[Paleopsych] NYT: (Class 11) Angela Whitiker's Climb
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Sun Jun 12 18:59:45 UTC 2005
Angela Whitiker's Climb
By ISABEL WILKERSON
CHICAGO, June 10 - Angela Whitiker arrived early and rain-soaked at a
suburban school building with a carton of sugar water in her purse and
a squall in her stomach. It was the small hours of the morning, when
the parking lot was empty and the street lights were still on. There
she was alone in the darkness for the biggest test of her life.
If she passed, she could shed the last layer of her former self - the
teenage girl who grew up too fast, dropped out in the 10th grade, and
landed aimless and on public assistance with five children by nearly
as many men.
She would finally be the registered nurse she had been striving toward
for years. She could get a car that wouldn't break down in the middle
of the Dan Ryan Expressway. She could get an A.T.M. card and balance
her checkbook and start paying down her bills and save up for that
two-story colonial on Greenwood that was already hers in her dreams.
She would never again have to live in that gang-run nightmare of a
place, the Robert Taylor housing projects - where she packed a .38 for
protection - or in Section 8 housing or in any government-subsidized
anything. Her children could be proud of her and go on to make
something of themselves too, once she proved it could be done.
But if she didn't pass. ...
She couldn't think about that. And so, as she would often tell the
story later, she got up before dawn and made herself some oatmeal and
a hard-boiled egg and toast and got to the testing site for the state
licensing boards for registered nurses two hours before the test
She had never been good at tests. All through nursing school, she
agonized the night before an exam, overstudying the charts and graphs,
termites dropping from the ceiling onto her physiology books, mice
crawling at her feet, and her children tugging her leg to find out
what was for dinner.
She had only recently become the first woman in her family with a
college degree and, if everything went well this day, would be the
first nurse anybody in her family knew personally.
So, she left long before she needed to that morning to avoid traffic,
a missed turn, not enough gas. Once there, she sat parked in the rain
trying to compose herself. She pulled out her Bible to read the 91st
Psalm, the one about the Lord being her refuge. She broke out the
sugar water to get glucose to the brain.
In the hallway, she avoided looking anyone in the eye. She spoke to no
one. She didn't want to pick up on anyone's anxiety. She had enough of
her own. She took a last drag on a Newport.
The testing room began to fill. The examiner checked her
identification and assigned her computer No. 12. She drew in another
deep breath as she walked to her place. She was about to sit down to
take a $256 pass-or-fail entrance exam into the American middle class.
For most of her 38 years, Angela Whitiker has been on the outside
looking in at the seeming perfection of the professional classes, the
people who did the
college-career-wedding-house-in-the-suburbs-2.5-kids routine. Her life
has been so very different from that. She was a child of the working
class who, through ill-considered choices and circumstance, slipped
into the welfare class and had to fight her way out.
While the rest of the country has fitfully cut back welfare and
continues to debate class disparities and the barriers to mobility,
Ms. Whitiker has quietly traversed several classes in a single
lifetime. She has gone from welfare statistic in the early 1990's to
credit-card carrying member of the middle class, a woman for whom
there are now few statistics, so rare has her experience been. This is
the story of her 12-year slog to the middle class and of how hard it
is to stay there.
The third of five children, she was born to a mother who was a cook
and to a laborer father whom, though the parents had married, she
didn't meet until she was 10. She said it was a heartbreaking visit in
which, smelling of whiskey, he promised to buy her a bicycle and
didn't. She hasn't seen him since.
Within a few years, she was using men as a substitute for her father
and her adolescent longing for him. By 15, she was pregnant with her
first child. By 23, she was the mother of five children, had been
married and separated, and been a casualty of the crack epidemic of
the 1980's. She had lost and would later win back custody of her
children, and had worked a variety of odd jobs, from sausage vendor to
At 26, she gained short-lived celebrity when she and her oldest son,
Nicholas, then a 10-year-old fourth-grader with a man's obligations,
were the subjects of a profile by this reporter in The New York
Times, part of a 1993 series on at-risk urban young people called
Children of the Shadows.
She, Nicholas and her four other children were living in a
second-floor walk-up in Englewood, a crime-burdened neighborhood
abandoned first by the white middle class and then by the black middle
class that succeeded it.
