Gemini and her 5-year-old son are waiting for me outside the dentists’ office, beside the street-level deli. Gemini flashes a smile, tentative at first, as I approach. But then it spreads across her face, until the now-perfect set of teeth isn’t what you’d notice. It’s the quiet glow she’s giving off, now that her wish has come true.
Gemini’s son waited in the reception area while the dentist implanted his mom’s new front tooth. The nurses will tell me, later, that he entertained them with karate kicks and other kung-fu displays while waiting for Gemini. They’ll also tell me tears welled up in her eyes several times during the procedure. As they remember those moments, they seem on the verge of tearing up as well.
No one’s wiping away tears now, though; we’re too busy eating ice cream in the deli. “Today is a very happy day,” Gemini’s son pronounces before diving into his bowl. He repeats this fact over and over while Gemini eats in small bites and stumbles to articulate her feelings about her transformed smile.
She can talk about everything else more easily, though, and what she says confirms that moving into her aunt’s house was the right choice. The night before, she and her former housemates got into an argument that turned rough. This time, she had a quieter place to which she could escape. A place her son was sleeping, safe and sound, while she was out. She’s still attending a Bible-study group, turning in her class assignments on time, and saying no to bad habits of her past. “Everything’s going good since I went cold turkey,” she tells me.
“I like cold turkey,” her son chimes in. “And pigs’ feet.”
Her cell phone rings. It’s her uncle, asking how her new tooth looks. This will be the first of many such calls. “Everyone luvs it,” she’ll text me at 1:40 the following morning. But, for the moment, there’s no more time for reflection or calls. Gemini needs to reach her son’s school in time to collect his report card and talk with his teacher, before tackling her own homework. They are gone in a flurry of karate kicks and, above all else, smiles.
Back alongside the Anacostia River, the new interim executive director is putting the incoming ECC members through their paces. These young people have completed a seven-day sink-or-swim program and are now in the middle of a 30-day preorientation. All this preliminary exposure gives the ECC staff and the corps candidates a sense for each other and the work. Last year’s preorientation lasted fewer days, and the longer exposure may be warranted. Of the 24 who ultimately made the cut for the 2007–2008 year, only 12 have completed, or are on track to complete, the hours and receive college-scholarship funds. Gemini and Little D fall into the “on the track” group.
As new recruits cut trails and wade in the water at the river’s edge, I can’t help but think of the three recruits who first told me of the heat, the mud-stained pants, and the joy of cutting trails last July. Charles, who couldn’t stop staring at James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain the day we met. Matthew, who feared time on the district’s dead streets more than anything else. Elaya, who loved to show us how she had swung the ax while cutting trails. I try again to reach Elaya through her school, but have no luck. I find Matthew chatting online, but can’t engage him in virtual conversation. Three of the five numbers I have for Charles have been permanently or temporarily disconnected. Calls to the others go unanswered.
The following week, Little D loses her temper at work and walks out four days shy of finishing. On Father’s Day, Gemini and I take her son and Little D’s 7-year-old sister of “Crank That Soulja Boy” dance-contest fame to the zoo. Little D doesn’t join. I try, but can’t glean any real details, about why she snapped and where she is, from Gemini. She’s busy calling to thank the father figures in her life who’ve been there for her. At least five calls are placed while her son tells me more Thomas the Train tales and the 7-year-old names her favorite superheroes. When the chatter dies for a second, I look beyond them for Gemini and realize we’ve lost her.
I turn and see Gemini standing in a swarm of families, cell phone to her ear and a smile on her face. We three wait, hand in hand. Then I realize this may be the only break Gemini’s gotten all weekend, and I steer the kids toward the gorilla house. She’ll catch up with us soon, I assure them.
The next week, I try to reach Little D again. She’s still not returned to the ECC. Gemini says she’s tried to convince her to finish the program, but that she can’t do much more for now. “I’ve got to stay focused on moving myself forward,” she tells me. Her voice holds great energy. She’s sidestepping friends and ways that used to slow her down. She’s looking forward to an upcoming camping trip with the new ECC recruits.
Someone finally answers Little D’s phone. It’s 1 o’clock on a Wednesday and she’s still asleep. She promises to meet me the next night and tell me what’s going on. But, when the time rolls around and I call to nail down the place, Little D’s out, her mother doesn’t know anything of the meeting, and Little D never returns the call.
News of Elaya reaches me. She’s dropped out of college. A pharmacy clerking position has led to an assistant-manager role, and she’s decided to focus on that and on saving money. I remember, from late December, her ecstatic voice and her dancing on the bus when she won a college scholarship. I also remember the heavy bag that constituted her “house” for so many months. She’s now living in her own apartment and holding a job. Though several urge her to return to college, she is probably more stable now than she’s been since graduating from high school last June.
Little D quietly returns to the ECC and completes her hours. No one presses her too hard for an explanation. A corps member wanting to return and finish what they’ve started is usually given room to do so. As for why she walked out of work midmonth and almost threw away everything she’d worked for, Little D treats it like no big deal. “I was in the middle of moving and my phone had been cut off. I was mad [with some people] and was going through a lot of stuff.” I remind her she told me last year she’d never finished anything and was determined to finish this. She starts counting back through the months and then laughs. “I’ve been here 11 months?! That’s crazy!”
When she gets past this giggling fit, she tells it hasn’t been all crazy or bad. Going on trips with the ECC and meeting new people marked the highlights of her ECC experience. On the spring trip to Memphis, she heard Tupac Shakur’s mother speak about her life experience and connected with the message, “She was down to earth, like my mom, so I could relate.” If Little D could change anything about these past months, she’d change the way she looked at the program. But, despite her occasional doubts and what she now calls her “two-week June vacation,” she’s finished the program and done so in a year when far too many haven’t.
In the final days of the month, Gemini experiences stomach pains that send her to the hospital. She won’t say much about what happened beyond saying it was “nothing major, but [she] had to go.” The ECC doesn’t let her go on the camping trip so soon after her hospital visit, and, when we next talk, her spirits are low.
Gemini has ridden an emotional roller coaster in June. She faced the world with a new smile, and is still adjusting to the ways the world reacts. Juggling college studies, time with her son, and the search for a higher-income job remains a struggle. She’s considering joining the Air Force, as she worries there’s no other way she can get ahead.
For now, though, she’s focused on completing her final 25 ECC hours, and on helping the new corps members. “When I’m giving advice to a new corps member, I always tell them that it will be hard, but if you really want [something], you will go get it.” She’s writing poetry most days and it’s “more about the youth and the river, and expressing how the two subjects connect. But I still have my days where I write [about] the hard times, love, etc.”
In an e-mail that better expresses what she couldn’t articulate when she got the tooth and her son proclaimed it a very happy day, she writes: “People who I have known … questioned me. ‘Why did you get it done?’ ‘You look good, but you don’t seem like the same Gemini.’ They were all happy for me. I feel the same. Yes, I am happy, but, for me, losing my tooth taught me a valuable lesson in life: to accept me for me, regardless. I’m BEAUTIFUL!”