me for getting caught. She wasn’t going to like door number three. I preferred door number two myself.
“…or they can help me get into a special foster home in town, and I won’t miss a day of school. And I have to tell them tomorrow.”
Her eyes darkened, and though she’d begun to take off her shoes, she put them back on.
“What should we do, Mom?”
As she bounded down the stairs, she had some words inappropriate for young ears, but it was clear that she was leaving the decision up to me.
The trouble was that I never made the decisions. I took her word as gospel, and was so desperate to please her, because my mom was so much fun when she was happy. I wanted so badly for her to declare that we’d take door number two: after all, she’d told my teacher that I only was living at the halfway house until our new (in-district) apartment was ready. Surely she would say that two more weeks would be more than enough time for us to get out of the halfway house.
But she didn’t. She didn’t even come home.
I ate a bunch of cereal and paced the driveway of the halfway house until after midnight, when I realized she wasn’t coming back with any promises or decisions. I paged my boyfriend (don’t look at me like that…it was 1997 in the Midwest), and asked him to pick me up extra early. That Friday morning, he brought me my favorite breakfast, and we sped to my school in record time.
“Do you want me to come in with you? I can be late.” His private high school was at least a half-hour away. I wanted him to come in, but I realized, at that very moment, that I needed to do this myself.
I hugged him tight and watched him drive away, shivering in summer clothes at the end of winter, and then I stormed into the Vice Principal formerly known as Hans Gruber’s office. I didn’t sit down.
“Do what you gotta do. I’ll go to foster care.” I walked right back out of his office, and went into the girls’ bathroom and cried until students started arriving.
Over the weekend, my mother barely spoke to me. By Tuesday night, I was in my new home, with everything I needed to start my new life. By Wednesday morning, everyone in school seemed to know everything about my new life and my old one, and not a single person teased me.
Somewhere, in that first day of my new life, came the moment when I realized there had been no point in hiding anything, or even enduring that life for as long as I had: I had put an end to it, and it was okay that I needed help to do so.
Perhaps that moment, when I suddenly ceased to be ashamed, was My Proudest Moment, perhaps not. It was a great day, which is undeniable. Asking for help is the most important thing I’ve learned to do so far…even as I try to help others myself.
Jessica Sutherland is the creator of the #homelesstohoward viral campaign, and the co-founder of Homeless to HigherEd, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to normalizing the college experience for homeless students across the United States. If you need help or want to help, please contact Jessica via www.homelesstohoward.tumblr.com
My Twitter/Instagram: @sutherlandjm
Homeless to Howard tumblr: homelesstohoward.tumblr.com
Homeless to HigherEd Twitter: @homeless2higher