Tyra Johnson had been planning for the first day of school at home for weeks. She ordered workbooks and a small sling book rack online. She transformed a 50-square-foot corner of her living room into a learning nook for her preschooler, Madison, and first-grader, Meegale.
Johnson, 30, had the tablet and password ready to log in for Meegale’s virtual schooling. The newborn, Mason, would sleep in a baby carrier she would wear all day while teaching the other two. Her 10-year-old niece would also be staying with her in her north St. Louis apartment.
“I have a first-grader,” she says, with a laugh, as if she can hardly believe it. She points out that her son actually reads on a grade level higher than his age.
Both of the children have been out of school since mid-March, with their mom trying to find ways to keep their education on track despite the challenges of losing her job and living in a neighborhood with frequent gunfire.
I’ve been checking in with her since the spring, but the first time we met in person was the day before the new school year was scheduled to start in late August. She doesn’t let her children go outside this apartment to play. Most nights they spend at her mom’s house in Cahokia because it feels safer to her.
Meegale is trying to put together a safe out of the discarded cardboard boxes downstairs. He recruits me to help him. He searches on YouTube on the television in his room to find videos of how to make a safe out of cardboard boxes. He looked outside his window facing the street, where a few kids were hanging out.
“Those are hoodlum kids,” he said. What made him think so, I asked.
“Because they outside by themselves. Only grownups can protect kids. Kids can’t protect themselves,” he said.
There are bullet holes in the wall in Meegale’s room and in the short hallway outside the room.
The first time I wrote about Johnson’s efforts to keep her children safe with some semblance of learning during the pandemic, a few readers reached out wanting to help her. One person hoped to send some children’s books, another sent a bit of cash. But one retired couple in Ballwin wondered if they could offer more than a one-time gift.
Phil Sher, 76, asked if he could send her an email. She agreed to let me share her contact information with him.
“I could see she wanted to improve herself and her kids and was very impressed,” Sher said. “She seemed like someone who just needed some help to get up and out of her circumstances.”
First, he and his wife, Judy, sent a couple of learning tablets for the kids. Johnson thanked them. When they asked what she needed most before the baby arrived, she said a swing. They sent that for Mason.
But their relationship was going to develop into something more.
The first day of school was off to a rocky start. The kids stayed up too late and had trouble waking up. Both came downstairs cranky and tired.
Johnson was trying to get breakfast on the table, moving the stack of delivered groceries out of the way, feeding Mason and cleaning up a few spills. A knock on the back door meant it was time to take the trash out.
She was fixing Madison’s hair with one hand and trying to call Meegale’s school with the other.
For some reason, she couldn’t log him into his virtual class. She kept getting an error message on the tablet and a busy signal or voicemail at the school.
This day was nothing like she had planned for weeks.
She pulled out their workbooks and told them to work on the matching exercises. Meegale lay down on the ground to rest. After a few minutes of teaching, the kids were upset and crying.
“By the fact that you didn’t go to sleep,” she said to Meegale, “and you didn’t go to sleep,” she said to Madison, “this is the aftereffect. That means, the next time I tell you to go to sleep, you go to sleep, OK?”
She tells the kids they can take a 15-minute nap. They are passed out the rest of the afternoon.
Johnson tells the Shers that what she needs most of all is a job, so she can move into a safer neighborhood. She had lost her job at the start of the pandemic. She alternates where they stay among her apartment, her mom’s house and her sister’s place depending on who needs her and which option seems the safest.
Phil Sher starts emailing her listings for work-from-home jobs, mostly customer service-type phone work. She applies to each one. She even applied to a Launch Code program that was already filled.
One of the companies called back and offered her a job. Phil sent her a computer, so she could start the training. Now, she’s working full-time while trying to supervise the kids’ learning, too.
The Shers came to visit her and the kids in the city once.
Madison told Phil he looked like someone on a television show she watches.
“Who?” he asked.
“Pee-wee Herman,” she said, pointing out that they are both white.
Johnson and the Shers burst out laughing.
Finally, Meegale got to put on his school uniform — a navy shirt and pants. His mom agreed to let him go back for in-person learning in St. Louis Public Schools. When she picked him up after his first day, he talked about seeing his friends and teacher again.
But then, Madison caught a cold and Johnson had a sinus infection.
Johnson’s fears about contracting COVID — despite their months of isolation — spiked again.
After three days of going to school, she decided it was safer for him to stay home. They were all sitting together in their living room last month when shots fired into her apartment again.
She and Meegale hit the ground.
They packed up some clothes and left that day for her mom’s. They haven’t been back since.
Johnson asked Phil if he could help her find a second job at night. She’s still paying rent at the apartment they fled, and she’s focused on finding her family a permanent new home.
Meegale still talks about the safe we tried to build.
Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson, a nonprofit racial equity project, is telling the story of families in the 63106 ZIP code over the course of the pandemic. An archive of other family stories is available at beforefergusonbeyondferguson.org.