washingtonpost.com  > Education > Education Review > Nov 2004

Tough Love

A D.C. mother's commitment to her kids' education comes at steep price: separation

By Susan Levine
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page W23

She sees the school for the first time on her daughter's last day, and on a late June afternoon, with a crowd around, Sheila Hutton does not see much. The halls are locked and the classrooms disassembled. The teachers are indistinguishable from the parents, all in familiar conversation with neighbors and friends. Hutton, the stranger from Washington, takes in what she can as she finds a seat in the gymnasium. Purple banners herald the athletic championships the high school has won. Shimmery silver balloons bob on their tethers. The place already is packed.

In this faraway dot on a New Hampshire map -- a rural curve in the road, nearly to Canada -- her daughter is graduating. Hutton scans the program listing the 37 members of the Groveton High Class of '04. About halfway down the names, after Holmes, before Karl: Michelle Teresa Hutton, a girl with bubbly charm and a Pepsodent smile.


Sheila Hutton hugs her graduating daughter, Michelle, and walks with her down the aisle. (Stella Johnson)

Until two years ago, Michelle was riding the Metro to class. Then came the turmoil of 10th grade, when she played as much as studied, and her mother threatened to have her retake every course. The battles escalated until the teenager suggested, not so seriously, that maybe she should live with her father in New England for several months. Hutton seized on that idea. Getting Michelle out of the District, her mother decided, was indeed the best thing she could do for her. And no temporary sojourn until the novelty wore off -- commitment meant staying until graduation.

Hutton had urged her son along a similar path, though the circumstances were vastly different. William, the quiet young man with her at commencement, spent his junior and senior years on scholarship at a private prep school, also, by coincidence, in New Hampshire. He'd been unsure whether to go; the scholarship's strings would require him to repeat 11th grade. Hutton didn't hesitate. "How many times will an opportunity like this come along?" she asked. Rarely, if ever, William quickly realized.

She downplays the heartache of her children's absences. "It's not about me," she says. What it is about: their education, and the worlds that could open up for them beyond a modest neighborhood in Northeast Washington.

You're Michelle's mother! a woman exclaims warmly, moments before the opening chords of "Pomp and Circumstance." In a small town that's virtually all white, it's easy to pick Michelle's mother out of the crowd.

An awesome kid, another woman stops by to say. A joy to be around.

Hutton readily accepts the greetings and compliments, and offers gratitude in return. Thank you for keeping my daughter safe when she was so far away, she tells them. "You have no idea how important that was to me."

ONE WINTER WHEN HUTTON'S CHILDREN WERE MIDWAY THROUGH ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, the pipes burst in the old house where they lived on 55th Street NE, and they were forced to move across the Anacostia to a rented duplex near Fort Totten.

Their new neighborhood's school was just several blocks away. Though Hutton had not visited it, she had no intention of transferring William and Michelle there. They would stay put at Burrville Elementary, where she'd gone herself decades earlier, where she knew the principal and teachers well, where they knew her well, too. After regular volunteering in Burrville classrooms, she could walk in and give the staff a piece of her mind, if needed. There was no danger her children would be allowed to slide.

The trade-off, given Hutton's work schedule, was a fifth-grader and his little sister taking city buses back and forth by themselves. Their mother showed them how and where to transfer, from the No. 80 to the X2 to the U2. Better pay close attention, she told them, because she would not show them again. William cried, Farecard clutched in his hand, but did as he was told. Years later, Hutton looks back matter-of-factly. "It was time for them to learn how to get from one side of the world to another," she explains. It was a tough-love objective that became a guiding lesson in their lives.

For neither William nor Michelle ever attended another neighborhood school. Not the red-brick junior high they could see from their new front door, not the columned public high school mere minutes away. Instead they traveled across town and then across states -- each bus ride or plane trip delivering them one stop closer to the goals and expectations their mother had set.

To special programs with more challenging academics. To opportunities that expanded their horizons literally and figuratively. Hutton kept pressing the system, weighing the trade-offs, scouting for opportunities and for those who might supply them. As a working-class single mom with few assets and fewer credentials, she felt she could do little else.

