In Rust Belt, a teenager’s climb from poverty

Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post

Every now and then an article hits a nerve. It’s not always easy to explain why. This one by Anne Hull did it for me. It’s a simple story of a kid trying to escape their surroundings. But it’s told so well. Here’s a sample:

Week after week, the mailman climbed the steep hill of Shenango Street to the house with the busted porch steps. “Dear Miss Rouzzo,” the letters began, or “Dear Tabitha Rouzzo.” The college catalogues barely fit in the mailbox. They stuck out like gift-wrapped presents against white aluminum siding gone dingy from decades of wear. On the porch were three new Linen Breeze decorative candles — a nice try, thought the actual Tabitha Rouzzo, who came walking up the hill every afternoon with her mind on the mailbox.

The 11th-grader seldom brought anyone home, and when she did she would sort of draw in a breath and say, “Well, here it is.”

Her Victoria’s Secret bag was crammed with track clothes and school papers. At 17, with dark hair and dark eyes, she was a version of the actress Anne Hathaway if Anne Hathaway had stars tattooed on her hip, chipped blue nail polish and lived two blocks from the projects.

Tabi shared the rental house with her mother and sometimes her mother’s boyfriend. Her four older siblings were grown. None of them had graduated from high school. They wore headsets and hairnets to jobs that were so futureless that getting pregnant at 20 seemed an enriching diversion. Born too late to witness the blue-collar stability that had once been possible, they occupied the bottom of the U.S. economy.

“I’m running from everything they are,” she said.

The question was whether Tabi could outrun the odds against her.

She knew that colleges sent out millions of letters to 11th-graders who took the Princeton Review prep course. The whole Dear Tabitha campaign was about as personal as fliers from Tire Express. But nearing the end of her junior year of high school, without a single item of value to secure her future — not even a $50 U.S. savings bond from a departed relative — the mail was all she had.

So she sweated it out the old-fashioned way, joining Spanish Club, Chess Club, Bible Club, Art Club and the track team, where she may have been the worst pole-vaulter in the Pennsylvania-Ohio border region. On Wednesday nights, she was at church waving her praise hands in the air, and on Friday night, it was a school production of “No, No, Nanette.”

With no working vehicle at home, she had to walk most places. You could see her hoofing across the industrial landscape, her pink bag slung over her shoulder.

Tabi kept the college mail upstairs in her bedroom. She wrote back to 22 schools that offered biochemistry programs. Her goal was to be a forensic scientist in North Carolina. “It seems nice,” Tabi said, though she had never been. She had never flown on an airplane. Her laptop was a secondhand PC she bought from a guy for $60. Her bedroom window overlooked a field strewn with Filet-O-Fish wrappers and Keystone Ice empties and, lower in the valley, the stacks at Ellwood Quality Steels chugging smoke.

Read it in full here, and check the accompanying photos.

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In Rust Belt, a teenager’s climb from poverty