For her, each day meant trying to piece together enough to take care
of herself and her kids - one day petitioning the fathers for child
support, the next counting what was left of her food stamps; one
minute rushing to an administrator's office to get bus vouchers for
school, the next bargaining with the electric company to get her
lights turned back on.
To keep her family out of the projects and on what might be described
as the upper rung of poverty, she had taken up with a man who worked
handling baggage at O'Hare International Airport. He paid the rent and
was the father of her fifth child, Johnathan. His paycheck gave her
breathing room to get into a pre-nursing program at Kennedy-King
Community College on the South Side.
But men never seemed to hang around that long, and it fell to Nicholas
to be father to the younger children that the men in their lives
seemed unwilling to be.
He was the one who washed his and his siblings' school uniforms in the
bathtub at night because they each had only one set. He was the one
who pulled his brother Willie out of the line of fire by the hood of
his jacket when gunshots rang out in the schoolyard. And he was the
one who took the blame and the beatings if something wasn't done to
his mother's boyfriend's liking.
Readers responded with great outpourings of generosity after the
article was published, but it was clear from the reporter's continuing
contacts with the family over the years that it was not enough to
materially change the basic facts of their lives. It was still a
household run by a single mother with only a high school equivalency
degree, no career skills, no assets and no immediate prospects for
In addition, the fraying relationship between Ms. Whitiker and her
boyfriend fell apart after publication of the article, and, without
him to pay the rent, she fell further behind. She wound up in the only
place that a woman with five children, no job and no money could get
in Chicago in 1994, a cellblock of an apartment in the Robert Taylor
Homes, an urban no-man's land where you could move about only when the
gangs that ran the place let you. The elevators, sticky with urine,
didn't work, and gunshots were background music.
From the start, Ms. Whitiker felt that it was beneath her. She looked
down on the women who had grown accustomed to bullet holes over their
dinette tables, who watched "All My Children" and ate Doritos all day
and didn't seem to want anything better. She carried the gun to
protect herself and had to use it once when, having climbed nine
flights of stairs, she found some strangers playing cards at her
kitchen table. She fired shots into the ceiling to get them out.
It was the lowest rung of the poverty class in America, lower in a way
than the worst nights in a crack house in her early 20's, because now
she was fully conscious of exactly where she was. She vowed from the
very first night to get out. But she knew she couldn't make it out on
public assistance. So she figured she'd get whatever job she could.
She would have to put off her nursing studies.
She worked at a fast food restaurant, rising to assistant manager but
never making much more than minimum wage. She worked nights as a
security guard in the projects, a job that was dangerous and equally
dead-end but paid a bit more.
Every day held its own kind of peril or indignity, much of it coming
from her 1976 Chevrolet, which she relied on to get to and from work
but was well past its natural lifespan. It had a cracked windshield
and a hole rusted through the floor. It wasn't big enough for all of
her children, but they piled in just the same with no thought of
seatbelts, because there weren't enough anyway.
When she was coming home in the rain on the expressway one night, the
defroster conked out and the windshield fogged up. "I had to stick my
head out the window to drive," she said. "God drove that car that
One time the car caught fire because of a hole in the gasoline line.
Flames shot out of the hood and into the air. Ms. Whitiker jumped out
and told her sister, Michelle, riding in the passenger seat, to do the
"Get out of the car!" she screamed. "It's gonna blow!"
A fire truck came to put out the fire. The firefighters argued over
which one should try to start the engine. None of them wanted to. So
she had to try herself. Somehow, it started and got her home, just
another day on her long climb out of the hole.
The drug economy played out every day on the cracked concrete lawns of
Robert Taylor, and her preteen older sons, Nicholas and Willie, could
not help breathing it in. The only working men they saw were the drug
dealers who were up early to meet their sales quotas, wore the latest
gym shoes and got the girls. Their cars were new and didn't catch
The family lived at Robert Taylor for nine months. "It was hell," she
would say later. "I wouldn't want a dog to stay up in there."
She left there a new woman. She knew she had to get back into nursing
school if she was ever going to get anywhere.
