Longform

Faith, Hope...and Charity

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.

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Luke Turf