I first knew my friend was good at math, when I took her shopping.
She said she was in that time of the month where the groceries have run out but the EBT card hasn’t reloaded yet. I said I’d had a good week, so she could come shopping with me. She could get fifty dollars worth of groceries and I’d swipe the debit card. She came back twenty minutes later with a cartful of food: some moderately junky food like frozen fried chicken and fries, but mostly wholesome things like fruit. My friend’s children like fresh fruit best of all. The pediatrician asked her son what his favorite treat was, and the son immediately answered “watermelon!” She rung up the groceries she’d picked out, and it came to forty-nine dollars and change.
Every time I gave her a ride to the store, she repeated that performance, adding up exactly what she had to spend with dizzying precision. She’s very smart, but she’s never had a chance to show it off before.
She’s one of the people I call the Lost Girls.
When I was a little girl, I loved to watch Mary Martin performing as Peter Pan, in the filmed version of the stage play. I was always fascinated when Peter started describing the Lost Boys: babies who fall out of their cradles when the nurses are looking the other way. “If they’re not claimed in seven days,” says Peter, “They’re sent far away to Neverland.” I wondered why they were all boys. I wondered what happened to little girls who fall out of their cradles.
When I moved to Steubenville I met some.
I’m not going to tell the story of my friend specifically; I’m just speaking in general terms for the moment. I have met a lot of young women who got lost when they were girls– women from very poor backgrounds, generations of severe poverty. Maybe their parents were on drugs and maybe their parents were in jail, or maybe their parents were just so poor they couldn’t keep their children safe. Maybe they didn’t know their parents and grew up with an aunt or a grandmother, or in foster care. They grew up living not so much paycheck to paycheck as food pantry box to food pantry box, day to day, minute to minute, slum house to slum house and sometimes homeless. That’s the kind of dire poverty I mean.
The girls grew up in that constant anxiety. Maybe they didn’t learn to make a budget because there was never enough money to get through the month anyway. Maybe they didn’t learn to drive because nobody had a car to teach them with. They didn’t learn how to stay out of trouble because everyone around them was in trouble. They didn’t learn safety rules because there was never an option to be safe. They didn’t learn to plan ahead because there was never any “ahead,” there was only the constant danger of the here and now. And they made the kind of choices people make when there aren’t any good choices to be had: bad ones. Next thing they knew, they were in trouble. They had a record. They messed around and got pregnant very young.
Teenage boys could father a child without even realizing they’d done it. Teenage girls get a pregnancy with all the risk and suffering that entails, and then they have children to raise with no one to help them, no money, no high school diploma. Teenage boys get called studs when they sleep around. Teenage girls get called sluts. Lost Boys go to Neverland to fight pirates, but Lost Girls stay right here and turn into women with children.
And how do you bootstrap yourself out of poverty, with no one to help you, a society that condemns you for your bad choices, and multiple children in tow?
How do you break the cycle and ensure your own daughter doesn’t become a Lost Girl, when you’re lost yourself?
My friend has several children. They’re her joy. She’s a very good mother to them– walking them to the school bus on time, using gentle discipline, feeding them nourishing meals whenever she can afford to, going from store to store to find baby formula. But they have nothing. Sometimes she has to fold an old t-shirt to use as a diaper because diapers aren’t free.
She is working on paying off an old fine so she can get her driver’s license, now that she’s in her twenties. She wants to go back to school to be a nurse, because she likes helping people.
Yesterday I drove her to her GED pre-test. She did wonderfully: 536 out of 600 in math. The instructor gave her a stack of books to study because she doesn’t have a computer. I’ve been trying to help. I’m good at English so we went over the parts of speech together: nouns, verbs, adverbs. I showed her a playlist of Schoolhouse Rock songs to help with memorization. Then we both puzzled over the algebra problems. I posted some of them on Facebook and Twitter so someone who was good at math could give us a refresher course. I’d forgotten all about acronyms like PEMDAS, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. First parentheses, then exponents, then multiply, add, subtract.
I have faith in her. The whole deck is stacked against her, but she is smart enough to get through.
I have faith in all the Lost Girls.
I just wish we had a society that didn’t lose them in the first place.
Image via pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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