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Wednesday, May 28, 2008 06:58 pm

Least likely to succeed

Before she could graduate from high school, Chevonne Watson had to survive the school of hard knocks

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Chevonne Watson with her daughters Justice, 7, and Promise, 2

Chevonne Watson walks from the Lawrence Adult Education Center to her rent-subsidized apartment three miles east in Poplar Place because she can’t afford bus fare. For her daughters’ frequent doctor appointments, she pushes 2-year-old Promise in a stroller while 7-year-old Justice makes it on foot from Poplar the three miles west to Memorial Medical Center. When they go grocery shopping, Chevonne has to tell Justice that store-brand green beans taste the same as the fancy French-cut variety and convince Promise that 30 diapers for $5.99 are much cooler than 20 Pull-Ups for $11.99. Living on $276 per month, this little family has to budget to buy garbage bags.
So when 27-year-old Chevonne enrolled in Lawrence for the third time, it only made sense that her goal was a high-school diploma rather than a GED, because the General Educational Development test costs $35 but the diploma is free. For once, however, money wasn’t the main motive. Chevonne had come within one semester of graduating a decade earlier but had instead dropped out of Lanphier High School. “I figured that since I was too stubborn to stay in school, I deserve the punishment of sitting in class every day to get my high-school diploma,” she says. “To be honest, it’s a punishment that I placed on myself. How stupid was I to not do one semester’s worth of school?”
Chevonne owns up to her mistakes. Her life story — brief but action-packed — has no shortage of melodramatic scenes in which she’s run away, dropped out, or gotten herself kicked out of this foster-care facility or that homeless shelter after losing control of her temper. However, many of her problems have been the result of forces beyond her control, such as a mother whose chemical dependency wreaked havoc on Chevonne’s childhood. Between herself and her kids, Chevonne has a litany of money problems, medical issues, mental illnesses, and profound heartbreaks that anyone else might use as a reasonable excuse to surrender to failure. Despite the overwhelming odds, she has chosen to succeed.
Barbara Rochelle remembers when she first met Chevonne, almost eight years ago, when Chevonne was living at the Inner City Mission with her then-newborn daughter Justice. As the family literacy specialist for the Lawrence Adult Education Center, Rochelle worked in partnership with the shelter to provide parenting classes and other services. She tested Chevonne and found that she was highly intelligent but depressed. “She was full of ‘can’t,’ ” Rochelle says. “Her whole thing was ‘Can’t, can’t, can’t.’ She was the most ‘can’t’ person I’ve ever met.”
Rochelle scheduled a volunteer to tutor Chevonne — an arrangement that lasted only a few months. After that, Rochelle didn’t see Chevonne for several years. She reappeared at the Inner City Mission in 2006, homeless and pregnant again. This time, instead of being full of “can’t,” Chevonne exuded anger. “We would say things [in parenting class] and she would mumble under her breath. She was, like, ‘Nope, I’m not going to.’ She was really hard to deal with, because she would disrupt everything,” Rochelle says. “She was clowning all the time. Clowning is her modus operandi. It’s how she protects herself from her feelings.”
One evening Chevonne’s behavior became so distracting that Rochelle asked her to move to the back of the room. Chevonne has no memory of that incident but doesn’t dispute it. “That sounds like me,” she agrees. “I’ve been slowly but surely changing.”
On the last night of class, after the other parents had left, Rochelle noticed Chevonne lingering in the classroom. When Rochelle approached her, Chevonne broke down in tears and asked for help to become a better mom. Rochelle says that occasion marked a turning point in Chevonne’s life.
Chevonne tries on her cap and gown in the library at Lawrence Adult Education Center.
“Something happened that night. It was like her ears opened,” Rochelle says. “A lot of things had been building up,” Chevonne says. “I’d been trying so hard to be the mom that my mom never was, but no matter what I did I felt like I was failing.

