By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Melanie Asmar
A half-moon still hangs high over Park Hill when Charity's mother begins her school-morning mantra. "Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up," Lisa Norwood orders. "Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up. Charity, Autumn, get up, get up, get up, get up, get up."
At 6:34 a.m., nine-year-old Charity climbs out of the bed that she shares with her four-year-old sister, Autumn, the only Norwood brave enough to sleep next to Charity, who talks in her sleep, kicking and punching the night away in her dreams. Charity's careful not to step on another sister, thirteen-year-old Essence, who's asleep on the floor of the tiny bedroom that the three girls share.
"Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up."
Charity, Autumn and their two brothers all leave for school together, so their time is strictly scheduled. This is the girls' day to get up and use the bathroom first. Out in the living room, ten-year-old Micah's still asleep, stretched out on a chair that's more like a couch. The comforter covering him hangs off onto the floor, where seven-year-old JoVaughn is also asleep.
Charity changes from her pajamas into the loosely enforced school uniform: khakis and a collared shirt. She puts on some earrings and baby phat sneakers, brushes her teeth and lays out her brothers' clothes.
Norwood women do their hair with a rough-bristled brush. Charity's is styled in three mini Afro puffs -- "puff power," she says. She settles on the floor below her mom, who's sitting on the couch that serves as her bed. While Lisa uses a toothbrush blackened with gel to rein in a few loose hairs on Charity's head, Charity watches the news. A TV clip shows a 101-year-old woman being beaten and robbed in New York.
"Ain't none of that going to happen when I'm president," Charity says.
The sun's rising as the Norwoods pile into their minivan. It shines bright in their faces as they drive a few blocks east to Hallett Academy of Science and Technology, a Denver public school that, apart from its name, is no more scientific or technological than any other. The kids jump out of the van and run through the school's back door, past other students shuffling down the steps, screaming all the way to the cafeteria.
Charity gets a tray and catches up with her friends over sausage pizza and apple juice. After breakfast, she walks back up the stairs with a younger girl who's carrying a "Pukey Patty," a drink that comes in a bottle with a top that looks like a girl with a ponytail: Patty. When Charity's friend pulls Patty's ponytail, Patty pukes fake barf.
Out on the playground, kids are playing "cops and gangsters" -- an updated version of "cops and robbers" -- as well as soccer and basketball. Charity swings for a bit, then runs to the door when her teacher, Leah Cornell, comes out onto the playground, ringing a bell for her students to line up. The girls form one line and the boys form another, except for two who are laughing and pushing each other around.
"You smoking," says a boy wearing a shirt with a cartoon drawing that he describes as "some rapper."
"No, you smoking," the other boy says with a shove.
"You smoking," the routine continues.
"No, you smoking."
"You smoking weed."
"Well, you smoking crack."
Charity is one of five high-achieving third-graders at Hallett who've been bumped into a fourth-grade class to make up for lagging fourth-grade enrollment. She's a third-grader in a fourth-grade world.
During one lesson, Ms. Cornell asks her students to design a cereal that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Charity decides on beef jerky as her main ingredient, but since she wants to sweeten it up, she adds "enough chocolate to turn your lips brown and enough sugar to make it extreeeemely sweet and some strawberries that smell like chocolate that haven't been invented yet." Ms. Cornell tells Charity that she needs to make the cereal more nutritious, so Charity tosses in fried chicken and hot wings that "smell so hot that they'll make your nose fall off."
Ms. Cornell looks disgusted.
"Ms. Cornell, aren't you a virgin?" one of the kids asks.
"What?" she says.
"Aren't you a virgin?"
"Not appropriate," Ms. Cornell says.
"What?" the boy says. "I thought you were a virgin."
"Not appropriate for school," Ms. Cornell repeats.
"But I thought you were a virgin, Ms. Cornell. I thought you don't eat meat."
"Oh, yes," Ms. Cornell says. "I don't eat meat. I'm a vegetarian."
Then Charity chimes in.
"Ms. Cornell, what's a virgin?"
"Ask your mom," Ms. Cornell says.
Charity's mother was born in Tennessee and moved to Denver with her family in 1980, when she was fourteen. At nineteen, Lisa married for the first time, but she was divorced five years later. Three more years passed before she started dating a man she met at church, and at age 27, she gave birth to her first child, Essence. Lisa married her daughter's father and the couple had a son, Micah. Their third child was due on Valentine's Day 1998, so they decided on the name Charity -- even though the little girl arrived a few days early.
Since then, Charity Unique Norwood has continued to move fast.
The Norwoods' fourth child, JoVaughn, was born in the summer of 1999, and about a year later, the family bought their first home. But in 2001, they all moved to Oklahoma, where Lisa's husband was relocated by the insurance company he worked for. Charity loved the water parks in Oklahoma, as well as the little sister, Autumn, who soon arrived.
