Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.
WEST PLAINS (Columbia Missourian) — There was a party at the dorm Friday night. The kids got together, had some drinks and then went off to join the West Plains night scene. They danced at the club and came back to the dorms after 1 a.m. Some of them went to bed. Others had more drinks and talked the night away. They ended up in rooms other than their own, on couches, in restrooms, in showers, in beds. When they finally woke up Saturday around noon, they showered, grabbed lunch at the cafeteria and updated each other on the previous night's events. They lingered over cigarettes and stories. Then they went back to their rooms to kill a few hours until Saturday night and the next party.
Among the partiers: Katie Castello, Tacompsy Rawson, Samantha Price and Heather Hopkins, a tight clutch of friends at Missouri State University's West Plains campus, a two-year junior college in the heart of the Ozarks. All are caught up in the drama of dorm life and the distraction of college classes. All are trying to find a way out of West Plains and into their dreams of well-paying jobs, loving families and bigger cities.
Katie wants to graduate from college, then work at something she's passionate about while she builds a family. What that something is — she's not sure yet.
Tacompsy wants to move to a big city — maybe Atlanta, where there are plenty of professional black men to meet — attend beauty school and have her own nail salon one day.
Samantha wants to become a paramedic with a fire department and someday own a restaurant.
And Heather wants to become a psychologist somewhere far away from south central Missouri.
These are the kind of goals — vague, romantic, idealistic and unformed — common to college-aged kids everywhere. But for these four, dreams of the future play out against the realities of the past and are underscored by a background etched in profuse poverty, indifference to education and lack of discipline or ambition. These four young women typify a demographic handicapped to fail: millennials who grew up in the central Ozarks, an area with high rates of unemployment and meth addiction and low rates of advanced degrees. They were raised in families where welfare was more common than steady work.
Now it's their turn, their time to try to shake off the inheritance of poverty and inertia to build happy, independent lives for themselves.
On a Saturday in early March, the four friends sprawl on blue couches in the dorm apartment Katie and Tacompsy share. They tell their stories, interrupting one another with laughter, encouragement and bursts of Facebook news. They are sweet and sassy, funny and frustrating, maddening and, at times, tragic.
They believe in one another and support each other's dreams of better lives. It's what they all say they want. But none of them are sure they know how to make that happen. Over the next three months, as they tried to make it through the school semester with passing grades and the promise of decent jobs, those hopes would repeatedly be challenged and re-tailored by an environment of low expectations.
Samantha, 17, is the youngest of the four and the only one who didn't grow up in Missouri. Her family moved from Yucca Valley in southern California a few months ago when they bought a house in Alton. They saw it online and decided they could afford to buy, after renting in California. Her stepfather is disabled after a forklift broke his back years ago, and her mother stays at home and, with the help of government assistance, cares for the four youngest of the couple's combined 10 children.
Missouri still feels strange to Samantha.
"Everybody waves to you, but they won't talk to you in stores," she says. "In California they won't wave to you on the street, but they'll talk to you in the store. You talk, and you're best friends. And you exchange numbers, and you hang out later that night."
Everything feels new to Samantha. She is dealing with her first semester in college, her first time away from her parents and her first time getting close to a boy, who'll later act like nothing happened. She has found an anchor in the other girls, especially Tacompsy, who has her back.
But moving here didn't change Samantha's goal: To become a paramedic and, eventually, run a restaurant. She hopes to join the Missouri National Guard to help pay for college, and expects to enlist in late March.
Samantha is trying to figure out who she is, Tacompsy says.
As for herself, Tacompsy drawls: "I was born a poor black child." Her send-up of Steve Martin in "The Jerk" sends her friends into peels of laughter. But the truth is, Tacompsy was born poor and black, to a 14-year-old in St. Louis. She was adopted by a white couple from Mountain View, a town 30 minutes north of West Plains. A few years later, the couple adopted Tacompsy's biological younger brother.
Tacompsy was the only black girl at her high school in Mountain View. Heather and Katie went to the same school, but they didn't hang out together back then. Tacompsy's father was a detention teacher at her high school; he kept a close eye on her at school and didn't let her go out much at night. Her mother had a job in Springfield during the week, and commuted the two hours home on weekends. Tacompsy recalls often being left in charge of her brother, having to cook and do laundry. She left home when she was 17, first living with a boyfriend, then with several other friends until she started college a year later. She says she hasn't been home since she first left.
