Keisha and I must look odd, standing in the bathroom of this popular eatery, her pants unzipped, big belly exposed, her hand over mine as we feel for the heartbeat of newly formed life. This baby is not what I wanted for my woman child, now 19 years old. I had big dreams for her -- college, travel, medical school and marriage. But the wheels came off this wagon when she was kicked out of college last year for fighting. And then there was the father of her baby -- a street-smart kid under house arrest when she met him, veteran of three gunshot wounds by the time he was 19. "See me, not your dreams for me," she said when I challenged her about her choices.
I have been earth mother and mentor to Rhonda Keisha Jackson for nearly 10 years. Her birth mother died when she was 8, leaving her in the care of her 21-year-old sister, herself on public assistance with three children under 5. I met Keisha at an open house art show hosted by her sixth-grade teacher, Liani, a friend of mine. I noticed her right away, big almond eyes, skinny brown-skinned girl, all elbows and knees. Liani told me she was at risk. "Tough neighborhood," he said. She lived in a part of the city I never visited.
I knew mentoring would be a big deal. A child is not like a puppy you can return to the kennel because it leaves stains on the carpet. I saw it as a way to give back. I have a good life once described by a friend as "bohemian bling" -- African American woman, locked hair, diamond nose post, Ivy League education, nice career, arty travel. I thought if I offered Keisha love, an education and exposure to the world I knew that I could make a difference in her life. And I have, just not in the ways I expected.
I have taken my earth mother role seriously, hanging out with Keisha on countless weekends over the almost 10 years we have been together. There have been movies, plays, dance theater outings, white-tablecloth restaurants and trips out of town. I have encouraged, cajoled, admonished and threatened, "stop lying to me," "you are not wearing that," "look me in the eye when you're talking," "put your napkin in your lap." There have been fancy summer camps at Interlocken in New Hampshire and enrichment programs at Vassar and Sidwell Friends.
But mostly there has been love. Early on I introduced Keisha to my family. She has grown especially close to my mother, confiding in her, sitting in the kitchen with her when she prepares meals, following her around the house, peppering her with questions and stories. It has been precious to watch this relationship.
By the time my mother and I installed Keisha in college, the first in her family to go, I was confident that we had transformed her. Outwardly, it appeared so. Gone were the inch-and-a-half acrylic nails, the bad hair weaves and hoochie clothing of her early teens. Articulate and poised, she was an honor roll student and talked about becoming a doctor or a nurse. I was confident that she was on her way to a new life of choices and options. And to top it off, she had learned to code-shift too, ebonics cool around her friends and standard English around mine. Bill Cosby would have been proud.
But looking back now, I realize it was not all as it had appeared. Amid talk of wanting to be a doctor or a nurse, there was also mention of wanting to go to cosmetology school. Cosmetology school -- no way was I having that. Unless she was talking about owning a chain of salons, there would be no talk of "doing hair." It was my wise friend, Ummil, now in her fifties, herself a masseuse and a mother at 16, who reminded me recently that "at least if Keisha does hair she will always be able to earn a living." Blind to my own elitism, I admit this was hard for me to get my arms around. My friends who "do hair" own their salons.
Even as Keisha appears to reject what I value, I notice that she still looks to me for approval. When she was 14, John Lesley, son of author and motivational speaker Les Brown, accompanied her to her homecoming dance. He was a strapping, good-looking kid, engaging and dynamic like his father, a friend of mine. At 14, neither Keisha nor John was driving, leaving me to chauffeur both teenagers, picking John up at his father's mansion in Potomac. He looked sharp in his navy blue suit and close-cropped hair. Like a gentleman, he opened the car door for Keisha with an air of confidence beyond his years. I was thrilled. What a nice young brother, I thought, to show Keisha how a young woman should be treated. Beaming, I was sure this date had been a positive experience for her. Only years later did I learn how much flak she caught that night for bringing a date so different from the roughneck boys in her circle.
When Keisha first started dating her baby's father, he was under house arrest. "Why would you get involved with someone like that?" I asked her, not understanding that his situation, in many respects, is the "new normal." One in three black men in this country between the ages of 20 and 29 is under correctional supervision -- in prison, on parole or probation. And that's a national statistic -- meaning that in some communities, such as where Keisha grew up, most of the young brothers have had some run-in with the justice system. In fact, the Justice Policy Institute has reported that there are more young black men in prison than enrolled in college. So there was no red flag for Keisha when she met her baby's father. She was probably wondering why I was tripping.
I tell Keisha that she is one of my best teachers. She has tested me and pushed me out of the comfort zone of my nice little life. In our relationship I have had to grapple with which outcomes are the result of her poor decisions vs. systemic factors that create an environment where poverty, low graduation rates, teenage pregnancy, dead-end jobs and incarceration seem normal. Bill Cosby made it all seem so simple when he blamed black people for their poverty in his now-famous speech on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. In one fell swoop, whites and some privileged blacks were let off the hook. After all, hasn't America done all it could, bent over backwards, to help "these people" with the civil rights movement, affirmative action and the Martin Luther King holiday?
Maybe I was naive to think that I could totally change the trajectory of her life path by meeting with her two weekends a month. As one friend put it, if I were trying to learn to speak Chinese, how fluent would I be if I got to practice only every other weekend, even after 10 years?
Keisha faces a hard road ahead. And as is the case for all of us, she knows that the weight of her life choices falls mainly on her shoulders. I have had to remind myself to resist rescuing her, moving her and the baby in with me, bulldozing my way into her life, making decisions she should be making herself. I have learned to respect that she will live her life her way. I was not happy, for example, when she chose not to return to college, instead attending a one-year technical school to become a nurse's assistant. But, under the new circumstances, that choice has proved to be a wise one, giving her a chance at a better class of jobs to support herself and her baby.
Keisha is committed to getting her life back on track. She has found an apartment and has been exploring her next steps with Larry Brown, executive director of the nonprofit WAVE (Work, Achievement, Values and Education) program, who, despite years of work with at-risk youth, has managed not to become cynical. Larry, a late-boomer-age white guy, is a straight shooter with a big heart, and has been an excellent resource to Keisha, offering tough love and a road map of available support programs. What Keisha is finding, however, is that with the institutionalization of the view that poor people alone are to blame for what happens to them, many of the best programs have been dramatically cut back. When Keisha first stumbled, friends asked me if I was "out of the transformation business," ready to call it quits. I am not going to tell you that I was not disappointed, disheartened, even angry at first about all that has transpired, but I would never leave her. Over the last year I have learned that it is not only about where you end up, but where you started. Keisha is the first of her siblings to graduate from high school and go to college. She was on the honor roll when she was forced to leave college. She will be almost 20 when she gives birth to her first child, nearly four years older than her mother and her sisters. Maybe it does take more than one generation to break a cycle. Only time will tell what her life choices will ultimately cost her, whether she has hit a speed bump or a land mine. In the meantime, I have been preparing for my new role as grandma, looking for a car seat and bassinet for those weekends when Keisha visits me with her baby boy.