Dorian Ford preferred to do her homework in the bathtub. Most nights, she cooked dinner and then retreated to the bathroom of her mother’s cluttered house, where she and her two sons had been living for two years. Every time she tried to work anywhere else, her boys begged her to entertain them before bedtime. To carve out space to think, she had to pretend to take a bath.
One evening in mid-November of last year, Ford piled blankets into the tub, climbed in, and booted up her laptop. She stared at the screen, then exhaled deep and long. The Wi-Fi was broken. Only two papers and a trigonometry test separated Ford, then thirty-three, from finishing the English degree she’d started at Grambling State University, fifteen years earlier. Without the Internet, she couldn’t download research papers or check her e-mail to see if her Shakespeare professor had sent feedback on her final essay. Ford suspected her semester was nearing an ignominious end.
Ford got out of the tub. “Where are my keys?” she asked her sons as she trudged through the living room. “I need to go to Aunt Val’s to do my homework.”
Matthew, Ford’s six-year-old, followed his mother outside. Discovering that his basketball had gone flat, he sat down in the front yard and entertained himself by using an old, disconnected cell phone as a calculator. The week before, he had told Ford, “I desire to be a math genius.” His brother, Isaiah, age twelve, wanted to be a rapper or an N.B.A. star. Ford prayed that Isaiah would abandon these fantasies for a career in computers.
A well-fed cat dawdled nearby as Matthew lay in the grass, punching numbers into the phone. The four of them lived on a quiet, dead-end street in a twelve-hundred-square-foot brick house that looked nothing like the boarded-up shotguns in the poorest areas of Shreveport, Louisiana. But the house’s charms concealed its limitations. It was close to three highways but no parks. The area had one of the city’s highest crime rates. The state assigned the neighborhood schools a D ranking. Ford worried that the neighborhood would hold her sons back, so she woke up every weekday at 4 a.m. to put Isaiah on a bus to a middle school one town over. Matthew slept until five-thirty, then travelled to a magnet elementary school, three neighborhoods away. On weekends, she took her sons downtown to feed the homeless and helped them write rap songs about studying. She did it all hoping they’d go to college, although Ford believed—and statistics showed—that her sons would be more likely to graduate if she earned a degree herself.
Read my story about Dorian and Grambling State University on The New Yorker.