“As soon as I met him, something left me,” Maxine admits as she adjusts the V-neck collar of the eggplant and white shirt she just finished sewing. Her hands quickly move back to her belly, where little Timothy, set to be delivered via C-section on Sunday, March 8th, comfortably rests. His mama’s belly looks cozy and it looks like she’s taking good care of herself and him. Maxine confidently asks for an orange juice while silently judging my coffee order. “I noticed you drank a lot of water, but I never knew you were such a big coffee drinker”, she tells me on the way to the diner, close to campus, where she and I met last semester.
Maxine was a student in my Women’s Studies class. She sat in the back of the room, had a powerful silence about her, and got an A in my class. She participated frequently in class, but at the end of every comment she made, it seemed as though she had more to say. That alone is one of the reasons I wanted to interview her. I wanted to find out what more she had to say.
In addition to her sweet and respectful presence, I also just really liked Maxine. It’s rare for me to feel like I can speak to a student without that strange hierarchical thing that commonly exists in student/teacher relationships. With Maxine, that awkwardness was rarely present. She was already a mother, to Tyleek Jr., or Ty, as she lovingly calls him. Ty and my middle son, Giorgie, were in the same class at the campus daycare center, so we had an immediate something-in-common. When I found out last semester she was having baby #2, I was thrilled for her, but concerned too. She is finishing her associate’s degree this summer, lives with her mother, siblings, and their families, currently gets zero financial support from Ty’s father (who also happens to be the father of her second baby), until recently was taking the bus (pregnant with a toddler, no less) back and forth to school, and has little savings. She’s in a vulnerable place.
The first in her family to graduate High School, Maxine, 23, is almost finished with her associate’s degree. Even as she excitedly tells me she will be walking at graduation in May, her look turns a bit forlorn when she reveals that her name won’t be printed in the list of graduates because she still has one summer class to take. Although that’s not a big deal, it seems Maxine is used to small—and big—disappointments. Despite her endearing personality and attempt to be productive and positive, much of her life has been tinged with sadness.
In 2000, her mother suffered from a severely debilitating stroke that left Maxine, eight years old at the time, with more responsibilities than the average grade-schooler. As the oldest daughter, Maxine seems proud to have been able to help, but she does admit it hasn’t been easy. Luckily, for a time, her father picked up a lot of the slack and her family was able to move on despite her mother’s very limited mobility. After years of therapy, her mom is better, but is still unable to work and move around like she used to. Still, Maxine considers her mother the strongest person she knows. She tells me her mother’s strength comes out like the Hulk—especially when it relates to her family.
That hulk strength had no choice but to reveal itself in 2004 when Maxine’s father, then only 41, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. When she talks about her dad, it’s obvious that he was an exceptional parent. A Christian, her father instilled in her the importance of being a good person and a respectful member of society. A corrections officer at Riker’s Island where he met Maxine’s mom, also a corrections officer, he had obviously been exposed to a side of humanity that he wanted to shield his children from. She talks of their long drives where he would give her advice on many aspects of life—and taught her to beware of many of the world’s dangers, including boys. Maxine speaks with simultaneous pride and secrecy that she was a virgin until she got pregnant with her son. She had taken her parents’ teachings, as well as those of the church, to heart and vowed to stay pure until marriage. And she did…until she met a man who she thought was “the one”.
At a Christian Club meeting, Maxine met Tyleek, a smooth-talking, tall, handsome fellow student who literally swept her off her feet. They were quick to fall in love and become a static part of each other’s lives. Maxine refers to him as being something of a savior in her life as he became a constant in not only her world, but in the life of her family. After Maxine’s father died, much of the care of her mother fell on her, as the oldest daughter and the child with the softest heart. Tyleek came in and helped with all of the nips and tucks the house needed—the “manly” work. He would put up sheetrock, unclog pipes, and help with absolutely anything that her family needed. He was exactly what she needed—another loving body to help out in a household that lacked any fully able-bodied parents. Maxine shares with me that he was her “break from everything.” In her simultaneously soft but robust voice, she tells me that he was THE perfect guy. She couldn’t believe she was so lucky to have found someone who not only loved her, but also was devoted to her family—and respected her desire to remain chaste until marriage.
Five months into their relationship, Tyleek proposed to Maxine. Although they waited another year after to have sex, he started pressuring her almost daily about it. One day, out of irrational frustration over her refusal to engage in intercourse, he ripped her sweater in half-while it was still on her. She stormed out that day, but was quick to accept his apology soon after. In addition to this initial display of rage, he started getting senselessly irate over the things he seemed to once love about her, like her tendency to be a bit reserved and quiet. Maxine chalked much of this up to his sexual frustrations and felt she was strong enough to deal with his tantrums. She figured that initial act of violence was just an anomaly.
