|A Review byRebecca James
|Keesha's House by Helen Frost, 2005
"Why I got to jump through hoops to be provin' myself all year long when I'm new here?" Nelson's* usually grinning face was drawn and angry. "I asked for help in Science, I asked for help in Spanish, I been askin' for help all first term and now suddenly halfway through the year everyone's all surprised when I'm failing!" His voice rose and he began gesturing widely, drawing attention to our corner of the hallway where I attempted to conceal my conversation with this distraught and irate senior from my entering ninth graders. "They be coverin' their own asses, is what I think, comin' all up on me now pretendin' to care. These people don't care about no one. I'm on my own here. They may forget it, but I can't forget it, not even for one little second!" I gave up on hiding the conversation; curious glances were now shooting in our direction as I attempted to soothe him enough to figure out if I could help.
Nelson was right. Technically responsible for his missing work, but right in the deeper sense. His teachers, guidance counselors, and principals have all developed thick skin that allows them to go to work each day and not be completely enveloped in despair. It's not that we don't care, it's that we have the opportunity to be removed from a life like Nelson's; the chance to leave it behind every afternoon. Nelson is bright, a voice of cynicism and reality in an unusually protected class of junior English students. Like one or two other students, Nelson is a senior taking two English classes at the same time. He also has a full load of other courses in order to meet our school's requirements, different from his first high school's, to graduate on time this June. Unlike those other students, Nelson falls into a growing group of students in our school classified as homeless.
The word "homeless" is actually an excellent choice if you examine the term semantically. Not all students who are homeless are sleeping on the streets, although many have spent a night or two doing so at some point. That would be "houseless" or "apartmentless." In fact, the word means that they are without a home in every sense of the word. Home: a bed to call your own, a place to stash your books, your music, your cash where it will remain until you return; a closet or drawer or even a box to hold a few pairs of clean underwear; a shelf to place a few jars of peanut butter. The definition is stark by my experiences; I would add family, love, and protection, but these meager basics is what it boils down to when you're a student with four months to go until you can work day shift full-time. Instead, homeless students crash wherever it is safe for a few hours: a friend's couch, a tiny hotel room paid for by the week, maybe even the floor. Forget homework, these kids have no guarantee someone will wake them up in the morning (it's not like they have an alarm clock) or that they will be allowed to close their eyes again in that same place that night.
The yellow envelopes I provide to safely contain research paper notes and resources is carried dutifully for weeks until one day it simply disappears, left behind with so much sweat and effort tucked inside its battered, taped-up edges. With a sigh that, in me, would have been a scream, Nelson (and so many just like him) begins again, missing all the essentials, the paper, pen or pencil, notebook, or book bag yet scraping together just enough to pass, never enough to truly succeed. I could (and have) given him the supplies, but it doesn't matter. He has no way to bring them back the next day. "No, miss," he explains patiently, "I can't come by for extra help. I have to work from four to close." When pressed, he admits that close is two in the morning, but in the house where he is crashing this month, someone is bound to be up when he gets there.
Helen Frost is an English teacher herself, familiar with students like Nelson who come from surprisingly varied situations. Some, like Nelson, have been abandoned by their incompetent parents, others have chosen to run away from dangerous situations. All of the characters in Frost's brand-new book stem from her own experiences working with students. The rambling old house this motley group slowly learns to call home belongs to a man named Joe. Inherited by Joe from his guardian some years before, the house, with its wood floors as scarred and worn as many of its refugees, is offered to all by this quiet, understanding man. There's nothing funny going on hereJoe is not a pervert or a creep. Instead, he's a thirty-something guy who remembers too clearly showing up on that same doorstep years before, trusting no one but having nothing. It was Joe's aunt who offered solace then; Joe just figures he can pass the favor along. He thinks that he isn't using all those empty rooms anyway, so someone might as well have a space to call her own.
Keesha is the most recent addition to the house, and she becomes the recruiter in her high school. It is easy to see a little Joe in her. She never confronts students in need. From her own experiences, she knows that to approach one head on offering physical and emotional comfort is to ensure that the student will run the other way. She and Joe never offer charity, just space. For Katie, that safe space is a bedroom door over which she can control access. Unlike the home she left behind, she will not awaken to find her stepfather standing over her bed. Dontay's a foster kid who doesn't fit the mold at his new placement; Stephanie is pregnant and confused. Finally, there's Harris, the character who initially inspired my interest in the book. Harris is gay, ejected from his home by his father, even as his mother with her sympathetic eyes stood nearby. He's tired of sleeping in the car his parents gave him the year before and looks to Joe for a few night's rest.
The entire book is presented in a series of eight groups of poems. This is not the poetry these characters would read for school but their own words. Frost retained their individual personalities and stories even as she crafted looping lines of word play in traditional sestinas and sonnets. Her accomplishment is beautiful; a collection that moves seamlessly and achingly across ethnic and social boundaries. While it is written for young adults, the collection is as thought-provoking as The Washington Post expos on gay teens published this past summer. The adults who make the decisions in policies that ultimately dictate the circumstances or relief from the lives these children lead need to take note of this incredible, hopeful book. In our school of 3,600, there are dozens of students exactly like Nelson, wearing the same sweatshirt every day, "dog-tired" as Nelson would say, yet plodding along. For some of them, a break will come long enough to allow them to make it through to graduation. For these lucky few, it is often a place like Keesha's House that provides this temporary shelter.
*Nelson's story is based on the profiles of several students I have in this situation. The name is fictional; the problems, however, are real.
Rebecca James is an English teacher in Allentown, PA and a summer resident of Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 2 March 11, 2005