These days, she sits in the doctor's office, nodding her head when she doesn't understand the medical terms. When she gets an important letter in the mail she can't read, she'll call the phone number listed on the page or call her mom for help. Job applications are also difficult. She can't always memorize or guess what information goes in which box.
“For someone to come and talk to me and I can comprehend everything they say to me, I would love for that to happen,” Roberts said. “Big words, words I've never used before, I would love that.”
Give her a novel, and she might make her way through the pages, understanding what was happening. But take those individual words and dissect their meaning, spelling and pronunciation? That's where it gets tricky.
“I feel like a challenge for me at this time is pretty much my spelling, trying to remember my nouns and pronouns,” Roberts said. “That right there is not clicking as fast as I wanted it to.”
But that's not the only issue.
On a Monday of a mid-July heat wave, she didn't show up. Two more days passed, and she was still absent. Sure, she had called in with reasons to miss, but this is how it usually starts.
All too often, this is how stories of failure begin.
Barbara Griggs has been teaching TANF classes for 21 years. Kay Walls has for eight. They come to work every day knowing their message won't always work.
Walls estimates that only one in six students will graduate from the program to be placed in some sort of job training or continue on to college.
“It's very difficult to handle when you're not prepared,” she said. “When students feel like they're trapped, then they have issues that interfere with learning. And they can come in with a closed mind.”
They've dealt with the worst — wanted felons, gang members and abusive parents. But some come here after the education system has failed them.
“In my time span, I've heard lots of stories, some that are just unreal,” Griggs said. “One girl had told me that she was in lab class, not in a metropolitan area, and her class consisted of going to the teacher's house and cleaning it.”
But they've also seen the best — the man who wrote at a kindergarten level who now works for a cab service, the woman who couldn't read who now works full-time at Walmart and one man in this summer's class who has graduated. He's just waiting for a spot in job training to open up.
It's the success stories that keep them sane and coming back for more each day. For Walls, the ripple effect of a person's education can be what is most important.
“We must intervene for the children,” she said. “We can help the adults, but I think helping the kids is the best approach to prevent this from happening.”
But to succeed, students must show up every day, especially those who suffer from medical conditions that hamper their progress. So when Roberts missed three days, it was troubling.
How long does it take for Walls to worry after a student starts missing class?
“I'm worried day one,” she said. “One minute they're not here is detrimental.”
Back in class
On Thursday, Roberts was back in class.
Plumbing problems at her home meant waiting hours on end for a plumber and filling up water jugs at her mother's house. She knew it hurts missing class, but her family comes before everything else.
Roberts called herself a “homebody.” She'd rather listen to music and take her kids to the park than go out on a Friday night. Her sons, Coreyontae, 3, and Marcus, 4, share the same father. Her daughters, Martina, 5, and Chasidy, 7, share another.
Neither father is part of her family life.
“I pray every day,” Roberts said. “Yeah, it's hard, but I'm blessed.”
When class gets tough and the day seems long, she misses her kids who sit in day care during the summer months. When she's in a bad mood, she said she'll try to hide it from her kids when she gets home, but they always know.
They'll play a joke or surprise her to make Mom laugh.
“When you see a person give all their trust and love, I feel like they give me a lot,” Roberts said. “They give me a lot that I never received.”
But love alone won't be enough to ensure her kids will be successful when they leave home.
“I know they will have a better life, but for all that to start, it has to start with their education,” Roberts said. “It has to start with my education. I want better for them at this point.”
Working with words
With 10 minutes left in an afternoon session, Roberts, who has hit her one-month mark of classes, is one of seven women. The class is restless. The sound of laughter and side conversation is paired with straws popping on ice.
Ms. Walls sits at the front of the room and gives the last assignment.
Spell the word. Sound it out. Give the definition. Use it in a sentence.
From left to right, the students recite to the class. They smile when they get a word they know. They whine that it's time to go home when they don't.
Roberts gets her word wrong every time.
Civilization. Doesn't know.
Evergreen. No idea.
Parallel. It has something to do with parking.
She's missed all three and it's almost time to go. Another student gets a word.
Ascend. The student doesn't know it, so Walls offers it to the class.
“Does anyone know what ascend means?”
No one answers. Conversation and giggling drowns out the question and the other students are already thinking about their next cigarette in the parking lot. Roberts looks at her blue sheet of paper, ascend, scribbles something down and looks up.
“To advance or go upwards?” She asks.
No reply. Ms. Walls' attention was on two students who won't quiet down. Roberts tries again.
“To advance or go upwards?”
Still nothing, it's too loud. Minutes later the class is given permission to leave and Roberts is the last student left in the room. She pushes in two chairs left out by other others, picks up her pink binder and turns the corner out the door.
She'll repeat the words she missed today inside her head until they stick, and tomorrow, she'll run into a dozen others that look backward in her mind. But that's why she's here.
Ascend: To advance or go upward. That's exactly right.
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When students feel like they're trapped, then they have issues that interfere with learning. And they can come in with a closed mind.”