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Published on November 15th, 2021 | by Nicole Lynn Lewis

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Honors

Excerpted from Pregnant Girl:  A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families. Copyright 2021.  Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

The black cap and gown, the tassel draped over a proud, bright smile—all set against a sun-kissed day. I will love watching my students pose with their children for these photos, often teary-eyed. The picture represents the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice—and proof that while every single one of them was told that they’d never go to college and they were ten times less likely to graduate because they were parents, they did it.

I was just months away from my own graduation photo, crouched next to Nerissa in her blue-and-white sundress, holding a bouquet of red and yellow flowers in one hand and my diploma in the other, the two of us smiling in the bright sun. On that day, I will be floating, hardly able to believe I’ve made it, but there will be so many days just before it that will be daunting. My senior year will prove to be just as difficult as my freshman year—a trend that will ring true for the students I work with in DC. While many college completion efforts focus on college access, we will ramp up our check-ins and supports as our students get closer to their degree. A study in 2018 will find that nearly one in five students who leave college without a degree have completed 75 percent or more of the credits that they need toward their degree, and one in ten are as close as 90 percent. My own experience taught me that as students near the finish line, life doesn’t magically become easier.

This is what you don’t see in a graduation photo.

My “time poverty” was at its worst during my final year of college. Each day seemed absolutely shredded between mothering, classes, student teaching, and writing an honors thesis.

My days started at 5:30 a.m. to get Nerissa fed and ready. I dropped her off on my way to Lafayette High School, arriving at 7 a.m., just before students trickled into my classroom. When the bell rang at 2:30 p.m., I’d rush back to campus for a class or a meeting with Professor Pease. Every night, after getting Rissa from daycare, I put dinner on the table, washed her up and brushed her teeth, read her a book, and kissed her goodnight. Then, I stayed up grading papers and exams, putting together lesson plans, and working on my thesis until I got to a point where I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I was averaging four or five hours of sleep each night.

I reached a breaking point with childcare. Like nearly one in five parenting college students, I was paying nearly two hundred dollars or more each week for childcare, more than the national average, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. One day in August, the director of WCCC pulled me aside and, in a hushed voice, told me she couldn’t give me any more time to catch up on payments. I would have to pull Nerissa out of the program. The teachers hugged and kissed Nerissa goodbye and gave us an album filled with photos of memorable moments, including the annual Halloween parades to Baskin-Robbins. Because I had a feeling that Nerissa’s days at WCCC were numbered, I had started researching other daycare options several months before. After searching online for hours for subsidized care, I found Williamsburg’s Head Start program and called to ask about the application process. It required multiple trips to the Head Start office, copies of Nerissa’s records, a letter from Tammy attesting to my financial status, and more phone calls to inquire about the status of my application. Thankfully, now that she was three years old, Nerissa qualified for the program as well as discounted before and after care. My daycare bill went from $700 to $44 each month. If Nerissa hadn’t met the age requirement, or if there hadn’t been an opening in the program, I would have been left without daycare just weeks before starting my senior year.

Even with a car, transportation continued to plague me. My station wagon was constantly in the shop. I couldn’t afford to make the repairs to
fix a constant oil leak, but with daily trips to Lafayette and Head Start, I also couldn’t afford not to have a working car. I befriended a mechanic at a gas station on Richmond Road right by campus who was willing to do discounted fixes just to keep it running. I just prayed that it would last. A month before I graduated, the transmission died while I was going seventy miles per hour on I-64. I scraped together enough money for a small down payment, and my mom cosigned for a forest green 1993 Honda Civic at a dealership in Virginia Beach.

There was no coparenting with Rakheim. Not only was he still selling and often too drunk or high to even talk to Nerissa on the phone, he barely saw her, and he was becoming more and more erratic in his behavior toward me. It was as if he loved me too much and completely despised me all at the same time. He called me constantly, sometimes in the middle of the night, telling me he wanted me back and just needed to hear my voice. Other times, he threatened to “beat the shit” out of me if he couldn’t pick up Nerissa when he wanted to. In the middle of class, I’d get ugly texts saying he was on his way to Nerissa’s daycare to pick her up and that if I tried to stop him, he’d “put a bullet” in my head. I didn’t feel safe on campus anymore or even at Ludwell. He told me he had ways of knowing where I was and what I was doing at all times, and one day, when I pulled into the parking lot behind my building, he was sitting in a nearby parking space watching me from his car.

I went to the local police department and showed an officer all of Rakheim’s  threatening  texts  on  my  phone.  He  scrolled  through  them, shaking his head, and told me that, unfortunately, there was nothing he could do. He suggested I go to the courthouse and get a protective order. Once I had that, if Rakheim violated it, the police could intervene. Three days later, I was at the courthouse for hours, trying to file a preliminary order of protection. I had to talk to several people at different desks before I finally ended up in the commonwealth attorney’s office, where a representative explained the process and told me the order would be in place for fifteen days, after which there would be a full hearing to determine if there should be a new protective order in place, which could last up to two years. A large woman with short, graying hair sat in the middle of hundreds of pamphlets and brochures on domestic violence and looked over my file, shuffling from one paper to another. I asked her if she thought they’d ultimately grant me a protective order, while I glanced at a poster on the yellow office wall of a woman with a swollen, bruised eye staring back at me. It read, “Is this you?”

