Jaime Simonds, 17, can fly like Rudolph through math problems. She eats polynomials for breakfast.
"These are really easy," she said, her red pen racing across a page of algebra problems I copied down from some college math website.
We were sitting at her kitchen table. She had just put a box of frozen chicken nuggets in the oven for dinner. While they cooked, I thought I'd stump her with some algebra. She finished three pages of problems before the nuggets were even warm.
"There is your final answer," she said, the worksheets finished.
I want you to know about Jaime Simonds, this girl who conquers numbers.
Not only because the right answers somehow, easily, gracefully, collect together in her mind like numbers to a magnet.
But because Simonds is working out a much more wicked problem.
And her answer could save the life of her family.
"I'm determined that one day I'm going to be somebody," she said.
Simonds, 17, is a teenage mom. Living in poverty. And clinging to her dreams.
Each afternoon and evening, she's at home, taking care of her toddler son, Eric. Helping her 10-year-old sister Desiree with homework. Fixing dinner (some nights nuggets and green beans, other nights pork chops, mashed potatoes and milk) while her mom works a slightly more-than-minimum-wage job.
During the morning, Simonds is at Chattanooga State Community College, in a program that allows her to take courses at her own pace, earning high school and college credit.
Know how fast she finished the semester-length economics course?
"Four days," she said.
Four days. But every day, she comes home to the hard edges of poverty, a lesson in econ made real. Donations from the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund helped pay their winter bills. But poverty, like ice, takes a long time to thaw.
"I don't want anybody to think I want self-pity," she said.
Hanging on the wall near the kitchen, a Bible verse: I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Simonds, with her red hair, kind eyes and quick smile, is that verse made into a 17-year-old. This fall, she plans to begin her pre-med work at Chattanooga State.
"Then go to UTC for six years," she said. "Then become a pediatrician. Once my pediatrician career is off and going, I'll go back to school and get a law degree. Somewhere in between, I'm going to get some type of doctorate degree."
Get all of that? College, then medical school, then a law degree, then a doctorate. While loving on Eric. And helping pay the bills.
It is one thing to be middle class and determined. Upper class with dreams. But Simonds' determination in the face of slow motion poverty is so remarkable, so memorable, like a firework in the midst of a cold December night.
In this great and generous city of ours, I wonder how many doors could magically open for her. I wonder how many of us could help her shift the unending subtraction of poverty into something more positive.
Spend five minutes with her, and somehow, you know she'll do it all.
"It's easy," she said. "You have a set thing you're supposed to do."
She was talking about the algebra.
But I also think she was talking about her life.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...