‘‘You Got Your High School Diploma?’’
What happens when you put a classroom on wheels and park it in the poorest neighborhoods of San Francisco?
One day late last August, Shelia Hill sat at a table on a sidewalk in Sunnydale, outside a San Francisco city bus that had been painted an exceedingly upbeat shade of apple green, yelling at every car that rolled by.
“YOU GOT YOUR HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?”
“Hey, how YOU doing? You got a minute?”
Shelia — who is 51 and has bright red hair and who is fond of sharp sweats, lacquered nails, and a pair of Adidas that say love — was sitting with Katie, the bus driver, trying to recruit students. Shelia was doing all the work.
“How’s your day going? Blessed?”
“Hey, YOU got a diploma? You want an application?”
Sunnydale — the name of a housing project but really the name of a neighborhood — is one of the poorest, most forgotten parts of San Francisco. If Shelia could get people to fill out applications, she could perhaps get them to change their lives, since the bus was a traveling classroom, the latest project of the Five Keys Charter School. Shelia had done it — she’d bucked nearly 40 years of failing at school and earned a high school degree. Though to be honest, she hadn’t done it on her first try. Or her second. Or third. Or fourth try, either. By the time Shelia arrived at the Five Keys classroom at 1099 Sunnydale Avenue, in 2014, she’d not learned how to read in high school and dropped out. She’d not learned how to read at San Francisco City College and dropped out. “The lady told me I was wasting my time,” she says. “That I just need to get a job, let the school thing go.” She’d fallen into drugs, prostitution, bad relationships, and jail.
Then Shelia met a nun named Sister Patsy, who mentioned that Five Keys Charter School was just about to open up in the neighborhood. The charter was started in San Francisco County Jail and was the brainchild of a woman named Sunny Schwartz, who looks like Patti Smith and has Smith’s same earthy-yet-holy aura. Five years after it launched, the school began opening classrooms around the city — or, to be precise, in the small pockets of intense poverty in the glisteningly rich city, since that’s where the people who went in and out of jail and didn’t have high school degrees lived. The idea was to keep students enrolled once they got released.
At her graduation, in 2015, Shelia said to the Five Keys principal, “So, now you gonna hire me, right?” He did.
Shelia, whose title is community ambassador, had lived almost her entire life in Sunnydale and knew pretty much everyone who walked down the street. People honked, waved, hugged, and hooted. Some pulled little dogs out of their bags for Shelia to pet, joking, “I put my toughest look on with my little Chihuahua.” A week earlier, Shelia had helped host a barbecue to get Sunnydale residents comfortable with this classroom on wheels. She’d invited the neighborhood shot caller, who’d shown up with a case of Frito-Lay’s. Still, the vast majority of passersby didn’t stop. The chance to spend many hours sitting quietly doing an activity that, by definition, you’d failed at previously was not an easy sell. Yet those who mustered the courage and optimism to step on the bright green FIVE KEYS MOBILE SELF-DETERMINATION PROJECT — the bus’s proper name, emblazoned across its side — were impressed. Sunny had hired an architect who was interested in social justice to design the bus with the explicit goal of promoting a sense of dignity and calm. She wanted students to feel that they deserved beauty. She wanted students to feel that a life of the mind was for them. The interior was kitted out with pretty bookshelves, plywood desks, chartreuse chairs, faux-parquet floors, couches, and pillows.
Sunnydale already had its share of school buildings: Big Vis (the middle school in Visitacion Valley, as the larger neighborhood was known), Little Vis (the elementary school), and a community center called TURF (opened in 1994 to broker peace between the police and Sunnydale residents, though Katie, the bus driver, who’d grown up in the neighborhood, told me that no one wanted to go to the classroom in there, as “it was a shithole. It smelled. It was a mess. It was really loud”). There was a Five Keys classroom just across Sunnydale Avenue from where the bus was parked, but many residents would not cross the street, as that could mean entering rival gang territory. Shelia herself had no problem with this. She’d recently moved her family from this side of Sunnydale Avenue to the other, pushing all of their possessions in a shopping cart. But Shelia is not everybody — or she was and now she’s not.
One day ten years ago, when she was riding a San Francisco city bus, she saw a really pregnant woman smoking crack. Shelia proceeded to smack the pipe out of the pregnant woman’s mouth and tell her that she was killing her baby. Screaming ensued. When that ended, Shelia shoved her phone number into the pregnant woman’s bag and told her to call if she ever wanted help getting clean. A few weeks later, Shelia’s phone rang.
