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Class Of '17: Spending The Summer Off School, But Under Contract

Like most 14-year-olds, Jerry Harris is out of school for the summer. That means time to take it easy and hang out with friends. But for Jerry, it also means a contract -- one that he wrote -- to start many mornings at 5:30 a.m. and, as he printed in block letters, to "WORK."

Jerry's one of the students KERA is following all the way through high school in the series Class of '17, part of the station’s American Graduate initiative. And as tough as that summer contract might be, even tougher is what comes in just three weeks: high school.

It’s a hot summer day in suburban Coppell. But inside the home of divorced, single mom Susie Evans, it’s comfortable for Jerry and his 9-year-old sister, Abbey.

The hallway floor reveals the kind of household Evans runs. At work, she deals with special-needs kids in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch schools. At home, there are little paper tents lined up down the hall, each with a different number. On the nearby kitchen bulletin board is today’s numeral “4.”

“I have to do four times all of these numbers,” says Abbey. “So four times two is eight. Four times five is twenty...”

Abbey needs to catch up on multiplication, Mom says.  Jerry, so strong in the subject he’ll enter high school math a year ahead, helps teach her.

“Math’s always been my better subject.  I just flew right through,” Jerry says. " Like when she’s counting on her fingers, I’m like, don’t count on your fingers, it takes too long. It kind of upsets her because I tell her not to do that.”

Teaching Abbey is one of Jerry’s summer jobs. He has others, like working in a family friend's food truck, for pay. But helping Abbey is part of the contract he wrote and signed with his mom. He says it started a few summers ago, when "all I did was sit around and just be lazy and do nothing and I think that kinda angered her. So that’s when 'the contract' was put in place.”

Evans explains: “I tell him in April, 'By May 1 you need to give me a list of what your summer’s going to look like because we’re not going to play video games all day or sleep all day.' " She chuckles. "I know. ‘Mean mom.’ ”

The contract says Jerry will read up to an hour every other day, and rise at 5:30 three days a week to shoot baskets at a nearby court. Ok, he loves basketball and doesn’t mind getting up early.

The contract also stipulates that he’ll practice typing every day, which should help with his learning disability, something called dysgraphia. And he promises to help with dinner, and WORK as much as he can.

“There are some days I don’t do it, and mom will cut me some slack, but next day I have to work like double hard the next day.”

Or Mom’ll deny him video game access. There have to be consequences, she says, something she learned from her father, who was the first in his family to attend college. He swore by hard work.

“My father is a very successful businessman,” she says. “That’s the one thing I think he stresses a lot to Jerry. What does he say? Anything in life worth having comes through hard work.”

Evans has herself worked hard to convey that message. In this house, crosses hang in several rooms, and core values center on family and faith. She remembers when they adopted Abbey. There’s a favorite photo of the family before the divorce, taking the judge’s oath. Jerry's front and center.

Credit Marlene Evans
Jerry, 5, raising his hand to take the judge's oath when Abbey was adopted. Mom Susie holds Jerry. Dad Brian Harris, dark suit, holds Abbey. Their attorney looks on.

“I’m holding him," she says, "and he’s got his hand raised doing the same oath. That he would love her, raise her, and be her big brother. So he’s a really good big brother.”

Jerry, who at age 5 kept asking his parents for a sister, even got to pick her name. Mom promised he’d be the first to hold her. So he got in line right after his parents, and in front of his grandparents. Today, he says all he wanted back then was a playmate.
“Like I’ll wrestle with her, go play basketball with her. 
“I’ll let her score, but then I don’t let her win, that’s for sure. I’ll let her get close, then I’ll take it away from her.”

This summer between middle and high school has involved more than Jerry’s contract. He spent a month with his father in Oklahoma. There’s a possible late summer vacation with his mom and Abbey. And looming out there is freshman year at Coppell High, just 20 days away.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.