Guardian Angel
Every morning Karen dresses her brother, gets her mildly retarded father to work, and then heads off to first grade. Lynda Edwards explores the world of a child who lives in poverty and chaos but appears to be unbreakable.
October 1994


On Valentine's Day, for the third time this year, Karen's family was thrown out of their apartment. Her father, who is mildly retarded and illiterate, had had a dispute with the landlord over a pack of cigarettes, so at 3:00 AM., he woke his seven‑year‑old daughter, Karen, and her four‑year‑old brother, Junior. As always on these occasions, the children dashed through the apartment grabbing spoons, clothing, patched toys ‑whatever was small enough for a child to carry‑ and tossed them into paper bags as their father sobbed apologies.

For the next few nights, the children stayed with their father's odd choice of sitters: a man who made them scrub his toilet and floors in exchange for food; an elderly woman who heard Satan speaking through their furniture.

"I wish the devil'd used the phone," Karen says and shrugs. "Now we eat off the floor. That lady threw our chairs and refrigerator out the window."

Her father eventually moved their remaining possessions into a high-rise in the free‑fire zone of Minneapolis, where deinstitutionalized mental patients‑"the crazies," Karen calls them‑ would wander the halls screaming at night. Karen set up house. She filled a Styrofoam box with icicles broken from the windowsill to store her family's food. She learned a safe route to the bus stop so she could get to school, where she excels at music and math. Her "new job," she tells me, as she shows me around her neighborhood, is collecting glass bottles to return to a grocery for cash. "Always have $2 at home just in case you or your brother need food or a fast bus," she advises.

As we pass the bus stop where her father alights from his busboy job, Karen suddenly tugs my coat with both hands until I kneel beside her. She has long, shiny red hair, a pert nose, and the preternatural poise of the always watchful.

"My next job is a secret from Daddy," she whispers, blue eyes brimming. "Mean kids call him 'retard' and throw rocks at him. So I meet him here. I jump up so he carries me home, and I put my arms around his neck like this so they can't hurt him."

"How old are those kids?" I ask. She lifts her hand over her head to indicate height. "Sixth grade," she replies. "Next year they'll be bigger and meaner. I'll have to figure out what to do. I never ask Daddy what's going on or where we'll be -he's like a big Junior. I have to help them not be scared. But it's OK; I'm a good take‑carer."

Anyone who works with children knows that the mystery of destiny is not abstract. We learn from daily observation that good defeating evil in the end is nothing more than a middle‑class, middlebrow myth. When I first began teaching in an inner‑city school two years ago in the New York area, I was awed by the heroic efforts my fifth graders made just to attend class. After braving violent streets and halls, they would hoard whatever meager rewards‑a compliment, a smile, a chance to hold a teacher's hand‑that the day might bring, retelling their small, happy moments over and over again. "They're starved for sweetness now," my principal said. "But don't be too hopeful. In two years they'll be old enough for guns and gangs."

But sometimes sweetness not only stays, it triumphs. Of the five million children who live in poverty with a single, mentally ill, or disabled parent, l0 percent will do more than survive pathology. They will soar -socially, academically, morally. The University of Minnesota's pioneering developmental clinical psychologist, Norman Garmezy, Ph.D., has found that these "competent children," as he refers to them, share a constellation of traits: intelligence, remarkable verbal skills, compassion, openness, a lack of submissiveness. They take a parent's responsibility for younger siblings and are able to distance themselves from crazy‑making-environments to function at amazingly high levels. In the classic definition of mental health, "they work well, play well, love well, and expect well." By learning how competents manage their chaotic worlds, Garmezy and his colleagues hope to construct a sort of combat survival manual for all high‑risk children. "School is a child's equivalent of the workplace," Garmezy says, "the area where one's aptitude as a social, moral, and intellectual being is constantly displayed." Holland Continuous Progress School principal Mike Andrews says Karen evinces all of these traits.

Holland aims to be a carefree sanctuary for inner‑city pupils. "Any year, about 8O percent of my students are living in turmoil," says Karen's teacher, Robin Forsberg, a patient, high‑spirited woman in her early forties whose gray‑streaked brown hair swings below her shoulders. Some of the students live in foster care, hidden from abusive families. Others must aid and advise poor immigrant parents who speak no English. Some live in homeless shelters. They dash through the doors hatless, with sleet-soaked hair, clad in thin shirts, nylon parkas, frozen sneakers: tiny fugitives fleeing some chronic disaster. Karen stands out in this crowd. Many of the Holland staff say that what first impressed them about Karen is that her composure is so strong, it's contagious. "Our homeless students are very shy," says another teacher. "It's hard to always live as a stranger. Karen can draw them out, make them feel‑for a little while‑at home."

