struggle

I Was a Homeless High School Honors Student

I had one foot in two worlds and I was an outsider in both.

by Samantha Reeve
Aug 24 2017, 6:42pm

Art by Noel Ransome 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

When I walked back into my high school for the first day of my junior year, my bag was heavier than most of my classmates—it was stuffed more with clothes than school supplies and a little more frayed. I had a tent strapped on top of my bag with an old belt, and another belt cinched around a filthy once-white, now brownish blanket.

That first week was a blur of doing homework and sleeping in the bushes outside the school wrapped in that disgusting blanket, dragging my bags through class as people whispered and asked me questions about what was going on, trying to focus while my stomach grumbled, and eating pizza at night that I rescued from a very reliable dumpster behind the nearest Little Caesar's.

My mentally unstable mom had kicked me out for good mid-summer when I was 16. With an angry, often violent father, the streets of a big city with a plethora of services seemed like a better option than going to live with him, so I bussed to Vancouver from my small hometown in early August.

Everything is magnified when you're homeless, especially as a teen. It's like when you go camping and hear some rustling outside your tent—it's probably just a raccoon, but it sounds like a giant fucking bear that's going to eat you. Losing a pack of smokes is a tragedy. Dropping a money and having it roll down the gutter feels like a devastating loss. Waking in the middle of the night to find the place you're sleeping is flooding during a rainstorm is the end of the world.

But then small things become huge victories, like someone handing you a $5 bill, or maybe a tourist giving you a bag of their leftover groceries before they jet off back home, and there's half a tub of quinoa salad in there with feta cheesem and oh my God that's some pricey-ass free food you just got handed to you!

In the same vein, people's capacity for kindness and cruelty is magnified on the streets. Those with almost nothing will give you everything they have left. And on the horrific end of that spectrum, people will try to take everything you have left... which when you're homeless is essentially just your life.

I returned home at the end of the summer, a few days before class started—however, now I was without an address. My other option was to ride the rails with some other kids when they headed east in September. But I was an A+ student before, and I was determined to at least finish school. I was nervous, but mostly numb and just looking forward to being in a space I felt safe. After my first week of school in my hometown, I went back out to Vancouver to beg for money over the weekend.

That weekend, a girl a few years older than me tried to beat me to death while I was sleeping.

The night before, she had sucker punched me while a bunch of us were hanging out at the Vancouver Art Gallery, screaming that she didn't like the look of me and had killed people before. She later apologized and pretended like we were old pals. The next day, she attacked me as I napped on the back lawn of the gallery. When I woke up, bits of broken teeth were stuck in my tongue, blood drenched everything around me, and I couldn't see out of my left eye. Paramedics parked the ambulance on the lawn and led me toward it. I remember some nurses at St. Paul's Hospital gingerly washing my white legs—someone had written the word "nigger" on them while I was passed out.

My return to school for the second week caused even more of a stir. My skull was fractured from my forehead to my nose and into my eye socket, and there was a chance I would lose vision in the left eye. In the end, it healed perfectly, and the only lasting physical souvenir from that experience is IBS, brought on by the stress, and chipped teeth. The emotional scars, however, were plentiful, and it wasn't until just last year when I was reading about PTSD that I realized I had suffered from it for about five years after that woman attacked me.

With the injuries and hospital visits, I was temporarily forced to live with my father. It wasn't a safe or happy situation, and I considered running away, so my counselor helped me apply to the Ministry of Children and Family Development for independent living assistance. My mother, mentally ill and cruel, lied to the social worker, said I was smoking crack and that's why she kicked me out. The social worker believed her, and my application was initially denied. My counselor, bless that man, apparently brought the woman down to his office one day, showed her my grades, explained what kind of student I was and that it would be nearly impossible to achieve straight A's while smoking crack. The decision was reversed, and I moved out on my own at 17.

In a weird way, those struggles I faced in the later years of high school helped motivate me even more. I was always a natural high-achiever with a good memory, but I knew then that it wasn't good enough—I had to be the best. Without a scholarship, I might not be able to study at university, and purely for the competition, it was thrilling to come out ahead of kids whose parents gave them cars and did their laundry for them. I was the piece of shit ex-homeless kid with knuckle tattoos who breezed through biology exams while hungover.

It paid off—in the spring of 2009, I received a letter from the University of the Fraser Valley that made my jaw drop and tears well in my eyes. I was being awarded the top entrance scholarship, worth $16,000.

What was it like being a homeless honor roll student? The best way I can break it down is with the ultra lame cliché that it was like having a foot in two different worlds.

Like the chicken or the egg riddle, I've wondered whether it was more harmful or helpful having been a top-tier student when I became homeless. I had never quite fit in with any of the kids I hung out with—always an outsider, never rough enough to gain their respect. If I'd been more of a little shit, would I have fit in better and not had someone try to kill me? Would I have avoided all those nights of waking in a cold sweat, having dreamt of the beating that almost took my life? But then would I have not made it off the streets at all? Would my 96 percent average have looked as good on the scholarship application without the additional context of the personal struggles, which I plainly laid out in my essay?

But before you start to feel inspired by this, know that three years into my degree I dropped out because I hated that school. I never fit in, always a little too rough around the edges to make friends there, and when my Russian teacher got sick and couldn't offer the only courses that interested me, I quit. It's a similar story as when I was homeless, really, but with different consequences for being an outsider. Besides mental illness, my mother struggled with a sense of alienation all her life as well, but the difference between us is I've learned to embrace it.

What was it like being a homeless honor roll student? The best way I can break it down is with the ultra lame cliché that it was like having a foot in two different worlds and not feeling like I belonged in either of them. Pretty much the same as my life now, just as much a patchwork of extremes and contrasts, but magnified.

Today, I work in event management in the nonprofit sector and occasionally for a charity in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It's been a decade since I was on the streets, and in a weird cyclical way, 2017 has been the worst year of my life since then, so it's felt right to write about it. I used to never talk about being homeless, and certainly never brought up the incident where the girl tried killing me. I guess writing it all down and analyzing it gives me hope that this year will end on a high note, or at least things will look up next year.