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A Local Life: Jennifer Lee Ingrum

Young Anacostia Teacher Built a Family of Admirers

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C11

"If there was one thing Jen was religious about, it might have been 'Sex and the City,' " said Rigel Oliveri, smiling as she recalled her friend and former college roommate Jennifer Ingrum. "Every Sunday night, we all got together at Jen's apartment, religiously, to watch 'Sex and the City.' She taped every episode."

Maybe Ingrum felt a certain affinity for HBO's "Fab Four," since she, too, was a young, attractive single woman making her way in the big city, but the affinity was only skin-deep. A teacher at John Philip Sousa Middle School in Anacostia, there was nothing shallow, nothing frivolous about Ingrum, except for the fun and silliness she shared with her family of friends in her beloved Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Volunteering with Horton's Kids, an Anacostia tutoring and mentoring group, sparked Jen Ingrum's desire to help at-risk children. She was a special-education and English teacher. (Rigel Oliveri)

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"She threw herself into life," said Oliveri, a Justice Department civil rights lawyer.

Jennifer Lee Ingrum, who died of melanoma March 28 at age 32, grew up in the comfortable small-town atmosphere of Gallatin, Tenn., where she was a cheerleader, an athlete and class salutatorian. She and Oliveri met in 1990 as freshmen at the University of Virginia. Oliveri recalled that her friend, strong-willed, outspoken and idealistic, sat in on classes she wasn't taking just to satisfy her hunger to know.

When it came time to graduate, the two women knew they wanted to live in a city, far away from the familiar, but they weren't sure where. At the last minute, they decided on Washington, moving into a ratty basement apartment on Capitol Hill with no money and no jobs. Eventually, they moved into a decrepit rowhouse chopped up into five apartments. Their fellow residents became Ingrum's D.C. family.

"She really loved living there," Oliveri said. "Her apartment was like a total mess. We used to say about Jen that she collected people and she collected stuff. She loved shoes, loved books, and they were all over her apartment."

Ingrum found jobs waitressing, first at Hamburger Hamlet in Georgetown, and then on Capitol Hill at Tunnicliff's Tavern and at Jimmy T's. To her collection of people, she added her co-workers and tavern regulars.

But she wanted to do more with her life, and she wanted it to involve at-risk children. Still waitressing at night, she began volunteering with Horton's Kids, an Anacostia organization that provides tutoring and mentoring to neighborhood children.

In 1995, she got a job as the education coordinator at the Langston/Carver Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Washington. Within a year, she became the club's director.

"She loved it," Oliveri recalled. "She had her friends buy Christmas gifts for the kids, arranged sports teams and had friends coach. The girls who came to the club particularly loved her."

Ingrum decided she could be an even more effective advocate for at-risk children as a classroom teacher, so in 1997, she went to Harvard University for a master's degree in education. After two years in graduate school and a year teaching at a charter school in suburban Boston, she came home to her Capitol Hill neighborhood.

She was accepted by the DC Teaching Fellows program and got a job teaching children with emotional and behavioral disorders in a self-contained classroom at Sousa.

That first year at Sousa was the most challenging of her young life. She had to try to reach youngsters who often lashed out violently at a moment's notice, and she had to deal with a school district that couldn't provide her with supplies, textbooks or a teacher's aide. As Sousa administrative aide Evelyn Dickerson recalled, Ingrum wouldn't hesitate to battle for what she thought her students needed.

"The experience was a journey into hell, but I learned a lot about myself and a lot about the challenges of educating all children," Ingrum wrote not long ago.

She came home every evening, Oliveri recalled, thinking she wanted to quit. Instead, she plunged in deeper. After teaching all day, she took classes at night and received a master's degree in special education from George Washington University.

In her three years at Sousa, as a special education teacher and later as an English teacher, she and her students became family. A young man among the 30 Sousa youngsters who attended a memorial at an Eastern Market art gallery in her honor told the 200 or so friends and family members about the gifted, caring woman who was his teacher. "She was a perfect person," he said. "I loved Miss Ingrum."

Jennifer Ingrum would have appreciated that. An irreverent sort, even in the face of her own illness, she also would have appreciated the memorial-service epitaph her friends chose:

"I admit it's tempting to wish for the perfect boss, the perfect parent or the perfect outfit. But maybe the best any of us can do is not quit, play the hand we've been dealt and accessorize what we got." (Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City.")

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