Life After Lee

GSU2Allison Webb parked on the side of Charles Allen Drive as she had done dozens of times before.

But this time it took her five minutes to talk herself out of the car. The familiarity of this Midtown neighborhood was bittersweet. Lee had lived in a ground-floor apartment just down the road. Together they had shopped at Trader Joe’s and eaten at Woody’s CheeseSteaks, snapshot memories of her son that could one moment comfort her and the next send her spiraling into despair.

Crossing the street to the campus of Henry W. Grady High School was especially surreal. It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday in mid-December, and the classrooms were bright and bustling. As Webb passed each window, she could imagine Lee sitting at his desk, cutting up with friends, flirting with the girls. Flashing that perfect smile. She approached the old brick entrance, climbed the stairs, and stopped before the heavy gray doors. She pressed the intercom button and told the voice in the box her name and that she was there to see the counselors. As she waited to be buzzed in, Webb remembered the countless times she had stood in that very spot holding the lunch or the book that Lee had forgotten. More than once, she had paced there, empty-handed, worried, wondering what he had done to get sent to the office this time.

This time, Webb was here to help other kids in trouble. She had an appointment to speak with the faculty about the Lee Project, a non-profit initiative that partnered with the Georgia State College of Arts and Sciences to provide scholarships to high school students who’ve dealt with tragedy or extraordinary adversity.

The program began as a way for Webb to memorialize her son’s life. It became a reason for her to go on with her own.

It’s hard to remember her life before Lee.

She was 22, a student at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, when she got pregnant. She and Lee’s father split when Lee was 11 weeks old. Webb got a job at a dry cleaner. She left college, but promised herself she would go back once Lee graduated high school.

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History and “Hate Ashbury”

GSU1Kristina Graves was sure she was mistaken.

She was in the arena at the Yaraab Shriners Temple on Ponce de Leon Avenue, cheering on the Atlanta Rollergirls, the local flat-track roller derby team, and from her trackside seat she could have sworn she recognized one of the skaters zipping by.

That looks just like Dr. Brattain!

Graves’s former history professor at Georgia State and the “jammer” in question did share the same compact build — muscular shoulders squared atop a petite, wiry frame. The dark brown hair creeping from beneath the rim of the skater’s black helmet matched as well. Still, the idea that the same sweet woman who had once lectured Graves on Nixon and Kennedy and the Vietnam War and gently nudged her to pursue a master’s degree would be spending her Saturday nights gliding around in circles, exchanging elbows and body checks with sweaty, tattooed women twice her size seemed, at best, far-fetched.

The program offered little help — the “67” written in marker on the jammer’s arms was registered to Hate Ashbury, a skater alias.

There was only one way to be certain. After the final buzzer had ended the bout, Graves worked her way through the scattering crowd to the floor, toward the home bench where Hate Ashbury was greeting fans, grinning, celebrating her team’s victory. Even as she drew closer, Graves couldn’t shake her uncertainty. But by the time Graves was within shouting distance, before the former student could work up the courage to say anything, Michelle Brattain spun around on her skates, eyes widened with pleasant surprise and cried, “Kristina! Oh my gosh, you’re here!” Teacher hugged student and asked what she thought of the bout.

A few years prior, it was Brattain sitting trackside, wondering if she could see herself out there on eight wheels.

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Next Step: Literacy

GSU3Early County is a remote patch of southwestern Georgia bottomland pinned against the Chattahoochee River at the Alabama border. More than half of the county’s 11,000 residents are scattered across the countryside, many on farms — peanut and cotton, mostly. Cell phone reception is spotty, and those who can afford Internet access get barely enough bandwidth to check their email account, if they have one.

Blakely, population 5,000, is the county seat, centered on a domed and columned courthouse built in 1904 in the middle of the town square. It is the home of the county’s lone school district — 2,200 students, nearly 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. The city also hosts the county’s sole library, though it is not really a part of most citizens’ daily lives. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 22 percent of residents over the age of 16 lack basic literacy skills. One survey found 30 percent of households with young kids reported owning fewer than four children’s books. Some had none at all.

Based on some of these factors alone — higher levels of poverty, illiteracy and limitations in technological access — one might think this rural corner of Georgia had too many educational challenges. Georgia State Regents’ Professor of Psychology Robin Morris thought it was perfect.

Morris is a founding member of the Global Literacy Project, a partnership among Georgia State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University built around the idea of helping at-risk children learn basic language and literacy skills by connecting them with technology. The plan, simply put, was to load a tablet with interactive reading and language-rich software and hand it to a child in undeveloped Africa and India where there are no schools or teachers. The pure curiosity of youth, the researchers theorized, would lead the kids to figure out the reading-related games and puzzles on their own and, thus, they would essentially teach themselves to read.

That was the theory, at least. Before they could secure the money and resources to start the initiative on a global scale, reaching 170 million illiterate children in some of the poorest parts of the world, the Global Literacy Project had to see if the tablet would actually work. And what better, more accessible testing grounds than with at-risk children in the American South?

In late fall 2012, Morris and his team drove three-and-a-half hours down from Atlanta, set six Motorola Xoom tablets on a table in front of a pre-kindergarten class of 4- and 5-year-olds, and stepped back without saying a word. Many of kids had never seen such devices before. They approached with caution and handled the tablets with awe-inspired care. Without receiving a breath of instruction, they soon figured out how to turn on the display and quickly started scrolling through the applications and playing the reading and language games. A promising start.

But were the children actually learning?

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