She sat slumped over on the red-flowered couch in my office. Her hair, a dingy blonde with dark roots, was greasy and her face was stained with old make-up and fresh tears.
The police officer stood between us, his rough hands resting on his thick belt which held handcuffs, a radio, and the ever-present tazer.
“I found her behind the school, near the apartments. She had an illegal knife on her,” he said and laid it on my desk. “We can press charges.”
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I missed the bus,” she said.
As an Assistant Principal in a large high school, I could tell by looking that the knife was over the five- and one-half inch legal limit. The knife was an older-looking switchblade with dirt and a little rust on the handle. It had obviously been used before and needed a good sharpening.
“What’s your name?” I asked and turned my chair to face her.
“Pepper, is that your real name?”
“No. My friends call me Pepper; everyone else calls me Charlene Davis,” she said and sucked in a jagged breath before tears started to fall. “Please. Please. I had it in my purse. I wasn’t going to hurt anyone unless they tried to hurt me.”
“Thanks, Officer,” I said. “Let Charlene and I talk for a few minutes.”
“I’ll be right outside your door if you need me,” he said.
I brought up her student information on my computer and turned toward her, “So, Charlene, tell me your story. I see you don’t live at home.”
Charlene took another deep breath and straightened her tank top, which didn’t quite cover her voluptuous body. I asked her if she had a coat since it was cold outside. She shook her head no. Handing her the sweater draped behind my chair I said, “Start from the beginning.”
Forty minutes later I knew a lot about Charlene and a little about the knife. I have spent thirty-six years of my life in education, and I’ve heard stories from students that made me cry. Stories that haunted me and shook me to my core. But Charlene’s story broke my heart.
Charlene did not know her daddy, but her mother had known a lot of men who wanted to be called that. It seems her mom had run off three years ago and left her and her three siblings alone. CPS stepped in and separated the four sending the younger ones to one foster home, the brother to another, and Charlene to another. Charlene had run away from four foster homes since then and was now living in a state-owned, group home for teenage girls in Austin, several hours away from her brother and sisters. Not ideal by any means.
“It’s ok,” she said. “I’m leaving as soon as I graduate, and I’ll get my brother and sisters back. I’ll take care of them myself.”
“No more running away though, or the next stop will be juvie.”
“I know. This is my last chance,” she said.
“Graduation will be your ticket for a better life, Charlene. I’m proud of you for staying on track with your grades in spite of everything that has happened,” I said.
“I’ll be the first one in my family to graduate, Miss. I’m really smart, and I have a job at Mcdonald’s on the weekends. That’s where I met my boyfriend.”
“Do you mind if I call you Pepper?” I asked. And she smiled for the first time.
“Tell me about this boyfriend, Pepper.”
“His name is Ryder and I love him. He lives in those apartments by the McDonalds, and after work, I go over to see him. He gave me the knife.”
“No flowers or candy? But he gave you a knife? And what do you do when you go over to see him so late at night?”
“We do stuff. You know, we love each other.”
Before I could stop myself, I said, “Charlene, you know what causes babies, don’t you? I hope you’re using some form of protection.”
“Yea, mostly. We try, Miss. Anyway, usually, the bus is not running when I see him after work, so I have to walk home. He gave me the knife so I would be safe walking home from his apartment. He’s sweet that way. That’s why I need the knife back. He gave it to me.”
“Pepper, let me get this straight. You work the night shift at McDonalds, then you walk over to his apartment. You stay there for a few hours and then you walk yourself back to the home? Why doesn’t he take you home or walk with you?”
“He doesn’t have a car, Miss. That’s why he gave me the knife, so I can be safe walking home. He’ll be mad if I don’t have it.”
“Oh Pepper, you are worthy of being safe and being walked home by your boyfriend. This knife may cause you more trouble than you’re ready for. Like today. You know I have to take the knife.”
“I know, Miss. But I need it and I promise to hide it better when I come to school. It’s only four more months till graduation. Please? It’s scary walking home late at night.”
We talked a few more minutes and then I sent her to class, while I kept the knife.
Charlene flew way under the radar for the remainder of the semester. I would see her walking through the halls occasionally, and she would give me a half-smile or a shy wave, not wanting anyone to know we knew each other. But I wanted to hug her. Feed her a healthy meal. Keep her safe. Ask about that damn boyfriend.
Instead, one week before graduation, I called her into my office. I knew she only had one more final exam to take, and I would never see her again.
“Hi Miss,” she said as she knocked softly on my door.
“Pepper, you look gorgeous today!” I said as I noticed her fresh hair and new outfit. She was wearing a short, blue, flouncy skirt made out of layers of thin material. Her top was buttoned up the front and covered the waistband of the skirt, with room to spare. Then I saw what I thought was a slight bump beneath her blouse.
“The house mother gave me some money to buy a few new things before I graduate and have to move. I’m having a baby, Miss. See?” And she cupped her small round belly to show me.
“Ryder wants a boy.”
“Wow,” I said.
“I have something for you.” And I handed her a pink gift bag with ribbons and a small ‘Congratulations’ balloon. She smiled the biggest smile I’d ever seen and asked, “Can I open it?”
“You sure can!!” I said.
She sat on my red-flowered couch and put the bag on her knees. She took the fluffed tissue paper out of the bag one by one and pressed them flat.
“I’m going to save this paper. It’s just like new.” She said.
I had individually wrapped each gift: a set of lip glosses, JLO body wash and spray, a new hairbrush, and a precious stuffed teddy bear with I Love You embroidered on the stomach. And at the very bottom of the bag was one last gift. “Don’t open that one until you get home, ok? I think you’ll remember it.” I said.
“Thank you, Miss. This is my only graduation gift. I love all of it and the baby will love the teddy bear!” She hugged me and I hugged her right back, neither one of us wanting to let go.
“I’m so proud of you, Charlene Davis. I knew you could do it.” I said, as she blushed and smiled a soft, beautiful smile. Wide-eyed, and a little teary she responded quietly, “That means a lot, Miss.”
We had a quick hug the night of graduation and I have not heard anything from her since.
As with Charlene and the knife, it’s not always the way it looks. Everyone has a story to tell if we will only take time to listen. It is an honor to hear someone’s truth and hold space for their thoughts and feelings, whether we agree or not. Our stories matter, we matter. And for Charlene, I wanted her to know she matters in this world.
Charlene ‘Pepper’ Davis matters.