She said it wasn’t likely that I would get the order. I emphasized that Rakheim had a gun and asked if I could show her the threats on my phone, but she put a hand up, signaling for me to keep my phone in my purse. She told me everything depended on which judge heard the case— each had their own leanings, sometimes toward the victims and sometimes toward the accused. When she said that there was a good chance the judge would throw out my case, I felt the panic filling my lungs. I imagined how enraged Rakheim would be by me taking him to court and how empowered he would feel if the case was dismissed.

“I know,” she said after taking a deep breath. “I have women come into this office, and their husbands have shot them and stabbed them, and I think the case is a done deal, but you never know with these judges.”

I looked down at my shaking hands. “I want to retract the papers.”

In the parking lot, I crumpled up a brochure that she gave me, put my head against the steering wheel, and cried.

*

There was something unexpectedly brilliant in all of this. I loved someone. I wasn’t sure how it happened, and I didn’t want to love him, but once it took root, it flourished and grew and couldn’t be stopped. Without warning, his quiet affection curled in waves all over my body from my eyelashes to the soft spots behind my knees to the soles of my feet. He turned my skin into a rich soil so wherever he kissed me, a flower grew until eventually my whole body was alive like spring. After years of refusing to tether myself to someone for fear of their fallibility, it turns out, he was my place. My hand fit perfectly in his, and it will be the hand I hold before walking on stage to receive my diploma, while standing at the altar on our wedding day, and through the births of three more beautiful children.

Almost two years after I left Rakheim, I met Donté on the balcony of his friend’s apartment before going inside to the loud party they were hosting together. I smiled up at him. A tall, thick defensive end on the Tribe football team, he could easily swing me over his shoulder in one swift move. Six-three and 250 pounds of goodness. He was the kind of guy who called his mother each week to check on her, stayed on top of all of his classes, and had an internship lined up for the summer. With jet-black neatly corn-rowed hair and smooth caramel-colored skin, he had a smile that was infectious, and no one made me laugh the way he did. He asked for my phone number that night so he could get to know me better. His next question, What time did I usually put my daughter to bed?, impressed me. so I wrote down my number on a piece of paper and handed it to him.

He wasn’t my type. He was clean-cut, ironed his clothes, cooked his meals, and kept his room immaculately clean. I wasn’t immediately head over heels, in part because he wasn’t the kind of guy I was usually attracted to. My interest in him confused me—made me question what my type was. When my student Alicia tells me about her struggles with commitment and relationships years later, her description of the type of guys she usually dates will resonate with me. Their deficiency makes her feel useful: “I find guys who aren’t doing as well as I am—guys who are mini projects. I feel like I can change them.” Rakheim was my “mini project.” He was only my type because he needed so much, and at that time, like Alicia, I was looking to fill my own voids by filling someone else’s. Donté, on the other hand, didn’t need anything, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

We had our first date a couple of weeks later. He came over on a Friday night after I put Riss to sleep, and we made my famous apple pie together, a recipe my mom passed on to me. We talked and laughed while thin, green Granny smith apple peels flew every which way in my small kitchen, and he served as my sous-chef. He sang Motown oldies, and I laughed when his notes were off. I moved in a rhythm around him, reaching for ingredients in the cabinets, scooping peels off of the countertops, and washing bowls in the sink. I caught his eyes following me when I looked at him over my shoulder, and we laughed. I was so distracted I forgot to add a cup of sugar, but we sat on the futon with slices of pie and gobbled them up anyway. When he was done with his piece, he said thank you and kissed me on the cheek. I studied his kind face. I never knew feeling safe could be so romantic.

The day I was unsuccessful in getting the protective order, I drove straight to Donté’s apartment. I pulled into a space, then got out of the station wagon and leaned against the door, hoping to pull myself together before going inside.

“You alright?” I heard Donté ask from where he stood at his front door. I looked at him with tears in my eyes.

“Come here,” he said.

I earned an A in ethics and made the dean’s list again for the fall 2002 semester. I was so close to graduation now that I was ordering announcements, trying on my cap and gown, and filing all the paperwork, but I still had to make it through the spring.

My honors thesis was exactly one hundred pages long, comprised of eight stories about slavery, motherhood, maturation, marriage, hurt, and pain. Professor Pease and I edited it over and over until it was a polished piece of me. I gave copies to my three judges, one of whom was Professor Fitzgerald because of her expertise in women’s history. Another was Professor Pease’s office mate, who was known as an expert in African American literature and a harsh critic. They had three days to read it.

I walked into Professor Pease’s small cottage, where the dissertation defense would be held. She offered everyone cups of tea, but I declined. I was too jittery and afraid I’d drop my cup and burn my leg. The manuscript sat on their laps, some of the pages scribbled on or earmarked. Their questions began right away. After two hours, they asked me to step outside while they made their decision. Professor Pease came with me, and when the door closed behind us, she assured me that I did great. I thanked her then smoothed my hands over my blue jeans, nervously, and looked at the sunken garden, sprawled out in front of us.