“I had my baby,” the woman from the bus said.
“Congratulations,” Shelia said. “That’s beautiful.”
“No, not congratulations. I don’t want this baby. You take this baby or the white man is going to take it.”
Shelia already had two children in their late teens. She named the baby RaKai and adopted him.
It was hard to remember, sitting here, that this was San Francisco, the city that thought of itself as so progressive and yet.… Almost the entire neighborhood was two-story units that looked like barracks, which they basically were. Most of the housing was built in the 1940s as living quarters for naval shipyard workers and appeared to have received no upgrades since. Some of the units were now painted rust; others, a mildew-y shade of yellow. Almost all were crumbling and held together with security bars and plywood nailed across broken windows.
Just a couple of miles away, over the hill, was the San Francisco as most know it — the city of Airbnb and the Salesforce Tower, municipally installed rainbow sidewalks in the Castro and more billionaires than anywhere in the world but New York and Hong Kong. Sunny, the Five Keys founder, figured if some asshole over in rich San Francisco could get financing to sell $12 lemonade, she could pull together the money to put desks and a teacher on a bus and roll that classroom up to where people needed education most.
Shelia kept at it all afternoon: “You got a minute? Hey, how you doing? How’s your mama? How’s your baby brother?”
“It right there? They do it on the bus?” a man using an umbrella as a cane asked.
Shelia said, “Ummm-hummm.”
The man disappeared through the bus’s front door and returned a few minutes later, clutching an enrollment form. “Oooooo, that nice,” he said, stepping back onto the sidewalk.
“Monday and Wednesday, 11 to 3,” Shelia said. “We’ll be parked right here.”
Eight weeks later (the start of school was delayed by mechanical problems — that’s what you get when the city of San Francisco gives you an old bus), Shelia was onboard, talking about how she wanted to get some of those Google Pixel earbuds that translate foreign languages and wear them to the nail salon. John Beiser, the bus’s 34-year-old teacher, was dressed that day, as almost always, in corduroys, a plaid shirt, and a black zip-up jacket with a Five Keys logo on it. By his own accurate estimation, students thought he looked like a highway patrol officer or an undercover cop. John had grown up middle-class in suburban Davis, California. Before teaching Spanish to Five Keys students in the Solano jail, he’d worked as a wildland firefighter. He’d earned a master’s in humanities from the University of Chicago, where he studied Hegel and Foucault. He’d tutored English to tech executives who’d just moved to the Bay Area from overseas.
At present, he was sorting workbooks, or packets. Each contains one unit, most written by Five Keys staff, of English Composition or World History or Economics or Restorative Justice. In the bus, once students have enrolled and taken a placement test, John talks them through new concepts one-on-one. Each week, each student is then expected to complete a packet — worth one credit. Individual study is the only model that works.
The “five keys” that the school is named for are education, employment, recovery, family, and community. The school, the first in the nation to open in a jail, has about 2,000 active students. They show up at different places academically, move at varying speeds, disappear and reappear at idiosyncratic intervals. Many come in and out of the program multiple times. The school is built for this. “The good and bad news is we have a huge database now of probably hundreds of thousands of names across the state,” Five Keys Executive Director Steve Good told me. “When somebody comes in and out of jail the fifth or sixth time, we know exactly where they left off, and we have over 80 sites in the community where somebody can pick up their education right off.”
In addition to Sunnydale, the bus stopped at three public housing projects, two mornings or afternoons a week at each. John had hung a wall-of-fame poster up on the bulletin board, complete with students’ names and star stickers. Consistency and focus are elusive commodities for Five Keys students to come by. It’s hard to think about historical migration patterns if you’re worried you’re about to overstay your welcome on your great-aunt’s couch and you have nowhere else to go.
Around 12:30 p.m., a young man named Raymon boarded the bus with Pooka, his girlfriend.
“Sign in, baby,” Shelia said.
Raymon, in black high-tops and gray sweats with red Kellogg’s boxers poking out, was singing loudly to the music streaming through his earbuds. Is it tru-u-u? It is tru-u-u? “I’ve been doing my homework already,” he announced. “You seen me?”
Shelia said, with love and firmness, “No.”