But Charity also remembers her parents fighting. And one morning in July 2003, her mother loaded all the kids into the minivan. Charity thought they were maybe going to the store, but Lisa Norwood drove her five children all the way back to Denver, leaving their father behind.
The family moved into Lisa's mother's house. Lisa had been working at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma and got a job at a store in Denver. The pay she made working full-time there still wasn't enough to raise her kids, so she started slinging homemade meals of spaghetti, lasagna and catfish out of the back of her van.
In February 2004, Lisa passed out in the Wal-Mart bathroom and was fired for sleeping on the job. It turned out that she had bronchitis and was exhausted.
Soon she had more reason to be tired. Five babies in eight years had been enough for Lisa, but somehow safe sex failed, and that December she gave birth to Majesty. (Lisa thinks Majesty's father was deported to Haiti about a year later.)
Staying at Grandma's house was supposed to be temporary, but Charity and her siblings had been living there for more than two years when Grandma started slurring her words one afternoon in October 2005. A friend rushed the woman to the hospital, where an MRI determined that she'd suffered a stroke. She needed time to recover, and six kids in the house were way too many to give her any peace. So Lisa moved her family into a one-bedroom apartment on the side of the house where a sister of her ex-husband lived. The apartment had a single air mattress; some of the kids slept on the floor.
Lisa was just finishing up eight months of coursework to become a certified medical assistant. She graduated at the top of her class with a 4.0 GPA that November and thought she'd soon be able to afford a better place. But she had to move up her plans when the family that owned the house decided to move.
With nowhere else to turn, the Norwoods wound up at Sacred Heart House of Denver, a shelter for women and children that Charity remembers as "heaven," because everyone was so nice and they all got a lot of Christmas presents.
It was at the shelter that Lisa first applied for public housing, but she was turned down because she had too many kids for anything smaller than a four-bedroom place, and four-bedroom places are hard to come by. She's applied for subsidized spots in Denver, at Lowry, in Aurora and in Westminster, but either her number never comes up or some bureaucratic obstacle gets in the way -- sometimes after she's already put down a deposit.
Micah had a friend whose uncle had an empty four-bedroom apartment, so the family left the shelter and moved in, broken windows at all. But soon they saw bubbles forming in the ceiling, then came the leaks, then the ceiling started to fall. By May 2006, it was too much to bear. Lisa packed up her six kids for the fifth time in three years and moved them to the basement of an uncle's house in Aurora. Here the problems came not from above, but below, with flooding and sewage leaks that ruined some of their clothes. By this January, they were back at Grandma's house. But this, too, could only be temporary.
"It's not that I don't love them," says Norma Epperson, the children's grandmother. "I do, but I gotta get back to my health. My doctor's been telling me I'm too stressed again."
One thing has remained constant in Charity's chaotic life: Hallett, the school she's attended since the Norwoods returned to Denver and she started kindergarten.
At the end of second grade, Charity became a mini-celebrity. A lending company had taken her class out to buy the students school supplies; the assistant principal picked Charity to give the thank-you speech, and she got to pass out crayons and backpacks to kids who needed them. It made the evening news on Channel 7. Charity liked the limelight. At church, Charity waves to everyone as she walks down the aisle. At the dentist, she asks the person cleaning her teeth to make sure they're sparkling clean, because, she says, "I'm going to be a star."
Or the President of the United States. She's wanted to be president since she was six, when she saw a list of presidents' names and thought she'd like to see her name on that list, too. Thing is, there are plenty of people who think Charity has what it takes. Her teachers. The social-services types who've helped her family. Even her siblings, usually the toughest critics.
"She talks too much," Essence says of her sister, "but she's nice and caring and has a good personality."
Charity's first day of third grade -- in a fourth-grade class -- was also the first day for her teacher in a new job, as well as the first day for Hallett's new principal. There's a telephone inside every classroom at the school, and when the phone rang that first day, Ms. Cornell didn't answer. It would be awkward to interrupt a lesson for a phone call, she thought. But eventually the message made it through: There'd been a drive-by shooting near the school, and Hallett was in lockdown.
Charity hates violence. The one thing she knows about Iraq is that there's a lot of violence there. And the violence she sees on the local news is the one thing she doesn't like about Denver.
To Charity, it seems that a lot of fourth-graders like violence. They're quick to egg students on to a fight, as she pointed out at a recent restorative-justice intervention. That's a school program Charity was appointed to because she gets along with most students, is able to articulate her thoughts well -- and has such insightful thoughts. At the intervention, Charity concluded that the two students who were fighting might not do it if the rest of the class would discourage it rather than fuel the fire.
