Maria would never amount to anything. Girls like her never did. It wasn’t like she really had any choices, that’s just the way things were and everybody with any sense knew it. To think otherwise would be mere folly. Girls in her part of town never amounted to anything. The best she could hope for was to find a good husband some day, and hopefully escape the welfare system life she knew all too well. Growing up in a third-generation welfare household with a drug addicted mother, the only things she knew about the father she never met was when her mom had too much to drink and let out a few bits here and there, and most of that was accompanied by unrepeatable profanities. As if she didn’t already have enough to deal with, she had just turned seventeen, and already had a baby daughter who wasn’t even a year old. No decent, gainfully employed young man would want anything to do with her. Yes, girls like Maria never amounted to anything.
Maria really wanted to do well and get ahead. She wanted to with all her heart, it just didn’t seem like she had many options. She had thought that having her daughter with Manuel would keep them together and she could have her own family, something she desperately wanted. But Manuel had other ideas it seemed, and the lure of the streets seemed to call to him more than his family. He died in a senseless gang related shooting just a few short weeks after their daughter Rose was born. Maria took his death very hard. It seemed as though all her hopes for the future died along with Manuel, and for a time that seemed true. Maria even started dabbling in alcohol and drugs for a bit, as much as she detested her mother’s drug induced stupors and drunken tirades. For a while Maria was like an open wound that wouldn’t heal, and desperately needed something, anything, to ease the pain. She became even more vulnerable and her downward spiral seemed almost inevitable if it was not for the concern of a very astute teacher of hers.
Millie Johnson could see the pain in Maria’s eyes. Being a high school English teacher in a poor section of the city, Millie was used to seeing pain in her students. She encouraged Maria to seek counseling after Manuel’s death, and did everything she could to help her stay in school. She knew that if Maria was to have any chance at a real future, it would depend on her continuing her education.
Millie, or Miss Johnson as she was known to her students, also actively encouraged her students to read. She would often loan them books from her own collection, and it was not unusual for her to actually buy her favorite students books with money out of her own pocket. Maria cherished the copy of “Alice In Wonderland” that Miss Johnson had bought her, in fact it was probably the only thing she really owned.
Miss Johnson also encouraged her students to write, both short stories and poems. She realized there was a certain amount of therapeutic value in expressing one’s feelings in writing, and to a community that was all too familiar with poverty and violence anything that could promote healing would be more than welcome.
Poetry was something that Maria seemed to take to with ease. Though her poems were not always well constructed, she expressed her feeling well through her words. The vast amount of hurt that this girl saw in her young lifetime was painfully evident. Themes such as loss, death and the feeling that one is alone against the world were common. Miss Johnson also encouraged Maria to write a short story for her English class. The story was about a party that had gone wrong. In the story, one of the characters, a young girl of fifteen, overdoses on drugs and ends up dying on the way to the emergency room. It was well-written and earned Maria an “A.“ Alas, it was a true story and only served to further highlight the pain this young woman had witnessed in her short life.
Over the few months Millie knew Maria from having her as a student in her class, she witnessed Maria’s growth as a writer and felt she should share her work with others. She told Maria about a new story site on the internet where people could post their poetry and stories and others could read and rate them. Maria was a bit shy at first about others reading her writing, but decided to check out the site. Maria could be shy in general, but particularly when it came to her writing.
One day while at the library after school, Maria joined the story site. She would frequently stop at the library after school to use the computers since her family could not afford a computer of their own. She registered with the site using the screen name “Broken Angel.” She felt it was an apt description. Maria had a fascination with angels, and secretly hoped one would come down and take her away at times. She sometimes dreamed that she herself was an angel, but realized it was only a dream. She found a picture of an angel with broken wings on the internet, and used it as a profile picture. It seemed to fit the way she felt inside.
Maria had started her time on the site by reading other people’s work, mostly poetry. She saw that other people on the site often wrote about some of the things she herself had been feeling. It was somehow comforting to know that people all over the world, many miles away, were also expressing feelings of hopelessness and loneliness. The fact that others shared their innermost thoughts, gave Maria the courage she needed to post the first of her own poems.
At first Maria’s poems did not get much of a response. There were not always a lot of visitors to the site, as the site itself was only about a year old. Gradually people started to read and comment on Maria’s work and add her as a “friend” on the site. The comments always seemed to be positive, and Maria was encouraged to post more of her poems. People on the site began to look forward to her postings, and let it be known to her. She began to develop a certain level of confidence in her work, and slowly started to overcome her shyness about her writing.
One day Maria noticed that the site was having a contest where you could submit either stories or poems. The contest was in honor of the sites one year anniversary, and the theme of the contest was “celebration.” First prize was a hundred dollars, a lot money in Maria’s world. Maria thought about it for a while, turning the idea over gradually in her mind. She really didn’t have any poems that fit the theme of “celebration,” most of her poems were about heartbreak and pain. The only story she had was the one she wrote for Miss Johnson about the party that went terribly wrong, the one where the girl ended up dying. That hardly seemed like cause for celebration.
Maria left the library that day and headed on home like she always did. She enjoyed her time at the library and the time she could spend on the internet with her new writer friends, but she looked forward to seeing her daughter Rose. Maria’s mother looked after Rose during the day while Maria was at school and the library, and it was a good day when Maria would return home and not find her mom passed out on the sofa drunk.
Maria reached the apartment complex and walked the four flights up the worn staircase to the small two bedroom she shared with her mom and younger brothers. She walked in the door and heard her daughter Rose crying in the crib. Walking quickly over to the crib, she picked her up and held her in her arms.
