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Sheryl Green: Watching a tough teen mom graduate

Sheryl Green

Sheryl Green
Sheryl Green

The huge auditorium was full of pomp and circumstance.

Proud parents, flowers and balloons in hand, readied their cameras to snap the perfect shot of their child walking across the stage to receive the coveted diploma. The place was electrifying as the graduates filed in wearing their caps and gowns. One can't help but feel a certain beam of pride at a high school graduation ceremony. And there are none more proud than the teachers who were instrumental in getting them there.

The rules at most ceremonies are the same: no hoot-in' and hollerin' until a designated break in the list of names. We understand the rule, of course, but trying to contain a momma's joy is a measurable task, no doubt. On this particular afternoon, there was going to be no containing the outbursts of happiness for one particular graduate.

Her name was Jeraldine Slappy.

As a first-year high school teacher, I was given the not-so cream of the crop -- the "Tech Prep" students. The kids with ankle monitors and rap sheets. The ones rejected from being prepared for college and earmarked as ones just needing to be corralled until their time was served. Most people would have written off the rough-around-the-edges, street-savvy Jeraldine as just another lost kid from the projects.

She entered my American literature class having unsuccessfully taken the same course two times already.

When I met her, she had high hair, high heels and a loud voice.

I remember the first time I had a small altercation erupt in the classroom. Jeraldine, smacked her gum, sucked her teeth, stood and announced to the misbehavior, "Ya'll better stop disrespectin' Ms. Green here and act like ya'll got some sense." The scuffle ceased immediately.

She turned to me and said, "Don't be scared, Ms. Green, I got you."

I'll never know why she did that. Why she took a liking to me, but the feeling was definitely mutual.

Jeraldine and I spent another two courses of American literature together, so we became rather close. She maintained order, and I taught Walt Whitman. I watched her struggle through a life of challenge that took her away from school quite often. But I also got many chances to sit and chat with my right hand gal, learning all about her life as the big sister to four younger, struggling brothers all living with grandma because there were no parents present.

I learned about the miraculous journey she had been on to even still be in school and her desire more than anything to graduate with a diploma, not a GED. I learned about the challenges she faced as a young mother to a 4-year-old active little boy, balancing raising her child with helping to raise her four brothers while trying to stay afloat in school.

Several afternoons she would rush to pick up her son from grandma's and return for tutoring. I'd put Little Man on a computer in the back, and Jeraldine and I would push our way through the Romantics.

That was the Jeraldine Slappy I knew. A resilient fighter. Resourceful and persistent.

She finally made it through American literature and her other classes, and on this day, she would finally be walking across the stage to receive the most precious treasure she had struggled so long to receive -- her high school diploma.

I sat way up in the nosebleed section, a smile etched on my face as familiar names were called. But when Jeraldine Slappy was called, something broke inside me, and I just wept.

Not sure if it was pride or sadness. I would miss her. Her high hair and high heels. Her smacking gum. Her having my back.

The mandated silence in the auditorium suddenly broke by a little 4-year-old voice. "Yay, momma!"

I don't think anyone escorted the little guy out of the ceremony, because I'm sure many were shocked at the paradox of the circumstance. It's hard for many of us to imagine hearing a toddler, old enough to understand, yell for his mother as she graduates from high school. After all, most people would have written off the rough-around-the-edges, street-savvy Jeraldine as just another lost kid from the projects.

Just another teenage, unwed mother who would amount to little. But not Jeraldine Slappy. She was a fighter, and I miss her.

Sheryl Green is an independent contractor. Contact her at