October 17, 2009
The $450.00 purseBy L. Jenkins
One hundred-and-twenty-five "At Risk" seventeen to twenty-four year old, paid $8.15 an hour to attend high school with money from the Stimulus package. A report from the trenches.
"Four-hundred and fifty dollars!" Shaqueenda purred as she paraded the pretentious brown leather purse past her friends. The summer stimulus students, earning $8.00 an hour to attend school, had gathered in the atrium showing off their purchases.
"My whole wardrobe isn't worth that!" I blurted out. She iced my comment with a bone chilling glare. I backed away and watched as Vonisha and Soltaire matched her gasconade with the hundreds they disbursed on acrylic fingernails, coral reef hair sets, and skin tight ensembles. These young ladies, learning the arts of ground-beautification left empty pop cans, chip bags, and candy-bar wrappers littering their benches when they moseyed away to their instructional assignment.
"Girls," I interrupted, pointing at the litter. Sullenly they turned and picked up their trash. Carlson's critique still resonated in my thoughts.
"If I catch them sitting on their fat butts eating chips one more time, I'm bootin' ‘em out of my program too!" The diligent custodian cursed after hauling them to my office. The disgust on his face told me their charms had worn thin. To earn their $64.00 a day, these three, eighteen to twenty-four year old girls were scheduled to clean for five hours and study Math, English, and Life Skills for three hours. After only a few weeks they had parlayed their lunch into an hour and fifteen minute feast, and turned their breaks into thirty-minute romantic interludes with the candy machines.
Theirs weren't the only spending shocks, when the Obama stimulus checks arrived. Students, who had attended every day of the first two weeks and had filled out their daily timesheets, and placed correct addresses on their W-2 forms, received a check for $640.00. Cash in hand, one-hundred and twenty-five low income, low achieving, adult high school students went on a government furnished spending spree.
Two Polynesian girls rewarded themselves with tribal tattoos. On other anatomies, Obama money was magically transformed into interlocking hearts, mystical unicorns, ferocious tigers, hollow skulls, tongue licking dragons, and momentarily cherished names. Ronisha, a mother of two children, spent her money on a baroque neck tattoo displaying her babies' names. Armando took all of his money and applied it towards his $800.00 speeding ticket, received for meritorious conduct while flying across an overpass at a hundred miles an hour. Jason put a down payment on a car, unperturbed that he had no insurance, no high school diploma, was not in line to receive one, and the car payments extended thirty-four months past his final summer stimulus check.
Hernandez prided himself on investing his entire check with his mother's ex-boyfriend. Joseph cashed his check, got drunk, and passed out, a roll of bills spilling out of his pocket. He woke up, hours later, the party over, his bankroll missing. Two girls proudly funded their boyfriends' weekend bacchanal at local strip joints and Stevy Vaughn, a once stimulated student, was overcome with remorse after experiencing a financially devastating familial tryst. Having been caught sleeping with the sister of his baby's mother, he found himself booted from the apartment, the day before his check arrived. His irate former paramour retrieved his mail, opened his check, forged his name and cashed it. Not only wouldn't she let him have any of his money, but she vowed she was keeping his next three checks as well. The district required a minimum of thirty days to change a mailing address.
Part of the program was financial training. Knowing most of these young adults never had a steady source of legal income, part of the grant was teaching them wise money management. An hour each day was devoted to understanding banking, setting up budgets, value shopping, deciding between needs and wants, making dollars stretch, and starting savings accounts.
Theory didn't transfer to practice. Dress codes be damned, the boys arrived in oversized gang ornamented t-shirts, expensive flat billed ball caps, shin length pants with tigers decorating the back pockets, and hundred dollar tennis shoes. They followed Obama's orders implicitly and spent, spent, spent, rather than the school's counsel to save. The girls were worse; they arrived at school in a truckload of tight fitting bosom popper tops, with slinky, tourniquet tight, plumber-butt-shorts, while teetering on stiletto heels. Overnight we took on the appearance of a bordello.
As the money dwindled, and the spending fix stopped, angry words filled the circle of students around the cafeteria tables. "I got $640.00," One would say.
"I only got $580.00." Another countered.
"I got $610.00! I worked just as hard as you! They're cheatin' me!"
"Find Jenkins!" The lynch mob smelled blood. Often records showed students signed in but never signed out. To be cute many had autographed their timesheets in pink, which showed transparent on a copier, and the payroll clerk put them down as absent. On other occasions their foggy minds cleared when staring at a blank timecard and realized they really weren't in school that day. Once a girl signed in with a different last name, her romance the night before had been so profound she was sure it would result in marriage. A couple times the clerk made mistakes but usually errors were attributed to the student. Apologies for the unfounded tribunals were non existent.
Following each payday, nefarious characters in a dark Cadillac skirted the parking lot, giving rise to the clouds of happy smoke the restrooms belched. One skinny, sickly white girl who worked in the cafeteria attended faithfully for the first month. Her attendance fell off dramatically over the final weeks. Upon inquiry, friends told a sad tale of hard drugs and harder parties followed by a delirium of time, place, and bedmates. Lorna showed up one day with a giant purple bruise on her face, where, with the help of a fist sized rock, her roommate had administered fidelity training, because Lorna had seduced her boyfriend.
A few saved money for school. One hard working girl from Somalia and another from Botswana guarded every dime, anxious to attend classes at the local community college. A couple boys saved for their tuition at a trade school, and one Chinese boy saved his money for a plane ticket to Hawaii, where, upon graduation, he was guaranteed a job in his uncle's restaurant. Sadly the majority of the money slipped through the students' hands like water and ended up in iPods, cell phones, candy machines, exchanged for alcohol at convenience stores, slipped into the garters of strippers, and piddled away on flashy clothes that now lay in piles on bedroom floors.
See also: Walk Fast