Facilitator John White and I visited North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School‘s Collins campus in Chicago, Illinois, to collect stories for StoryCorps’ National Teachers Initiative. The school’s president, John Horan, and alum Tierra S. Jackson joined us for a conversation.
Tierra has an easy smile, and if you struggle with pronouncing her name, she’ll simply say, “Think of a tiara.” If that word has you thinking of royalty and princesses, such a life couldn’t be further from Tierra’s while she was in high school.
During her freshman and sophomore years, Tierra and her younger brother lived with their aunt and cousins in a Chicago homeless shelter. She remembers sharing a large, open area with her relatives and the hour-long bus ride to school each morning. Tierra was often seen running, trying to make it to class on time, and quickly earned the nickname “FloJo.” Now 22 years old, Tierra remembers herself as rebellious and seeing school as a respite from a world without privacy.
Tierra attempted to keep her home situation private until teachers sent her home with a list of school supplies she knew her family could not provide. The next day, Tierra’s aunt sent her to school with a note explaining things to her teachers. Tierra remembered the shame she felt and a strong desire to not be pitied.
Teachers quietly provided Tierra with school supplies, however, they made it clear that she was expected to do her schoolwork. For Tierra, this was an eye opener: There were no excuses. Although it took her a while to turn her rambunctious behavior around, she studied hard and set goals for herself. She also helped out at home, baby-sitting her brother and cousins.
During those years, “FloJo” and another student who was also homeless at the time gave John a nickname: He became Tierra’s “Godfather.” Tierra says she had to give him a name for being someone who will always be like family to her. “That’s a Godfather, no?” she asked him.
At a time when some of her former classmates are about to enter the post-collegiate workforce, Tierra attends college and works part time. She continues to care of her little brother, who is now a freshman in high school, and cares for her disabled mother. She looks forward to transferring to DePaul University in the fall and has kept the same goals she had in high school: She hopes to serve in the Peace Corps before working for the United Nations.It was obvious during their conversation that John was proud of his “goddaughter” and of how hard she has worked against poverty and homelessness to create a life for herself. “I wouldn’t have been able to if I’d attended another school,” Tierra said, recognizing that in addition to her desire to triumph, the key difference between her and the many other promising children in her neighborhood was the wealth of resources she had at her disposal.
As they left the library – John to return to work and Tierra to take a test – they said their goodbyes in the way one does when you know you’ll see each other again soon. To me, the true success is Tierra’s smile, still arriving easily, and her ability to leave high school with a great education and a larger family.
Read more about our visit to North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School here, where Administration President John Horan describes a typical morning at the school (Hint: It involves a rousing game of tag!)