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At home

The twins whispered under the blanket, negotiating who would go to school the next day. This was a new school, a new district.

Faith was born 13 minutes before Hope. She looked out for her baby sister. Often that meant staying at home even if she didn’t want to.

Staying at home meant an early rise to get everyone out the door, feeding the dogs out back, cleaning up the kitchen, putting the clothes through the wash, and starting whatever there might be for dinner.

It was a good day if you could squeeze in some time for reading and the daydreaming the stories often led to.

The sister who went to school also had responsibilities – but different. The breakfast and lunch at school was carefully divided, wrapped in napkins, and with great care placed in the backpack back in the classroom. Misplacing school work meant an extra copy – also stashed in the backpack.

Trips to the school library were extra pressure. These were the only books the sisters would have to read at home. A good book led to conversation and wonder. A bad book led to boredom and frustration.

On the school bus, the sister who had attended school would think about how to teach the lessons in her head, practicing all the way home. She would dart off the bus and into the house. 

If the chores weren’t done, she would help. If they were done, the girls would head to their closet. 

In the closet, each day, the sisters had second school. The sister who had stayed at home would eat the leftovers from breakfast and lunch, savoring each bite along with each lesson. The other sister would teach everything that had been covered that day, using the secreted worksheets to test as she went along. If they had questions at the end, they wrote them down for the teacher the next day.

The girls knew the rules about absences. In elementary school, each girl could have 30 absences without causing too much fuss. Not enough by a long shot. The school year was 180 days long. 

By their calculations, Faith and Hope would each miss 90 days.

They learned quickly that excused absences were better than unexcused, and they learned what counted. So the girls developed backstories for illnesses and injuries. They discovered the school phenomenon of lice and used it to their advantage. The principal was happy for you to stay home if lice were involved. The girls dictated notes for their parents to sign, which one sister would dutifully take in to school the next day.

But those extra 60 missed days would mean trouble. Letters of concern. Their parents would be notified. The social worker and the principal would eventually get involved. 

One day at a time. The sisters would look at each other and shake their heads.

At school

The school had discretion regarding whether to place twins in the same classroom or not. It depended on the parents, the students, and the teachers. 

The principal decided early on to split Faith and Hope up. Faith was dominant. Hope needed some room, she thought. Both girls had aptitude, but for both girls that aptitude was shackled by poverty. They were too much for one teacher.

The girls had cried for days when they found out they would be in separate classrooms.

The tears stopped when they realized it would take longer for two teachers to compare notes. 

In fact, the teachers, in their respective classrooms, also spent a fair amount of time shaking their heads.

Too many absences. Too sick to be so healthy when they were in school. Too many injuries. Too absentminded to have such thoughtful questions each morning.

Letter of concern

With new students, new teachers, and the normal hubbub of back to school, it was well into second quarter before the girls came up in a team meeting.

Each sister had missed about the same number of days. And, interestingly, the teachers realized the girls had missed different days.

A letter of concern was sent home.

The absences continued.

The teachers called the parents. The sisters had been sick. Allergies in the fall. Flu as winter settled in. Both sisters struggled with asthma, which on any given day could act up. Faith had sprained an ankle. Hope had sprained a wrist. And then, of course, there were the lice.

The sisters each had missed more than 30 days before a social worker went to the house.

She arrived in the afternoon as one sister darted off the bus. The other sister waited for her in the front yard barefoot. Snow was on the ground.

The social worker bit her lip.

Without entering the house, she realized the twin sisters, Faith and Hope, were sharing a pair of shoes.

 

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.