Four years ago, I’d come here wondering if I could even make it to senior year. Now commencement was only days away, and I could possibly graduate with honors. Our expectations for marginalized students are often the bare minimum, prescribing low expectations and precluding them from opportunities that could challenge them or reveal their brilliance. My thesis experience will convince me of the exact opposite—my expectations for my students will be high, and my assumption about their potential will be that it is limitless. And my students will prove me right time and time again—like Naraya who completed several semesters with perfect 4.0 GPAs and Yoslin, a DACA student, who will serve as a legislative intern for a state senator while working on her degree and raising her boys. Ana will earn a highly competitive nursing scholarship and secure a job at a local hospital before she even walks across the graduation stage.

That evening, I danced through campus, the rich, full trees watching over me and seeming to step aside as I walked through the doors of Swem Library, gripping a copy of my thesis. My stories would be preserved there—in a building I could never use, or use comfortably—in the university’s archives, forever and always. I passed through the endless stacks of books and the sculptures and paintings in the library’s art gallery to find the office, where a receptionist sat waiting for me. She took the manila envelope, looked inside, then sealed it back up.

“High honors, huh?” she said. “Congratulations.”

I sat in William & Mary Hall, where my college journey first began, for the three-hour ceremony. In the graduation program that my parents held in their hands somewhere in the crowd, my name was listed as a Bachelor of Arts recipient with a distinction for high honors.

“And now, I officially congratulate the Class of 2003 as graduates of the college of William & Mary!” President Sullivan yelled from the lectern.

Black caps flew up in the air around me, and the hall resounded with clapping, whistling, and cheers. I spun around to take it all in. Joseph, who was told he was too dumb to go to college, will describe the feeling of this moment: “To just persevere, to walk across that stage and hear your name and hear people cheer for you—it was incredible.”

Outside, there was a flurry of emotion and chaos as people poured out of the hall in search of one another. I found everyone gathered in a small group near the parking lot. Nerissa stood in the blue-and-white sundress that Mama D had given her, ready to hand me three big sun- flowers. I rushed to hold her, scooping her up and crying into her chest. The day felt like it was ours. People will ask me what kept me motivated through every late night and every sacrifice, and it was Nerissa. I kept going because she needed me to, and now that I was a college graduate, I could give her what I’d promised her in the delivery room the day she was born. This is the same answer I will hear from each of my students. Their children are their motivation.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” she said, handing me the sunflowers. “Are you done with classes now?”

We all laughed. Then I stood up and embraced my mother, who was beaming, trying to find the words to capture her joy and holding back tears. I held her tightly, not needing any words. The image of the two of us crying together on my bed in Virginia Beach five years before was fresh in our minds. Since that day, she had been my biggest cheerleader, sending money when she could, helping me strategize when I came up against an obstacle, and most important, embracing Nerissa and loving her unconditionally. When we pulled away, my dad patted me on my back, grinning ear to ear. “You’re a college graduate, now,” he said. In his own way, he was saying he was proud of me. Mama D stood to the side in her peach suit and matching hat and swung her arms around me, whispering, “Good job” in my ear. Donté kissed me and handed me a bouquet of the red and yellow flowers he’d been hiding in his car.

*

I used to envision my graduation day when I sat in the Motel 6 as a way to help me make it through to the next day. When I pictured it, the scenes and faces were a blur, but now they were in front of me, each smile, wrinkle, and tearful eye exact and clear and just as it should be. Now I tried to envision what was next for me and Riss, and it was hard to think of an existence that didn’t involve me functioning in a constant state of scarcity. I also couldn’t imagine leaving my experience here in Williamsburg and not doing something for the millions of other young mothers and fathers out there who could do the very same thing and just needed the support and resources to get there.

I was about to fuel up my own rocket ship.

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About the Author

A former teen mother who put herself through the College of William & Mary with her three-month old daughter in tow, Nicole now works every day to change the statistic that less than 2% of teen mothers will earn their degrees before age 30. Generation Hope rallies around teen parents to help them earn college degrees and forge a path to economic opportunity and is now expanding its work nationally to help colleges and universities and policymakers across the country better meet the needs of the nearly 4 million parenting students who are working toward their degrees.

Nicole is a member of the board of trustees of Trinity Washington University and a National Advisory Board member of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Most recently, she was honored with the inaugural Black Voices for Black Justice Award, which “recognizes incredible leaders who have been on the frontlines working to dismantle the deep-rooted, racist systems that have plagued our country for centuries,” and the Boulder Fund award through Education Leaders of Color, which “supports the innovations of leaders of color in education.” She has received various awards, including being honored as a CNN Hero and the national grand prize winner of the Roslyn S. Jaffe Award, and has been featured on major news outlets including “Good Morning America,” CNN, “NBC Nightly News,” and The Washington Post. She is also a nationally known author and speaker with her book, Pregnant Girl, released by Beacon Press in the spring of 2021.

Nicole holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Communication from George Mason University and a Bachelor’s degree in English from the College of William & Mary. Nicole and her husband, Donté Lewis, live in Maryland with their five children.



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