"It was almost like an obsession," says James Ricks, who knew the family when he was principal of the Washington Math Science Technology Public Charter High School, and William and Michelle were students there. "She was determined they were going to get the best education she could find. I think she woke up with that on her mind in the morning and went to bed with that on her mind at night."

A parent's desire for a child's success is the rule, not the exception. But during the long stretch between kindergarten and graduation, the question is how to foster that success. Those with means can afford to write checks for exclusive academies, private tutoring and résumé-enriching summer programs. Those like Sheila Hutton can't. They often have only their own commitment to offer, with little margin for error.

Hutton's own effort, one individual story, reveals the lasting difference that can be made. What kept Michelle in 10th grade, when skipping and partying appealed to her more than English and math? Every morning Hutton would call principal Ricks's office to ensure her daughter was accounted for. She'd call later in the day to make sure Michelle was still there or to confirm assignments. Some days, she'd leave work early to get to the building around dismissal. Michelle, rather than hanging out with friends, had to ride the bus or train home with her.

So embarrassing, the teenager thought back then. "But it was my own fault," she says now. "I couldn't blame her."

This fall, Michelle entered her first year of college in Louisiana. William returned for his second in Rhode Island. And on the journey of her children's lives, their mother remains uncompromising. They will achieve what she did not.

SHE'S ALWAYS MARCHED TO HER OWN DRUMMER, says Hutton's older sister, Ann Taylor.

No, says her former husband, Eddie Foster. She's always marched to her own band.

Hutton's ex is Michelle's father, but the couple were nearly 20 years divorced -- and she was already past 40 -- when their daughter was born. William had been born two years earlier. His father, Hutton says, was not someone she considered husband material. The children are the only out-of-wedlock births in her extended family. Taylor mentions this quietly in passing, not as hint of past scandal but as telling detail: Her younger sister, intent on being a mother, did things her own way.

"She wanted both of those children," Taylor says.

Hutton proved no indulgent parent. She had expectations of behavior, enforced with a frigid, lips-pursed stare that could send a young William fleeing to his room. She used her voice with equal effect, alternating stage whisper, coquettish request, declaration and command.

"She's very dramatic, her personality," William says. His friends either loved her or were terrified of her. Hutton's children loved her, Taylor says, but they knew not to cross her.

From the start, Hutton's expectations of achievement centered on higher education. She understood that her lack thereof had made all the difference.

She'd gone well beyond her parents, neither of whom advanced past the eighth grade. In spite of their abbreviated schooling, or perhaps because of it, they emphasized learning to Hutton and her siblings. At night as a child, she worked on reading and writing with her father, an elderly man who had served as a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American War. Her mother, a homemaker and disciplinarian, drilled her on multiplication and division tables.

Each of their three children attended college, though none graduated. The oldest put himself through Howard University for several years. Taylor enrolled in classes at what was then the Federal City College. The name became the University of the District of Columbia about the time Hutton got there. She was a part-time student in hours and attention, and when, in her early thirties, her full-time job at Pepco tendered her a promotion, she chose it over a degree. She regrets that decision more than any other.

Hutton still works at the utility, nearly three decades later, as the lead distribution clerk in the company's print room. She suffers heart and other ailments, for which she takes numerous pills. She feels older than her 59 years, and her hair has grayed enough that strangers assume she is her children's grandmother. Her house off South Dakota Avenue NE -- purchased five years ago, her first ever -- is dark and unadorned, the carpet fraying, the furniture secondhand. She would replace the dishwasher if her checkbook allowed it, add a garbage disposal, build her savings back up from the mortgage and medical bills that eat up so much of her income.

For all her emphasis on higher education as her kids were growing up, and a salary that finally climbed above $50,000, Hutton wasn't truly prepared for the financial burden of college. Her bills overwhelmed her last spring as William was finishing freshman classes at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, and Michelle was considering Dillard University in New Orleans. Hutton repeatedly had promised to pay for each of their first years. She broke her pledge halfway through William's freshman year and before Michelle could even leave for hers.