Learning a New Way
Then she met a man by the name of Vincent Allen. He wasn't like the
other men she had known. He had a college degree. His father had been
a military man, his mother a homemaker, solidly middle class. He had a
nice apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake
Michigan. Ms. Whitiker was struck by his manners and how he spoke like
the teachers and social workers she had known growing up - enunciating
his words, slipping in a few she didn't know. He was a police
They met on the job when they were working as private security guards.
He took an immediate liking to her, saw that they both wanted the same
thing - in his words, a "picket fence kind of a life." He encouraged
her to follow her dreams. Soon she and the kids were moving in with
him. He took his job as the man of the house seriously and actually
liked the father role. Suddenly, there was a man asking about homework
and where Nicholas and Willie had been. He noticed if they had slipped
on some gang colors or had their caps pushed to the left or the right
as gang members did.
He took it upon himself to correct the behavior of the younger
children and pick them up from school.
That had been Nicholas's job for all of his short life, and, as his
mother recalled, he did not take displacement well. First, she said,
he figured he would scare his rival away. He stole his clothes, talked
back, came in late.
It would only be a matter of time before this man would go the way of
all the other men, Nicholas thought. But Mr. Allen did not leave. And
the sweet little boy who had been the father of his family went out
and found a new family in the streets. The drug dealers were more than
willing to take him and put him to work. Before long, Ms. Whitiker
discovered that her 12-year-old Nicholas was a lookout for the
She and Mr. Allen could see the road Nicholas was on, but, streetwise
though they were, could do little to stop it. The more vigilant Mr.
Allen was, the more resentful and alienated Nicholas became and the
worse things got. It was as if he had grown so accustomed to the chaos
of his mother's previous lives that he did not know how to function
when a family worked as it should. He had made himself into a wind
gauge and had no purpose when the air was still.
Ms. Whitiker sent Nicholas to live with his father, a laborer who had
married, had other children and lived on the other side of town. She
hoped that being far from his homies would put Nicholas on a
Mr. Allen started encouraging her to go back to nursing school. They
figured that, with him providing a place for her to live, and with
Pell grants and the other financial aid for low-income students, she
could make a go of it.
She enrolled at Kennedy-King College again, but it was different this
time; or, rather, she was different. She was no longer the fun-loving
girl looking for something to do. She had seen the bottom of the well
and never wanted to go back there again.
She had also seen a new way of managing one's life. The professional
people she met in college and now Mr. Allen had different ways of
thinking about spending and saving money and carrying oneself. They
tended to plan and save for things. She had never had enough money or
reason to save. They paid attention to things like late fees and
interest rates; she mostly ignored them because she couldn't pay the
bills anyway. They set long-term goals for themselves; she just tried
to get through the day. It all rubbed off on her, and it changed her.
On top of that, she had a renewed sense of time pressing against her.
How long would Mr. Allen put up with her and the kids while she went
to school? What if he got tired of it and left? What if he insisted
she quit school and get a job to pay her share of the expenses? She
didn't like the idea of owing him and couldn't bear the thought of
slipping backward again. So, when it came to her studies, she would
have to be more focused and efficient than she had been about anything
in her life.
'I Had to Make It'
There were certain points in certain years - say from 1996 to 2002 -
when Angela Whitiker didn't yet know that Tupac Shakur had been killed
or that President Bill Clinton had been impeached.
"If it wasn't about nursing or biology or what was on my test Friday,
I wasn't interested," she said. "I blocked everything and everybody
out. I used to be so particular about cleaning the house. I got to the
point where I'd see a shoe, and I'd just kick it over."
She felt she had to work extra hard because she felt so outranked in
the classroom. She endured the stares of the middle-class teacher's
pets who looked down on her for the circuitous route that got her
there. "They were snobs whose moms were nurses, and they knew
everything," she said. "I had to show them that I was somebody, that
because I had five kids, that I made bad decisions, that I didn't have
a father - and so what? - I was determined to show them I can do this.
I had to make it. I couldn't fail."
Whenever test day came, she recalled, she would work herself into such
a state of anxiety that sometimes she had to excuse herself to throw
up. The professor had to go get her out of the bathroom.
"Are you O.K.?" the professor would ask. "You're going to kill
Everybody knew when a test didn't go well. They could see it in her
face, the simultaneous pouting and rolling of the eyes, and hear it in
her voice, the way she snapped at the lowest registers over the
"Mama didn't pass her test today," the first child to notice would say
to the others. "Don't say nothing."
