[Paleopsych] NYT: (Class 11) Angela Whitiker's Climb

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Angela Whitiker's Climb


    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
    picking butterbeans.

    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 [3]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
    [4]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
    straighter course.

    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
    littlest thing.

    "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
    with them.

    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
    too-tight jeans.

    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
    they married.

    "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.

    High-Stress Work

    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
    older kids.

    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
    too soon.

    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
    from bullets.

    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
    light bill.

    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
    everybody else."

    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
    other day.

    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."

    Missing Pieces

    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
    good use.

    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
    to them.

    "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."

    Real Riches

    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
    that matters.

    "Family is like the most important thing in life," Ms. Whitiker said.
    "Without family, I don't even see a purpose."


    3. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/national/19930404children.pdf

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