Earlier this year, Tacompsy found out she was pregnant. She had spent a night with a young man during Christmas break. He freaked out at the news, and she hasn't decided what she'll do. She says she wants to keep the baby, but being a parent would make it harder to strike out on her own. She has her sights set on beauty school and then Atlanta, where there are more young black people.
"That has been my dream since I was little," she says. "I don't really know what's going to happen, but I do know that I'm going to make it there sometime."
Katie, 20, lacks that certitude. She also grew up in Mountain View, after her family moved from St. Louis to take care of her grandfather. She had hoped to go to college in Springfield, but her ACT scores were too low. Now she does her general studies at MSU-West Plains, just like the other girls. She is supposed to graduate in May but doubts she'll make it. She dropped credits because she had a hard time adjusting to college, then an uncle died, and then she fell further behind. She considers graduating next year or the year after.
Katie wants traditional things — good job, money, relationship, house — but has no idea how to make that happen. She would like to travel the world but doesn't know what kind of job would pay her for that. She considers event planning because she likes to shop. She wonders about being a flight attendant, but she is afraid the plane might crash. She likes baking cakes, so she might go into culinary arts.
"Everyone keeps telling me that I need to know what to do with my life, but I don't know how I'm supposed to know, or how I'm supposed to decide," Katie says. "I've taken those career quizzes, and they don't tell me anything. So I don't know."
She says she's dating a 27-year-old man.
"No," the other girls interrupt. "Not dating. No!"
Anyway, the man told Katie to Google it. Google life. It wasn't very helpful.
She has worked at fast food restaurants in Mountain View and as a sewing operator for a Nike manufacturer in Winona. But now her family is pressuring her to choose a stable career, even though neither of her parents were much interested in advanced education. Lately, Katie has had anxiety attacks and doesn't leave her room very often.
Heather often keeps Katie company. The two have been friends since childhood. Although Heather doesn't officially live in the dorm, she's always there, often sleeping on the couch in Katie's living room. Heather spent her early childhood in Springfield, until her parents got divorced when she was 4 and her mother moved to West Plains with her three children. A few years later, they moved to Mountain View, where Heather finished school. Her mother, a single mom who for long time raised the children largely with the help of government assistance programs, didn't impose many rules — Heather could stay out as long as she wanted and sleep over at friends' houses. So when Heather was a teenager and her mother married a man who set an 8 p.m. curfew, Heather rebelled.
"I would always go to my friends' house because they weren't allowed to come over, so that's how it started out," she says. "I always wanted to be with my friends. I didn't want to be stuck at home."
Friends' parents took her in. In middle school, she went on a trip to Florida with a friend's family. Her track coach became a sort of a mother figure and helped Heather get a scholarship at Hannibal-LaGrange University. She went there for a year but lost her scholarship when she was caught smoking weed. So last fall, her coach arranged for her to go to a college in Humboldt, Tenn., and play basketball. Because she enrolled too late, she wasn't allowed to play basketball the first season and soon lost interest in school. She left after a couple of months and came back to live with her mother. She enrolled at MSU in January but can't wait to move away and be on her own.
Heather, now 20, is interested in a career in psychology and raising a family. She says she knows she could be a good mom — she learned from her mother how not to raise children. But she is not sure how she would provide for them.
"My mom kind of settles, and she doesn't push herself very much. We lived paycheck by paycheck, and we didn't get to do much of anything," Heather says. "That's my biggest fear. I don't want to end up like that."
All four friends separately echoed some version of that perspective. Tacompsy said she thinks that if you didn't have a great family growing up, it will make you want your own family even more, to be the best mom you can be.
Katie's parents always told her school was important but didn't model that in their own lives.
Samantha's family is the most important thing in the world to her but, she says, are also an example of what not to do. She needs to know that "I'm doing something with my life and not just sitting around, being a bum.
"A lot of my family is like that. They depend on the government. I don't want to be like that," she says. "I want to do something with my life and make a difference in somebody's life, anybody's life. One of my fears is actually to die without making a difference."
Living down to expectations
Heather has class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Waking up is not fun, especially after a late-night party, so she easily talks herself out of it. Then she wakes up at 10 a.m. and hates herself for not going to class. Sometimes, when she's sleeping over at the dorm, the girls lure one another back to sleep in the morning, only to feel bad a few hours later because they missed class again.
The work ethic of Millennials — people born between 1980 and 2000, give or take a few years — has been studied, debated, dissected and judged. They have been portrayed in the media as the trophy children of baby boomers, a demanding nightmare for employers, the entitled members of a lost generation.