On the first day of my visit, Karen calls the school at 7:00 A.M. to say her dad had been in jail after a brawl with a buddy over a can of beer. The children know that if they're stranded but can get to a pay phone, principal Mike Andrews will rescue them. So, that morning Andrews and I drive to see Karen.

The family has moved again, the fourth time this year, to a one‑room apartment on a drag strip of apartment buildings, bail bondsmen, and gas stations. A leaky inflatable lady with a squishy head bobs forlornly on a string tied to a sign promising BIG HOT NUDIE TREETS. Karen's dad, Mike, opens the door, bleary‑eyed and dressed in a too‑tight KEEP ON TRUCKIN' shirt and women's stretch pants. (The family wears hand‑me‑downs donated by a church.) He runs a hand through his dirty hair that hangs in strings to his shoulders. "I'm embarrassed," he blurts out, flushing crimson.

"No need to be," Andrews says, shaking hands. Inside, Karen has lined the family belongings ‑a transistor radio, a broom, an electric fan, a hot plate, two mattresses, a bureau‑ against one wall for fast packing. Food is stacked in one corner: jumbo‑size sacks of cheese puffs, jugs of peanut butter and ketchup, buns, Spam, and in a box packed with icicles, milk and fruit Karen has spirited home from her free school lunches.

Behind their father, Karen and Junior are folding shards of a small round mirror into a white cloth. Junior tucks the bundle into Karen's pocket, then clings to her for a moment when she kisses him goodbye. She glances over his yellow terry‑cloth Ninja Turtles shirt (worn transparent in spots), then lifts the cuffs of his jeans to make sure he's wearing woolly socks. His pale brown hair in a Buster Brown bowl cut frames his worried face. "Don't be scared, Junior," she murmurs. "Daddy called the day‑care lady ‑I walked him to the phone. She'll pick you up in the van today, I promise. She says they have chocolate cookies and you can do fingerpaints." The tiny boy, who's four inches shorter than Karen, stands on tiptoe for one final hug.

Karen walks up to me and listens silently as I introduce myself. This isn't exactly our first introduction; a week before, her teacher advised me to send Karen a letter "and photos of anything in your life -your boyfriend, your cat, the flowers that grow outside your window- before you come here. She'll like having information to analyze." Everyone at the school agrees Robin Forsberg is one of the few people whom Karen feels she can fully trust. "But Karen makes up her own mind‑always. Her own judgment is all she can count on at home," says Forsberg, smiling ruefully.

Karen walks up to me and takes my hand. "I need to go put something away outside before we go to school," she says. We stroll out into the yard while her dad chats with Mike Andrews. Karen's colored‑chalk drawings adorn the concrete steps. "The rain washes it off, but for a while it looks nice," she says. She nods worriedly at a tag‑covered wall across the street; the Bloods and the Crips now have Minneapolis chapters that battle local gangs, first in paint, then with bullets. "Every morning mommies come out with soap buckets but can't wash it off. They say it means men with more guns are coming."

A discarded lime‑colored couch squats under a chinaberry tree in the backyard. Karen leaps onto the lumpy cushions: "This is my place for treasures," she says. She rummages among the rusty springs and moldy stuffing and withdraws pink plastic rosebuds tied with a glittery ribbon‑a favor from the only party she's ever attended‑along with a paper popcorn bag from a church carnival, perfect report cards, and a stickum card of aging glow‑in‑the-dark stars. They still glimmer softly in the winter light. She places the broken mirror alongside them.

"My grandma gave that to me before she died because she said I was pretty. My mom threw it against the wall last night. She always finds us wherever we move. I wish, I wish forever she'd go away."

Karen's mother, who is also mentally retarded, abandoned the family about two years ago to live in a halfway house for recovering addicts, battered women, and other mentally disabled women like herself. Occasionally, she makes a surprise visit. Like last night. "It was after midnight. I woke up and saw her in the moonlight, digging around. She was looking for Daddy's money jar," says Karen. But all she found was Junior's small china mug of pennies. Junior woke up and started to cry. "She hit him with her flat hands like this over and over." The crying boy wedged himself between the wall and a heavy crate, but the top of his head peeped out. "She kept hitting him. He was screaming."

Karen managed to budge a crate twice her weight to squeeze beside Junior and shield him with her body. "I yelled, 'If you hit me, I'll show the marks to the social workers. You'll be in jail forever.' She stopped. She was puffing like a monster. Her hair was crazy like a witch's. But she was afraid of me. She said I'm smarter than Daddy so she wants me on her side. But I won't be."

Her mother sometimes takes Karen to the halfway house‑partly to show off her clever, pretty daughter, partly to impart a strange lesson. She introduces Karen to other internees' children. Some have faces and hands that are scarred or burned, sometimes by a departed parent, sometimes by a random adult who happened to be drifting through their lives. They are the children whose bad fairy tales had no escape or redemption at the end.

