April 19, 2016 by poverty2professional
My ten o’clock ritual at the Pound is one I still reflect on with mixed feelings. Curfew was at 9pm, but I had my extra study hour. So my small privilege meant I got to stay up until 10pm. A whole extra sixty-minutes for a high school junior taking four Advanced Placement (AP) classes.
Since the small library where I usually worked had a table, I tried to make the most of this time and focused on completing any projects that required a poster board or a hard surface. Remember, this is 2008. Integrating technology into the classroom wasn’t getting nearly as much traction as it is now in 2016. An Exact-o knife and straight edge were tools I occasionally – if not regularly – employed. We hadn’t converted to homework being online. At this stage, tech-savvy public school teachers had barely learned how to post copies of worksheets to their class profiles. And I wasn’t complaining, either. The Pound had no open Wi-Fi access, so beyond the textbook my resources were limited to whatever research I had downloaded on to my flashdrive from the school’s library.
But technology and homelessness is next week’s topic.
At ten o’clock, the shelter’s night staff would tap on the bookroom’s glass door and notify me that time was up. Sometimes the staff member was generous and wouldn’t usher me up until fifteen minutes after the hour. Always it ended with me gathering up my books, papers, old laptop, backpack, and whatever else was strewn on the table and schlepping the load up the stairs and into Dorm A.
Like I said, I was conflicted. On one hand, I was annoyed and frustrated that someone else was telling me when to go to bed. On the other, I got to be in my own private space. Yes, like most teenagers and people with a deadline, I didn’t go to bed when I was told. Instead, when I got upstairs, I dropped off whatever materials I was finished with at my bed (it also gave the night staff enough time to circle and leave), and then I collected my laptop and went to work in the small room in the back of the dorm. The Parenting Room.
Not actually a room, the Parenting Room was the alcove that held an old, threadbare sofa and some toys. It was meant as a space for residents to quiet their infants who woke up (several times) during the night. Walk two more steps past the sofa and you’re in the closet room. The closet room had light. You can guess where I sat.
Hangers, dust-bunnies, and all the old clothes and musty blankets no one used or had room to store all occupied the space with me and my laptop in the late weeknight hours. In here, my best work was completed. Essays, reports, and later that fall, my college application statement. No one bothered me, it was after hours. And, when the infants weren’t awake, it was quiet. I had a peaceful place to work.
The downside, of course, was that I would lose track of time. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wrap up at one or two in the morning. I regretted the two times I stayed up until three. Of course, I paid for it later in the same morning because wake-up time was always six.
My private space wasn’t always a solitary experience either. One of the other teens, my friend who self-identified as transgender, decided to join me for a few of the nights.
“Is this weird?” she asked once.
“I don’t tell nobody I’m trans and now I’m sitting here in a closet.”
I snickered. “Yeah, that’s a little apropos.”
One night in spring 2008 we spoke a little too loudly and the night staff overheard us on his walk-through. He ordered us straight to bed. We waited about thirty minutes, then got up and worked quietly for the rest of the night, passing back notes instead. We didn’t want to get a second warning.
The next morning, the Pound’s staff reminded all residents at a group meeting that we were to abide strictly by the curfew. If we didn’t we were at risk for a write-up and ultimately explusion from the shelter. This is where doing your homework late got you. I tried to wrap up before ten for the next week so I could avoid having to use the closet room for a while. Good thing that by May, homework and projects lightened up a little in favor of students cramming for the AP exams. I could avoid the room for an extra week without getting busted.
In December 2008, my family was moved from Dorm A in the Pound’s main building to Dorm B, an adjoining smaller structure. Although this dorm had less showers, smaller quarters, and made it a hassle to move my work from the little library to the dorm at curtain call, it had one huge saving grace: A full room in the back. This was meant to be a playroom for kids, but oh my gosh, it was the perfect study place I needed. It had a TABLE! No more hunching over my notebook, no more scorched knees from an overheating laptop, no more laptop blacking out because it couldn’t breathe through my sweaty knees. These are the things you take for granted when you have a table.
The first night there, I couldn’t wait to get to work. Then I realized the room had no power once the dorm’s main lights were switched off for the night. It was a little bit of an awkward trade-off. I could have lighting in one room, but no desk. In the new space, I could have a desk, but no lighting. Was this intentional?
My priorities in the bookroom shifted slightly to accommodate the lack of light. Work that could be done on a glowing laptop screen was saved for later. Handwritten notes and flashcards were an immediate task. By ten o’clock I started pulling all my stuff together to migrate to Dorm B.
“You should be packed and ready to go,” the staff person once said. “Can’t wait for you to pack up now.”
I get to study until ten, I wanted to say back, but knew better. Heck, even when I did leave on time, I was still locked out of Dorm B. Several times I had to go back and hunt down the night staff, so they could unlock the dorm let me in. Trust me, lugging around a twenty-pound backpack with your computer and your arms full of binders and textbooks up and down the steps into and through a large shelter just to find one person with a set of keys is no easy feat.
“What’s college like?” I wrote in a Facebook message to one of my high school friends who had just started his first year.
“Liberating,” was his laconic reply.
I thought about that word the whole day through. Liberating as in just choosing your schedule? Or what about choosing where you study? I hadn’t yet actually been to a college campus, but I had seen all the large, majestic libraries in the pamphlets. Some boasted about being open all-night just for their students.
“When you ain’t got jack, your options are limited by the environment and the rules other people make,” my dad said. “When you got money and status, you bend the environment to your needs and you get to make the rules.”
In the dark of Dorm B, squinting at the tiny text in my English literature book for a quote I was trying to copy on to my laptop, I was tired of being at the mercy of my environment. I hoped in college I would at least get a desk lamp.