In a 2008 survey by CareerBuilder.com, 85 percent of hiring managers said that Millennials had a stronger sense of entitlement than older workers. They wanted higher pay, flexible work schedules, a promotion within a year and more vacation and personal time. Back when the economy was booming, the dark joke among employers was that Millennials expected to become CEO in a day.
Now young people's expectations have slumped with the economy, but the discussion continues about their values. Work ethic, by most measures, is not at the top of the list. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, Millennials were the only age group that didn't cite work ethic as a trait that identifies their generation. What they did list: technology use, music/pop culture, liberal/tolerant and smarter. Only 5 percent mentioned work ethic as a core trait of their generation; that's almost four times fewer than baby boomers and half as many as Gen Xers.
Heather echoes the surveys: "I lived my life always doing what I want, and now I want to be successful, and I don't want to be struggling. But it's really, really, really hard to make myself do stuff. I have no willpower. It takes everything I got to wake up in the morning."
Tacompsy shrugs at her lackluster performance in school. She's only "bullshitting around here," she says; none of the classes at MSU interest her or will set her up for beauty school. Yet she has strong opinions about education.
"Growing up in Mountain View, Missouri, we are screwed from the very beginning," she says. "For the whole time you go from elementary school to high school, you really don't have to do anything. To pass high school, you just show up and you're good."
But all of a sudden you're in college and expectations increase tenfold. You don't know how to meet those expectations because you never had to before.
MSU tries to address that reality in part by offering remedial classes in subjects such as English, math and reading to help students perform at college level. Nationally, 58 percent of two-year college students enroll in at least one remedial class, according to researchers at the City University of New York. At MSU-West Plains, about 70 percent of freshmen, including returning adults, take at least one remedial class, said Mirra Anson, director of developmental education.
Katie, on the other hand, hasn't found college expectations to be very challenging. She turned in an English paper three weeks late, and it was accepted. The lesson she took away: That's the way things work.
Samantha doesn't reflect much on the rigors or failings of her college education. She started only two months ago, and it's as new and strange as everything else in this state and in this dormitory.
But Heather, who is on her third college experience, offers a blunt solution: "Government should cut people off."
Her theory is that because of welfare programs her mother wasn't forced to go out and get a job. If her mother had been forced to work, Heather would have grown up seeing someone work hard and understanding the benefits of that work. Now she sees the downfalls of not working — but she admits she doesn't know how to prevent them for herself.
Geography and poverty
South-central Missouri is one of the most beautiful regions of the state. The Mark Twain National Forest covers much of the area, and the locals take pride in the clear swift rivers, perfect for canoeing and fishing.
It is also the poorest region of the state, with an average wage of $510 per week in the first quarter of 2011, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Even the residents of southeast Missouri, called the "Bootheel" and known for its striking poverty, earned on average $100 more per week; workers in St. Louis made nearly double.
The unemployment rate in south-central Missouri was 9.2 percent in February 2012, compared with a state average of 8.4 percent.
A national study published in 2002 listed south-central Missouri as one of the regions defined by persistent poverty since 1959. Wendell Bailey, a former Republican congressman from Willow Springs and former state treasurer, said he thinks nothing has changed. Last year, Bailey launched a program aimed at fighting poverty and increasing the quality of education and prospect of jobs for young people in a 10-county area in the region. He gathered leaders from 31 communities, set up a nonprofit and a 10-year plan to chip away at the underlying problems.
Bailey's aim is to change the "culture of poverty" in the Ozarks. "When you are immersed in poverty, it's generational," he says. "The parents are on food stamp programs, and children are on food stamp programs. The same way with education: When parents drop out and children drop out, it becomes a culture that's accepted to drop out of school. In fact, it's expected."
It's also likely that a 17-year-old girl who drops out of high school and gets a job at a fast food restaurant will still be working there when she is 27, because her employment options are limited by her lack of a high school diploma, Bailey says. "That creates its own expectation of failure because that's where you come from and that's where you remain."
Bailey's efforts may offer some new hope to children born during the next decade. But for those already here, the effects of being born in poverty will haunt them into adulthood. It all starts at birth, says Laura Speer, associate director for policy, research and data at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that supports disadvantaged children across the country. A child born into poverty is more likely to be born early, have a low birth weight and have developmental delays — and less likely to have access to quality health care. By kindergarten, the child is already behind the curve and likely to remain there throughout the first years in school.
The effects of poverty compound over time, Speer says. The child is more likely to drop out of high school and become a teen parent, and less likely to go to college, get a good job and raise children who have the skills to succeed.
