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ROBIN ABCARIAN

A Mother's Minor Miracle Gets Major

June 02, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The long-awaited letter arrived on March 12. It came to Barbara Lewis in her ugly little brown duplex on Exposition Boulevard a few doors east of Normandie--the one with the moldering couch on the sidewalk in front, the one with the unhinged front door, the one with the living room that rattles your very bones each time a truck rumbles by.

The letter is a ticket of sorts, a ticket out of the duplex, out of Los Angeles, away from the police helicopters. It is a ticket to a life that Lewis has dreamed about for a long time, ever since she decided that even a middle-aged welfare mother could nurse hopes of becoming a college professor.

She had come to California from North Carolina on a bus in 1982, her kids in tow. She picked L.A. because it was as far as she could get from a bad marriage and still be in the United States. In 1992, she had been on welfare 10 years, having managed to jump-start her interrupted education at Los Angeles Community College. I wrote about her that year, because she had just received a bachelor's degree in English from USC and was about to start work on her doctorate there. Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, she would kiss the county rolls goodbye.

A success story, I figured.

An outrage, readers replied.

How dare she attend college on our dime? they said. How dare she not take a clerical job? they said. How dare she not settle for less? they implied.

"Take a good look at the economy and tell us what opportunities will be available for a black woman 50 years of age with an 11-year-old daughter to support when Lewis is ready to enter the job force--damn few, I would predict," wrote one reader.

Sorry, Karnak.

The 51-year-old Lewis (mother of Shanada, 12, Jeremy, 13, and two grown children) was much in demand among job recruiters last December at the Modern Language Assn.'s annual meeting in Chicago. She had 10 job interviews.

That, according to USC English professor Ron Gottesman, chairman of Lewis' dissertation committee, was more than the combined number of interviews granted her two dozen or so classmates.

"I describe Barbara as someone who started out as a minor miracle and has turned into a major miracle," Gottesman said. "She has done very distinguished work in terms of the more intellectual aspects of graduate study. She is a fabulous teacher. And she got her degrees while a welfare mother raising her children by herself. Not many people have the animal energy, to say nothing of the character and persistence, to see that through."

The March 12 letter spelled out the exact terms of the miracle: a job offer from the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin. A full-time tenure track position, a salary of $42,000 for nine months work, a computer and $3,000 in moving expenses.

"I feel so good," she said, showing me the letter. "Now I feel like I have some value."

I'm just guessing here, of course, and I could be wrong, but I have this sneaking feeling a whole new set of how dare shes are imminent. How dare she leave California when she soaked us for so long? How dare she steal a job from a more qualified white man?

"You can help yourself, but don't take too much," she sighs, quoting Billie Holiday. "I don't care what your readers say. I believe in me and I know what I can do. My momma used to say, 'Can't never could do nothing.' It took me a long time to understand it, but I do now. In my life, there is no can't."

Wasn't always like that.

"I have been popped in the mouth so many times because I wanted to get an education or because I was smarting off," she said. "Those scars don't go away, but they toughen you up. They make you strong. And anyhow, it's not about measuring myself by the number of whuppings I could take. It's about what I've accomplished."

Lewis has fashioned herself into an expert on the works of Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Her dissertation, "Prodigal Daughters: Female Heroes, Fugitivity and 'Wild' Women in the Works of Toni Morrison," is due next month, and Gottesman thinks she will, with some polishing, be able to find a publisher for it.

I ask her if there is a particular passage from Morrison's writing that resonates for her, that describes something about her life.

She thinks for a moment, then grabs a dog-eared, disintegrating, much-underlined paperback copy of the novel "Song of Solomon."

She points to a scene in which two characters are discussing a white peacock they see at a zoo.

"How come it can't fly no better than a chicken?" one asks.

"Too much tail," the other replies. "All that jewelry weighs it down. . . . Wanna fly, you got to give up the s--- that weighs you down."

Lewis smiles. She seems weightless, airy, ready to soar.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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