Life was wonderful for the first few years, Chevonne says. She remembers going to church, taking dance classes, having a traditional two-parent household — “everything a little kid could want in a family.” Then, when she was about 8 years old, her stepfather died of kidney failure and her mother sought solace in alcohol and crack cocaine. “That’s when life just turned into a horror movie,” Chevonne says. As the oldest child, she tried to take care of her two younger brothers. Within a few years, her mother had another baby for Chevonne to tend. “She came home from the hospital and said, ‘Here’s your little brother!’ that I didn’t want, because I already had two brothers and I wanted a sister,” Chevonne says. “Then she was gone for like a week and a half, so I was stuck at home with a newborn baby.”
The chaotic situation eventually attracted the attention of the Division of Children and Family Services. At home with her youngest brother, playing chase, she “accidentally slammed his finger” in the bathroom door, injuring him so badly that his thumbnail broke off. A neighbor took Chevonne and her brother to a hospital emergency department, where staff alerted the child-protective agency. Chevonne was placed in foster care. But as relieved as she was to be away from the stress of her mother’s problems, the years of playing the role of mom didn’t help her fit into a more normal environment. “My big thing was ‘My mother’s not going to tell me what to do, so you’re not gonna tell me what to do. I’ve been grown since I was 8 years old!’ ”
How many different foster homes did she try? Chevonne doesn’t know, because she never counted. “I was very adamant about not being in them,” she says.
A few weeks before her 14th birthday, Chevonne — living in a DCFS group home at the time — got a funny feeling in her tummy, like something moving around inside her. She alerted a staff member, who didn’t seem surprised.
“She was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been suspecting you were pregnant for a while now.’ I said, ‘What? How?’ Because my mother never told me that, you know, having sex leads to having babies,” Chevonne says. Terrified at the thought of giving birth, she telephoned her mother, who was incarcerated at the time, hoping for some comfort or advice. Instead, Chevonne says, her mother just whooped and yelled down the hallway to her fellow inmates, “My baby’s having a baby!”
“She could have at least cussed me out or something and told me it’s going to be OK,” Chevonne says. “I didn’t get none of that from her. I got it from the counselors.”
When her son, James, was born, Chevonne suffered postpartum depression and had moments in which she confused her baby with her youngest brother. Chevonne is clinically depressed and has also been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Over the next couple of years, her life stayed in turmoil as she and James were sent home to live with her mother, then sent to various other foster homes, some separately and some together. In the midst of that drama, schoolwork wasn’t a priority. Chevonne estimates that she attended a half-dozen different schools during ninth grade, moving from one foster home to another, running away, trying to visit James. Ultimately, when she was 16, she lost her parental rights, and James was legally adopted by one of Chevonne’s foster mothers.
When Chevonne talks about losing her son, her emotions still swing from one extreme to another. One moment she speaks as the confused child she was then, the next as the more mature mom she is now.
“He was adopted out because I wasn’t going to be a good mom, because my mom wasn’t a good mom — according to the courts. Now that I’m older and look back, it was a whole lot of crap,” she says. But as she recounts her situation at the time, she realizes: “I probably wasn’t even in the right mind to be dealing with a kid, with all the issues I was going through.”
Shortly before her 18th birthday, Chevonne was sent back to her mother’s care — the last place she wanted to be. She says she did everything she could to stay away, spending her days at school, her nights working at McDonald’s, and her weekends at the bingo hall, just to avoid being in her mother’s home. She was all set to graduate from high school — she even had her senior portrait taken — when her guidance counselor told her that she was 4.5 credits shy. “So, me being me, I just dropped out,” she says. She got pregnant again, fled her mother’s house, and was living in a homeless shelter when her first daughter was born. The baby’s name came to Chevonne in a moment of good-humored desperation. “I was thinking of normal names, and then one day, I thought ‘Justice — you know, I need some of that,’ ” Chevonne says. “I didn’t have none, I needed some, and she was the cure, I guess.”
Over the next few years, Chevonne juggled fast-food jobs while trying to maintain child care and cheap housing. Whenever she lost one of those items, they would end up back at the Inner City Mission, though her attitude began to change. “They offer all these classes, things that get you on your feet,” she says. She worked double shifts at Burger King, enrolled in a GED program, and, for a while, lived in an apartment on the campus of University of Illinois at Springfield. But her path to success kept veering off on unexpected detours. Twice she almost lost Justice to DCFS — once as a result of her tenuous lifestyle and later because Justice’s behavior attracted scrutiny (she is now receiving treatment for attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and oppositional defiant disorder). Chevonne’s next pregnancy was accompanied by such severe hyperemesis gravidarum (an extreme form of morning sickness) that she was forced to quit work, quit school, and returned to the mission. Promise was born prematurely and had her own list of ailments — asthma, seizures, and a case of diarrhea that lasted five months. Chevonne’s reunion with the Lawrence Center’s Barbara Rochelle was a pleasant surprise. Chevonne remembers Rochelle’s reaction to seeing her there as pragmatic rather than judgmental. “She didn’t put me down because I was back at the mission. She didn’t put me down because I had another baby with no daddy around. She didn’t care about all that. To her, it was just ‘What steps do we need to take to help you get out of this shelter?’
“And my biggest top thing was: I need my high-school diploma. I need it because all the jobs I want [require] a high-school diploma,” Chevonne says.

Once her mind was made up, she accomplished her goal. With Rochelle’s help, Chevonne got an apartment and found daycare for Promise. She immersed herself in all the services Lawrence’s family literacy program had to offer — parenting classes, field trips, instruction in how to use the public library. After she completed her high-school courses she took business classes, earning certificates in data entry, Internet use, and medical terminology (she wants a job as a medical assistant). She ticks off the names of teachers she loves — teachers the other kids complain are too strict — and says she loves everything about Lawrence. “The only thing I don’t love about Lawrence is lunch, because that’s $2.25 that I don’t have,” she says. What she loves most is Rochelle, who never stopped believing in her. “I call her Mom. She’s like the mom I didn’t have,” Chevonne says. “She is always there to make sure that I have what I need — ‘Do you have laundry soap? Does the baby need Pull-Ups? Do you need bus tokens?’ ”
The admiration is mutual. Rochelle praises Chevonne’s parenting skills as “greatly improved,” her demeanor as “a delight to be around,” and her future as unlimited. “She has very strong leadership ability,” Rochelle says, “and that’s going to translate to success in life.”
Chevone will graduate June 6.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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