01/14/2013 01:45 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Going To School Isn't Easy: Nikita Rodriguez's 4-Hour Commute Shows Plight Of Those Seeking Education

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

Think you have a long commute? Nikita Rodriguez spent three and a half hours traveling home from school the other day.

Nikita and her mom, Nilda Paris, survived that journey Monday afternoon on the way home to Bridgeport from New Haven's High School in the Community, a magnet school serving 240 kids from the city and beyond.

This particular trip hit a snag because an 18-wheeler rolled over, jamming traffic near the Milford mall

But even in smooth traffic, the mother-daughter duo travels together at least four hours a day on public transit round trip--all in search of a better education and a sense of opportunity they don't see close to home.

Nikita, who's 14, gets up at 4:30 a.m. with her mom in their apartment in Bridgeport's East End. New Haven magnet schools accept kids from Bridgeport, but don't offer bus service. Paris and Nikita don't have a car. And the trains don't run early enough to deliver her for the 7:30 a.m. start of school. So they hop on a series of buses, beginning at 5:30 a.m., to get to school on time.

On the way home, they have two options: Take the train from New Haven to Bridgeport; or retrace their steps from the morning on the bus.

As they stepped out of HSC's Water Street building Monday, they chose the latter.

The commute began when the bell rang at 2:15 p.m. Nikita walked down the stairs into the arms of her mom, who had been waiting just inside the threshold to the school.

They set off for home, both wearing new black sneakers, early Christmas presents from Paris's mom.

The trip started up the cracked Water Street sidewalk towards the highway. They walked, side by side, two blocks to the Z bus stop and began to wait.

Nikita Makes It Home

Paris, who moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico 25 years ago, lives alone with Nikita, her only child. The two speak in a mixture of Spanish and English, and often, without words. Throughout the last 14 years, at home and in church, they've become each other's main companions in life. Four months into the school year, they have their new commute down to a seamless routine.

As they waited, mom began to unpack snacks for her daughter, who often skips lunch. She handed her a bottle of apple juice and a bag of Smartfood popcorn. The clock ticked. Nikita approached the curb to see if the 2:30 CT Transit bus was coming. She stepped back as traffic whizzed by.

"Mom, are you sure about the 2:30?" Nikita asked. The Z1 bus appeared at 2:39.

They hopped on and asked for a transfer. Nikita used a 10-ride card provided by her school. Mom pulled out a 10-ride card, discounted for people with disabilities. Paris, who is 48, said she was forced to stop working due to lupus. She makes ends meet on Social Security disability payments. Undefeated, she keeps herself busy volunteering as a community organizer and child advocate. And making the trip from Bridgeport to New Haven at least once, often twice, per day.

Aboard the Z1, Paris recounted why she makes the daily voyage to and from HSC. She has raised Nikita alone in Bridgeport. At Nikita's last school, she said, Nikita suffered from bullying. Paris cringed at the thought of sending her daughter to a large, comprehensive Bridgeport high school where she might meet similar problems, even some of the same kids. She looked for a smaller environment. She threw Nikita's name into New Haven's magnet lottery. Nikita ended up at her third choice, HSC.

The decision turned out to be a great one, Nikita said. She said she likes the small environment. She's making friends. She feels more "cheerful and happy."

Happy enough to keep navigating a maze of bus routes every day.

Mom and daughter got off the Z bus at the New Haven Green. They walked over to Temple Street to wait for their next connection--the O bus, which goes to the Milford mall on Boston Post Road. Nikita checked the schedule posted near the bus stop. Paris opened up a packet of peanuts to share.

The sun shone on the white Green, a glorious winter afternoon. Nikita counted her blessings it wasn't raining, windy, or cold.

"This is one of the days when I say, 'Thank you,'" she said, looking aloft.

She led the way onto the O2 bus and handed the driver her transfer slip. The bus was crowded, but there were enough seats.

The bus turned up Chapel Street, past Yale. A standout student at HSC interested in psychology, Nikita said she'd like to start taking classes at Yale as soon as next year. (Yale allows local high school students who have good grades to take classes for free.) That's one opportunity she sees at the end of the daily slog.

"It's a bit of a struggle," she said, "but it's worth it."

She finds the ride too bumpy to accommodate writing; there are too many distractions to read. So she usually puts on Tercer Cielo, Nimsy Lopez or other Spanish-language Christian music on her Samsung Galaxy and watches the scenery go by. The commute usually goes smoothly, she said.

"Time flies."

She munched on pistachio nuts, carefully corralling the shells into a plastic bag, as the bus made its way out Route 1 in West Haven.

Somewhere between Paisan's Pizza and Westy Self Storage, traffic began to back up.

"So slow," remarked Nikita at 3:50 p.m. The bus was taking longer than usual. An accident? she wondered aloud.

The clock hit 3:54.

"Oh my gosh, we're still at Taco Bell!"

Nikita stayed upbeat. The bus was going so slowly, she noted, that she would have had time to jump out, grab a taco, and get back on the bus.

The bus inched towards the Hometown Buffet, where heaps of macaroni and cheese awaited the weary bus-goer. Three people got off and walked in that direction. Nikita and her mom stayed put on the bus, which was now stopped.

"Traffic! Who invented it?" Nikita remarked. She glanced up at the boards outlining the transit fees.

"I've read everything so many times" that she has memorized the fares, she said.

Paris announced she has been looking into buying a car. She hasn't driven in four or five years, she said, since a bout of narcolepsy led her to a crash. She wondered aloud how much longer she can put up with the bus commute given its physical toll. It's not cheap, either: She estimated she pays $300 per month on transit to and from school, including her and Nikita's tickets. The school pays for Nikita's fares on New Haven buses; Paris pays for the Bridgeport buses and train fare.

