Homework Under the Parking Lot Lights: How 1 Extraordinary Teen Beat the Odds

Homework Under the Parking Lot Lights

When a parent comes to me with a concern about their son or daughter, I take it very seriously. These formative years can greatly influence the inner decision-making model they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Children are learning how to navigate social and academic situations in a very complex world. The bare bones of their challenges are not much different than when we grew up, but there are some distinct factors which have and continually present challenges for young people, parents, and educators alike.

This is the story of a student who overcame great obstacles to achieve success. Aside from a name change, the details are all true. I know this, because she was one my students.

From the outside, Mara appeared like your ordinary teen. She was cheerful, socially well-adjusted and liked by her peers. Her teachers loved her because she took on every academic challenge with great enthusiasm. And there were challenges.

Mara was enrolled in the demanding International Baccalaureate program at her high school. The teachers continually pushed her to expand her knowledge and skills with in-depth, detail-oriented projects and a grueling homework schedule.

She often met in the evenings and on Saturdays at the school for study groups with other like-minded, hard-driving students. Mara was always upbeat and very willing to speak out when she felt something was unfair or could be done differently. She was a problem-solver and, you will see in a minute just how good she was at solving problems.

Mara’s academic challenges paled in comparison to her personal ones. Mara had two younger siblings and was being raised by a single mother. This scenario is not at all uncommon in today’s world. Mothers and children are regularly abandoned by men who, for a variety of reasons, decide to become part-time or no-time dads. Mara and her family were also homeless for a great deal of her high school career.

This perilous situation was not evident to her teachers, administrators or peers until she opened up to her English teacher at the beginning of her senior year. Mara had told her teacher that she was having a difficult time finishing a project on time because she and her family were sleeping in their car in a chain store parking lot. When the local library closed for the night, she had been doing her homework by the lights in the parking lot and then reclining the seat for a fitful night of sleep with her mother and two siblings.

As devastating as the story may sound, the devastation is not the point. Support came for the family in the form of social workers, community groups and individuals. The amazing part is Mara had maintained a perfect academic record throughout her high school years. Raised by a single parent, severely economically disadvantaged, homeless for a majority of her high school years, homework by shopping center lights and straight As in one of the most demanding academic programs in the United States.

Mara graduated as the valedictorian of her class. She was offered and accepted scholarship money, which paid for all of her college expenses and then some. She became the toast of the town and was asked to speak in front of several student and professional organizations throughout the remainder of her high school and college career. Every bit of it was earned and well deserved.

Every time I talk to parents, Mara’s face comes to mind.

As educators, we see the very best and worst humanity has to offer. We rejoice and cry every day. Our hearts are lifted and crushed, sometimes in the same class period. Throughout all of this, I want to know who got through to Mara? How does a child overcome such amazingly heavy obstacles that would crush the average adult? How did she persevere? Who planted the seed in her heart and head that said, “just keep going?”

In a short video interview, she revealed the two people who she felt had the most impact on her daily. First, her mother. Her mother never faltered or wavered when it came to her making the time to pursue her academics. She told her educational success would ensure she could create a better life for herself.

Can you guess who the second one was? Her English teacher. This teacher was a slight woman with a commanding presence. What she lacked in height, she gained in demanding perfection from her students. She loved her students but was never easy on them. She demanded exemplary work at all times and would put in the hours with her students and made them discover what they were made of. She was loved and revered, demanding and consistent. She was not their friend, not their parent, she was their teacher.

As we navigate through our own semesters, never forget your purpose in this profession. You are an educator. As you create lessons and plans for your students,

  • Keep in mind that each day is valuable and each student is unique.
  • Demand students dig deep to achieve success regardless of their circumstances.
  • Challenge and push them to discover their path and never let them give up.

They may or may not credit you for their success, but they will never forget you.

Photo Credit: Curtis Gregory Perry via Compfight cc

About Jeff Davis 10 Articles
With 14 years of experience in education in Florida and Tennessee, Jeff Davis is a middle school administrator, speaker and blogger whose passion is building lasting connections among teachers, students, parents and the community.


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