Her name conjures up the image of a carefree French girl strolling along the Seine, but Lizette Buie, a stick of a woman, is, at 23, three times a mother. She enters the Christmas fantasyland that is the Hecht Co.'s new downtown flagship store with her children, a bit stiffly and soft-voiced. But when she calls out to the children to "Wait!" at the top of a down escalator, they stop at once.
To some people, a former teen-aged mother who has developed the strength to become a successful parent may seem an unlikely woman to applaud for growth and change, when we hear so much about the dismal statistics of D.C.'s teen-aged mothers. But in her mind, Lizette Buie is much, much more than a statistic.
Dressed in jeans, a blue jean jacket and sweatshirt with "Senators" emblazoned on the front, she strolls with confidence into the dignified store, past verdant green trees looped gracefully with glowing colors and luscious ornaments. With her children, she walks along carpeted, curving shopping bays.
It's a confidence Buie did not always have. After becoming pregnant at 16, Buie dropped out of high school and was, by 19, a confused mother of two. When she walked into the Center for Youth Services (CYS), a local nonprofit agency offering psychiatric counseling, employment and educational services and training, she was bitter and hostile. But with the supportive counseling of CYS, at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, she passed her high school equivalency test.
"Amidst all her conflicts -- and she had many," said CYS Director Myra Wesley King, "there has always been a quest for improvement and a desire for her kids to do better -- in terms of their physical care and exposing them to education and activities."
Tonight, eight days before Christmas, Buie is shopping for clothes for Aja, 6, Tyrone, 5, known as "Skeetie," and RaeShawn, 3. Skeetie still has on the black tie he wears to his kindergarten classes at St. Paul and Augustine Catholic school, and Aja has on her uniform from the same school. Aja picks a pink and white lace dress. For Skeetie, Buie picks blue pants and a white shirt while RaeShawn gets black stirrup pants and a yellow sweater. Those items, along with a dress for a niece, come to $137, and Buie pays in cash.
Surviving despite unspeakable pressures, including the numbing despair of welfare, Buie completed the center's training program. She no longer receives welfare because the center helped her to get a job at Clifton Market, 14th and Clifton streets NW, where she has now been promoted to manager. Unfortunately, as federal funds for public assistance are continuously being reduced, fewer young people will have a similar opportunity. But Buie has had no time to be young, carefree and happy, no time to be free to move around, explore life's mysteries or dally with ideas.
"I want that," shouts Skeetie, pointing at a "Go Bots Master Robot." Buie shakes her head and says quietly, "Santa Claus will bring it to you." Skeetie whimpers and cries, but she ignores him until he stops. Then she gently wipes away his tears with her forefinger. In the next instant, Skeetie is darting around a mirrored column with recharged energy, teasing his little sister, who looks at him with happy eyes.
By the standards of high-tech society, Buie is neither well educated nor overly articulate. Indeed, she is trapped by circumstances she helped bring about and that she can't now totally control. But she accepts her life with stoicism, even joy and pride. "It feels so good to be off welfare," she offers, "because I can depend on myself and not anybody else." Tightlipped about her children's father -- "he comes around sometime" -- she can call on an extended family, including her mother and her aunts.
"Look" shouts Aja, "this one has a straw hat and veil!" In the store's lower level, the kids are going crazy over the Furskins, huggable bears that are dressed in costumes depicting a variety of jobs, from postmaster to cowboy.
But reality is more than costumes, and one would have to say there has been much folly in Buie's brief life -- a young woman having not just one child, but three. "Right now," she says, "I don't have no Christmas feeling -- it came too fast!"
But she left me with a sense of hope that she can keep living a vision even though it conflicts with her home environment at 14th and Clifton, and that she will continue to have an unfailing belief in the future and her children's capacity to survive.