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College Student Recalls High School Homelessness

John Horan was dean at the charter school where Tierra Jackson was a struggling student. Part of the reason she struggled: Jackson was homeless. (StoryCorps)

When Tierra Jackson was in high school, she was struggling. She kept getting yelled at for being late to school.

What most of her teachers and administrators didn't know was the reason for her tardiness: Jackson was homeless. Her mother was in and out of prison. She and her brother were living with her aunt and cousins. All seven of them shared a single room in one of Chicago's homeless shelters, a long bus ride from her school.

"As if high school is not hard enough itself, you know, the hour-and-a-half bus ride, it was kind of exhausting," Jackson told John Horan, who recorded an interview with her at StoryCorps. Horan was dean of the charter school she attended for high school.

Even though Jackson was disciplined for being late, Jackson says she didn't want to tell anyone at the school the reason why.

"I was embarrassed. I was 14, and I was homeless," Jackson says. "I didn't want people to look at me like, oh, you know, she needs charity."

But Jackson needed supplies for school, and her family didn't have the money for them, so her aunt wrote notes for Jackson to bring to school explaining the situation. She found out that it wasn't so bad to ask for help.

"I think the first teacher I gave the note to came to school with this bag of things for me," Jackson says. "And I didn't know how to accept it. But after that, she never treated me differently, and I think that's one of the things I appreciated. I knew that I'm intelligent, you know. I have a brain with thoughts that matter."

Today, Jackson is a junior at Roosevelt University, where she is majoring in international studies with a minor in economics. Life hasn't exactly gotten easier: In addition to school, Jackson works two jobs, at a restaurant and a financial management company, and takes care of her brother and her mother.

Jackson says she rarely has the time to go out because she is so busy. When she finishes helping her brother with his homework, she does her own. On the day of her interview, she said she was exhausted from staying up all night studying.

"I wanted to go to bed so bad, but I can't because I have to get A's," Jackson says. "I have to do well in school. It's the only thing that I have that can get me out.

"There's so many people who could, you know, be the next Bill Gates and change the world. But because they're poor or they're living in poverty, they're instantly written off because no one thinks they'll make it. I just want to make it."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Students in Chicago are back in class after a strike kept them home from their first days of school. Today on StoryCorps, we'll hear from a young woman who came up through the Chicago school system. Tierra Jackson struggled through her school years. She's 23 now, but as a teenager, she enrolled in a charter school where John Horan was the dean. They say down together at StoryCorps to talk about what Tierra's life was like when they first met.

TIERRA JACKSON: My mother wasn't really around when my brother and I were young. She was in prison a lot, so I was with my aunt and her kids and my brother, about seven of us. We shared a room in one of the city's homeless shelters. As if high school is not hard enough itself, you know, the hour-and-a-half bus ride, it was kind of exhausting.

JOHN HORAN: And most people didn't know this, and we kept yelling at you for being late.

JACKSON: I was embarrassed. I was 14, and I was homeless. I didn't want people to look at me like, oh, you know, she needs charity. We have to take care of her. But there were things that I needed for my classes, and I was just like, we don't have money for this stuff. I went to my aunt, and I remember she sent me to school with notes that explained the situation. I think the first teacher I gave the note to came to school with this bag of things for me, and I didn't know how to accept it.

But after that, she never treated me differently, and I think that's one of the things I appreciated. I knew that I'm intelligent, you know. I have a brain with thoughts that matter.

HORAN: You're working your way through college with the extra burden of caring for your brother and caring for your mom.

JACKSON: I work part time for a financial management company. I go to school, and I help my brother with his homework. I try to do my homework. I don't really go out much, you know. I was so tired today. I stayed up all night studying. I wanted to go to bed so bad, but I can't because I have to get A's. I have to do well in school. It's the only thing that I have that can get me out. There's so many people who could, you know, be the next Bill Gates and change the world. But because they're poor or they're living in poverty, they're instantly written off because no one thinks they'll make it. I just want to make it.

MONTAGNE: That's Tierra Jackson with John Horan at StoryCorps in Chicago. Horan is now president of North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School, and Jackson is a junior at Roosevelt University. Their story will be archived, along with the other StoryCorps interviews at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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