January 29

Bill Nemitz: Special vote of confidence for Maine students

It was literally a breath of fresh air. After three years (and counting) of talk from Maine’s governor about how Maine kids don’t measure up, about how they’re looked down upon wherever they go, about how it’s their “tough luck” if they can’t afford a private high school, there stood former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell before the full Maine Legislature with a decidedly different message.

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Staff photo by Andy Molloy ON DISPLAY: Former US Senator George Mitchell thanks supporters Tuesday after unveiling his official portrait at the State House in Augusta.

“I’ve met thousands of these young people and I can tell you, without a doubt, Maine students are as good as any students in America,” Mitchell said Tuesday morning, to rousing applause from every corner of the packed House chamber. “And if they are given the chance and the tools, they can compete with anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

The man for whom the Mitchell Institute is named knows of what he speaks. Unlike Gov. Paul LePage, who acknowledged neither the speech nor the subsequent unveiling of Mitchell’s portrait in the State House Hall of Flags, Maine’s senior statesman can back up his words with names, faces and true stories of triumph over the toughest of luck.

Stories like Jessica Boyle’s.

Seven short years ago, she was what Maine law calls a “homeless youth” – not accompanied by a parent or guardian and without “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

How Jessica came to be in such a fix is a story she’d prefer not to dwell on. What’s important is that way back in her freshman year at Bangor High School, even as she watched this friend and then that one drop out of school, something told her to stay put.

Smart girl.

“I had a friend who convinced me to switch from regular biology to honors biology,” Jessica said. “And then, it was during either the first or second semester, I got a 98.”

It made no sense: Her other courses came nowhere near the honors track. Her grades until then had never risen above C. Now, suddenly, she was acing honors biology?

It was enough for her biology teacher to sit her down one day and ask, “Are you in any other honors classes?”

“No,” replied Jessica.

“Well, you should be,” said the teacher.

By her junior year, Jessica was enrolled in every honors course she could find. She cultivated a new circle of friends, raised all those C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s, even volunteered with the high school yearbook. Still, just beyond the entrance to Bangor High School, her past beckoned.

“Some days, I would stay at school until 11 p.m.,” she said.

Seriously? Why so late?

“Because I had nowhere else to go.”

At one point, a school social worker (one of the few who knew of Jessica’s struggle to simply survive) suggested a shelter in Bangor.

Jessica, spooked at the time by recent reports of a body being found outside the shelter, would hear none of it. “I am a victim of circumstances and I am not going to victimize myself even further by living in a shelter,” she told the social worker. “I refuse.”

Besides, she had other options: One friend’s family, then another, then another came to the rescue and took her in for a few days here, a week or even a month there.

Then Bill Ames, her history teacher, quietly arranged for yet another family to take her in. Around the same time, Cary James, her chemistry teacher, got Jessica to imagine the unimaginable – going to college.

She set her sights on Colby College. And during one of her frequent visits to the high school guidance office to see what kind of financial aid, if any, she might have a shot at, Jessica heard for the first time of the coveted Mitchell Scholarship.

(Continued on page 2)

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