Sometimes, you never know.
I walked into the principal’s office at Baker Heights Elementary to meet 10-year-old Katelyn Roche, the Baker School System’s Elementary School Student of the Year. Immediately, it struck me that I had taken her photo earlier at a School Board meeting.
“Hey, I know you,” I said. She smiled.
Her grandfather had asked after the meeting if he could get a copy of the photo I took of Katelyn accepting her top student medallion. I told him I would email it to him, but he said their computer didn’t work. So I promised to get one to him. I later made a hard copy for him.
I sat at a table with Katelyn, her mother, Michelle Anderson, and Principal Lakesha Reese-Penn for the interview. This was supposed to be a routine story, for another publication, about how Katelyn had earned her award.
Katelyn said she was surprised that she won the award over students from a nearby magnet school. “I guess it says that my hard work paid off,” she said.
This is where the “sometimes, you never know” begins.
Speaking with the specificity of an adult, Katelyn talked about how she listened intently in class, that she liked math and social studies. “I have to challenge myself in math. I still have some problems with word math problems,” she said.
I soon discovered that word problems were the least of the issues that Katelyn has overcome.
Michelle said that several years ago she left Katelyn to be with her then-husband.
“I was in a marriage in a bad way,” she said. Katelyn was in second grade.
It broke her heart, Katelyn said. She went to live with her grandparents, where she found open arms and love.
“I was very angry inside,” Katelyn said. “Sometimes, I didn’t eat, even though I was hungry. I didn’t want my grandparents to know how I felt. I kept it to myself.”
“I love my grandparents, but I would still be angry because I didn’t have my mother,” she said. “I think my grandparents knew how much I was hurting.”
“We knew,” her grandmother, Judy Roche, said. “She was skin and bones for a while. Even her teachers noticed. Katelyn is just amazing. She just dealt with it on her own.”
Michelle said she finally left her husband and returned home to Katelyn. But Katelyn, then late into her third-grade year, didn’t want much to do with her. “I was still kind of angry with her,” Katelyn said.
“I knew I would have to let her get over her anger,” Michelle said. “She didn’t speak to me at first. I knew I had to slowly rebuild our relationship. I just backed off.”
Through it all, Katelyn has never been a discipline problem and is an A-B student. “I consider a C like an F,” she laughed.
Their relationship warmed up during Katelyn’s fourth-grade year.
“I’m still kind of angry with her,” Katelyn said. “But our relationship has gotten better. I decided to just let it go.”
Now, her mom text messages her “all of the time,” Katelyn says, smiling at her mother. “Sometimes, I hear that sound and I say, ‘She’s texting me again.’ ”
“I have to let her know that I am thinking about her,” Michelle says.
I asked Katelyn if not having a computer is an issue. She says she gets help from a family member who can occasionally download information for her. Other times, Katelyn uses her mom’s cellphone to search for information.
“I always have my homework,” she said.
She longs for the day “that I have my own touch screen” phone so that she can easily get the information. Her mom, who works at a discount store, says she is focusing on getting her the phone.
As the mother and daughter left the school walking home, I told the principal how Katelyn floored me.
“Imagine having dozens of students with similar situations in your school,” said Reese-Penn, who, by the way, is the Elementary School Principal of the Year. “That’s why I tell my teachers when something happens in the classroom with a child, you never know what some of these children are going through.”
Sometimes, you never know.
Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.