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Maria Justice, left, has overcome a rocky childhood, and her daughter, Olivia Cranford, 11, now attends Baylor School.

We hear a lot about upward mobility and how hard it is to achieve in 21st century America.

Maria Justice is a child-care worker and Chattanooga State student in her mid-30s. She and her daughter, Olivia Cranford, a sixth-grader at Baylor School, are good examples of what's possible in the space of one generation with persistence and prayer.

Eleven-year-old Olivia is as effervescent as a Mentos mint dropped into a Diet Coke. Over BLTs at McAlister's Deli on Signal Mountain Road earlier this week, her mom watched in silent amusement as Maria described her rapturous first weeks at Baylor.

But what could she have learned in just a month and a half?

Well, she can count to 1,000 in Chinese, she said.

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Mark Kennedy

"I can also say 'so-so' in Chinese," Olivia said. "It sounds like ma-ma-hoo-hoo. And I can say 'mom' and 'dad' and sing the birthday song, too."

Meanwhile, Olivia says she is learning to pinpoint the "largest common multiples" in math. And in geography class she and her classmates are discussing how some Chinese factory workers pay the bills while earning only about $4 a day in wages.

"It's awesome," the former Big Ridge Elementary student said of her new school. "You get to go to classes by yourself. ... It's real easy making friends."

That a smart, outgoing sixth-grader is thriving at Baylor is not news. But given her mother's early life path, there is an element of improbability to all this.

Two decades ago, when Maria was in junior high school, her life was not nearly so orderly and exciting. The children of a single mother, Maria and her three brothers lived in Athens, Tenn. Maria said when she was a budding teenager, she and her mom constantly butted heads.

"It was hard," Maria remembered. "I was a wild child ... making horrible decisions."

When Maria was in junior high, she and her mom parted ways. After a couple of foster home placements, Maria, then age 15, finally landed at Bethel Bible Village, a Christian group home off Hamill Road for children and teens in crisis.

There, Maria continued to feel restless. She even ran away from Bethel once.

But even during her rebellious teen years, Maria was absorbing some of the virtues of her Bethel house parents. She remembered one of her house dads saying, "I'm deeply disappointed that you ran away, but I still love you." Being the object of someone else's disappointment was a new feeling, Maria said, and one she remembers to this day.

One of her house mothers spent a few minutes each day in prayer and meditation, Maria recalled. It's a practice Maria has adopted as a working mother of two; besides Olivia, Maria also has an 8-year-old son, Isaiah.

Maria said the turning point in her life came when she became pregnant with Olivia at age 23.

"I knew the life I had lived, and I refused to give that to my child," she said. "It's like the Lord heard me say that. From that point on, my life has been different."

When Olivia first told her mother she wanted to go to Baylor after her time at Big Ridge Elementary, Maria said she had to research the school. At first, she didn't know Baylor was co-educational, and the tuition cost gave her sticker shock.

She remembered thinking, "Oh, my goodness, this tuition!"

But Olivia was adamant she wanted to attend Baylor — and only Baylor — and, in the end, her family found a way.

"Let's just say God opened some doors, and continues to open doors," Maria said.

Maria said she is counting on her daughter's quality prep school education to change the trajectory of her family.

"This is an opportunity to change a life, to take her to a different level," said Maria. "This is something big."

Olivia, too, senses the possibilities.

"I'm just so happy to be there," she said with a dimpled smile.

Sounds like a girl who wants her life to be more than "ma-ma-hoo-hoo."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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