"I'll never forgive myself," she admits over dinner one night, not long after coming hours away from losing her home. She withdrew everything from her daughter's college savings account and raced to the foreclosure auction, then borrowed hard against her 401(k) to write Michelle a five-figure check for the fall semester's tuition, room and board. Michelle broached staying home, working and saving. Go, Hutton pleaded: "Please, go for me." As William scrambled for loans, Taylor flew with Michelle to orientation. Hutton couldn't afford the plane ticket.

For once, her parental confidence faltered. She'd always kept her money struggles hidden from the children. "They did what they were supposed to do. I was the one who failed." It is said almost as a confession.

There's no high living to blame. No fancy clothes or car. When she pulls evening shifts at Pepco, she keeps company afterward with the 2 a.m. broadcast of "Oprah" on a small, grainy-screened TV. One recent program centered on a young woman who'd been stumbling on the mean streets, battered by bad luck and worse choices. Oprah surprised her with a four-year college scholarship, and Hutton wept over the unexpected largesse.

Saturday mornings, she watches "It's Academic." She roots for the team from Holton-Arms, the exclusive private school in Bethesda where she would have sent Michelle had Oprah-like benevolence ever come her way. Hutton thrills as the Holton-Arms girls flash their intellect. "Go, go, go," she cheers.

BREAK When the District of Columbia launched its tuition voucher program, the parents of more than one in five students who were offered up to $7,500 a year toward private school costs said thanks, but no thanks. Earlier this year, barely 100 of the thousands of city children eligible to switch from low-performing public schools had parents who took advantage of the opportunity.

Hutton grasps any chance to strengthen her children's education and lives. Her commitment in turn, has drawn its own support. Last spring, Hutton's pediatrician shipped a new computer to New Hampshire because Michelle didn't have one for doing homework. Brushing off thanks, the doctor told Michelle: Go to college and make your mother proud.

"I don't know anyone else I would have done that for," says Marjorie Barnett, who has cared for the children since their births. "She had in her mind, from the very first, that any child she had was going to be successful . . . If she didn't like something, she was going to find a way to change it."

Hutton found free programs and subsidized activities. She quoted Malcolm X, and "by whatever means necessary" came through with tennis and piano, soccer and skiing. One year, Michelle took tap, jazz and ballet. Certain opportunities, Hutton decided, she had to afford.

"She didn't want us to be like everyone else," says her daughter.

"She was always on the hunt," says her son.

Before William entered seventh grade, his mother had him transferred to Francis Junior High School. The public school in Foggy Bottom had a strong program, an elementary counselor said, and instinct told Hutton to rely on the professional's advice. A Francis counselor recommended moving Michelle to Hardy Middle School for sixth grade. Hardy, way over in Georgetown, boasted some of the best test scores in the city. Michelle would mingle with white students for the first time in her life and with classmates whose parents were part of the diplomatic corps, from Slovakia, Mongolia and other exotic places. Hutton delivered the transfer forms in person to guarantee their receipt and to size up the environment there. Very good, she decided.

By high school, she was on the hunt again. When William didn't get into his mother's top pick of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School -- which culls students from across the city for its rigorous program -- they selected the math-science charter downtown. Where that led him changed his life.

He joined the school's ROTC, which practiced at Ballou High School in Southeast. There he met the coordinator of the school's Boys and Girls Club, who persuaded Hutton to sign him up. The club paired William with an "e-mentor," prominent American fashion designer Kenneth Cole. He also was introduced to Cathy Robillard of the City Kids Wilderness Project, a nonprofit enterprise that gives disadvantaged youths from the Washington region summers in Wyoming.

"I can see him sitting across the table from me," Robillard says. William wore a tie to his interview, a first for an applicant. "It was just obvious that his family had spent some time raising him and preparing him for a world beyond high school, a world beyond D.C."

City Kids did more than send an impressionable teenager west of the Beltway and expose him to whitewater rafting, high-mountain backpacking and snowballs in summertime. Through its resources and connections, William was offered the scholarship to Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H. He would be one of only two students from Washington on the lush campus, and one of the few minorities. Robillard speaks from experience: Many parents from his family's background would have refused. Sheila Hutton did not.

