The smell of marijuana greets me at the door, followed closely by a disheveled woman. She asks what I want, and I tell her that I have come for the girls. She calls to them: “The lady is here.” The girls dart to the door, excited and expectant, each asking what the plans are for the evening and what they will eat.
In this neighborhood grown men run around playing with toy guns only weeks after a neighborhood teen was shot to death on his front porch. In this neighborhood eight- and nine-year old girls discuss rape in the way other girls might discuss the latest episode of Hannah Montana. I know of an alcoholic grandmother who has custody of her thirteen-year-old granddaughter. Here, drugs are rampant. The apartment complex grounds are littered with “Little Hugs” bottles and cigarette butts.
How does hope emerge from such a place? It comes with a field trip to a local college. It comes from meeting a woman who is vice-mayor. It comes from witnessing a performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. It comes when the girls do community service, perform for elderly residents at a nursing home, or march proudly in a college homecoming parade.
I am often asked why I meet with the girls one day a week after working full-time with middle school students. I was a little girl once, I reply. There were women who gave my life meaning and who inspired me: my grandmother and mother, who believed in the power of books and reading though neither had a formal education; the teachers in my segregated public schools who valued me as a learner and believed, even in those tough times, that “education is the great equalizer”; the Sunday school teachers and ladies of the community who reinforced behaviors taught at home and at school.
The wonder that these girls express at things that I take for granted constantly amazes me. I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and am convinced that these girls will go places that they never imagined for themselves. I am thrilled to encourage and inspire them to go to the “places they will go.”