After years in shadows, a better life beckoned

July 08, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

LONG after the graduation ceremony was done, and the big crowd at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field had drifted out into the humid evening, Francine Tucker beheld her brand-new master's degree and listened to a man ask a simple question.

"Did you ever think you'd see such a day?"

"No," said Tucker. "I didn't even think I would be this old."

She is 46 now, but she has survived too many lifetimes in this city's dreariest shadows. The master's degree from Hopkins, in special education, comes three decades after Tucker dropped out of the seventh grade at age 13 and ran away from home because she could no longer bear to live with an abusive, schizophrenic mother.

She lived on the streets for more than two years, scrounging for food and shelter, and had the first of her four children at 16. For years she used whatever substance, drink or smoke, would get her high enough to blot out the awful reality of her life. She is a story of redemption in a city with far too many people who live some variation of the first part of her life but never even dream of the second.

On the night she received her master's degree, Tucker sat near the back of the big Homewood Field crowd, tracing all the paths she had taken to get there. She thought about her father and her mother, now long gone. She knew her father only at the end of his life, when it was too late to make peace. At her graduation, Tucker glanced around at students talking into their cell phones. She heard them cry out happily to those in the surrounding stands, "Hey, Mom."

"It was hard," she said. "I tried to keep my composure, but it was hard."

She remembered her mother in the midst of terrible explosions. "She would hit me," Tucker said. "She would go around totally breaking all the windows in the house, and rip the doors right off the hinges. She had to be taken away in an ambulance, with the police trying to calm her down. I knew she was at Crownsville State Hospital, but that's all I knew. My grandmother would take care of me when my mother was away."

When her mother came home to the apartment in the east-side Douglass Homes, Tucker finally bolted. She'd been in Catholic school, but her mother pulled her out and put her in public school. Then she'd make her stay home, until Francine fell increasingly behind her classmates, who began to tease her about her failures.

"I finally said, `Forget it,'" she recalled the other day. "I just left, and I didn't go back. I stayed on the street, or house to house. People would take you in for a day, or a week. That was pretty good. It was a week that I didn't have to stay on the street or go into an apartment building and lay under some steps. Or sometimes I lived in that little park across from Mercy Hospital. It was very dark, so nobody saw you. You could hang out and live."

She says she spent 2 1/2 years this way. "I just did what I needed to do. I had to eat. I was hungry. I'd do whatever I had to do."

When she was 15, she met a 21-year-old man. She wanted somebody to care for her. He took her in. They drank a lot and smoked a lot of marijuana, "medicating each other," she says. "We both had a lot of pain." They stayed together for the next 20 years, and had four children.

She would take the children, she says, to the Head Start center on Broadway, enough times that eventually they offered Tucker a job - if she could get a high school diploma.

"I thought it was unbelievable that anyone would want to hire me," she says. "I took the GED test and passed." She was 33 years old. She enrolled at Towson State, moved to the University of Maryland, and to Notre Dame and Sojourner Douglass, picking up a few credits here, a few there. She had to fit the courses into her home schedule. She took more than a decade to get her undergraduate degree, "sometimes taking my kids to class, carrying my baby on my hip." Along the way, she says, she took herself off alcohol and pot, and found a place for herself and her children.

"Once I decided not to put that stuff in my body any more, I needed to get out," she says. "Those things were obstacles for me and my children."

She went to work for Healthy Start, a child development program. She bought herself a house on Monument Street. She heard about a Hopkins master's program for returning students. A lot of her classes were in Columbia; Tucker didn't drive, so her daughter, Cathryn, drove her to class.

"The people at Hopkins made me feel comfortable," Tucker said. "They gave me some credits for life experience, from my time working with children." Her own are now grown, and doing well. Tori, 29, newly discharged from the Army, is going to college. Cathryn, 28, is working and going for her degree. Alexander, 17, and Kory, 12, are both in Catholic school.

And there's Francine Tucker, clutching her master's degree and gazing into a brighter future than she ever imagined. She's still working for Healthy Start. She's supervisor of early childhood development.

"It's been a good life," she says. "I've learned a lot. The memories are painful. I have flashbacks. But I believe I went through it for a reason. When I meet single moms or families really having problems, I know what they're going through. And that inspires me."

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