The Student: Page McNeil
“Baige! Baige!” a tiny voice cries across a small bedroom. Eighteen-year-old Paige McNeil pops up and steps down from the bottom bunk onto a cold hardwood floor. It’s 1:15 on a Monday morning in late May. Sleepily, she tugs a thin, white blanket off her bed and wraps it around her shoulders, like a queen’s robe, to defray the chilly, early air the hardwoods have trapped. She scoots down the hall to the kitchen, pours chilled milk into a plastic sippy cup, and returns through a dark house.
By now, her youngest sister, Marisa, seventeen, is shouting from the top bunk, “Be quiet, Will!” “Shut up, ’Risa!” Paige’s two-year-old son rebuts in a raspy pitch. Paige ignores the bickering and scoops up her thirty-five-pound tyke, soothing him with gentle shushing and soft kisses. She clicks on the television and nearly mutes the volume; the faint glow illuminates the room without the overhead light.
After a diaper change, Will rests his head against his mother’s chest and eagerly sips his cup. He wears his favorite Pixar Cars pajamas, and clings to his Lion King blanky. Paige runs her fingers over his curls, which have been tamed into tight braids. Her own long, wavy, jet-black hair is cocooned in a colorful scarf. When Will has had his fill, he tosses his cup to the floor—his new favorite thing to do—and he and Paige fall back into deep slumber until the radio alarm clock blares at 4:45.
Paige allows herself one hit of the snooze before waking a fussy Will. She cleans his face with a warm rag and dresses him. He lunges his arms, overzealously, through the wrong holes of his tangerine T-shirt and navy blue shorts and babbles baby talk. “Yes, Boo Boo, I know,” Paige plays along.
Now, they wait in a groggy daze, arm and arm on the living-room loveseat, until 5:15, when Will’s day-care van honks from the dim driveway.
The End of Course tests (EOCs) start next week, and thanks to day care, Paige won’t find herself in the same position she did last year, her sophomore year. She struggled to find sitters for Will and amassed more than fifty individual class absences. Will’s father, P. J.—whom Paige rarely speaks to—was of little help, and Paige’s mother, who Paige says had pressed her to have an abortion, wasn’t either. “If you can’t find someone to watch the baby, I guess you’ll just have to drop out,” she’d say. And because Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ policy mandates that more than ten absences in a single EOC-required class results in automatic failure, Paige’s test scores couldn’t help her; she failed two courses.
But this school year is different. Paige has joined a program offered by local nonprofit Communities in Schools that aids teen mothers in their efforts to graduate. Free day care is provided, and Paige is grateful. Her report cards bear A’s and B’s, and her attendance record is nearly perfect. She is resolute in her mission to pass the tests for her two EOC classes.
“Bye, baby!” she shouts and waves as the white van trails away. She locks the front door and falls back into bed for forty precious minutes, until her alarm clock rings again at 6 to awaken for a day of classes and EOC reviews.
Paige and Marisa fight for the only bathroom, where they wash their faces, brush their teeth, and let down their hair, elbow-to-elbow. For once, their mother’s boyfriend, Dennis, isn’t banging on the door and demanding the bathroom. It’s a battle neither Paige nor Marisa can win because, as their mother insists, “Dennis pays the bills.” Paige fluffs her clothes in the dryer and dresses her thin, five-foot-five frame in a black T-shirt, black collared jacket and navy-blue shorts. She laces up her favorite black sneakers and snatches her pink-and-black tote bag. Her young, chocolate-colored skin is free of makeup, save a little ebony liner she’s rimmed around her almond-shaped eyes.
At 6:50, a rap at the door has Paige’s second oldest sister, Angel, nineteen, yelling, “Quin’s here!” But Paige’s sophomore boyfriend will have to wait for her across the street; there are no boys allowed in the McNeil household—not anymore; not since Paige found out that she was pregnant at fifteen, her freshman year.
Paige skips the goodbyes, slips out the front door into the already-balmy air and joins hands with Quin for the less-than ten-minute walk up Southwest Boulevard. It’s a straight shot to West Charlotte High School, or as the students call it, “Dub-C.” Paige belts out a laugh when Quin teases her that, with her cropped shorts, she’s missing “the rest” of her pants. He jokingly offers her a pair of large, gray sweats from his gym bag.
They dawdle and chat until a 7 a.m. bell sounds out over campus, signaling the start of first block in fifteen minutes. Paige heads to D-8, where she quietly slides into a back-row seat of Ms. Washburn’s Biology I class. Her absences last year have forced Paige to repeat the class, and she isn’t happy about it. She works through the sixty-question EOC review the class has been assigned to complete independently. They’ve covered the same questions dozens of time, so Paige finishes them quickly. She moves on to the extra-credit packet she’s been working on for days. With Will to care for, Paige has little to no time to study at home, so she uses the spare minutes to cram and refresh for this EOC, which is just over a week away. This year, Paige is fierce; she’s determined to score the highest level possible: four.
Second and third block bring English and Medical Science. The latter is bisected by a twenty-minute lunch break, and it can’t come soon enough; Paige doesn’t eat breakfast, and her stomach is rumbling. On the way to lunch, she and Marisa stop by to say hi to Mr. Gilkesson, West Charlotte’s CIS site coordinator, who is doling out college information packets and Marines brochures. Paige and “Mr. G.’s” bond began last year, when she entered his office in tears and shared her struggle as a young mother with no child care.
