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The most important thing

She was poor, from a complicated family. She needed A Certificate in order to keep going.

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She was a waif, thin-limbed and big-eyed, quiet and stubborn.

One of eight children living in her household, she was an unplanned child born after her father had begun his relationship with her stepmother.

Her own mother's whereabouts were unknown to us, as were the circumstances that brought her to live with her father and his wife, and what that woman must have thought when this child arrived at their door – living, breathing proof of her husband's philandering – in need of a place to live.

The families at our middle school are more fluid and of the moment – of the need – than of legal tie. Parents, children, brothers, sisters all may have different last names, and kudzulike family trees reach out and wrap around children with different fathers, mothers, grandparents.

She lived in the shadow of her older half-sister, who was streetwise, tenacious, and often mean. Her stepbrother was killed in gang violence, and two other stepbrothers had fallen into some bad activities, according to her father. He was unemployed, and the family moved frequently, three times in one academic year.

I was helping her with her high school application. This is the biggest part of my job, assisting the eighth-graders and their families in choosing a school that is safe, a good academic fit, and another step in their walk away from poverty.

But there was a problem. She didn't have a birth certificate. She had never had a birth certificate.

"Do you know where she was born?" I asked her father.

"Of course, I know where she was born," he told me, the slightest bit of offense in his voice.

But he couldn't get the birth certificate, because he wasn't listed on it. Only the mother was. She was in a bad way, he said. She didn't have a permanent home and would be difficult to track down.

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