"All of my kids kind of struggle to see what the social scene is in fourth grade," says Ms. Cornell. "To me, that's very typical of Charity. What's unusual is she always gets what I say the first time. She's very bright. School is just always going to come easy for her. Her mind is very agile, it's very flexible, it's very dynamic, it's very quick. She can incorporate new concepts quickly."
For example, she says, once the students were assigned to pick a hero in African-American history. Charity bounced around Wikipedia, looking at all of the information about Malcolm X, and was soon clicking on every word or phrase highlighted in blue that she didn't know, like the Black Panther Party. "Malcolm X was like Martin Luther King Jr. but not like Martin Luther King Jr.," Charity explains. "Martin Luther King Jr., he did speeches and stuff, but Malcolm X, he did something for Muhammad Ali."
Another time, Ms. Cornell took her class on a field trip to AmeriTowne, where kids run the mini-community. Each of her students was assigned a job; Charity was the snack bar's manager. The kids all earned money from their work and had two breaks when they could spend it however they pleased. But the snack bar was so busy that by the end of the day, when most of Charity's classmates had bags full of toys, Charity hadn't bought anything. She'd worked through both of her breaks.
On Monday morning, Ms. Cornell's class begins with everyone taking out their journals to write down the highlights of the weekend. Charity writes about going to the bookstore with her new mentor, a volunteer with Metro Denver Partners, which pairs adults with at-risk youth. Charity's favorite hobby is reading, and her mentor bought her two books; she's already a good way through both.
After they're done writing, everyone heads to the back of the classroom, where they're supposed to sit on the rug and share what they've written.
"I was driving drunk this weekend," says the rapper-shirt boy as he heads back. He's being so bad, Ms. Cornell sends him out into the hall before everyone's told their stories.
Charity looks up to that boy. She confesses that she kind of has a crush on him because he's funny and cute. But she only likes him when he's good, like when he leads dance class. She doesn't like it when he's bad.
Charity tries hard not to be bad herself. "I just get frustrated sometimes," she admits. "Everybody does."
She's had one ongoing problem this year. Even though she does all the assignments, she keeps failing to turn in her homework. "When you go place to place, you get really unorganized and you forget your homework and you have to do it over and you have to stay after school," Charity says. "I work on it, but it's hard to keep track of stuff with six kids."
Charity's kind-of crush is back in class by the time the kids begin their next writing assignment: leprechaun stories. As they write their stories, the rapper-shirt boy sees two girls being mean to each other and intervenes. And then he's the first one to step in front of the class and read his story, about a leprechaun who pushes him around and kicks him after school. To handle the problem, the boy calls in his video-game hero, Halo, who shoots the leprechaun dead. Another student reads his tale of two leprechaun gangs robbing each other for their gold. Charity has written about a leprechaun with pimples on his face: Someone steals his gold, but the leprechaun doesn't have the right mindset to fight back, and when he finally does chase the thief, he falls on a crack and dies.
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.
Lisa is grateful for all the strong people in her life, but says she would never have made it this far without her faith in God. When Lisa's not working, she runs her kids to school, to practice, to games, to the doctor's office, the eye doctor's office, the dentist and back to school. She cooks dinner every night and makes sure the kids pray before they eat. She washes their clothes, bathes whoever needs it, helps with their homework. Then they all watch TV together for a while before Lisa puts her children to bed.
"My kids come first in every way," Lisa says. "I'm a for-real Mom. I'm everything to them, and they're everything to me. My kids adapt to things very well. We've been through a lot."
Her ex-husband sent money for a while, but he got sick last summer, and Lisa had to apply for welfare for the first time in her life. By the time her paperwork went through, it was December. She got a temporary job helping enroll the elderly in Medicare that month and received a second welfare check in January, but then the checks stopped. Instead, Lisa got a letter saying that her welfare aid had been canceled per her request -- a request she never made. At the end of February, she suddenly received her first court-mandated child-support payment from her ex-husband. She hopes those checks keep coming.
These days, Lisa works as a personal-care provider about twenty hours a week, doing everything for her elderly clients, from helping them get out of bed to washing them to doing their laundry, cooking and cleaning, and sometimes changing their diapers. It's just like what she does at home -- although here the recipients of her care are at the end of their lives rather than the beginning. She's looking for a better-paying job as a medical assistant, work for which she's been certified.
With her current job, Lisa thinks she can afford $400 a month for rent, maybe even $500, but her credit isn't good after the divorce. She's keeping an eye out for Section 8 properties in case her number comes up, hoping for a small house to rent.
"Our greatest need for housing is for those people who earn between zero and $21,000 a year, and we don't have a sufficient number of housing in that category," explains Jacky Morales-Ferrand, director of housing and neighborhood development for Denver. "We are out of balance for providing housing for the lowest income. The challenging thing about low-income housing is you can't just walk in and move into a home the day you need it."
