04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A View From the Cot

The husband and wife a few feet away from you are at it again. She's screaming at her old man. She says the son-of-a-bitch stole her money so he could buy more heroin. You've figured out pretty quickly that he's a junkie and that this story isn't going to have a happy ending. For the time being, however, you're in their space and it's best just to keep quiet.

You try hard to ignore their fighting because you still have homework to do. You're also hoping that the junkie and his bride haven't scared the daylights out of your two little brothers, who happen to be nearby. At some point you manage to fall asleep on your cot. A few hours later you hop a Red Line train and head to school.

During third period your mind wanders. You wonder if you're the only kid in your class who is living in a homeless shelter. No way to know, really, since you haven't even told your best friends that you're homeless.

At least your current shelter is in Uptown, and that makes for a relatively quick trip to Lincoln Park High School. Junior year hasn't been easy, but it's not like freshman year, when you had to commute to Lincoln Park from a South Side shelter near the 95th Street train stop.

But you plow ahead. You have faith that things will get better.


And they will get better for this kid, because this kid is wise beyond his years. I met him when he was in seventh grade, and he impressed the hell out of me back then. He was one of my students at Bell Regional Gifted Center, where I've volunteered for many years as a "lawyer-in-the-classroom." After watching him make his arguments in a year-end mock trial, I knew the kid was special. I also knew that he didn't have a particularly easy life.

At the end of that school year, I spoke with his mom about my staying in touch with her son and serving informally as a mentor to him. She liked the idea, so he and I started spending some time together: grabbing an occasional bite to eat, playing catch, talking music -- basic stuff.

About 18 months later, he and his family fell off the radar screen. I knocked on a lot of doors and made a lot of phone calls before learning that the mom and her boys were living in a homeless shelter somewhere in the city. My oldest daughter (then in seventh grade) was stunned by the news.

I tried to contact my young friend a couple of times by giving messages to a counselor at Lincoln Park High School, but I didn't hear back. A couple years later, my oldest daughter enrolled at Lincoln Park. I asked her to keep her eyes open, but she never crossed paths with him on campus.

Last year, however, my friend and I reconnected. When I tracked him down (via Facebook, believe it or not), he was finishing up freshman year at a large public university hundreds of miles from home. We made plans to get together when he got back to Chicago.

Since then, we've been able to spend some quality time together. He told me he dropped off of my grid because he was embarrassed about being homeless. He's now at a point where he's a little more comfortable talking about his experiences. Not too many warm and fuzzy memories, as you might imagine.

The bad news is that his college money has all but dried up, so he wasn't able to return to his university this fall. He's currently taking classes at a city college while he tries to line things up for next year. He thinks he'd like to be a CPS teacher, and I know he'd make a fine one. This is a quality kid -- and I'm not an easy grader.

I recently suggested to my friend that he attend this month's meeting of the Chicago Board of Education. I told him about something I'd heard at January's meeting that might interest him. During that meeting, Marilyn Stewart, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, told the board about her January visit to Curtis Elementary School.

Curtis is one of the neighborhood schools slated to be closed at the end of this year for poor academic performance. According to Stewart, 200 students transferred in and out of Curtis during a one-month period earlier this school year. If true, that's a remarkable statistic because the CPS website lists Curtis's enrollment at only 464 students.

Some Curtis teachers told Stewart that the high mobility rate stems from a nearby homeless shelter that feeds the school. Stewart asked the board how Curtis's faculty was supposed to "capture" such a transient student population. (Stewart did not return my call, and no one from Curtis's administration was willing to speak with me.)

I told my friend he might like to tell the board what it's like to gear up for your ISAT exams while the guy on the cot five feet away is working on ways to get his next fix.