Because she wasn't from a professional family, she brought a kind of
naïveté to school with her. One day in a clinical class, she recalled,
the teacher went around the room asking students how their patients
were doing. When the teacher got to her, Ms. Whitiker thought about
the colostomy bag attached to her patient, and started crying.
"Oh my God," the teacher said. "Did your patient die?"
"No," she said, still sobbing. "But she had this hole in her stomach."
"Well, go on in there and wash your face," the teacher told her.
Soon she was working with cadavers as if they were just another piece
of office equipment, but she didn't know anyone who could give her the
ins and outs of the field or tell her what to expect. "I didn't have
anybody I could go to who had a degree other than Vince," she said. He
went over her papers and marked them up - too much for her liking,
sometimes - and read her papers aloud so she could hear what was wrong
When she made the dean's list, he celebrated. When she failed a test,
he consoled her as best he could.
"Oh baby, you're going to make it," he'd say.
"Oh shut up, you don't understand," she'd shoot back.
In May 2001, she finally finished nursing school at Kennedy-King, one
of the City Colleges of Chicago. For her class picture, she wore her
hair in a flip like Gidget and a nurse's cap that looked like white
dove wings. It was a long way from the teenager in a jheri curl and
Soon she would be driving in the rain to take the nursing boards on
computer No. 12. "It was a step to another life," she would say years
later. "It was a do-or-die type of thing. I thought I was going to
kill myself waiting for the results."
The Test Results
One morning in late 2001, when Ms. Whitiker was alone and the
apartment was uncharacteristically quiet, the mail arrived and, in it,
an envelope from the state boards. In that moment, she came closer
than at any other time of her life to upper-middle-class young people
awaiting word from the Ivy League school of their dreams. The chatter
among her fellow nursing students was that a thin envelope meant you
passed; a thick one, presumably filled with the things you got wrong,
meant you failed. She got a thin envelope.
"My heart just dropped to the floor," she said. She took the envelope
into the apartment and threw it on the bed, afraid to open it, afraid
that, given the disappointments of her life, somehow the grapevine had
been wrong and the thin one meant failure.
She called her mother to get the courage to open it. Soon she was out
in the middle of the hallway. "I passed my boards!" she screamed to
neighbors fumbling for their house keys.
The family took her out to celebrate. They had dinner at Hooters and
bought her a cake. Soon after, she and Mr. Allen agreed it was time
"My daughter was getting to an age where I was trying to tell her to
do right," Ms. Whitiker said of Ishtar, now 17. "I can't tell her to
do right if I'm doing wrong."
They married at Faith Temple Coptic Church on June 7, 2003. She wore
an ivory shift and a long white veil and carried a bouquet of white
carnations. He wore a black tux. It was the groom's first marriage,
the bride's second.
All the kids were there except Willie, who, still on the path he
learned at Robert Taylor, was in jail. The remaining kids were dressed
to their mother's specifications, except Nicholas, who, having by now
declared that he wanted to be a rapper, showed up in pants hanging off
his body and a baseball cap turned backward.
For the family wedding picture, Ms. Whitiker told him to stand in the
back so nobody could see what he had on. She was already becoming
class conscious, aware of appearances and decorum. And so, on this
triumphant day in the family's history, all that is visible of
Nicholas is his head.
Ms. Whitiker finished nursing school as vice president of her class
and with academic awards in biology and pharmacology, but despite her
hard work and potential, the reality of her life was that she could
not afford to go any further than a two-year associate's degree. That
limits her job prospects even in a high-demand field like nursing. She
doesn't have the contacts to get a job at the teaching hospitals in
Chicago where she would get better training and higher pay.
She landed a job at a small inner city hospital on the South Side,
known not for its groundbreaking procedures or training opportunities
but as the hospital where the eight student nurses killed by Richard
Speck in 1966 had worked. It's an unnerving history that is always in
the back of her mind, but she needs the job and the pay is more than
she could ever have imagined back when she was on food stamps.
She has worked high-stress assignments in telemetry - monitoring
cardiac patients - and in the intensive care unit. With all the night
hours she puts in, she made $83,000 last year, more than 90 percent of
all American workers. It is hard work, messy, often thankless. She has
found herself in a pecking order that surprises and frustrates her.
