By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Math class is the only time that Charity joins the other third-graders. The teacher passes out a worksheet; Charity finishes both sides before most of the other kids finish one. While she waits for her class to catch up, Charity compares her baby phat sneakers to a boy's Shaquille O'Neal Dunkman shoes. The boy in the Shaqs is another third-grader who spends most of his day in fourth. He's the only white kid in either class. Earlier this year, he called Charity a "nigger" and punched her in the face. Charity forgave him.
Outside the classroom, a boy is banging on the doors, running up and down the hallway, swinging a wet coat over his head that he'd dipped in toilet water. Recess is approaching, so the math teacher turns off the lights to calm the kids down a bit. "Cell phones and teachers' supplies have been missing, so you kids have to use the bathroom before recess, not during," she tells them.
Charity has heard all about the stolen goods.
"A girl told me that some boys are selling weed and they got stacks of money," Charity says, passing on a rumor she doesn't believe. "It was the same boys that were selling the Play-Doh they stole."
At recess, Charity chases her kind-of crush. On Valentine's Day, he gave her a note, a dollar and a bear. Now he wants a kiss.
"No way. I'm not going to give you a kiss, not even in your dreams, 'cause if I do, you're just going to tell me to do it again and again," Charity tells him as he wraps her up in a jump rope. "Boys are made of cookies and dirt -- disgusting."
Charity calls Micah over and asks him to chase the boy away. At ten, Micah is the man of the house. "My mom is by herself, and she needs help because she can't do a lot of things a man can do," Charity explains. "Like when we're moving, she can't pick up the heavy stuff. Some kids bust out crying every day because they don't have a dad. I've been without him for four years. They're divorced now, so I know he's not coming back."
After lunch and recess, the kids return to the back of the classroom, where Ms. Cornell reads a story about a young black girl who's getting on the bus to go somewhere special.
"Where's she going?" a few kids ask.
"Good question," says Ms. Cornell. "Good readers always ask good questions."
Charity raises her hand and Ms. Cornell calls on her.
"Is her special place the library?" Charity asks.
"We'll have to read and see," Ms. Cornell says.
The little black girl gets on the bus, where there's a sign that says "whites only." The same sign is on a bench when the girl steps off the bus.
"That ain't fair," a kid says. "Why is it for whites only?"
A boy in a white Puma jumpsuit is falling asleep, his eyes rolling back in his head. Charity giggles, then notices that the marker the teacher is using to make notes on the dry-erase board isn't working. She asks Ms. Cornell if she needs a new marker and races to the front of the classroom to get it.
As the book winds down, the girl is about to arrive at her special place.
"Is it the library?" Charity asks again.
The teacher turns the page, and yes, it's the library. As Ms. Cornell reviews the story line with her students, she asks if they know what it was called when black people had to sit in the back of the bus or were forbidden to enter certain places. Although most of the kids in her class know the answer, just one raises his hand. "Segregation," says the only white student.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, Charity attends an after-school program run by the Prodigal Son Initiative, which reformed gang member Terrance Roberts started to help Hallett kids stay off the streets and out of gangs.
Roberts compares Charity's life to a line in the Bible about fire, and how it can be used to purify or destroy, shape a sword or burn down a forest. "She's just one of those people who are making the best of their situation instead of turning and making it worse," he says. "Charity is one of the most fun-loving, intelligent kids I know. Even when I'm stressing and she has a harder day than me, she always has a smile on her face. Seeing kids like her makes me check my maturity level and who I'm supposed to be in the community."
Charity also participated in Club Z, a federally funded after-school program designed to help kids improve their CSAP scores. But that came to an end the day after the CSAPs did.
Sometimes Micah's teacher, Erik Myhren, helps out by getting the kids home or keeping an eye on them when Lisa has to work late. Myhren was also Essence's teacher before she moved on to middle school. He now coaches her basketball team along with Charity's aunt, Tiffany Epperson, who lives with her mother and lends Lisa's family a hand when she can.