Liz ends up graduating from HPA in two years, a task that takes “everything I had.” She takes night classes, early-morning math classes, and spends a lot of time with her teachers during independent study. Because she’s homeless, she has to deal with certain issues that her fellow students never have to think about, such as lifting heavy textbooks. Not knowing where she’ll be spending the night, Liz has no choice but to carry all her books wherever she goes, which gives her serious back pain. She also struggles to get enough sleep to be able to summon the concentration necessary to get good grades.
This chapter covers arguably the two most important years of Liz’s life, during which she graduates high school. By writing about this period in relatively little space or detail, Liz limits the suspense of the chapter: there’s never a point in which readers don’t know that Liz ends up achieving her goal. However, Liz emphasizes the various hardships that she had to deal with in order to get her degree—hardships that people with homes, supportive families, and money to spare might not even be aware of.
From time to time, Liz is on the verge of giving up on her goal of graduating high school. Usually, this happens early in the morning, after a long night of working on homework. Too many times to count, Liz considers going back to sleep and skipping school. But she forces herself to remember her transcript, and the importance of filling it up with good grades. She imagines herself as a runner, jumping over hurdle after hurdle. Every day, Liz struggles to go to school, but in the end she always does.
Liz continues to struggle with motivating herself to go to school—she wants to succumb to temptation and give up, as she’s done with Sam and Carlos in prior years. But because of her willpower (and, poignantly, the memory of Ma attempting to get welfare), she remains focused on “the prize”—a high school transcript with good grades.
Liz loves many of her teachers. A woman named Susan teaches her math, but spends more time talking about literature. She also gets along well with Caleb, Doug, and Elijah, three young teachers who’ve all graduated from excellent schools. Caleb is tough but clearly devoted to his students, and he teaches Liz that a teacher can both be “compassionate and [hold] a student to a higher standard.” Very slowly, Liz comes to love school. Her teachers are always her role models.
Liz doesn’t graduate from high school simply because of her willpower; dedicated teachers also help her and encourage her to succeed. Liz is particularly impressed with the combination of rigor and kindness that her teachers offer her: they express support and compassion without ever going easy on her.
In after-school science class, Liz learns about HIV and AIDS prevention. Her teachers stress that she needs to “steer the ship” in her relationships with men, and that she should treat her body like a “temple.”
Liz finally “officially” learns about sexually transmitted diseases, of the kind that ended her mother’s life. By the same token, she learns about the importance of sexual independence and loving herself (albeit in religious terms). Just as she begins taking care of her own education and her own finances, she also begins taking care of her own body.
In her after-school class, Liz meets a young woman named Eva. Eva lives with her father, who is a painter and Holocaust survivor. Liz begins spending more time with Eva, and often eats dinner with her. She also spends time with another student, James. James is a tall, handsome student, and Liz begins dating him. She sleeps over at his house, and she always feels very secure around him. Slowly, Liz is building a new family to replace the one she’s lost.
It’s interesting that Liz characterizes herself as “building a new family.” Liz doesn’t abandon her old family altogether, but she does nurture relationships with people such as Eva, who share her interests. These people not only give her the support she needs; they also motivate her to keep working hard, because they share her ambitions and drive.
Liz occasionally sees her family, but it’s always very uncomfortable. She spends some holidays and birthdays with Daddy and Lisa, and stresses over even the smallest details of these celebrations—for example, what kind of card to buy her sister for her birthday. At one of these celebrations, Daddy tells Liz that he’s HIV positive. He also begs her not to tell Lisa. Liz is shocked, but she decides to treat her father with compassion, rather than running away from him. She finds the courage to “let go of my hurt” and forgive him for everything he’s done to her.
It’s a mark of Liz’s maturity that she treats her father with respect and compassion after learning about his diagnosis. Whereas the old Liz ran away from her mother, the new, more mature Liz recognizes that it’s important to respect her family members, even if she’s not exactly close with them. Instead of repressing her feelings or running away from them, Liz tries to make peace with Daddy.
Liz begins to think of school as a sanctuary from the rest of her life. She enjoys studying for her classes because it involves spending time with her new friends. She also takes pride in having a good summer job with NYPIRG.
Previously, Liz’s family was a constant distraction from school; now, in an interesting reversal, Liz has begun to think of school as a welcome distraction from her family.