The visits don't make Karen like her mother more, but she grasps the lesson. On her last trip, she brought the Salvation Army toys she got for Christmas‑a Barbie lunchbox, a Garfield stuffed toy, pastel barrettes and gave them to her injured comrades. She understands that she is lucky.

Armed for the day: Karen and her father head to work.

Karen's windowless classroom at Holland has no sunlight, but it's full of color and light. A string of tissue‑paper snowflakes ‑magenta, turquoise, lemon, emerald, ruby red‑ dances across the ceiling. "I made this one!" Karen beams, leaping up and swishing a violet flake. One wall of the room is covered with cubbyholes above a row of coat pegs. Karen tears off her pink parka and stuffs her plastic book bag into the wooden box. "At home, Junior and Daddy accidentally wreck everything. But no one is allowed to touch what's in here. This is all mine."

Penmanship cards, geometric shapes, and number lines border the chalkboard. Her teacher has laid open workbooks on each desk, which the first graders plow into until their curiosity overcomes them. "Who are you?" a little boy asks me, twisting around at his desk. "Are you Karen's new mommy?" Once they establish that I'm her friend, they race over with their homework for me to check, then ooh and aah over my tape recorder, notebook, and airline ticket with its picture of a jet above the New York skyline. They pledge allegiance to the flag, then file out for their federally subsidized breakfasts of cornflakes and milk. Afterward, they file back down the hall, where volunteers from a local bank sit on folding chairs reading stories to individual children.

In Forsberg's class the children keep journals about their home life. ("How do you spell rehab?" one child asks.) Karen leaves yesterday's page in her own journal blank, and she doesn't discuss last night's events with anyone at school. Instead, she spends the lesson helping a Guatemalan ESL (English as a Second Language) student. Later, while the children are making paper flowers in art class, Vang, a tiny Cambodian boy, begins to weep uncontrollably. Karen and another child put their arms around him and stroke his hair.

"Last year I had some children that seemed to feed off each other's misery and hysteria," Forsberg says. She leans her forehead against her hands, remembering. This year I have some kids like Karen: good, not mushy. Maybe role model isn't the right term for her. But there seems to be real power in the sort of kindness that doesn't take any garbage."

Home is all work for Karen's small circle of friends; none of them have ever had a birthday cake, a Halloween costume, or a Christmas tree. School is where they find their holiday. "Did the Easter Bunny come to your house?" one girl asks Karen during gym.

"No, we move too much, so he always misses us," Karen replies evenly.

"He missed us too," Vang says breathlessly, "but my ESL teacher said he left me this at her house." He pulls from his pocket a baggie containing four pastel malted eggs, four Hershey's kisses, and ten jelly beans. He smiles a wide, missing‑tooth grin. Without hesitation, he divides the candy among his friends.

"We didn't have Thanksgiving at home, but Ms. Forsberg made it for us here," Karen tells me, eyes widening. "Our class cooked a turkey in the teachers'‑lounge oven. I made mashed pota‑"

"We made rolls! With butter!"

"And corn! And sweet peas!"

"And pie!"

The end of the day is Choice Time, when the children play with whatever they want: board games, puzzles, books, stuffed animals, a toy sink and stove with plastic pots and pans. As Karen and Vang collect a pile of blocks and plastic dinosaurs, Karen invites another child to join them. "Danny, would you like to help build a dinosaur farm?" she asks.

Danny, a homeless‑shelter commuter, talks to angels. They float outside his bus window. Some have silver wings and give good advice: Study hard; save a hamburger bun from the free lunch so you'll have something to eat for supper. The bad angels have bloody wings and scowls. They say if he talks to anyone, he'll die. He comes to school anyway because he says it's worth his life.

One of the day's exercises involves learning to make change with cardboard duplicates of quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies. Half the first graders finish with ease because they do so much of the grocery shopping for their families. Karen compliments Danny on his acumen.

He brightens. "The man who owned a store near our projects used to let me work the cash register," says Danny. "He showed me pictures of his son in Korea who's my age. When he bought his boy a baseball glove, he bought me one too, and showed me how to catch."

He grins. He had a cat he used to let me pat that had the fattest head. He said, 'My cat eats too many cookies.' Then he got…" Danny's eyes veer away, his voice gets husky. The children stop smiling. "Someone shot the man in the store ... six times in the head ... We were supposed to ... we were going to…"

Bodega owners are murdered by the hundreds each year, but this man was a pillar in this child's life. Suddenly, his face crumples. He lurches forward, face buried in his arms, shoul­ders shaking, fingers digging into the carpet, scrabbling for support.

A competent child's poise is his only armor, a way of sidestepping the constant oncoming abyss. While the other children gaze petrified at his disintegrating composure, Karen pats Danny's Afro. But he rushes away. No one can comfort him.

That afternoon, just before she boards the bus, Karen asks me to give her a hug. As the bus moves past me on the sidewalk, I see her silently staring out the window as the kids bounce and squeal around her.