"I'm not trying to work the system; I'm not trying to sit up here and be lazy," Lisa says. "I'm not out clubbing every weekend, drinking, doing drugs. I'm just a mom who got in a situation that I didn't bring on myself, and I'm trying to get out of it, but it's hard. Do you think I like to see my kids laying on the floor when they were used to having their own bedroom? Do you think I like seeing my kids wearing one pair of shoes when they're used to having seven or eight pairs?
"When I'm struggling, my kids are struggling, too. They're going through this with me. You have to understand what they've been through. Some days they're like, 'Mom, why don't nobody love us, why does everybody hate us?' I feel like there should be a better system out there to help single moms and their kids."
Over the past four years, Charity and her sisters and brothers have seen their father only twice, both times for a couple of days. But this summer, he's supposed to take all five of his children, and maybe even baby Majesty, to his place in Oklahoma. They're planning to go from the first week of June all the way until school starts in August, when he will drive them back to Denver.
"It's going to be a nice break for me, because I haven't had a break from my kids since they were born," Lisa says. "I stayed at home with my kids. None of my kids have been in daycare. I stay with my kids every day of their life."
Charity, who was nicknamed "Tank Pot" by her father, is looking forward to spending time with him again. "I used to love him a lot, but now we really don't have that connection," she says. "I still love him, but not as much as my mom. My dad's got the money, but my mom's got the heart."
She knows her mother's life is "kind of miserable" because the odds are stacked against a woman with six kids, no man and no money. "I love my mom really, really, really much," Charity says, "and I'll never, ever, ever be mean to her, because I love her so much."
By April 1, Lisa's mother has had enough, and they move to their seventh home in four years: a hotel room that costs $51 a night. The six kids and Lisa share two beds in the single room, and by morning, a couple of kids are always sleeping on the floor. Charity likes the hotel room because it's their own space and they don't feel unwelcome, but she doesn't like it as much as she liked the shelter.
"They're handling it great," Charity says, "because nobody's like, 'Why we got to go to a hotel, why can't we have a house, why can't we be perfect?'"
To Charity, perfect would be a safe place for her family, maybe with some space to play out back. Back in December, she told her mother that God has said they'd have a house in April. She's still waiting.
Despite Charity's optimism, Lisa has noticed her daughter throwing more temper tantrums and getting more angry since the divorce was finalized in November. But given all that the nine-year-old has been through, Lisa knows that she could be acting out much worse.
"Charity is every bit of her name," Lisa says. "Her name means love, and she's a very lovable kid. I think she's mature for her age and sees what goes on and has her opinions about it. Just because we're going through this hasn't stopped her or deterred her. Kids need stability, and all this bouncing around and bouncing around, it's hard on the kids. That's why no matter where we lived, they stayed in the same school."
But not for long.
The social workers, teachers and principal at Hallett have all been supportive of the Norwoods. But there's another school in Park Hill that goes all the way through eighth grade, and Lisa wants to enroll her kids in a place where they can all be together. Also, that school has better test scores than Hallett, which has had four straight years of low scores and could be heading toward restructuring if this year's CSAPs come back low. Although the principal is fighting for her school, trying to bring in scientific and technological experts who could help Hallett live up to its name, the Norwoods won't be there to see it.
Charity is excited about changing schools. She likes Hallett and will miss some friends, but she's ready to get away from a few girls she can't get along with no matter how hard she tries, even when she uses all the tools she's learned from the school's anti-bullying classes.
"It's like that movie Mean Girls," she says. "They're so mean. People think that just 'cause your hair gets done good, if you have nice clothes, then you have money and then they're mean to you. They be crushin' on boys, and then when the boys say no to them, they put it on someone else. And some kids think they're the only ones with one parent, that they're the only ones in that situation, but they're not."
With her love of reading, Charity thinks she could be a librarian, and she's also floated the idea of becoming an astronaut. But her real dream is to live in a big house: the White House. She hopes to be the country's first female, African-American commander-in-chief.
She doesn't know much about the other men who've been president, but she does know that she doesn't like President George W. Bush. "He doesn't really do that many things that a president is supposed to," she says. "He gives a lot of speeches, but he doesn't really help people."
Right now, she thinks the country might be ready for a woman to be president, but not a black man. Particularly not Barack Obama, because he smokes, and "black men do crazy things, like drinking and driving." But black men aren't the only ones who need to behave better.
"When I'm president," Charity says, "I'm going to give everybody twenty warnings, and if you get to the twentieth warning, you'll go to jail. A lot of people mess up a lot of times and really don't mean it, but I think by the twentieth warning they should've learned not to do it again." (If their crimes are very violent, President Charity will cut them off long before they reach twenty.)
But the most important plank on her platform is her belief that every child needs two parents, a house, clothes and enough food to eat. "I want to help people out with their situations," she says. "And I don't want kids to go through what I went through."