August 5, 1996

Teenager on track to success

Lynda V. Mapes The Spokesman-Review
 

On an evening walk, she passes longtime neighbors she once sold chocolate bars for school fundraisers. Crack houses. Her corner church.

Cars slide by in slow motion, music booming, full of young men who give her a close looking-over.

“I knew something would happen if I stayed there,” says 15-year-old Teresa Brooks. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to do what I want when I get older.

“Being a black young teenage girl, I didn’t want to get caught up with some guy, have kids, be shot. I knew I didn’t want that and I had to do something about it. I said, `I’m not taking it.”’

Too often, black teens pump up the dropout or juvenile crime rates. Brooks decided her life would be different.

She wants to be a role model, not a statistic.

In the past year, she’s been a two-time district champion on the school track team, brought up her grades, landed a steady job at Seafirst Bank. She earns $7 an hour, way better than the minimum-wage jobs most teens hold, if they work at all.

Brooks says she knows why kids get in trouble.

“They wind up doing something dumb, thinking, `That person will think I’m cool.’ … Kids get in trouble because they don’t know where they fit in. They don’t know who they are.

“It’s harder being a black teenager. People think, `Oh, she’s black. She must be a bad girl.’ I walk into stores and people follow me. I get called `nigger’ a lot. I just kind of blow it off.”

Brooks is one of six children, ages 6 to 21. One brother has served time for drug trafficking and has dropped out of school. Her mother and her two sisters got pregnant out of wedlock. Her father died in December. She and her mother argue about whether he’s her “real” dad.

So, she says, “I have two dads.”

Brooks moved out of her East Central home in the middle of the night last winter, settling in with her uncle’s girlfriend near the South Hill.

“I just left. I kept strong. I thought if I don’t care no one will. So I had to care.”

She struggled in her freshman year this year at Spokane’s Lewis and Clark High School.

“I thought, no one cares. Just sit back and not work in class. Look around at everyone. Be the class clown.”

Not for long.

“I had a teacher, Amy Kim, who told me, `You are not a bad kid and you need to stop labeling yourself that way.’ That meant the world to me.”

It was just the beginning.

“She’d ask all these questions: `What did you eat last night? When did you go to bed? Did you see your friends?’ Right away, I knew she cared.”

Kim, 26, a first-year teacher at Lewis and Clark, told Brooks she expected better from her. She flunked Brooks that quarter.

“Teresa didn’t like me very much at first,” Kim says. “Her attention span was about five minutes. We got off to a rather rocky start.

“Maybe a month into it she asked if we could talk during lunch. I felt that she started reaching out to me a lot more.”

That’s when Kim and her husband decided to go to one of Brooks’ track meets.

“Sometimes in life you do things and you don’t realize the impact they have on other people. I don’t think I knew how important it was for her,” the teacher says.

Kim also enlisted her mother, science teacher Virginia Ledgerwood, in the fight to bring up Brooks’ grades.

“I hated learning about chemistry and stuff,” Brooks admits with a roll of her eyes.

But Kim and her mother kept pushing and soon Brooks dug herself out of a deep hole and passed her science class. She brought her failing grade in English up to a solid C.

“She’s no ace student, but I think now she is on the right track,” Kim says.

Coach Mark Vandine also marveled at Brooks’ work ethic on the track.

“Everyone couldn’t believe what she was doing. Everyone was amazed. She just didn’t want to lose those races.”

Brooks cut down on the hours at her job at Seafirst so she could devote more time to track practice.

She switched late in the season to a new event, the 400 meters, and impressed her coach and teammates with her performance. She placed third in the state and helped her relay team win first place.

Brooks’ teammates named her most valuable player this year, the first time a freshman ever earned that honor. She’s already attracting the attention of coaches at state colleges and universities.

If Brooks works hard, Vandine thinks she could even make it to the Olympics. “It’s very possible for her,” he says.

Her mother, Janice Tensley of Spokane, doesn’t worry about her daughter leaving home so young.

“Whatever she wants to do,” she said, shooting Brooks a look across the family living room.

“I feel she should be at home,” she said. “But it’s not like you are out on on the streets. I don’t have a problem with it.”

Brooks credits her teacher for pulling her off a dead-end track before it was too late.

“People noticed I was like a totally different person. My friends were like, `That’s cool. She helped you.’ Teachers aren’t always bad people.”

Now Brooks wants to be the first in her family to go to college. To compete in the Olympics. Maybe be a police officer, or a counselor.

And she’s relying on herself to deliver.

“I know a lot of people who think the world owes them something. They think, `I’ve had a bad life. The world owes me something.’ They have their hand out. Yet they won’t feed themselves. I would tell them to be strong.”


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