To navigate the years that stretch ahead, Karen will need the moral support of at least one adult like Robin Forsberg. And she will have to cultivate a gift for linking endless bits of luck. Those who reach adulthood have threaded their way through the maze of obstacles poverty has set before them. Still, they can all name decent, clever, hardworking friends who couldn't. Some weren't strong enough to coast through childhood illnesses without doctors, or they lacked the iron will and clear thought needed to fight bullies in zero‑sum power battles. Or they got shot. Staying on the right side of luck takes enormous energy. What Karen's teachers fear most is that she'll just become too exhausted to escape.

What helps her get by is the equivalent of a soldier's furlough ‑a weekend each month of "respite care" provided by a middle‑class foster family. The Nestingens live in a two‑story house with their two young children and teenage foster daughter. As soon as Karen arrives on her scheduled Saturday morning, she races to the backyard swing set "as if she's never had a chance to play," says Karen Nestingen, a trim, energetic woman in a sweatshirt and jeans. "This is the one place where she doesn't have to be a seven‑year‑old mommy." Six visits passed before Junior would allow Nestingen, rather than Karen, to comfort and bandage him when he got a bump or a scrape playing.

"He's now very open emotionally with my husband and me, but I've accepted that Karen will be ... aloof," Nestingen says. "It's as if she keeps a veil between the adult world and her deepest emotions. Maybe that's the price a competent child feels she has to pay to distance herself from the craziness around her."

For our final outing, Karen chooses a trip to an ice cream parlor. She's never been to one. The shop is full of ferns, pink booths, and silver helium balloons. Karen spent Friday canvassing classmates about what treat to order. The consensus is a root beer float with bubble gum ice cream, whipped cream, and M&M toppings. Suddenly, Karen quizzes me about my life. Does my apartment have running water? How many hours did I have to work to buy a bed and a TV? Does my boyfriend give me flowers and hair ribbons? Has he ever been shot? She mulls each answer over, piecing together a world.

"Read me a story," she says, climbing onto my lap. For a goodbye gift I had bought her some books, one a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Princess of Swans. I remember liking it as a child because the heroine was an oldest sister caring for a younger brother, but I'd forgotten how dark the story was.

Elise lives happily with her seven younger brothers until a jealous witch exiles her to a wild forest. The brothers are turned into swans who regain human shape only one hour a night. To break the spell, Elise must, by Christmas, weave them shirts from razor‑sharp brambles. The drawings are beautiful but Gothic. Karen studies the picture of Elise's beloved brother weeping over Elise's bloodied hands under a waning moon.

The tale is long and intricate, but when I try to compress it, Karen puts her palm flat on the page: "You skipped words. Tell me everything.”

A prince falls in love with the heroine. But the witch persuades the remarkably credulous kingdom to kill Elise. She saves herself and, in the last seconds of Christmas, flings the shirts over the swans. One sleeve unravels. In the last picture, the favorite brother gazes at Elise, his face wrenched in love and pain. One tear gleams on her cheek as she touches the snow‑white wing he bears instead of his arm.

The imperfect rescue disturbs Karen; will the swan's wing hurt the brother? Will the girls think it's pretty or hate him? Why did the prince believe the witch instead of helping Elise weave her shirts? She flips through the book, examining pages, like a scientist puzzling over discrepant DNA. "The husband I love will be nicer and smarter than the prince," she finally says, closing the book. "My mom said I would be a bad lady if I stay with Daddy and Junior. But she can't make me be mean or stupid or jealous. I'm going to work until I get a safe, clean place. Sometimes I'm sad. But when I get there, this place won't matter. And I'll know how to help sad people because I learned what to do in the bad places."

In a culture that equates kindness with weakness, it is a strange sensation to encounter goodness that is unsentimental, strong, and resolute. One child psychologist who studies competency keeps a poem written by a German physician, Gottfried Benn, in his research notes: "I have met persons who/ With parents and four siblings have grown up/ In one room; who at night, stopping their ears with their fingers,/ Learned their lessons by the kitchen stove; who later/ As adults were comely and gracious, more like countesses/ I've often asked myself, finding no answer,/ 'What is it that makes a person gentle and kind?'/ I still don't know."

Benn lived in Germany during the horror and moral devastation of the Third Reich. The question he posed still has no clear answer. Since he wrote these words, medicine has desperately searched for the roots of evil; doctors interview those accused of heinous crimes, pore over brain scans and family histories of the criminals, hunting for reasons where none yet exist. "We are on the brink of a world so violent, the language for it doesn't exist," Garmezy sighs. "Yet we are just now exploring the roots of inexplicable heroism.

"Even the great Milton believed Lucifer was the mystery to solve," he adds. "But the equal, perhaps greater mystery is the flowering of goodness in a desolate place."