The violence unfortunately, didn’t end there; in fact, the sweater-ripping incident was only the beginning. After a number of violent acts, one including his dragging her by the hair into the street, Tyleek would lovingly apologize and Maxine, thinking she was tough and could handle anything, took him back. In addition to the violence, Maxine realized that there was much infidelity and lying going on. Until her first son, Tyleek Jr. was born, she bounced back from the abuse, hoping and praying it was just another “accident”—luckily, she realized before it was too late that the domestic abuse was not going to stop. That is when that Hulk strength that she admires so much in her mother, not surprisingly, revealed that also resided in her.
One day, after a particularly violent assault where Tyleek choked her in her apartment while their son was sleeping (her mother and sister had to come to her rescue), Maxine decided that she needed to call the authorities. She wasn’t going to have her son raised in a violent household and despite her previous hesitation to press charges, the last incident got way too out of hand even for someone as tolerant as Maxine. Unfortunately, she didn’t show up to the June 17th 2014 hearing and chose not to pursue the charges. However, after a period of time apart, she made it clear to Tyleek that he was no longer welcomed in her life. She wants him to be a part of their children’s lives, but he will never be a part of hers.
While their relationship ended early on in Tyleek Jr.’s life, Maxine still wanted Tyleek Sr. to be in his life, so she made a point of creating opportunities for them to spend time together. She tells me she doesn’t want him in her house for very long, but sometimes, that is where it’s most convenient for father and son to spend time together. During one of Tyleek Jr.’s naps one day, his parents found solace in one another’s arms—the only time this had happened since the last violent incident—and they conceived little Timothy.
Today, little Timothy is 6 weeks old, healthy, alert and beautiful. Big brother Ty is loving and overprotective. When I meet Maxine again, her skin is glowing and I tell her she must be feeling great considering how great she looks. She confesses she is only sleeping 2-4 hours a night because she needs to finish school and has to study while the boys are sleeping. She tells me, “Honestly, I feel like for the first time in my life, I would happy with D’s. I just want to graduate.”
After happily chatting about our lives for a while at our second meeting, I had to ask her how she is dealing with life these days. A survivor of domestic violence, she is also a single mother, who is trying to finish school, take care of her ailing mother, her three year old, and a newborn. Her response is an honest one: “I cry. I procrastinate and I cry.” She goes on to tell me that “Sundays are the worst for me because my online classes are due…Sunday is a black day.”
As if being a new mom to a second child isn’t hard enough, Maxine had to go back to school two weeks after Timothy was born, and after a week-long stint in the hospital, her mother is unable to watch her newborn. This week, her sister-in-law, who she affectionately calls her sister is watching him—but Maxine is still unaware of where Timothy’s care will come from next week when she has to go to class.
I press her more about life today and she reveals that Tyleek Sr. has a job as a truck driver, has seen the boys a little bit, and actually paid for Ty’s soccer lessons. Although he makes a point of seeing the boys when he in town, he mostly wants to chill out and have sex with other women. Maxine gets sad when she explains that Ty asks for his father all the time and is starting to question why he can’t see him all the time like other kids. While they stay in touch for the boys, she knows he is not the partner she had hoped he would be. In this, there is a sense of loneliness and she tells me that because of everybody’s focus on the kids now, she does feel abandoned to an extent. She hears about her friends going on party vacations and laments over the carefree youth she can no longer opt into. Still, she attempts to stay positive: “My mom tells me my time will come soon enough.”
When I ask her about whether she has hope, she perks up and says, “Oh yeah. I always have hope.” She knows things will turn out okay, but admits that the only thing she really fears is not raising her kids “correctly”. She explains that considering the current climate for black men in America, she fears for their safety and hopes she will raise them right. She tells me this as tears well up in her eyes—not a common occurrence in my experience with this strong mama. With a smart, loving, and kind mother like Maxine, there’s no doubt in my mind that her boys will turn out to be extraordinary men.
I interviewed Maxine because I wanted to hear what it’s like to be a mom from the perspective of a student parent. I thought we would talk about the struggle to complete schoolwork while trying to parent and how hard it is to get by financially when one is in school full time. Usually hesitant and slow to say what’s on her mind, once we sat down at the diner the first time, I was met with an assertive Maxine asking me, “Okay, so how deep do you want me to get?” I was up for anything…and she gave me a story unlike that which I was expecting. I admire her courage in not only bearing two children, but raising them single handedly, persevering in school, and still finding the time to take care of others—and forgive people who very well may not deserve forgiveness. She not only survived domestic violence, but has the courage to tell her story. That to me, is the most courageous act of all…
I always say that my students teach me many things, and Maxine is no exception…she is, in fact, exceptional. She has taught me to persist in light of hardship, to forgive–as hard as that may be, to always be kind, and mostly, to have hope.
Feel free to offer support and words of encouragement to Maxine. I will make sure to pass on the message. Thank you!