Liz continues to feel the temptation to misbehave. At one point, she tries to shoplift some groceries. However, as she’s about to leave the store, she remembers something Perry Weiner said. After a student’s wallet was stolen, Perry told the student body, “It’s a hurt to our community.” Standing in the store, Liz begins to understand what Perry meant. Stealing from the store would raise prices on groceries, hurting other families or even putting the store out of business. She swallows hard and pays for her groceries.
In the past, Liz shoplifted to make money. She was so desperate for cash, and so used to taking the law into her own hands, that she didn’t think twice about it. With Perry Weiner’s help, however, Liz begins to think of shoplifting in more “global,” compassionate terms: she recognizes that she’s actively hurting other people whenever she steals (though to be fair, probably not to the degree that she guiltily imagines here). This is a crucial moment in Liz’s education, because it impresses upon her the importance of responsibility and taking other people’s perspectives into consideration.
In class, Liz and Eva are assigned a presentation on HIV/AIDS. They come up with an idea to structure the presentation as a fight between two gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Their presentation is informative and entertaining, and Liz genuinely enjoys learning about the disease. As she presents, however, she begins to think about Ma. Strangely, she pictures Ma as a beautiful young woman, not an exhausted, emaciated victim.
Remember that in previous chapters, Liz thought of formal education as useless and impractical. But, as this passage suggests, Liz’s high school education is extremely practical and relevant to the “real world”: it helps her understand the disease that claimed her mother’s life, and, on a more personal level, it helps her make sense of the tragedy of her mother’s death.
After a year and a half at HPA, Liz has racked up near-perfect grades, and is on track to graduate in just one more semester. It’s time for her to consider scholarship applications. Her guidance counselor, Jessie Klein, tells her that she’s in “great shape” for going to college, though she needs to be careful about planning for funding.
It’s interesting that Liz barely writes about the content of her high school classes, beyond a few examples (such as the HIV skit). The implication would seem to be that the high school courses themselves were relatively easy compared to the extracurricular challenges that Liz faced, such as finding housing or paying for college.
Liz slowly realizes that most scholarships are “barely enough to cover food at top colleges,” let alone tuition. Then, she learns about The New York Times College Scholarship Program, which provides $12,000 a year for students who write excellent essays on their experiences with adversity. Liz applies for this scholarship, and many others.
Liz struggles to find enough scholarship money to attend a prestigious college. In doing so, she implicitly criticizes the modern college admissions process, which appears heavily biased against low-income students like Liz, even if they’re brilliant and hard-working.
At the end of her time at HPA, Liz wins many school awards for her academic excellence. She, along with Eva and other exceptional HPA students, wins a free trip to Boston. Liz and Eva visit Boston College and enjoy the beauty of the town. On the trip, Liz peppers Perry Weiner with questions about what college is like. Perry takes the students to Harvard Yard for a group picture. During the excursion, Perry suggests that Liz apply to Harvard.
Liz’s trip to Boston College represents the farthest she’s ever been from New York City, and therefore it’s an eye-opening experience for her. Perry Weiner was responsible for accepting Liz into high school, and now he plays a major role in convincing her to go to Harvard for college. It seems that she’s finally found a consistently supportive parent figure in Perry.
A few months later, Liz goes in to The New York Times building for her scholarship interview. She’s one of the twenty-one finalists for the scholarship, out of many thousands of applicants. By this time, Lisa is living with Liz in a one-bedroom apartment in Bedford Park. Lisa, who works at the Gap, pays the bills while Liz finishes high school. A few days before Liz’s interview, however, Lisa loses her job. For months, Liz has been working as hard as she can to finish her classes and apply to colleges. She and Lisa visit the welfare office to apply for help, but they’re turned down for unclear reasons.
There’s a lot of information in this passage: over the last two years, for example, Liz has grown much closer with her sister, Lisa. Liz doesn’t write much about how she came to reconcile with her sister, or what it was like living with her after so many years apart. There are many other similar points in this chapter, which is surprisingly (even disappointingly) short considering that it covers such a lengthy, important period in Liz’s life.