“It’s alright baby,” she whispered, “Mommy’s here, it’s going to be alright.”
Maria could feel tears welling in her eyes. She wished with all her heart she could really mean those words.
“Hey Maria,” her mother chimed in holding a few bills in her hand, “How about walking to the liquor store and getting your momma a quart of beer.”
Maria quietly held her daughter for a few moments.
“Alright Mom. Just give me a few minutes with my baby.”
Maria held her daughter for a few more minutes before putting her carefully back in the crib and grabbing the money from her mother. She left the house and headed out to the liquor store which was about five city blocks away.
Once outside Maria seemed lost in thought. She was often pensive and self-absorbed, but more so today. Clearly something was on her mind.
On the way back from the liquor store, Maria passed a group of stores. She slowly paused in front of each window and carefully considered the offerings. One was a children’s clothing store. In the window was a pretty pink dress with white fringe, designed for a baby or small toddler. There was a jolly looking stuffed bear positioned next to the baby manikin. Maria stopped and surveyed the window display intently. Slowly tears filled her eyes. Her daughter Rose’s first birthday was coming up in a couple of short months, and Maria would love nothing more than to buy her daughter a gift. She realized it was not meant to be. Not for a teenage mother in the welfare system. Everyone knew that. A few minutes later she resumed her walk home to deliver the beer to her mother.
The next day at school, Maria seemed equally distant as she did the day before. Miss Johnson even noticed and made mention of it. Clearly something was on her mind.
When school let out, Maria made her way to the library as usual. She seemed focused and intent as she logged onto the computer with her student card. When she got to the story site she frequented, she stared at the front page as if in a trance. She seemed fixated on the banner advertising the “Anniversary” story contest. After a few minutes she logged in to the site. She pulled out a few folded sheets of paper and carefully laid them flat on the desk next to the computer. It was her story about the party that had gone wrong. She then clicked on “Submit story” which opened up an electronic submission form and started typing. After about forty minutes she was done. She looked over what she had typed, and seemingly satisfied she clicked “Submit story” at the bottom of the screen. A smug look appeared across her face, almost a half grin. Apparently satisfied, she logged off, packed up her things and walked home.
That night, while lying in bed, a lot of thoughts filled Maria’s young mind. She thought about if her story would even be accepted as a contest entry. After all, it was a party, but was it really a celebration? A girl had died. She wondered if it was even good enough for the site. Sure, Miss Johnson had given it an “A,” but was she just being nice? Her mind filled with self-doubt, she eventually fell asleep.
The following day after school, Maria followed her usual routine of stopping at the library. She was a bit apprehensive as she logged onto the library computer with her student card. The first thing she did was check her e-mail. There was a new e-mail from Lisa, the moderator of the story site. She opened the e-mail. “Congratulations, your story has been approved.” it read. Maria was elated as she went over to log onto the story site. She paused for a moment as she looked at her story proudly displayed on the front page. She noticed there was already a comment on it. Clicking on the link to her story she read the comment.
“Touching and heartfelt. Well done Maria.”
The comment was from Lisa, the site moderator. If the site moderator likes her story, that certainly was a good sign.
The next day she told Miss Johnson and showed her the story on the site. There were three other comments by then, all very positive.
“You’re a good writer Maria,” Miss Johnson said with a smile, “keep at it and you never know where it might lead. Not everyone can write like you.”
It felt good to hear Miss Johnson say those words, but it was still three weeks away from the closing date for the contest, and another week after that before the winners would be announced.
That next month seemed like an eternity for Maria. Most days she seemed confident, and the increasing number of comments and positive feedback only bolstered her confidence. Other days, her old self-doubts would set in.
“Girls like me never amount to anything,” she’d sometimes say to herself, “I’ll never win anything. Who am I kidding?”
When the day finally came that the contest winners were announced, Maria did her usual routine of heading to the library after school. She logged onto the library computer and checked her e-mail account. Nothing, she noted to herself. Cautiously, she logged into the story site and went to the forum where the winners were announced. When she clicked on the thread and read the first place winner, she almost jumped out of her seat.
“Broken Angel,” it said clearly, and right next to her screen name it read, “Winner, $100 first prize.”
She immediately logged off the computer and ran back to the school to tell Miss Johnson.
“I knew you could do it Maria. I’ve always had faith in you,” Miss Johnson said with a smile, “You just have to have faith in yourself.”
Miss Johnson gave Maria a big hug and held her tight. She felt proud that one of her students had accomplished something. It didn’t happen that often in her school district.
Maria went home and told her mom. She went over to her daughter Rose and picked her up and just held her on her lap for a while.
“You are going to get a real birthday gift for your first birthday after all,” she said to her with tears in her eyes.
Maria bought Rose that pretty pink outfit with the white fringe for her first birthday. She bought her the jolly looking teddy bear as well. It would be the first new outfit Rose ever had.
There was still money left over from the contest winnings after the birthday gifts were bought. With Miss Johnson’s help, Maria bought a savings bond in Rose’s name to start a fund for her education.
The actual day of Rose’s birthday was spent with the two of them together, singing songs and watching movies. Maria made a small cake and put one candle on it. She felt so proud that she actually had something to celebrate. For the first time that she could remember.
Whoever said girls like Maria never amount to anything certainly never saw her that day. Or her daughter Rose in her pretty new dress. Even the jolly bear could tell you that.