Paris felt particularly fatigued that day, the second day observing the Fast of David. She had given up meat and bread for 10 days; she was subsisting on vegetables and nuts.

The bus was now running 20 minutes late. As they sat at the light, they saw their next bus--the Coastal Link--pull away for Bridgeport, out of reach.

"We're wasting so much time," Paris said as the bus sat stalled at the entrance to the mall.

"I've gotta stretch," said Nikita, standing up.

Police lights flickered ahead. The bus driver pointed out that a large truck appeared to have flipped over.

"Wow. This is an ugly afternoon," said mom.

"At least the mall's open. We can wait in the warm," Nikita cheerfully noted.

At long last, the driver pulled into the mall at 4:24, two hours after mom and daughter left school. Nikita asked if she had time to hit the bathroom--a fairly long walk through the mall. Given that the previous bus just pulled away, she deduced she would have time.

Her mom urged her to make it quick: "Avanza!"

As her daughter hustled to the bathroom, mom checked the schedule. Meanwhile, the next bus, off-schedule due to traffic, rolled up at 4:31. Mom dialed Nikita in a rush, but it was too late. "Se fue. Forget it," she said.

She sighed as the bus pulled away. "Oh Lord. Twenty more minutes now."

The next bus to Bridgeport arrived at 4:48. The driver announced the cause of everyone's headaches that day--an 18-wheeler had flipped over, blocking several lanes of Route 1. "I've gotta figure out my detour."

"Anybody know this area down here?" he called out to the half-dozen people on the bus.

"Nikita. Turn on the GPS!" mom urged.

Nikita grabbed her Samsung Galaxy and spoke a command: "Bridgeport, Connecticut." She calculated the nearest route while the driver called headquarters for directions.

The bus left the mall to find itself stopped in traffic. Dusk began to fall.

"Ave Maria," Nikita prayed.

She and her mom had plans to head to Bible study when they got home. Their pastor was going to pick them up in a church van. It looked like they weren't going to make it.

Nikita texted her pastor to let her know.

"I'm tired," Nikita said softly. "I want to go home."

As they waited in traffic, Paris entertained herself by walking to the front of the bus to chat with the driver in Spanish. She discovered she knew his girlfriend, Ada. Paris got on the driver's cell phone and surprised Ada with a reunion phone call. They hadn't talked in a year.

As the bus inched towards a highway on-ramp, the sun began to set over Milford's combination-Wendy's-and-Pilot-gas-station.

"This has been the longest day of my life," Nikita remarked.

Paris handed her daughter squares of chocolate for sustenance. Looking out the window, she said she's used to seeing those colors light up the sky in the morning, too. In winter, the sky remains dark until they arrive in New Haven. They usually see the sun rise as they walk from the New Haven Green to school. (The bus on that leg comes too late, so they usually walk.)

Getting up in the dark every day isn't easy. To get enough rest before her alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m., Nikita tries to get to sleep by 8:30 or 9 p.m.

"I try," she clarified. "I never said I succeeded."

At 5:18, three hours after they left HSC, they made their final transfer of the day, stepping off the CL bus at the Dock Shopping Center in Stratford. From there, they spotted the Bridgeport 1 bus, which would take them home.

"Vamos. Let's go!" said Mom.

"It feels like we did a whole adventure around the world," Nikita said as she sat down on the bus. At 5:25, she squeezed to the window seat to accommodate a man holding six bright yellow ShopRite bags.

Nikita started daydreaming about home sweet home, particularly, her bed.

At 5:38, they finally stepped off the bus onto a dark street corner in Bridgeport's East End.

"We're home!" Nikita announced.

They took one last mode of transit--an elevator--up to the 3rd floor of the Columbia Towers. Built as a corset factory some 100 years ago, the building was later home to Columbia Records. Now the factory rooms have been converted into loft apartments and condos. Paris scored a spot there with a voucher from Section 8.

Home at last, they didn't waste time.

Nikita sat down on the couch and started translating sentences about Corneliana for Latin class.

Mom didn't stop to rest. "I cannot sit down. I have to cook Nikita dinner," she said. On the menu: beef empanadas.

Nikita turned on the TV news and learned about the crash that had turned a grueling commute into a three-and-a-half-hour odyssey. She looked at digital clock on the TV.

"Twelve hours," she calculated. That's how much time she had before getting on the bus again.

Nikita continued her homework--which included reading Chapter 6 of Catcher in the Rye--as Paris walked a reporter back to the corner bus stop. This time, she took the shortcut through a hole in the fence. Leaning against the bus stop sign for support, she reflected on the day's voyage and the opportunity she hopes it will bring her daughter.

Nikita's three half-siblings have no careers, she said. If Nikita makes it through high school and college, she'll be the only one.

"I hope she don't quit on me," Paris said.

Paris recounted her own uphill journey to getting an education. She moved to Connecticut 25 years ago from Puerto Rico, where she grew up. Though she finished high school and college in Puerto Rico, she found herself starting from scratch in Connecticut because of the language barrier. She took a job in a laundry facility while juggling night school classes to improve her English. She studied her way to become a certified nurse's aide and a phlebotomy technician.

Now lupus prohibits her from holding down a steady job because she sometimes spends long stints in the hospital. Still, she keeps busy volunteering as a community organizer in Bridgeport, as a chaplain at her church--and as the chief guardian for her daughter's safe passage to school.

"I come in the dark. I leave in the dark," she remarked as she waited at the bus stop. "It's like you're never finished."