In 2012, her mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Ultimately, the cost of healthcare overwhelmed their family, and they lost their house.
For one Atlanta teen, the path to being chosen as high school valedictorian did not come easily.
Rebecca Schmitt and her mother Sandra were evicted from their 4,000-square-foot Port St. Lucie, Florida, home in October 2014.
Five years earlier, Sandra Schmitt was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. In 2012 she received a bone marrow transplant.
Sandra Schmitt, a single mother, told ABC News she went from being a top-earning realtor to being broke, forced to stop working because of her treatment.
“The money dwindled,” she added. “After the bone marrow transplant in 2012, my finances were basically almost depleted.”
The two eventually moved to Atlanta where they now live in a hotel. There, Sandra Schmitt receives further treatments after her bone cancer metastasized throughout different parts of her body. Meanwhile, Rebecca Schmitt enrolled into Maynard Jackson High School.
Despite their circumstances, Rebecca Schmitt became her school’s valedictorian, earning a 4.2 GPA. She’s also the school’s tennis captain, and was named most valuable player this year.
Rashema Melson is incredible, too. She went from living in an abandoned building and years in a homeless shelter with her mother and brother to being valedictorian at her high school and earning a scholarship to Georgetown.
Griffin Furlong is another incredible teen. After his mother died of leukemia, he and his father and brother became homeless, living with friends and family as much as they could but generally finding themselves in a shelter. But even facing the hunger, anxiety, and physical danger that go along with homelessness, he became valedictorian at his high school and earned a scholarship to Florida State.
These are incredible accomplishments by people whose strength and perseverance defy description. They are also examples of everything that’s wrong with America, because the expense of medical treatment shouldn’t put a family on the fucking street. A single mother should be able to support her children without ending up in a shelter. A kid shouldn’t have to endure all of that to achieve great things regardless, because we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and there’s no reason that anyone should have to endure that. But all of the inspiration-pr0n articles and tweets — Share this inspirational story! — gloss right over the travesty that precedes the triumph.
I definitely don’t want to take anything away from Rebecca or Rashema or Griffin or Crystal Tarbell — they’ve done awesome things. They’ve gotten as close to pulling themselves up by their bootstraps as can be accomplished within the limitations of physics. (“Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” of course, if physically impossible. A sad number of people forget that it’s meant to be used sarcastically.) They deserve credit. They deserve admiration.
But the inspiration we find in their stories shouldn’t be to face down adversity in our own lives — or worse, to find vicarious inspiration for other kids in her situation whose lives we know nothing about. (This should inspire homeless kids around the country that they can push through their troubles and accomplish great things! They have Twitter in homeless shelters, right?) It definitely shouldn’t be to criticize others in their position who haven’t gone on to become valedictorian, deeming them lazy and unworthy because if Rebecca can do it, why haven’t they?
If all we’re doing is reading their stories, getting a feel-good, and moving on, we aren’t respecting them — we’re using them for our our own benefit and discarding them. Our inspiration should be to take action and do something so that medical expenses won’t be enough to put a family out on the damned street. We should be inspired to help address homelessness, so that families won’t have to move from house to house or live in shelters.
Wage stagnation, housing prices, housing discrimination, public services cuts, and healthcare costs are all major contributors to poverty and homelessness, they’re all things that are currently under attack by the federal government, and they’re all things that constituents can do something about — on a governmental and a community level — as long as they’re not saying, “What an inspirational story!” and clicking on to “Eagle Scout Raises Money for Kitten Rescue” without any thought for why a 17-year-old should be that particular kind of inspirational.
Rashema wrote about her experience in an essay for her English class as Georgetown:
“In the perspective of strangers,” she writes, “I was the destined child who became a success story for them to feed off. They believed I was a lucky girl, who had the life every teen should live. The constant straight A’s that were stamped upon my report card, made them see a girl who had knowledge that just came to her easily.
“The strangers felt I should be the poster child for what teens should be, because I was . . . setting examples for America. Once these strangers had a glimpse of what they knew I had endured during my high school life and then some, they made me their success story. Through their eyes they saw a girl who could not be defeated.
“They thought I aced my way through high school, and that I made it look easy. They read about my struggle about being homeless, and believed I was using some secret ability to help me push through. They followed my story and believed in just that, that my life is a story. They watched me fall so many times, only to say that I was an example of how all our knees need to kiss the ground, but our hands should remain reaching for the sky.”