Raymon talked a big game. He was going to the recording studio that afternoon, and he was going to marry Pooka, even though Shelia happened to know that Pooka was single that morning. Pooka was less convinced about all this. Raymon was charismatic, sure, and at age 19, life had not yet extinguished the cocky sparkle in his eyes. But she was already in possession of a high school diploma, a job at the mayor’s office, and the self-respect that went along with those two things. She told Raymon that she needed a ring, a big ring, then left to go to work. Nobody in Raymon’s family had ever graduated from high school.
Shelia had been there, in Raymon’s position. In fact, she’d been in worse. After dropping out of high school without learning to read, she “got out on the streets,” as she put it. Broke, homeless, and prospectless, she started stealing. She hooked up with some friends whom she knew she should not hook up with, and, she told me flatly (trauma being the only thing Shelia describes flatly), “it went from there.” Shelia got kicked out of two consecutive federal Job Corps programs for fighting and stealing. She moved back home on her mother’s condition that Shelia attend school. She did not go. Then, she said, “It went all bad, and it kept going bad.”
Shelia informed me of the following, making it clear she did not want or need any goopy, pointless, comforting-to-me-only pity that I might have been prepared to offer. She’d shared her story many times before, as part of a Five Keys restorative-justice program. So she was telling me: After leaving home the second time, she fell in with an abusive boyfriend and got pregnant. “He’s the reason I can’t see out of my left eye now,” she said. She stayed with him for two years. Shortly after she left him, he tracked her down at a club on Third Street, in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. He dragged her outside, shoved her into a car, and drove her up to where Shelia then lived. “It was him, his brothers, and his cousins,” Shelia said. “They raped me for like two days.” When the men all finally fell asleep, Shelia ran outside wearing just a slip. On Brookdale Avenue, she saw a van full of guys parked, cranking music in the early morning. She assumed when they opened the van door that she was going to be assaulted again, but instead the men pulled her inside and drove her a few blocks away, to her mother’s house. “When she see me, she started screaming,” Shelia said. The next thing Shelia remembers is “waking up at the hospital, and I hear the nurse saying, ‘This poor baby. Don’t show her a mirror.’ They asked me who did it. I told ’em. They all went to jail. They got convicted and everything — rape and sodomy.”
How does a person pull themselves up, gain balance, and move forward? Shelia tried many times, but she kept falling down and slipping back. She credits RaKai with giving her the strength and ballast. “I don’t know how to this day — how? How?” she asked. How had San Francisco Family and Children’s Services ever allowed her to adopt RaKai? “How could somebody who’s been in jail for drugs, prostitution, this that and this other, how could they let me have him? I was like, I got to get myself together. I got to get my life together. I need him as much as he needs me.” RaKai motivated her to complete school when he was in kindergarten and said, “Mommy, you said I got to go to school, but you never been to school.” Shelia hedged one last time and showed RaKai her fake high school diploma. But then she told him it was fake, and RaKai told Shelia he thought he wasn’t supposed to lie. It took “a year and some change” at Five Keys, Shelia said, for her to prepare to take the high school equivalency test. Her reading curriculum started with Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. She had no faith that anything good would come of it. “I was like, ‘I ain’t going to pass. I ain’t going to pass,’ ” she told me. “And my teacher was like, ‘Stop saying that. Stop thinking like that. I’m going to show you how to pass. I’m going to show you how to do this.’ ”
No one could say if Raymon’s current run at a high school degree was going to work for him. After Pooka left, John pulled up a green chair next to Raymon and opened a laptop. Raymon’s transcript had finally been transferred from the San Francisco Unified School District. “You got A’s in algebra. You got A’s in history. You got A’s in English,” John said. This made Raymon drop his defenses enough to take out his earbuds. “You have an A in architecture but an F in life skills.”
The drama of the day was figuring out how many more credits Raymon needed to graduate, a job that sounds like it should have been straightforward but was not. Raymon had 160 credits. Typical San Francisco Unified School District students need 230 to graduate. But adult students need only 180 to earn a GED, and students who are in foster care, homeless, or what state laws AB-167/216 call “probation-involved youth” can earn reduced-credit diplomas with only 130.
Raymon jumped up shouting, “I graduated, y’all. I’m DONE.”
Shelia picked up her phone to call the school district’s central office and get Raymon’s AB-167/216 paperwork started. John exhaled. Thirty-five of Raymon’s credits came from electives, which might present a problem. Regardless of credit counts, Five Keys students needed to complete a core curriculum in all subject areas, including restorative justice. Beyond this, John and Shelia were in a profound, largely silent philosophical debate about whether they should be trying to get students to race through the Five Keys requirements, feel the success of graduation, and leave with a GED (Shelia’s view), or whether they should be encouraging students to slow down, acquire skills, and create an ongoing relationship with school (John’s view).