The doctors seem to expect her to work magic on their orders, she
said, and the certified nursing assistants resent her place of
A few years back she might have sympathized with the nursing
assistants. They do what no one else wants to do, attending to the
unpleasant bodily needs of the very ill. There was a time when that
would have been a move up for her. But their envy and resentment only
made her feel more distant. And now, she was showing the same disdain
for them that the middle class might have felt for her in her other
"I'm like, don't be mad at me because I'm a nurse," she said. "If you
want my job, you need to suffer and cry like I did."
She tried to find her bearings in this new class she was in. She
resented the old friends who drank muscatel at the taverns late into
the night and hit her up for money. And yet her past had a way of
catching up with her in unexpected ways. She was out running errands
once when a man recognized her from her days on the street.
"I know you," he said. "You're the one who stole money from me."
She feigned ignorance and walked away, even though, she would later
say, she remembered taking his money and his television set, too, back
when she was on drugs.
She tried hanging out with the nurses from work. But some were
bourgeois and uppity, had a sense of comfort and confidence she did
not possess. At one party she went to, some of them started smoking
marijuana. It was a fun little escape for them, but it took her back
to a place she could not afford to revisit.
"I reached for my purse," she said. "When I got my first paycheck,
that was high enough for me."
Her life was complicated as it was. For one thing she was now the
mother of six (seven, if you counted Zach, her husband's 13-year-old
son, who recently moved in with them). Her youngest, Christopher, had
been born shortly after the uncertain time at Robert Taylor and had
been with her only off and on because of a custody fight between her
and Christopher's father.
Both the fight over Christopher and the fact that he came after a lull
in childbearing when she was a more mature 28 help explain why she is
investing in him in ways she had not had the luxury of doing with her
She now knows how to discipline without using a belt, and the value of
grounding and timeouts. She spends her off time shuttling Christopher
to and from school or to little league practice in her new Chevrolet
sport utility vehicle, an early benefit of her higher paychecks. When
he has a science project, she's on the floor helping sculpt the
volcano with him. She's quick to hug him and expects a kiss when she
drops him off. She says he has become the very embodiment of the fresh
start she was seeking for herself, and onto him she has grafted all
her middle-class hopes.
He reminds her so much of Nicholas -- the same round face and velvet
skin, the same precociousness that she saw as impudence in young
Nicholas when she was barely out of her teens, but now sees as
reflecting her youngest's unlimited potential. While Nicholas went to
a strapped public grade school in a perilous neighborhood, Christopher
is in the gifted program of a school she handpicked on the
middle-class side of town. While Nicholas played a hand-me-down
Nintendo on a television with a busted tube, Christopher plays 3-D
chess on the family's Dell computer.
Christopher is now 10, the same age as Nicholas when he appeared in
The Times, but he talks like one of the sweet, smart-alecky kids on a
network sitcom rather than a streetwise man-child who's seen too much
Asked what it means to be in the gifted program, he had a ready
answer. "It means I'm smarter than the other kids," he said without
flinching. At that age, Nicholas's conversations were about running
Demands and Responsibilities
At first, nursing was like hitting the lottery. She was making enough
for the family to move into a four-bedroom apartment in a prewar
building overlooking Lake Michigan. It has crown molding, a marble
fireplace and grander rooms than they have furniture for. She had a
contractor paint the rooms the colors of sweet peas and corn on the
cob. She bought a mahogany king-size bed, propping it high with
pillows for herself and her husband, and bunk beds for the kids.
But she has found herself alone. She is making more money than anybody
she knows. And come payday, everybody needs something, and not just
the kids. Relatives need gas money, friends could use help with the
rent. Even her patients, on hard times themselves, have their hands
"You got some money to lend me?" one of them, an older woman whose
telephone had just been cut off, asked her. "You get your check yet?"
Suddenly, she is the successful star in her universe who is supposed
to cover the cost of the family reunion, give career advice to the
nieces and nephews, show up for their basketball games, float a loan
to whoever needs it. After all, she's making $83,000 a year.
