La’Rae Pickens-Bonebright was sure that she wanted to be a teacher.
She was every bit as sure that she wouldn’t get the chance to be.
“I never thought I was gonna go to college,” she said, “because my family was so messed up.
“Childhood was… iffy, I would say.”
There was domestic violence. There was addiction. There was homelessness.
She lived hungry, slept in cars and was declared a runaway. She gave birth to two boys, her precious Amarien and JJ, by the age of 17.
On Dec. 17, Pickens-Bonebright will graduate from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and early childhood education.
She wanted to be a teacher. She will be.
Pickens-Bonebright remembers being in the room when her father would beat her mother. After a judge threatened to remove La’Rae, her brother and sister from the home, her father left. He would be “in and out” of their lives for the next few years before leaving for good.
For good, maybe. But then, good never lasted long. When La’Rae was 8, her mom became addicted to K2, a synthetic, dangerous and unpredictable form of THC.
Why that drug? La’Rae would ask her mom.
That’s what my dad and stepmom used to do, her mom would explain. I was raised with it. And it was cheap.
They would soon lose their home, too, for the first time.
“We would get a house, and then we’d lose it because she’d get back on drugs after getting off,” La’Rae said. “So it was up and down.”
At 12, La’Rae’s mom offered K2 to her and her friends. At 13, with her mom entering rehab, La’Rae wound up in foster care, then crashed at a cousin’s before returning, at 14, to stay with her mom, who was temporarily clean.
There were weeks when the family, living off food stamps, had scarcely enough to eat. La’Rae had grown used to living without electricity. What the teen couldn’t live without, she realized, was a functioning cell phone. To pay for it, she landed a job at Amigos.
Around that time, she also decided to try out for the basketball team. She’d need a physical first. Knowing La’Rae was sexually active, her mom asked the doctor to include a pregnancy test.
Positive. Early bloodwork led the doctor to believe she was about six weeks pregnant. An ultrasound showed she was closer to 18.
“I was freaking out: ‘I’m almost halfway through a pregnancy. I have no time to process. I need to start getting stuff. That would mean it’s this person who I don’t talk to anymore, at all.’ So it was kind of a lot,” she said.
She did have her mom’s support, at least. Her best friend Jevaughnté’s, too. And leavening the anxiety was a sense that this news, this future son of hers, could become her salvation — a point at which she might veer from a path that was beginning to trace her mother’s.
“I kind of knew it was a sign,” she said. “I was super happy when I found out I was pregnant, because I was doing all the wrong things. I was stealing my mom’s car, and stealing other people’s cars, and in and out of court, and doing drugs. Then I got this sign, and it all stopped.
“I cut everybody out of my life who was still using drugs, still drinking, still (involved) in criminal activity. I went to and from school, and that was that. My motto was to not be my mom. And that was my mom’s motto. She was always like, ‘I don’t want you to be me.’ So that was my aim.”
Amarien was born in early May, giving her a chance to finish the semester before taking on motherhood. Just 10 days after Amarien arrived, La’Rae and Jevaughnté started dating. Some joy had dared to enter the frame.
As if on cue, her mom relapsed. Not long after, the family lost its home again. But La’Rae had found Jevaughnté, who wasn’t going anywhere. The couple moved in together. About a year later, La’Rae got pregnant with JJ: Jevaughnté Jr.
“Jevaughnté couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t believe it,” she said with a smile. “But we were very excited.”
When Pickens-Bonebright was in fifth grade, her teacher asked the class a question: Where do you see yourself going?
She was ready with an answer: Lincoln High and UNL!
“That’s what I always wanted,” she said. “I just never thought it would come true.”
During her senior year at Lincoln High — one that began with summer school and overwhelmed her with a credit-stuffed schedule — one teacher begged to differ, begged Pickens-Bonebright to reconsider. All of the struggles, all of the pain and strife and life drenched in poverty, in menace, in hardship, could finally pay off. Higher education could be hers, that teacher insisted, a reward she had more than earned by surviving.
You’ve been homeless throughout almost all of high school. You can get college paid for.
The same teacher walked her through applying for federal aid, helped her find and fill out scholarship applications. With Amarien just 2 and JJ an infant, she was in no rush to leave the only city she had known. She applied only to Nebraska U. Her teacher was right. Pickens-Bonebright was in.
“I always say it was a blessing in disguise for me,” she said, “to live such a hard life, but to get this out of it.”
Pickens-Bonebright would join the College of Education and Human Sciences, prepare to become a K-6 teacher, try to do right by those who had done right by her.
“I knew that it was my teachers who pushed me so hard to get me where I was,” she said. “They were the only consistency I had in my life. And that’s what I wanted to be for students.
“As long as I ended up in the schools helping, teaching, that was all that mattered to me.”
She wanted to be a teacher. Maybe she could be.
She knew it wouldn’t be easy. She just didn’t know it would be quite so hard.
“That first year was definitely a lot harder for me than I thought it was going to be, as a young mom,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine.’ And my very first day of school, my car actually broke down.
“I was like, ‘This is not made for me.’”
La’Rae and Jevaughnté were living at his mom’s, which helped keep costs down. Still, there was the matter of finding and paying for day care. And always, ever-present but ever-elusive, there was the issue of time. She had to make it, when dropping off and picking up Amarien and JJ. She had to find it, when pumping milk to feed her youngest. She had to save it and balance it but also spend it, when going to class on campus and going to work at Amigos and going home to study and care for the boys and hang with Jevaughnté and check in with her mom.
Sleep had morphed from a necessity to a luxury that she barely considered and rarely indulged. Exhaustion consumed her. She gave no real thought to dropping out. Another motto kept her from it.
“There were so many people in my high school who would say, ‘Oh, you’re a teen mom. You’re not gonna be able to live your life.’ Now I’ll be able to show my boys: Those people who say you can’t do something, you can show them you can.