Growing up in poverty weighs heavily against young people's motivation, she says, adding that it's difficult to believe that you will be successful if nobody around you is.
"Even for the ones who are motivated, there are always barriers that people have to overcome. The ability to overcome those barriers a lot of times has to do with people in your support system," Speer says. "So it's easy to give up if you don't have adults around you who can help you move past those barriers that come up in front of everyone."
Another Friday night. Another party at the dorm. Someone brought alcohol, which all the kids drank with Coke. Then they started doing stupid stuff, like writing all over a guy's arms and legs because he fell asleep with his shoes on. Then they went to the club. On the way there, the young man who Samantha had hooked up with got arrested for an unpaid ticket. The others made fun of him, wondering if the cops would let him go on Facebook at jail.
Heather, Tacompsy, Samantha and Katie typically hang out with maybe 10 or 15 people from the dorm, all of whom they consider friends. In total, there are about 60 students living at the dorm, all in their own little universes. There are the volleyball girls, who mostly hang out with one another or with the basketball boys; they have their own table at the cafeteria. There are the people who don't live in the dorms but might as well because they are there 24/7; Heather is an example. Then there are the good girls, who party sometimes but not too much, go to church but not all the time and have sex but not too often. A minority of the good girls are the good Christian girls, who don't drink alcohol and don't hang out with boys. There are the shy girls, who never leave their rooms except to go to class or the cafeteria; they spend their days playing cards and watching anime movies. Then there are the weird boys, who look and act creepy and are avoided by girls. Heather, Tacompsy, Samantha and Katie would fall into the category of bitches because they tell it to people straight and like to have fun. Except maybe not Samantha, who until recently was a good Christian girl.
Losing your virginity is a dorm event. When that happened to Samantha and everybody found out, she cried for two weeks straight. Then she got used to it. It's part of dorm life.
On this Saturday in early April, Tacompsy wakes up around noon, her eyes smeared with last night's makeup. A couple of weeks ago she had a miscarriage, which made her sad but also answered the question about keeping the baby. She doesn't know what caused the miscarriage, but she suspects the stress and panic attacks that she's had recently.
About the same time, she got a message on Facebook saying: "Hey, you can be a model!"
"Dude, are you legit?" she wrote back.
Turns out he was working in the porn film industry. His offer: $1,500 for three hours of shooting. Tacompsy asked for some time to think. The man referred her to another agent. This one worked for Ordinary World Models, an agency in New York that, according to its website and job postings, supplies fashion models for print and TV commercials but also for soft and hard porn magazines, such as Playboy and Hustler, and for websites. He invited Tacompsy for a two-day shoot in Boston in mid-April.
She posted on Facebook that she might have a shot at Black Entertainment Television (BET). When friends asked, she said she had lost the baby, so was in shape to model. She wasn't sure what she should do.
"I was really considering doing the porn," she says. "I mean, $1,500, that's a lot of money. But $1,500 for three hours of humiliation that other people are going to see — I don't know if that's worth it. But with $1,500 I could get out of here, I could go out and maybe get a car, I could go out and I could go to another city as soon as I wanted to."
What she had to decide was how far she would go to get away from West Plains and out of the trap she feels she's in.
"Around here you grow up in one of the small towns, and then you either get stuck in that small town, you get married, you have kids, and you stay here for the rest of your life, or you go to Springfield, and you stay there for the rest of your life," she says. "You look around and it's just like, wow. Some people haven't noticed that they've been here their whole lives and have never left this part of Missouri and probably never will."
Tacompsy didn't follow up on the modeling offer. But when she pictures herself five or 10 years from now, she doesn't see herself in south-central Missouri. She imagines herself enjoying life in a big city, grasping new opportunities, going to beauty school and finding a good black man in Atlanta. That's why she's decided to drop out of school come May.
Samantha has her own things to figure out. In late March, she went to St. Louis to enlist in the National Guard. She took the drug test and the breathalyzer and everything went fine until they weighed her, measured her body mass index and told her she was three pounds over qualifying weight.
Samantha went to the bathroom and cried and tried to vomit. She came back and got weighed again. She was told to come back in late April and try again. Back in West Plains, she is on a diet, which consists mainly of avoiding junk food.
Between the National Guard experience and the last month in the dorm, Samantha grew discouraged. She stopped going to class, earning mostly Ds and one C. She got carried away by college life and her first experiences with boys and alcohol. One night she got drunk and told Tacompsy she hated black people. Tacompsy wanted to jump at her throat, but she understood Samantha didn't mean it, so instead she took care of her through the night.
