"When someone fights with me, they earn my loyalty"

Today on the blog I interview Evelyn, a young woman who just graduated from Central Falls High school. Evelyn met me at Amanda’s Kitchen, a little greasy spoon in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on her way to a job interview. She sat down at the corner table and ordered a decaf coffee, which she barely touched the whole time we talked. She is eighteen-years-old, although her dark-rimmed glasses give her a sophisticated look that makes it hard to pin down her age. She told me about herself.

Evelyn: I came here from Guatemala when I was five-years-old. I started school in Central Falls halfway through kindergarten. I hated it. Nobody would talk to me. I didn’t speak the language. Only one little girl would be my friend, because she spoke Spanish too. I couldn’t even tell anyone I needed to use the bathroom.

Me: How long did that last?

Evelyn: I actually started enjoying school later that year. My mom never had to tell me to do anything, because I’ve always been tough. I made honor roll in elementary school. In eighth grade I started spending most of my time with another group of kids, there were eleven of us, and we all ended up taking honors and AP classes together in high school.

Evelyn was in eighth grade when the Central Falls school board voted to fire all of the teachers in the high school. Although that decision was reversed before the following fall, the school and district spent the better part of 2010 trying to figure out how to recover from the fallout of that moment.

Me: Was all of the news distracting? You were about to be a freshman at a high school that was on national news almost every day.

Evelyn: I’m proud to be from Central Falls. I got a great education, I took advantage of all the opportunities in front of me. I was too busy to listen to the negativity. There were lots of crazy changes the year before I started high school. I thought, “This is either going to be a really good experience or a really bad one!”

Me: How did you do in high school?

Evelyn: I had a great experience. I got really involved in the transformation of the school and the city. I took all honors and AP classes. When I was a sophomore I went to City Hall with group of students to talk to the mayor. He told us the parks and recreation department needed help, so we organized a park cleanup. I got about 60 kids to show up on a Saturday. We found lots of ways to contribute.

Me: What did you do after high school?

Evelyn: I did a semester at Rhode Island College. I couldn’t get any financial aid because I’m an immigrant. I took a lot of hours at a job to make ends meet. I was coming home at two or three o’clock in the morning from a job at a restaurant with no time for homework. I thought “Why am I doing this?” So, I took a break this spring.

Me: Will you go back?

Evelyn: I’m not sure. I want to. I am trying to get an internship. But I don’t know why I’m going to college right now. I don’t have the luxury of going just because it’s the right thing to do. I can’t do something without a bigger purpose. My mom is my number one supporter, and she is like, “I want you to go back to school.” My brother dropped out, and they want more from me. I get what she wants, but is she going to pay for me to go back? It’s not that simple.

Me: How does that make you feel?

Evelyn: I’m not the only one. A lot of students came here when they were young and can’t go to college, even though they grew up completely American and had no choice. I busted my hump for twelve years in public schools and I don’t get the same opportunities just because I moved here from another country when I was five. I don’t need anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. I don’t need that. If I have to struggle, I have to struggle. I’ll get through it.

Me: Tell me about the rest of your family.

Evelyn: My sister is nine years old. It’s rough, because it’s a big age difference. I help her with homework. I took her to visit the high school and she had a little freak out moment because she doesn’t want to go to college. She has all the opportunities I wish I had, because she was born here. A few years makes a big difference! She can go to college! I was like, “Keep going!” I am who I am because of what I had to go through. I wouldn’t change who I am to have what she has.

Me: What don’t people understand about your experience?

Evelyn: People underestimate me. I’d like to think that I have the will to make a difference. For me and for the world. When someone fights with me, they earn my loyalty.

Evelyn started high school the same day that newly installed superintendent Victor Capellan joined the district to lead the high school’s transformation. He's one of the people who fights with Evelyn. Later this week I will share part of my conversation with Superintendent Capellan. He’ll help us connect some dots about Evelyn’s experience, including what it’s like to be a “Dreamer,” the group of kids who came to this country as small children and have to navigate a treacherous legal and financial process to attend college.