Liz goes in for her Times interview, knowing that if she doesn’t get this scholarship, she probably won’t be able to go to college. Until this moment, she’s never fully realized how influential and famous The New York Times is: she’s never seen anybody reading it, except on the subway. During her interview, Liz tells her interviewers about her life: her relationship with her parents, her struggles to support herself, all the hard work she’s done to graduate from high school in two years. She finishes her interview with a simple statement: “I need the scholarship.”
Liz implies an interesting point: the fact that she grew up in an impoverished home, totally unaware of the prestige surrounding The New York Times, actually helped her succeed. Had she been from a middle- or upper-class background (and therefore fully aware of the elite nature of the NYT scholarship), she might have gotten intimidated and not even applied. Instead, she pursued her dream of winning the scholarship with the same dogged determination with which she pursued graduating from high school or getting a summer job.
A few days later, Liz gets a call explaining that she’s been awarded a Times scholarship. The next few weeks are a “whirlwind.” She’s interviewed by dozens of reporters, visits The New York Times Building many more times, and has the surreal experience of seeing her name and picture in one of the most famous newspapers in the world. Perry Weiner and the other teachers are overjoyed. But Perry is also very concerned about how Liz is going to pay for her rent, food, and other expenses at Harvard.
By winning the NYT scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships in the country, Liz proves that she has the talent and drive to do whatever she wants. It’s a mark of Perry Weiner’s experience as an educator, however, that he encourages Liz to remain focused on the logistics of paying for college, rather than merely basking in her success.
Then, something amazing happens. Friends, well-wishers, and people Liz has never even heard of begin to send her money and support. One man pays all of Lisa and Liz’s rent for the year. Liz never sleeps on the streets again. Another woman offers to do Liz’s laundry from now on.
Liz is able to go to Harvard not simply because of her hard work and intelligence, but also because of the help of hundreds of friends and well-wishers, who give her all kinds of material support thanks to her public exposure in the Times.
In the spring, Liz learns that she’s been wait-listed for Harvard. Secretly, she’s terrified by the uncertainty. Liz has been dealing with uncertainty throughout her life, whether regarding her family, her job, or her home. Every Friday, she calls the Harvard admissions office to ask if a decision has been reached, and every Friday she gets the same answer: not yet.
Liz, it’s clear, now desperately wants to go to Harvard, and so she’s terrified when she’s wait-listed. After so much work and sudden success, it would be distinctly anticlimactic if she were to be denied now.
One day, Liz calls the admissions office and learns that Harvard has mailed her decision letter. She tells Perry Weiner that, in no more than a couple days, she’s going to find out if she’s been accepted to Harvard. Perry smiles gently and tells her, “No matter where you go to school, you’ll always be you. Wherever you go, college, job interviews, relationships, all of it […] You really will be fine either way.”
In accordance with his liberal arts philosophy, Perry Weiner takes a more measured view of Liz’s Harvard acceptance: he allows that it would be a wonderful thing for Liz to go to Harvard, but he also stresses that getting into Harvard isn’t the be-all, end-all. Instead, he encourages Liz to focus on growing as a person and maintaining the same confidence and self-reliance that brought her to HPA in the first place.
On the train ride home, Liz thinks carefully about Perry Weiner’s words, and realizes that Perry is right. That night, as she falls asleep, she relaxes and manages to focus on “something other than my admission letter” for the first time in months.
Liz takes Perry’s advice to heart: whether or not she’s admitted to Harvard, she’s proud of herself for working hard and achieving her goals, and she’ll continue to do so moving forward, no matter what happens.
The next day, Liz waits for the mailman, sure that her admission letter is coming soon. As she waits, she realizes that the admissions letter “already stated whatever it stated,” and there’s nothing she could do to change it. Instead, she decides, she should focus on the things she can change: she can treat other people with kindness and compassion, and she can enjoy her freedom and “carve out a life for myself.” And in this moment, she realizes that her life will not be determined by her circumstances, or her past tragedies. It’ll be determined by her “willingness to put one foot in front of the other.”
In the end, Liz synthesizes her own life experiences with Perry’s wise philosophy. She recognizes that the purpose of education isn’t simply to help her get a job or get into a good college (although it’s done both); more broadly, education is important because it gives her the confidence and wisdom to live self-reliantly. Education doesn’t just provide Liz with the financial independence she’s always wanted; it also offers her a kind of emotional and intellectual independence that is arguably just as important.