Still, Hutton says, "I really lost my son on June 22, 2001." From then on, she would see William little. Other people would be guiding him. She prayed they would have "the right morals to lead him where I was leading him." Some relatives and friends criticized her decision, wondering why she would let him go. A few insinuated that the school was more punitive than preparatory.

William described his time at Proctor in his college application essays. His two years there changed him completely, he wrote. He studied harder than he ever had, stunned by receiving C's and D's on essays that back home would have earned top grades. He joined the football team as an offensive tackle -- his D.C. high school didn't have football -- and worked out regularly.

He figured how to make his way among people who were not like him, and not just because they weren't black. Most Proctor students came from homes with two parents. Some talked about vacation houses and boats. "The things they talked about, I couldn't relate to," he says.

But the school leveled the field in subtle ways. For nine weeks one year, William lived with a family in Segovia, Spain. The foreign stay broadened his vistas even further, as his mother had hoped. He remembers her enthusiasm. "She wanted me to try it," he says. "To do my best and try."

It all added a certain polish, especially valuable for a 20-year-old now intent on a career in the hospitality industry. Last summer William seated the rich and powerful as a host at Kinkead's, an expensive seafood restaurant near the White House. He seems as comfortable eating in such elegant surroundings as he is welcoming guests.

"IT WAS THE EXPERIENCE I GUESS I NEEDED," Michelle reflects long-distance from Dillard, where she has settled into her dorm room, glimpsed a bit of the French Quarter and launched into what she hopes will be a psychology or criminal justice major. At 18, she understands better what her mother has been preaching these many years. "To never give up, to stick with something . . . and in the end it'll be worth it."

"I would love to be as strong as her," Michelle says.

How different from her sentiment during their battles of 10th grade, which convinced Hutton, beset by health problems, that she no longer had the strength "to halfway kill myself to keep [Michelle] in line." Michelle's proposed stay with her father was the leverage Hutton needed, though Michelle didn't think her mother was serious until she deposited her at BWI Airport.

Michelle looks back with no what-ifs. New Hampshire was a total shock. She'd traded the dangers of D.C. streets for the dangers of lumbering moose. There were no buses for getting around, or subway or malls, no way of hiding in the crowd because there was no crowd. At school, there also were no other blacks. "Just me," she says.

Yet on day one of 11th grade, when no one else stepped forward, Michelle spoke up in the pell-mell way that her words and laughter typically rush forward, and was elected class treasurer. She got her first job and began to save money. She studied without diversion. She grudgingly learned to deal with restrictions on her free time, more onerous at her new home, it turned out, than at her old. She hung tough because she had to, and returned to New Hampshire for her senior year, though Hutton lingered until the flight was airborne because she half feared Michelle would try to sneak off the plane.

At least with William, Hutton had managed to see his campus and surroundings once before he graduated. (So many relatives -- aunts, uncle, sister, cousin -- accompanied Hutton to Parents Weekend that William could claim the largest contingent of any Proctor student.)

Hutton didn't make it to Groveton, partly because of the expense and partly because of the family complications of Michelle's father and stepmother. She again took a lot on faith. But she also called the Groveton principal and quizzed him about his dropout rate, the percentage of college-bound students and the number of teen pregnancies.

Michelle missed her mother to the end, particularly around prom time in May. "She didn't get a chance to see my dress," she says wistfully. "I would have loved for her to help me get ready."

With her senior year drawing to a close, Michelle penned a yearbook dedication. "You've had my back for everything I've been through," she wrote to her mother. "There is no one that could ever replace you."

AND SO IT WAS, when the Groveton Class of '04 gathered for the last time, resplendent in its purple gowns and tassled caps and the loving pride of what seemed like everyone in town, that Sheila Hutton was among them.

In her chair by the center aisle, she stayed seated as the graduation recessional began. But as Michelle exited the stage, she spontaneously stood. She planted herself in her daughter's path and opened her arms. The two held each other for a long moment, a teary, joyous embrace.

Then mother and daughter walked hand in hand the rest of the way down the aisle, turned left with matching cadence and walked out into the world.

Susan Levine is a reporter for The Post's Metro section.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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