Paige and Marisa shuffle to the cafeteria, where they meet Quin and a friend at a table, munch on nachos with cheese sauce and chocolate milk, and chat about classes and tests. Paige and Marisa are part of the 79 percent of the student body that benefits from free or reduced-price meals.
When Med Science wraps up, Paige hurries to F-building for Civics & Economics with Mr. Singleton. He greets her with a big smile, leaning against an old, wooden door with a maroon-painted frame. Paige pulls her desk next to Quin’s, and Mr. Singleton sweetly, but firmly, breaks them up. He reminds the class that the EOC is exactly two weeks away. The class has been in major review mode for a month already. If Paige doesn’t score a three or a four, her A average won’t matter; she won’t get credit for the class. But Paige is confident; Mr. Singleton reminds her daily that she has—and knows—what it takes to pass.
She works assiduously on the Bill of Rights–themed warm-up, despite the chatter around the room, and claps excitedly when Mr. Singleton sets up a Jeopardy! review game—with official Alex Trebek footage and all—on the overhead projector. The class is divided into two teams, and Paige is in it to win it. The categories include topics like Foundational Documents, Life in Colonial America, and Early Colonial Government. Five categories in, Mr. Singleton asks, “What document extended the rights of the English beyond the Magna Carta?” “The English Bill of Rights!” Paige shrieks. Her team earns $400.
When the game wraps up, the class is instructed to clear their desks for a mini assessment. Paige pays heed to the questions that give her trouble so that she can inquire about them when they review the answers. The clock strikes 2:15, and the rowdy group rushes the door. As Paige and Quin exit, Mr. Singleton tosses them an approving nod and assures them that they’ll deliver the threes or fours they need on the EOC. “Study, study!” he hollers.
They mosey, hands clasped and swaying against their hips, to the bus lot, where they part ways for the evening, and Paige meets Marisa for their walk home. She slides her new red BlackBerry out of her bag. It was a gift from her grandmother, who lives with Paige’s father back in her hometown of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and a measure to keep Paige and herself in constant contact. They usually chat every night around 8 because her grandmother is one of few family members who Paige feels supports her as a mother. She plugs in a set of headphones that blast her latest obsession, “Perfect,” by Pink. Today, Paige adds a slight swiftness to her step because when she gets home her mother is taking her to a modeling interview at a local agency. She hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it since she got the phone call last week.
When they reach the front stoop of the house, Paige hurries into her mother’s bedroom only to discover that she hasn’t purchased the hair supplies Paige had hoped to have for her interview. But she forgoes a protest and plops down on her own bed. Engaging her mother in a fight can lead to Paige being kicked out. Their relationship has been rocky and unpredictable since they learned together at the doctor’s office that Paige was pregnant.
She rests her eyes and waits. They’ll stop by the beauty shop in a bit when they pick up Paige’s older brother, Ali, from his day program. He is twenty-two and autistic, and his size and stature can make managing his behavior a challenge. Paige has taken it upon herself to be the guardian of his nutrition; she’s done extensive research and knows that his diet affects his functioning.
When they return home, Paige is nervous and excited as she styles her locks. It doesn’t last. A quick fight with her mother over who should watch Will when they go to the interview puts an end to it all. Paige feels as though the quality of her mothering is being called into question, and her mother feels disrespected. The punishment: no interview. Paige doesn’t sulk; she’s not surprised.
At 3:30, she runs outside to meet Will’s day-care van just as it arrives. She thanks the drivers, showers Will with kisses and “love you”s and asks him about his day. The remainder of the evening, before a bath and bedtime, means playtime for Will and constant supervision by Paige.
They read Dr. Seuss’s Wet Pet, Dry Pet, Your Pet, My Pet! three times. On the third rendition, Paige adds a rapper’s twist, and Marisa joins in. That gets Will hopping around and clapping his hands. “Yeaaaah!” the three of them yell. Will takes full advantage of the house rule Paige has established: “If Will hands you a book, you stop what you’re doing and read to him.”
His bite-sized tennis shoes pound the hardwoods as Will skips through the house, counting, “Six, seven, ten, eleven!” Paige laughs and throws in, “Eight, nine—good job!”
Their usual dinner date begins at 7. Paige tries her best to make string beans look appetizing, but Will flies out of his seat and grabs his noodle pack. “Here, Baige.”
Though she insists he call her “mommy,” Will prefers her first name—after all, that’s what Marisa, Ali and Angel call her—but he hasn't yet mastered his Ps. “No,” she asserts. Sometimes she nukes a frozen chicken lasagna tray for herself, but tonight, Paige skips dinner and moves straight to Will’s bath. It’s just before 8; if she gets him to sleep early enough, she’ll read through her EOC reviews.
She pats Will dry with a towel and buttons him into a onesie. She has to nearly wrestle him to brush his teeth, which is why she only attempts the feat at bedtime. They snuggle to an encore of Dr. Seuss, while Will drinks his milk. In no time, he dozes off, and Paige slips out.
Around 9, her BlackBerry buzzes. It’s Quin. Paige promises to call him back. After she showers and wraps her hair, she picks out Will’s outfit for Tuesday morning and sets it on the vanity.
Just after 10, she cuts off the light and curls up under her quilt. She’s been waiting for this moment all day. She calls Quin, but falls asleep, mid-conversation. There’s no time or energy for studying tonight; she’ll have to find a few minutes, here and there, at school tomorrow. In about three hours, she’ll be waking up to do it all over again.