She is making more than her police detective husband and has found
herself tiptoeing around his ego and expectations. They have tried
different ways of dividing the bills, at one point splitting the
$1,475 rent and sharing the utilities, at another point, one paying
the rent and the other the utilities. But after Medicare and Social
Security deductions and her share of the household obligations,
groceries for a family of seven, her $500 monthly car payment, the
assorted expenses that come with three teenagers, loans to relatives
who think she makes a fortune and the debt left over from her previous
life, she finds that there is often little left over at month's end,
and most months she's still in the hole.
She exists in an in-between place, middle class on paper but squeezed
in reality. Take her car, for instance. It's a 2002 two-door Blazer
that cost $29,000. She really needed the bigger four-door, just so
everybody could easily get in. But that would have cost an extra
$5,000, so everybody crams into the two-door. Insufficient though it
is, it still comes at a high price. She pays 17 percent interest on
the car loan - with $13,000 remaining - because of bad credit from her
previous life, when sometimes the choice was whether to eat or pay the
The kids asked her the other day if she was getting a new car. "No,"
she said, "you can pop the seat and duck your head and get in like
But she winces every time Christopher and Zach have to fold themselves
into the size of a bag of groceries to fit into the rear storage
compartment. She says she wants a bigger car like a Lincoln Navigator,
but with gas so high she shudders at what it would cost to fill the
tank, and she knows she can't afford a new car anyway.
So despite her income, Saks and Macy's are somebody else's world.
Instead, she frequents the places she did in her previous life. She
still shops at the dollar stores in Englewood, her old down-and-out
neighborhood. On a recent trip to Louisiana for her family reunion she
watched every nickel and checked her balance at the automated teller
machine several times a day.
She has become keenly aware that what middle-class comforts she does
enjoy are built on uncertain scaffolding. First, her status requires
two paychecks and the stability and backup she gets from being
married. It requires that she work the higher-paying 12-hour night
shifts that keep her away from her family for long stretches and leave
her tired and irritable when she's with them.
It requires that Mr. Allen work extra hours as security at an
elementary school, which leaves the two of them with little
overlapping time to reinforce the strong marriage they need to stay
where they are.
Stretching Every Dollar
Her job and paycheck say she's middle class, but what does that mean?
She said that when she was on the outside looking in, she never
imagined it would mean working three and a half years without a
vacation or having an empty dining room waiting for a table and
chairs. It never would have occurred to her that she would be working
this hard and still have to choose between paying the phone bill and
paying for her daughter Ishtar's prom.
She exhibits a mounting awareness of just how far her money will and
will not go, and of how much hard work each dollar represents and how
carefully she must protect it because any loss means she has to work
that much harder.
So she drops what she's doing when she sees a spot on the sofa because
it cost four figures and it's not paid for yet. She buys in bulk and
has to watch out for relatives wanting to shop in her kitchen.
"I caught my aunt going into my pantry getting her some soap," she
said. "I told her, 'That's Dove!' "
For Ms. Whitiker, being middle class has meant working upside-down
hours for so long that she's started to greet people on the street
with "Have a good evening!" It means taking on family members as
unofficial patients with their edema and diabetes. "When you're the
only nurse in the family they think you're a doctor," she says. "Mama
calls me. Mama has her friends calling me."
She has no choice but to keep up the pace because she wants to get
vested in the retirement plan at the hospital. She has 18 months to
go. She wants to open up a Roth retirement account, but can't seem to
save enough. She wants to go back to school to get a bachelor's
degree, but has neither the time nor the money.
"I feel like every corner of my body is being stretched," she said the
More than anything, Ms. Whitiker wants to buy a house. Sometimes she
drives by her dream house on Greenwood in the comfortably middle-class
neighborhood of Chatham. It's yellow brick with a spiral staircase and
a two-story foyer and vertical blinds. But she's having trouble saving
anything toward that house or any other. The bad credit from her
previous life still haunts her. Where she wants to live, they can't
afford. And where they could afford, she doesn't dare live.
"I have to live in a decent neighborhood," she said. "I can't walk
around the projects in my nursing uniform. They would try to take
everything I got. And my husband - he's arrested half the people in
Englewood. We're in danger."
