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The Inequalities

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At a recent meeting concerning foster youth, I met a young woman, Shamir. Waif-like, with immaculately coiffed hair, she clicked her long nails nervously on the table.

Abandoned as a toddler, she passed through dozens of foster homes before ending up homeless in Vegas where she worked as a "dancer". She returned home with a young baby, but no one, she found, would take her. That's when she decided she would go to college. She dreamt of opening a shelter for foster youth with children.

Right now, she said fiercely, the only thing keeping her from her goal was an Algebra class that she'd failed twice. "I got this thing with math," she said.

By any standard, foster kids perform abysmally. Abandoned, they find it notoriously hard to trust the world. These are the throw-away kids who've grown accustomed to being failed by the system. More than half end up homeless or exploited.

At break, I asked Shamir if she would like some help. Later, we sat with her seven-year old boy, who demanded her attention. He needed help with homework. He was hungry. Someone at school had taken his lunch.


Shamir struggled with equations that involved inequalities. She didn't understand why if you divide by a negative number the equation shifted. You have to flip the sign for the equation to remain true. I struggled to explain why this was so. Shamir, though, had little time for it. She just needed to make it through the next test. So I gave her simple rules, she tried some problems, and they seemed to work. She smiled with relief.

"Now that's good," she said. "I like it."

But then her phone rang. "Is she okay?" she asked abruptly. "Are they still in lockdown? Did they get her out?" She left the table.

Her boy looked up. "My school was in lockdown three times last month," he said. Shamir returned, clearly shaken.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm okay," she said.

"Are you ready?"

"Yeah," she said. "I'm ready."

"Are you ready for the inequalities?" I asked.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while working on a memoir about the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.

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