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Reading, Writing, Evicted: A bus ride to belong

Fellowship Story Showcase

Reading, Writing, Evicted: A bus ride to belong

Picture of Bethany Barnes
Frankie Serrano waits for a bus. It's one leg of a long journey he does every morning to stay in his school.
Frankie Serrano waits for a bus. It's one leg of a long journey he does every morning to stay in his school.
The Oregonian
Saturday, February 24, 2018

To understand why 14-year-old Frankie Serrano would choose to spend four hours a day on public transit, you need to understand that Frankie felt he had a purpose: He belonged at Roosevelt High.  

In the awkwardness of adolescence, being known is priceless. Frankie thought he could sacrifice whatever it took to stay in his school community.

A rent increase had forced his family to move out of North Portland, but that didn’t mean a suburb was home. So he was willing to get up before dawn, ride two busses to school, then ride three more home. He’d get home extra-late on days he had football practices or games. 

“It makes you think about who you are,” Frankie said of shouldering his long commute. “You go through those long, enduring days.”

To someone who didn’t know better, Frankie’s drooping eyes in class or occasional missed assignment might have indicated he didn’t want to be there. A teen who is lazy, unwilling to make an effort.

Teachers who told him to try harder didn’t understand. That was Frankie’s problem. He tried too hard.

“Although I didn’t like it, I knew it was for a good reason,” Frankie said. “I tried to keep my head high.”

Roosevelt felt right. He was in a program for at risk youth called Step Up, which paired him with a mentor and a tight-knit group of friends. He had a spot on the football team. Teachers knew him and his family. His older sister had even earned a century-old Portland honor: She’d been crowned Roosevelt’s Rose Festival princess.

If everything feels right even though you’re waking up at 5:30 a.m., even though your head hits the pillow after midnight, and even though there isn’t time for movies or video games or the other things your classmates do with all the time you spend on the bus — that has to mean something, doesn’t it?

The rent increase wasn’t supposed to mean exile. When he, his older sister, younger brother and mom moved in with his grandma, it was temporary. The plan was always to go back.

Frankie wasn’t going to change schools, he told himself, especially not in high school. He’d done that before and it had been hard. When he was in middle school, the family had moved from Southeast Portland to North Portland in search of a more affordable place.

Once they got priced out of St. John’s too, his mom got on the list for Section 8 housing. Soon, the family thought, they’d go back.

Sophomore year came. Gradually, Frankie began to count all the hours he didn’t have. The price he paid daily just to hold onto his school added up.

And so, mid-school year, he transferred to his grandma’s school district. A late entry to Putnam High, he was barred from football until the next season.

At his new school, his mom asked how to enroll Frankie in a program akin to the Step Up mentoring program that Roosevelt offers. She loved its personalized focus on getting good grades, earning a diploma and connecting with higher education.

Sorry, she was told, a program like that doesn’t exist here.

Frankie made it through junior year. But by senior year, he didn’t want to be at Putnam High anymore.

So, at the beginning of this school year, his last in high school, he transferred — again.

He still had friends in Southeast Portland, where he’d gone to elementary school. A commute to Cleveland High would be 40 minutes: long, but much shorter than his two-hour haul to Roosevelt.

Attending three high schools in four years has been hard. His younger brother, now a sophomore, also boomeranged from Roosevelt High to Putnam High multiple times, trying to find a school that worked and didn’t demand a draining commute.

The rental assistance that would help them go home to St. Johns still hasn’t come through.

[This story was originally published by The Oregonian.]

[Photos by Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian.]