Ms. Whitiker's ideal of middle-class perfection, with well-educated,
smartly groomed kids gathered around a big middle-class dining room
table, has two missing pieces: Nicholas and Willie. Her success came
too late to benefit them. They were already on a road she was unable
to steer them from. Nicholas dropped out of school in the 11th grade
and has been on and off the streets ever since. Willie, ever the
follower looking up to Nicholas, was right behind.
At 22, Nicholas is a burdened soul who saw too much too soon. His
front tooth is broken from a fight he got into trying to protect
Willie on the streets. His car has bullet holes from a drive-by
shooting. He knows what it's like to have a pistol jammed into your
chin, or to be a 12-year-old making $50 from neighborhood drug dealers
for sitting on a hydrant and calling out "Five-O!" - street slang for
the police. And worse.
"I could be dead right now," said Nicholas, his chiseled features
weary, water welling in his eyes. "I should be dead. I hurt so many
people. I hurt myself."
There were times when Mr. Allen, on patrol and by then Nicholas's
putative stepfather, would catch him on the street and write up a
summons but then let him go. But Nicholas finally got caught and spent
about six weeks in jail in 2002 for stealing two coats from a
Marshall's store in the suburbs and for fighting the police when they
tried to arrest him, a consequence, his mother believes, of unresolved
"anger issues" from the chaos of his childhood. She wishes she could
go back and do some things differently. She thinks he needs to get
into anger management and get into school to put his quick mind to
For now, he lives in a walk-up apartment in the suburbs with the
mother of the second of his three children; she's a housekeeper at the
local Y.M.C.A. He has worked part-time as a stock clerk, but he is
pinning his hopes on his rap music, which his exasperated mother
admits is pretty good. He closes his eyes with hands quivering and
begins one of his songs: "Going to change my ways," he sings in a near
whisper. "Lord have mercy on me."
Willie has become a sturdily built young man with a movie star smile
and a precisely trimmed goatee. Like Nicholas, he has worked
low-paying service jobs when he has worked. He has two children, and a
more serious criminal record that includes a felony drug conviction
for selling near a schoolyard. "I was doing some things I shouldn't
have been doing," Willie said, still sweet-faced at 21.
Ms. Whitiker's two older sons are living reminders of the world she
wants to put behind her. She lives in constant fear of what may happen
"I go to work," she said wearily, "and I don't know when I'm going to
get that call, that your son is dead or in jail again."
It was soon after she began working as a nurse that she got the call
she had been dreading. She was in the intensive care unit bandaging a
patient when she was called to the phone. Willie had been shot. It was
not clear where he had been shot or how seriously hurt he was, or if
he was conscious or would live.
She dropped everything. It turned out he had been shot twice in the
leg. She found it suspicious that he was shot on a well-known South
Side drug corner that had been contested by rival dealers. But she
rushed in to save her son.
"It almost killed me," she said. "I almost had a nervous breakdown.
I'm at work bandaging up patients, and I get the call that he's been
shot. He said he was robbed. So I took him in and took care of his
Last summer, she got another call. She was at home in bed this time.
"Your son Willie's been shot," said the slurred, panicked voice on the
It was a call from one of Willie's acquaintances from the very corner
where Willie had been shot the first time.
"They were so ghetto," Ms. Whitiker recalled with exasperation. "They
were arguing over the phone about what they should do."
She thought quickly. The nurse in her kicked into gear.
"Where was he shot?" she asked.
"In the leg," came the answer.
"Is he breathing?"
She knew then that he would live.
"So I hung up and turned over and went to sleep," she recalled later.
"I didn't even tell my family."
In the days and weeks that followed Willie's shooting, Ms. Whitiker
made perhaps the most painful decision a mother could make in order to
keep her family on the straight and narrow. She has performed a kind
of emergency triage, banishing the infected to save the well.
She didn't visit Willie in the hospital, didn't take him home to tend
him as she had the first time. She made it clear that neither he nor
Nicholas was welcome until they got themselves together, got their
high school equivalency diplomas and started taking care of their
kids. She has big plans for the younger ones: graduations, proms,
college, professions. She doesn't want them getting shot like Willie.
"I told him you can't bring that here," she said. "How are his
brothers supposed to feel? They're trying to do right and their
brother is in the other room with a gunshot wound. I don't want him
bringing that to the house and spreading it to the others. The other
boys are on the right path, and I want it to stay that way."