“That’s what I live by: Show them they’re wrong.”
Not everyone doubted. Tricia Gray, an assistant professor of practice in teaching, learning and teacher education, would prove as much while heading up a social studies seminar that Pickens-Bonebright took in spring 2022. Pickens-Bonebright saw in Gray what she herself wanted to embody: a teacher who cared about the student in the desk, who would see them as more than a name to memorize or an assignment to grade, who would meet them halfway.
“I had to bring my son to school one day, and she was just super sweet,” Pickens-Bonebright said. “I was worried he was gonna be too loud, and she was like, ‘Don’t shush him. He is fine. I told you (that) you could bring him; that’s what I meant. Kids are gonna play.’
“I started crying in her class, and she said, ‘Don’t say sorry for crying. You have a right to feel.’ Ever since then, when I cry in front of people, I don’t say sorry.”
“Queen Gray,” as Pickens-Bonebright would come to think of her, was just as keen when it came to her craft. She listened to concerns, clarified concepts when her students struggled, explained how lessons could be applied — to Black students, to white students, to students who speak English as a second language — when it was time for her own to take their place at the head of classroom.
“She was able to break it all down,” Pickens-Bonebright said, “to make me think from a different perspective.”
Another Husker faculty member would manage to do the same. He would get Bonebright-Pickens to wrestle with a belief rooted as deep as any in her psyche, one watered and fed and made strong every time her mom failed to act like a mother.
“My mom relapsed at the beginning of this year, and she’s all into (the idea) that addiction is a brain disease,” Bonebright-Pickens said. “I was such a hard head about that — that it wasn’t, and that it was a choice. We would get into arguments about it all the time.”
Then, this past summer, she took a course on families and addiction with Paul Springer, a professor of child, youth and family studies and an associate dean of the college. When he introduced the idea of addiction as disease, Pickens-Bonebright again resisted. Ultimately, though, she began to allow for the possibility, to at least glimpse at two decades of disappointment through a new filter.
“He knew what he was talking about, and he was ready for the fight back, because I was like, ‘No, I cannot get behind that. She chose this.’ He allowed all the tears.
“He helped me realize that there’s more to addiction than what an outsider may see, and that as a child of an addict, I may have more things going on than what I allow myself to feel. He pushed me to go to an (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting, so I went with my mom. That was a need that I didn’t know I had, so I’m very, very thankful for him.”
Pickens-Bonebright’s student-teaching experience at Everett Elementary School, where she’ll start as a full-time substitute in 2023, has challenged yet another belief. Going in, she was open to teaching any elementary grade above second. She wasn’t nice enough, she thought, to accommodate second graders in the ways they would need.
Naturally, second grade was the only option open to her when she started student-teaching in August. Now she’s realized that, if anything, “I’m actually really nice, and I’m not mean enough,” she joked. The second graders, meanwhile, are more advanced than she remembers herself and her classmates at that age.
“It’s definitely been a rollercoaster,” she said. “I’m at a Title I school, and those students need a lot of love. That’s what I want to be there to give them. There’s been a lot of learning involved, and I've loved every part of it.
“Second grade might be it for me.”
A couple of moments at Everett have especially resonated with Pickens-Bonebright, who had just one Black teacher growing up. For the sake of gaining a breadth of experience, she eventually moved from teaching second grade to fifth. As part of a class exercise, she shared a personal narrative: I remember sleeping in the car with my mom and my brother and my sister when I was in fifth grade. When she finished, a student approached.
Aren’t you embarrassed to tell that story, the fifth grader asked.
Why would I be embarrassed to tell my story, Pickens-Bonebright replied. This is how I got where I am today.
“I just made it a lesson. Then she was crying: ‘I’m homeless right now, and my mom uses drugs. And you’re the first teacher to look like me.’ It was just a this-is-why-I’m-here type of moment for me,” she said. “It’s one memory that will stay with me forever.”
There was also the time a Black kindergartner, walking through the halls of Everett, stopped still in her tracks, staring as Pickens-Bonebright and a co-teacher passed by. Confused, the co-teacher waved at the girl, who remained motionless, her eyes locked on Pickens-Bonebright.
When Pickens-Bonebright waved, the girl waved back.
“I’m all for people of color getting into the educational system,” she said. “But we also get run out of it, because it’s people of color who are suspended more, who are told that they won’t be much of anything. My goal is to change that narrative.”
For almost all of the past four years, Pickens-Bonebright attended Nebraska U secure in the knowledge that she would be the first in her family to earn a college degree, a bona fide first-gen graduate. Her mom had nearly gotten there, once, just two courses shy of earning her degree in nursing.
If I wouldn’t have gotten stuck on your dad, her mom would say, I would have finished.
It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that her mom offhandedly dropped a surprise: She’d been going back to school online.
There was more. Her mom would be graduating in December, too, with a multidisciplinary degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She had a question for her daughter.
When do you graduate?
December 17. Why?
Oh. I graduate the 16th.
“I’m kind of frustrated, because I want it to be all about me,” La’Rae said, her laugh overriding any remnants of irritation. “Like, it’s all about me, or it’s nothing.
“I’m super, super proud of her, though, because I think it just shows how determined (she is) and how much of a fight she has in her, that she still has that light.”
Not for the first time, La’Rae has found herself adopting the role of parent, informing her reluctant mother that, yeah, she does have to walk for commencement.
The next day, La’Rae will do the same. Her mom will be there. Jevaughnté, too, and Amarien, and JJ.
She wanted to be a teacher — the safe space, the consistent presence, the above and beyond, the positive and the bright. She will be.
“I cannot wait for it,” she said of graduating, her laughter breaking through again, indomitable. “We’re almost there. I’m so ready.”