Despite her mother's drug and health problems, Jennifer excelled in school and is headed to American University this fall.
Jennifer Hightower doesn’t take being happy for granted, because for many years she wasn’t.
"You would never think somebody who’s so happy went through stuff that I went through, you would never expect it," she says.
When Jennifer was little she was confused about why her mother didn’t behave like her friends' mothers.
"I would be in school and she would come and be rude to teachers. She couldn’t cook something without falling asleep. I didn’t understand how come everybody else’s mothers would go to work during the day and mine wouldn’t. Like what do you do all day? Why don’t you work?
When Jennifer was eight she understood the reason why her teachers looked embarrassed and her friends stared.
"She was on drugs. She was like smoking cocaine or sniffing it, I don’t know how that works which one you sniff and which one you smoke," she says.
Weekends were the worst.
"I would be in the house all day by myself because she would leave me. She sold weed, that was her day job, so she had to go out and make a living. I’m six years old and you leave me by myself on a Saturday and it’s sunny outside and there’s nothing to do and you tell me I can’t play with neighborhood kids because they’re a bad influence.
A low point was when Jennifer’s mother dropped her off for the weekend with people Jennifer had never met before.
School was my way of escaping everything. I figured what my mother’s doing doesn’t have anything to do with my school work so I’m not going to use that as an excuse.
"That friend was also on drugs because I didn’t like that smell. It was just weird. And there was a whole bunch of strange men in there too, and just strange people who I didn’t know. I was really uncomfortable. When she came back and got me I was like, ‘Why would you leave me there? What were you doing? Do you even know these people?'"
Jennifer never actually asked the questions; she just stopped complaining about having to stay indoors because it was better than going back to that house. But Jennifer became more withdrawn and angry and self-sufficient.
"I had to teach myself how to cook. I’m dealing with hot boiling water and fire from the stove at six years old. I had to keep the house clean. I had to teach myself how to tie my own shoes. I didn’t have somebody to sit down and tell me this bunny tie that you do. All that stuff you see on TV. I just wanted to hang out with her and I wanted to go places with her and her to be a good mother," she says.
Jennifer maintained a 3.9 GPA at Cesar Chavez Charter School for Public Policy in Southeast D.C. For her, the school was a refuge.
"School was my way of escaping everything. I figured what my mother’s doing doesn’t have anything to do with my school work so I’m not going to use that as an excuse."
Jennifer and her mother had to move into her grandmother’s apartment when theirs was being renovated. While they were there, her mother’s health declined rapidly. She developed AIDS and had a series of strokes but refused to see go to a hospital.
"But one day I showed her my report card. And it was real good and I don’t know, I saw something in her I hadn’t seen in a long time. Like she looked happy."
Jennifer’s mother agreed to go to the hospital and was eventually moved to a nursing home.
"I think she went because she saw my grades and she wanted to be around to see what I was gonna do in life," she says.
For Jennifer, this was a “blessing."
"My grandmother got legal custody of me. I felt I had a mother! She would spend time with me and appreciate me for my accomplishments and she would let me go outside. I felt like I actually had a real home."
As Jennifer basked in her grandmother’s attention, she continued to do well in school. For a few years, she ignored her mother. But eventually she started visiting her.
"I love her. It’s like there’s no point in me holding a grudge, it’s already happened. People make mistakes in life. It was like, what else can you do about it?"
Jennifer will attend American University in the fall to study accounting.
[Music: "The Things We Did Last Summer" by Charlie Haden from None But the Lonely Heart]