Her plan appears to be working. The younger children rarely speak of
Nicholas and Willie. When Willie showed up at the apartment one
afternoon, Ishtar knew to alert her mother on her cellphone.
"Willie's here," Ishtar said. "What you want me to do?"
Everyone knows about the quarantine, even if it's breached. When
Nicholas's name comes up, there's an awkward silence and a looking
Pushing Higher Goals
Thursday was a big day for the family. It was the day Ishtar walked
across the stage and became the first of Ms. Whitiker's children to
get a high school diploma. It caused quite a flurry in a family with a
history of more births than graduations. After the ceremony, Ms.
Whitiker's sister, Michelle, took Ishtar's yellow mortarboard and
said, good-naturedly: "Let me try this on. Which way does it go? They
don't give you these when you get your G.E.D."
Everyone was there, except Willie, who was looking for work in
Milwaukee, and Nicholas, who was in the public library reading up on
contracts and music royalties to get a record deal. The day put Ms.
Whitiker in a class quandary even as she went without a telephone to
pay for the commencement and the prom.
While proud of Ishtar, who made it to the prom after all, Ms. Whitiker
is torn between making a big deal of graduation and keeping it in
perspective. "I'm not going to do like these other mothers and brag
about, 'My baby graduated from high school!' " she said the other day.
"I'm not going to say that's good. No, that's just the beginning. I
want her to go to college and have a profession. She asked me, 'What
age do you think I should have sex?' I said, 'I think about 30.' "
Ms. Whitiker has made no attempt to hide her displeasure over Ishtar's
wanting to join the Navy - not only because her daughter could be
deployed to the Middle East but also because it does not fit the
middle-class ideal Ms. Whitiker now has for her children. She sees
Ishtar going into law.
She is nudging 14-year-old John, who brings home A's, is a linebacker
on the football squad and a squad leader in the Reserve Officers
Training Corps, to consider becoming a doctor. John listens and
applies himself but says he wants to go into the Army first. Before
she became a nurse, the military might have been seen as a step up for
her kids. Now she sees it as a detour from what they really should be
"I try to talk to my kids to go into a profession," she said. "If
you're certified and licensed, nobody can take that away from you."
To Nicholas and Willie, her advice is very different. "Can't you see
your life is going down the drain, and you're the only one who can
save it?" she asks to shrugging shoulders. "You want a quick way out.
There is no quick way out. I tried that. It doesn't work."
But she still has hope. "I'm a late bloomer," she says, "and I know
it's not too late for them."
What has kept Ms. Whitiker going is the knowledge that there are
certain things no one can ever take away, that certain pieces of paper
really do matter. That is why the letter she was afraid to open, the
one announcing she had passed her nursing boards - it's folded up,
crinkled in her wallet beneath a picture of her husband and her A.T.M.
card. The college diploma that it took her eight years to earn - her
husband keeps that in his bedroom drawer, as if it is as much his as
But as their second anniversary approached, the balancing act that
plays out every day of their lives came down to the more immediate
questions of getting by. Will they have a telephone this week or will
Ishtar go to the prom? Will Ms. Whitiker be able to cut back her hours
at the hospital and spend more time with her family? Can she work days
instead of nights? Will she be able to find a home she can afford
instead of spending five figures in rent each year?
Recently, she took a second job as a visiting nurse, checking in on
elderly patients on the South Side during the day. It allows her to
have more control over her schedule and work fewer nights at the
hospital. The earnings potential is uncertain, and she has no health
benefits under this new part-time arrangement, relying instead on her
husband's. But a burden has been lifted for now.
So here she is on a late spring afternoon in her S.U.V. running
errands in the old neighborhood. She has always felt safest with the
familiar. She drops off some clothes at the dry cleaners where her
sister's former husband's sister works. She buys a duffle bag at a
dollar store that hired her aunt to fill in. She checks in on the
niece who just had the Caesarean. "How's the baby?" she asks. "You
know I want to come up and give her some sugar."
Her cellphone rings.
"That's the kids," she said. She answers immediately, confident that,
whatever bills are waiting in the mailbox, she's rich in the one thing
"Family is like the most important thing in life," Ms. Whitiker said.
"Without family, I don't even see a purpose."
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