"Since my mom and dad aren't here anymore, I started to rebel," Samantha says. "They are not here holding the umbrella. I'm going to put the umbrella away for a little while."
Samantha says she wasn't pressured to start drinking or experimenting with boys. Actually, the other girls warned her against that. But it looked like fun, and she wanted to try it.
"Sam was a really good person when she came here," Heather says in a separate conversation. "And I'm not saying she's a bad person. But she saw the way that we lived and all of the mistakes that we've made, and she kind of felt like it would be cool to do some of the stuff that we did. And it's not. And I tried to tell her a million times."
As Samantha's morals dropped, so did her confidence in her dreams. She doesn't want to open a restaurant anymore — someone told her it's hard and most restaurants die within five or 10 years. She still wants to become a firefighter and paramedic. Maybe.
Most students come to college with their dreams intact, says Dennis Lancaster, an assistant professor of letters at MSU-West Plains and Samantha's favorite teacher. Somewhere along the way they realize it's a lot of work, it's going to cost a lot of money and they might need to leave the comfort of what they know.
"They feel limited. They put the limits on themselves," Lancaster says. "They might not be ready to leave this area."
Early April, continued
It's Saturday night, and the girls are going out. Katie is not with them. She just got back together with one of her ex-boyfriends, and she's with him in Mountain View. She stopped talking to the 27-year-old guy friend who wanted her to Google life.
In the last month, Katie's plans have turned upside down. While she was planning on graduating in a year or two, now she wants to speed it up and be done with school this summer. She needs one more credit to graduate and plans to take a one-week art class in the summer. She also needs to pass history this semester, where she is facing an F for not showing up.
Back in March, she had no idea what she was going to do. Now she's decided to go to culinary school in Springfield and live with her boyfriend. She got a job waiting tables at Colton's Steakhouse in West Plains, and hopes to transfer to their restaurant in Springfield.
Things seem to be lining up for her. Except for one credit in the summer and that F in history.
Back at the dorm, the girls are getting dressed for the club. Tacompsy changes from her leopard print top into a simple, black one and freshens her makeup. She keeps on her silver-colored necklace, which reads "I love Boys." Heather puts on jeans and a flowered top. Samantha doesn't dress up because she is underage and won't be allowed in the club.
Heather's phone rings. It's her boyfriend, Tommy.
"Where are you at?"
"I'm at the college."
"Stay there, I'm coming to pick you up."
Heather leaves with him. The girls comment on how possessive Tommy is. Tacompsy goes to the club with another friend. It's fairly quiet. The volleyball girls hang out with the basketball boys at the bar and a few people dance to rap music. Tacompsy goes back to the dorm after about an hour.
The next morning, Heather comes down hard on herself for not standing up to Tommy the night before. They had been together for about three months. It was all good at the beginning; they were best friends. But then Tommy started having trust issues, so Heather decided to make their relationship official and declare publicly they were a couple — the first time she's done that with a boy. It only made things worse. Tommy started suspecting Heather of cheating on him every time she went out without him.
"I don't know how to make the kid trust me," Heather says. "I don't even know why I want to be with him, honestly."
On top of that, Heather has been kicked out of the house in West Plains where she was living with a friend. In Heather's version, the friend got upset that Heather was never home, hanging out at the college all the time. Now she has no clue where she will stay. She considers moving in with her father, but that would be weird because they haven't lived in the same house since she was a toddler, before her parents divorced.
"Right now sucks," Heather says. "Eventually it will be OK but right now sucks really bad. Money is a big deal, and I hate it because my family is not rich. Whenever you're a child or an individual going out into the world trying to do something for yourself, whenever you start out it's not easy, especially if your family doesn't help you at all. I don't have any support to fall back on. If I fall it's all on me, and it's a million pounds, and it sucks.”
She wants to leave, go to a four-year college and mostly go far away from home, to a place where nobody knows her and nobody judges her. But ever since she got suspended from the college in Hannibal, Heather feels she started digging a hole into which she sinks deeper and deeper.
"I feel like I'm making a huge leap because we are really low class, and I have this expectation from myself way higher than that, and for my family way higher than that, and so it's really, really, really frustrating because I'm 20 years old, I want to get this going," Heather says. "But I'm stuck, and I feel like I'm stuck forever."
The ways out
It would be easy to watch how these girls party, skip classes and make random, questionable decisions and not see much beyond that. It would be easy to chalk them up as irresponsible members of a "lost" generation. It would be easy to miss their warmth and their kindness, how they take care of each other, how conscious they are of the effects of their decisions and how terribly they struggle.