Five Keys’ official policy is to try to slow students down. “We’ve had folks over the years say we need to get people high school diplomas because that’s their ticket for a job and they can’t spend a lot of time with us,” Steve Good said. “That’s great, but the high school diploma still needs to mean something. It needs to be a benchmark for something — minimum qualifications and skill set. If we’re graduating people who can’t read and aren’t numerate, what’s the point? We’re no better than a diploma mill.” To protect against this, Five Keys students must perform at a seventh- to ninth-grade level, depending on the class, before they can take the core curriculum required to graduate. Five Keys also tries to steer students away from using the AB-167/216 exception if they’re making normal progress.
“I don’t want him thinking he needs five credits and he needs 30 credits,” John said to Shelia, hoping to manage Raymon’s expectations. “I want him thinking he needs 30 credits and then needs five.”
Raymon strutted down the bus’s center aisle, pretending that he was walking across a stage, collecting a diploma.
On the way out the door, Raymon waved his history packet at John and promised he was going to finish it by Wednesday.
“Slow and steady,” John cautioned. “Fifteen minutes a day.”
Shelia yelled after: “But if you can!”
Most of the students who got on the bus wanted to turn their lives around, but forces conspired against them, and they were not in position to just then. Cindy often sat behind the bus driver’s seat, looking out the window. She’d been abused by her husband, but then he died, so now she could come to school without fear of getting beaten up. Shelia was unfailingly cheerful when Cindy arrived. John reviewed adding fractions with her again and again. It never seemed to stick — perhaps she was just too distracted inside. Still, John took Cindy’s continued presence as a win. “I’m happy because I know that someone is trying really hard and they’re seeing that effort matched and honored,” John told me. Then he told me about what he called her intergenerational trauma. “Cindy was raped, and her daughters were raped, and her son is in jail for rape. The cycle repeats. People used to call it a curse. They’d say, ‘Cindy’s family has the curse of rape.’ ”
A woman named Lavoris — “Like the mouthwash!” she said — flirted relentlessly with John. “Teacher John!” she called out in her sparkly purple tank top. “Ooooo, Teacher John.” She brought soup packets to mix with water heated in the bus’s microwave. She had dreams of opening a doughnut shop. “It’s like I never existed or something,” she said after John told her that he’d requested her high school transcripts and the school district had sent nothing back. “My name was on the graduation list. I just wasn’t there. I had to get a full-time job to get away from my mom.” She often showed up hungry.
There was a young woman with royal blue nails and royal blue sneakers, who kept her head zipped inside the hood of her royal blue puffy jacket. There was Sexy Denise, who earned her nickname after the bus driver asked her for her email address and she said, “Ummm, sexydenise at….” Sexy Denise was pregnant and had a 5-year-old daughter and was so tired by the end of her pregnancy that she often showed up in a two-piece pajama set covered with Zzzzzzz.
There was the woman who lived directly across the street from where the bus parked at a housing project known as Double Rock. “She lives right there, right there. She just won’t come,” John said. As it did for almost half of Five Keys’ potential students, enrolling alone sapped all the willpower she had in reserve. “Taking the placement test was a bridge too far,” John said.
One afternoon during a drenching rainstorm, a 6-foot-9 man named Marquette poked his head through the bus’s door.
“What’s this?” he asked gently.
“This is for school,” Shelia said. “You got your high school diploma? Come on in.”
Marquette folded his limbs up like tent poles and sat down beside a desk. He recognized Shelia. “You’re Kenya’s aunt, right?” he asked her.
Shelia nodded. “Yeah, I miss the hell out of my baby. I miss him every day.” She turned to me and said, “He got killed.”
Marquette told Shelia that he’d gone to three years of college to play basketball, but he didn’t have a high school degree.
This was a new one, even for her. “How could someone give you a scholarship for college, but they ain’t finished high school? That’s called, they just using you for their team. That’s so cold. That shouldn’t be. That’s setting you up for failure! That should be illegal.”
Another day at the Double Rock location, there were no students on the bus at all. Instead, there was a big shrine half a block away: a sign that read HIT HARD PING, surrounded by tall glass votive candles with paintings of saints, Jack Daniel’s bottles, and balloons. Shelia pulled up a photo on her phone of a handsome young man with long hair.
