File this under not being able to leave the job at the office:
The kid slouched up to me at the Tohono Transit Center, all baggy basketball pants, spiked hair and pensive teenager face, asking to borrow my phone. I had already done my good deed for the day – giving $1 extra to the bus driver to pay for a middle-schooler who was lacking full fare – and, although I try hard to not judge a book by its cover, I get suspicious of the gangsta look. I didn’t want my phone to disappear.
“Why do you need my phone?”
“I don’t have one. I missed my bus. I didn’t have the fare. I wanna call my friend and have him pick me up.”
“OK, give me the number,” I said, pulling the phone out of my backpack.
“I won’t take your phone,” the kid – who I’d finally discerned was a girl doing her best to disguise her femaleness in her gigantically over-sized clothing choices – said.
“Maybe so, but I’ve seen things walk off around here. So, give me the number.”
She did and when someone answered (a small, sleepy voice), I handed her the phone, but stayed close. The conversation lasted three minutes while she made the same request for a ride multiple times. Finally, the person hung up on her and she sighed. “That was mean,” she said, staring at the phone as though it, not her supposed friend, had done the deed. She handed the phone back to me and I did what I’ve been doing since I was 16 and got my first byline: I started asking questions.
Her answers were matter-of-fact, as if she were relaying nothing more important than the price of coffee at a 7-11. She dropped out of school as soon as she turned 18 because because she’d been “in CPS” and wanted out. She had six months left of her senior year in high school and walked away, looking for freedom and a job. Now, about nine months after that decision, she knew there was a price to freedom, and she couldn’t pay for it without at least a high school diploma. So she had applied at a charter school specializing in getting dropouts through the finish line, but hadn’t heard back. She said Our Family Services had gotten her off the streets and she figured the school would contact them. She said she wanted to get a diploma so she could go to college and be a film-maker “but like I know that’s impossible since they only hire one person a year in that industry.”
“Why’d you drop out?”
“I just figured I wouldn’t need it,” she said, shrugging. “I figured I could make it on the streets, make it on my own. Get a job. I was young. It was a bad idea.”
You still are young, I wanted to say, except she looked so old.
“You need to call the school again,” I said, launching into academic advising mode. “Don’t wait for them to call you. You’re one of dozens of kids applying. Advocate for yourself. Don’t give up because you know you won’t get anywhere without at least a high school diploma.”
“Yeah, I know. Maybe. Maybe I’ll call.”
“No maybes. You do it.”
My bus pulled up and the girl started walking away from me.
“Call the school,” I repeated.
“O.K.,” she said, turning around for a nanosecond. “Thanks for the phone.”
She walked away, heading nowhere, and I got on my bus, fairly certain my mini-advising session made no difference at all, but hoping maybe it did.