Walks With Hope

SHE speaks so softly that sometimes I have to lean forward to hear her words, to listen carefully and understand the sadness and hope that motivates her.Chris is 20 years old, obviously bright and determined behind an initial shyness. She lives on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin where Chippewas have lived since the early 1700s. We are seated in the empty science lab of the small Ojibwa Community College among pine trees, talking about her desire to graduate. Behind us an aquarium bubbles. Chris knows she has a long road ahead of her because of what has happened. It's difficult to share the details, but she wants other young women to know. Her lovely face and easy smile hide her experience. "I've always had this dream that I would be in some large corporation," she says, "wearing high heels, a three-piece skirt suit and carrying a briefcase." Accounting, math, algebra; Chris was quick in high school with numbers. But high school became a major challenge. "I had my first baby when I was 16," she says softly. "It's sad to say, but I did, and now I have three." Her head tilts up. She lives on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). While she attends classes, her three children are at the day-care center on the reservation. Her boyfriend of six years works for the Wisconsin Conservation Corps. "It's not easy with three kids," she says, pausing often between thoughts, the aquarium filling the silence. "The thing I hate about it is that I can't really do my best; with three kids it's either I don't have the time or I can't concentrate on my homework. But I keep going. Sometimes I don't want to come to class because I'm too tired, then I think, what am I doing? I don't have to go to college; I'm going because I want to." Chris attended high school in nearby Hayward and did well academically. The school was filled with non-Indians. "Most of my friends from high school are in college too," she says. "But most of my Indian friends are still drinking and having babies. "When I was in high school I used to party with my friends and still get A's. I'd wind up drinking and get in trouble. My Dad would ground me for a month, and as soon as I'd get off I'd go out and get drunk again. "Now my 16-year-old sister is starting to slump in high school; her grades are dropping, and she tells me she can't do the work, but I know she can. She's starting to party and hang around and I tell her not to follow in my footsteps. "There was a time when she used to look up to me because I was doing well in school; then when I started drinking and running away, she wrote me a Valentine card. At the bottom it said, 'I used to look up to you, but now I don't.' She signed it with love. The long talks we have now are mainly about boys." Chris's mother and father are divorced. "My sister still lives with my Dad," she says. "He's very strict. I should have listened to him a long time ago; I wouldn't have three kids today if I had. I respect him now. He's a big help to me, and I keep telling my sister that when you're 18 and on your own you're going to see what I mean; you just don't see it now. I tell her, look where I am. You don't want to be where I am." She gestures toward the window as if there is something out there to blame. "On the reservation there's really not much for kids to do," she says. "We used to have a roller rink and they turned that into a bingo hall." What the Ojibwa Community College provides for women on the reservation is more than a second chance. "This is a very supportive place," says Chris. "The registrar, Ann Marie Penzkover, has really helped me. I've got a fresh start. ... This will be my fifth semester and I'm averaging about 20 credits each semester. I realize you can't get very far with just a two-year degree, so I plan to go to [a nearby college] and a get a degree in business administration." Is her boyfriend supportive of her effort? "Well, he respects it," she says after a long pause. "He wants me to graduate." And her children? The aquarium bubbles for a few seconds; then she smiles and says, "My oldest child is four. He says, 'Mommy, you've got to go to school too?' "

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