“People don’t want to come out when it’s hot,” Shelia said, referring to the increased police and gang action on the street after a shooting death. She started making calls. “Hey, Caesar. It’s Shelia from Five Keys. How you doin’? OK. I know. I heard. You OK? OK. We on the bus. See you Thursday.”
Back in the other San Francisco, in Noe Valley, a nice-but-not-especially-swanky neighborhood where the median home price is $2.2 million, I met Sunny Schwartz for coffee. Just the night before, she’d seen a young homeless woman in front of Safeway, near her house by the Giants ballpark, and she’d bought her a meal. The young woman preferred sleeping on the streets to living at home with her abusive father. She did not have a high school degree. Nothing in San Francisco felt fair if you thought about it for too long. If the Bay Area were a country, it would have the 19th-largest economy in the world. The waitlist for a shelter bed is more than 1,000 names long. A family of four with an income under $117,400 per year qualifies as low income. Only 14 percent of low-income black kids read English at grade level. Ten percent are proficient in math. About 80 percent of white kids attend private school.
Sunny had been working in criminal justice, mostly in the San Francisco jails, for 37 years. I asked her how she stayed hopeful. “Hope,” she said in her husky voice. “That’s a good one. What’s the alternative?” She knew, for poor Americans, the prison and education systems were not only unfair but were invested in people’s failures. She knew exactly how far away Sunnydale was. “It’s Lebanon or something.”
Sunny had never intended to start a charter school. She just needed a solid education program for the restorative-justice dorm she’d founded inside the San Francisco County Jail. Restorative justice was the motivating idea — tikkun olam, repairing the world, as Sunny’s Jewish father would have said. When Sunny heard about the concept, at a conference in 1985, she “went good and crazy,” she said. Restorative justice is built on the idea that we’re all in this dysfunctional system together. We made this world, all of us, with its thousand-mile ten-minute drive between Noe Valley and Lebanon. Now we need to repair that world together. “The pamphlet said — I remember it word for word: ‘Restorative justice recognizes crime hurts everyone: victim, offender, community and creates an obligation to make things right.’ ‘Creates an obligation to make things right.’ We all have an obligation.” Sunny paused. “We have a moral and professional obligation to work together to make things right.”
Sunny was now trying to start a bus to park outside San Francisco’s Hall of Justice so women released from jail in the middle of the night could get a meal, some decent clothes, and a safe place to sleep instead of going right back out on the streets. She was also trying to start a halfway house for women recently granted clemency after being sentenced to life without parole for killing husbands who abused them. Five Keys was unusual, said Max Kenner, who runs the Bard Prison Initiative and evaluated the organization for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2015, because the school was created with the understanding that incarceration is part of life for their students. It is not a special condition. It’s not a social problem unto itself. Jail is one of a network of social institutions that poor black and brown Americans regularly encounter. Five Keys, he said, uses the infrastructure of jail “to do positive good rather than just mitigate harm.” Sixty to 70 percent of formerly incarcerated people recidivate in California. Only 23 to 26 percent of Five Keys graduates do.
Nobody in the organization remembers anymore who came up with the idea for a bus. Steve Good, the executive director, just knows that the entire organization was appalled by the condition of the Five Keys classroom at TURF — the filth, the puddle of water on the floor — while tech buses were driving all over the city with high-speed Wi-Fi. Then Good read that a nonprofit had installed bathrooms on old city buses and was bringing showers to the homeless. “I thought, Shit, we’ve got to do this,” Good said. Five Keys applied for a Google Impact Challenge grant to start a classroom on wheels. They won $100,000 and set out to design a dignified, mobile place to learn.
But there was almost always something. Lots of days the bus broke down. Or the driver was sick. Or the roof leaked. Or the San Francisco Unified School District was on vacation so the bus was, too. John got worn down. Each packet was 13 hours of work. The expectation that students would do one a week was a complete joke. About half his students were homeless.
“The middle-aged women come,” he told me one day. “The adolescent males don’t. Did it occur to you when you walked by smoking weed or when you were playing video games that if you just did your packet for 15 minutes a day, you’d actually get something done?” He then tried to reel in his exasperation. “For me, I guess the analogous challenge is to be patient. Some people you have to enroll them seven, eight times. I’ve had students doing the same homework packet eight times.”
To try to build consistency, John texted each of his students every day. Most never wrote back. One responded after weeks of silence saying, “Thanks for never giving up on me.”
Another, after 47 texts, replied: “Oh, my family moved to Oklahoma.”
