There was a moment a few years ago, while 26-year-old Erika Burnett was still an undergrad student at Tennessee State University, when she realized that a life of serving others was just the life she wanted.
“Are you Develle’s mother?” a young brunette’s voice pierces a clamor of roiling teenagers as she catches up to a pair of moms in a Stratford High School hallway. “I’m his Spanish teacher,” she says. “It is so great to see you guys here!”
Kim Tucker and a petite mom named Tiamecca are here to find out how Tiamecca’s sons are doing in school. The news isn’t good. Develle, a tall, articulate junior who’s failing Spanish and English, tends to disrupt class and argue with his teachers. His brother Tyshawn is a freshman with spidery dreadlocks who holds his mom’s hand with unabashed affection. He’s failing algebra.
On a cold, diamond-clear Saturday afternoon, 33-year-old Kristen House scribbles a number on a dry erase board: 280,000. “That’s how many new titles are published in the U.S. every year,” she tells a rapt audience of six teenagers. “That’s 2 percent of what’s submitted.
As one war ends in Iraq and another continues for the foreseeable future in Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. soldiers arrive home, only to face a more prolonged and far lonelier battle with the psychic aftermath of combat experience.
“Neonatology wasn’t even a word in the 1960s,” Dr. Judy Aschner tells me emphatically. The view out her office window at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center complex offers architectural proof of the idea having found its footing beyond mere lexicon.
“The field really got its start here,” says Aschner.
The aerial view: a hilltop Nolensville Road apartment complex, resplendent with saris and hijabs, lilting and unfamiliar languages, kids playing soccer. Now zoom in: Near a tidy playground, there’s a cheery cinderblock classroom, where a dark-eyed Nepali man answers another woman’s questions.
“What do you think they do for excitement in this town?”
–Burt Reynolds, “Smokey and the Bandit”
For Nashville teens growing up in the ’80s — the heyday of suburbs and Shoney’s, malls and mustaches — the question roiled, stoking adolescent restlessness for somewhere a little more Fame, a little less Ordinary People.
“We’re gonna give you the futuristic tour!” announces Benjamin Surmi, as he and his business partner Jenny Vaughn Harrison lead me through a sprawling, disused commercial kitchen in a derelict hospital off Gallatin Road.
In a threadbare basement conference room at the Tennessee Justice Center, attorney Michele Johnson sweeps a slender arm towards what she calls the “Mother’s Day Wall,” a floor-to-ceiling gallery of framed photographs — families captured in moments of relief or worry, mothers embracing kids whose faces look joyful o
“I was putting up my Christmas tree when I got the phone call,” says Teri Johnson-Hiett, referring to the moment she found out she had breast cancer. It was right around Thanksgiving in 2005, eight short months after losing her mother at age 51 to the same disease. Teri was only 29.
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