What would be harder would be to ask how the lives of these girls, and others like them, might have been different had they been born in a different family, in a different place or in a different culture.
Grown-ups and officals offer their solutions.
For Sheila Orchard, who worked for 25 years as a middle school and high school counselor in the local school district until she retired two years ago, it's making tiny steps in helping students define their goals and the path to achieve them. The first step is to convince them to get up and go to school every morning as part of the "big life plan." Programs such as the Missouri A+ Schools Program will pay for students to attend certain colleges if they graduate high school with a minimum 2.5 GPA and 95 percent attendance rate.
For Dennis Lancaster, the MSU-West Plains professor, it's engaging students in one-on-one mentoring, sharing his own experiences and showing them that somebody cares about their struggles.
For Wendell Bailey, the ex-congressman, it's a strategic plan to increase the quality of education and convince businesses to offer more and better jobs for students and parents.
For Laura Speer at the Casey Foundation, it's early education and mentorship — finding successful individuals to serve as role models for the young and help them overcome barriers. At a more macro level, parents need access to better paying jobs, even if that means going back to school or, in the case of immigrants, learning better English.
"Unless there's real commitment to the next generation there's no telling what's going to happen," Speer says. "It won't be good, though."
There was a party at the dorm Friday night. The kids reveled in the early summer weather and the approaching end of the semester. Some of them stayed in their rooms and prepared for finals week. Others had already given up, walking away from college life. Still others counted the remaining hours until they could be out of here.
One Sunday morning, a young man swung by to pick up Tacompsy and her things. She was finally getting out of West Plains. But her destination was not Atlanta or some big city. It was Springfield, where she would live with the young man and another roommate. She gave up the modeling idea and now she needed another plan.
Tacompsy's early departure fits the predominant trend at MSU-West Plains, where only 27 percent of the students graduate from the two-year program within four years. Another 23 percent end up transferring to other colleges before they finish their degree here.
Katie also left, in April — not to Springfield, as planned, but to Birch Tree, a town 45 minutes northeast of West Plains. Her boyfriend, Michael, has a house there, which he received as a graduation present from his parents and where he moved after he got a job as a McDonald's manager in nearby Mountain View. Katie moved in with him, giving up her plans of attending culinary school in Springfield and graduating from MSU-West Plains in May. She failed several classes toward the end of the semester because it was hard to keep up with school on top of moving and going to work. She quit her job at Colton's Steakhouse after two weeks, instead taking a job as a cashier at the Walmart in West Plains. But she quit that because commuting was exhausting and expensive. Now she has a job at a Mexican restaurant in Mountain View. She doesn't like it very much, but it pays the bills. She and Michael are discussing marriage.
Samantha was inducted into the National Guard in late April. She also got a job, as a cashier at McDonald's in West Plains. She starts mid-May and will work there until mid-August, when she goes on a 10-week boot camp with the National Guard at Fort Leonard Wood. She will then spend the rest of the fall and winter in South Carolina, where she'll get her training as a mechanic with the National Guard. She failed all of her classes this semester, and she doesn't know if she'll come back to MSU. She plans to get her training as a paramedic and become a firefighter, her long-time dream. The complication is that she will need to return to Missouri because her family is here and she doesn't want to live apart from them for too long.
Heather also has decided to try to enlist in the National Guard. "I've been going to college for two years, and it didn't work out so well, so I need a plan B," she says. Meanwhile, she'll be in West Plains for finals week. And before finals week, there are parties.
Sunday is usually Sober Day among the girls' friends (after Margarita Monday, Tequila Tuesday, Wine Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, Fun Friday and Super-fun Saturday). But on this Sunday in early May, they use the S for Single and find a theme for their party. On Friday, Heather's boyfriend, Tommy, broke up with her, so she joined the others at a friend's house. They played beer pong, a game in which each team tries to throw a pingpong ball into the other team's plastic cups. Usually, if the ball gets inside, the members of the opposing team drink from the cup. In this case, the garage floor where they were playing was too dirty, so they used cups with water and kept their drinks on the side.
The party started in the early afternoon. By 9 p.m. the game was old and the girls were tired. Heather and Samantha dozed off on a large couch in the garage, covered by a patchy blanket, in a tight embrace.
Samantha was sworn into the National Guard in late April this year. She then got a job at a McDonald's until August, when she is scheduled to go to National Guard boot camp.
Guard training starts in fall if she makes it through boot camp.