Caesar, when he showed up, allowed John to teach. A big weathered man with strong arms, gold teeth, and neck tattoos, he sat with John and worked on various methods for rephrasing 2(x + y).
“Once you start getting algebra, it’s amazing,” John said. “You’re going to feel like a genius.”
“Here comes the honor student!” Shelia yelled when Caesar returned the next week.
John handed him back his algebra packet: “Congratulations on your first A.”
Caesar looked back at a young man sitting behind him. “Don’t ever say that again,” he said to John, joking that being known as a math nerd would blow his cool. Caesar nodded toward the young man. “He wants to be like me. I don’t even want to be like me.”
The rest of San Francisco churned along. The meal-delivery service Munchery folded after blowing through $125 million in venture capital. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced on the platform that he’d been “playing with fasting” and that it made him feel like his days were slowing down. The San Francisco Chronicle published an investigation into the fraud, lies, and failed cleanup of a still-unremediated Superfund site near a planned affordable-housing development. Shelia talked about her life. RaKai was turning 10 and wanted a birthday party with tie-dye and 20 kids for dinner, but not pizza. She’d joined a parenting group because they were offering a free trip to Disneyland, but she couldn’t figure out what week she and RaKai should go.
Yet there were extra dramas, more-complicated dramas, dramas that seemed in no small part the result of dramas and traumas that had come before. Shelia’s 19-year-old former foster daughter called from Las Vegas and told Shelia that she was going to leave her 4-month-old baby in the middle of the bed when she went out partying. Shelia threatened to call the police on her. A little later, the former foster daughter FaceTimed Shelia to show her the baby in the stroller while she was partying. Shelia had a full house already. In her four-bedroom apartment lived RaKai, her 26-year-old daughter, her 25-year-old son, her son’s fiancée, and their 7-year-old daughter. Now Shelia thought she might need to take in her foster daughter’s baby, too.
For a while, Raymon kept showing up — singing, quieting for a moment when Shelia told him to shut up, napping in the lounge. But he never turned in any work. One day, he brought a friend along who already had a high school diploma as low-key moral support. John engaged both of them in a conversation about supply and demand. But it was not enough. “I got my first gray hair last night from the stress,” Raymon said. “I’m stressing for real. I feel like I’ve been having this history packet for years.” He never returned.
The last time I was at the bus, I learned that Raymon had finally graduated — though he did so from jail. John was sitting, alone, waiting for students to show. The week before, a young woman had thrown her packets in the trash right in front of him. “I got more important things in my life,” she said, storming off. “I got to feed my kids. I got to get the light back on. I can’t deal with this.”
John cleaned her packets off and put them in a folder and waited for her to come back. “It’s not like she doesn’t have more important things,” he said. “She absolutely does have more important things. Last week, she asked me for a letter of recommendation for a job. I was like, ‘OK, I want you to get this job. You need the money, obviously. But that means you’re not going to be able to come to class anymore.’ ”
A bright spot on the bus was a young woman named Ashley who, one afternoon, stepped aboard carrying a Five Keys folder and a Five Keys backpack. She bantered with Shelia for a minute, but she never sat down. She just stood by the bus’s front door and handed her packet of completed work to John.
“I still have the restorative-justice packet? And is there another math one?” she asked, all business. Time was not Ashley’s friend. She had two babies at home — home being her neighbor’s couch. She took her two new packets and left.
An individual triumph is not a systemic fix, but last spring, Ashley completed her credits and passed the GED. In the beautiful, neoclassical Academy of Art University auditorium, just two blocks from the Saks Fifth Avenue in Union Square, she graduated — the only student from the bus to do so. Sixty-seven other students from community classrooms earned diplomas at the Five Keys ceremony that day. None had walked a straight path. None had graduated on their first, or their second, or even their third try. The world had not been repaired. Still, the theater filled up with Mylar balloons, bouquets of supermarket daisies, and guys yelling at one another, “Respect. You did it, baby!” — and that felt good. Ashley walked across the stage, a little shaky in her 4-inch platform sandals, a child in each arm.
A few weeks before, Shelia had filled out Ashley’s AB-167/216 paperwork. To the official documents she attached a letter, written in cursive on white-lined paper, from the neighbor whose couch Ashley slept on. “No she is not a resident nor do I charge her anything due to the fact that she’s homeless and without employment,” it read. “The only thing I want her to bring me is a copy of her high school diploma once she’s finished school.”