Not long ago in Chattanooga, a little girl got suspended from a neighborhood rec center.
She'd threatened two other girls with a knife. (A butter knife, but still a knife.)
One day, the girl — she's probably 7 or 8 — sneaked back into the center, pleading for a sack lunch. Nearby, a police officer — a black woman who'd stopped by the rec center — listened to the girl's story.
Let me walk you home, she told the girl.
Inside the housing project apartment, the officer asked the mother: Why did your daughter pull a knife?
The mother, who knew and trusted the officer, told her the story:
My daughter had enough. Those two girls make fun of her in school. Yank on her hair. Tell her she's stupid.
Why? the officer asked.
The story kept tumbling out. The little girl falls asleep each day in class. She's exhausted from the night before.
A lot of nights, this man, this drug dealer, comes over. Forces his way into our apartment. He's violent. Abusive. He rapes me.
My little girl tries to fight him off, but can't, so she has to endure the violence. She can't sleep. Who could?
At school, she's exhausted. That's when those girls tell her she's so dumb since she can't stay awake.
The officer, silent for a moment, asked: Why don't you call the cops at night?
The mother was silent, too. Then: I've got a warrant out for me. If the cops take him in, they'll take me, too.
And I lose my daughter.
The officer, wisely, put first things first: Let's get this girl bathed and fed and in bed.
They clean her up, tuck her in.
A few days later, the officer returns with groceries. The mother opens the door; she is bruised and beaten.
He came back, didn't he?
Why didn't you call the cops?
Because not all cops are going to treat me like you do.
Later that night, the man returns. In desperation, the woman calls police.
Another officer — a white male — arrives. He arrests the abuser. Then, realizing there's a warrant, arrests her, too.
Authorities come and take the daughter away.
This story, told to me by an eyewitness, is a powerful tale about trauma, being trapped, policing and one little girl who would walk through fire for her mom.
What will save this girl?
Her neighborhood cannot. The cops cannot. Her mother probably cannot.
But school could.
This Wednesday, the county mayor is expected to propose a property tax increase to increase — possibly by $34 million — the public school budget.
When I think of a tax increase, I think of this little girl.
I would gladly vote for a tax increase on her behalf.
I would vote for multiple tax increases on her behalf.
Not because I roll around in extra money or want to swoop in like some paternalist hero.
But because a tax increase could save her life.
A tax increase could support:
* Her teachers, giving them a raise, increased training, smaller class size, added resources.
* Her school counselors, who are perhaps the only mental health resource this girl will ever encounter.
* Her art teachers, who encourage expression and voice and outlets for trauma.
* Her social workers, truancy officers and special education teachers.
* Her mother, by eliminating school fees and providing her daughter with a laptop.
A tax increase is an act of investment in this girl when everything else in her life has been dis-invested.
It is an act of investment in 44,000 other public school students.
The AP scholars. The athletes, poets, coders, budding entrepreneurs, the back-of-the-classroom-student who's sitting on this brilliant idea, but just needs a little love and attention to spark it out.
No other place in the county welcomes as much diversity — race, class, religion, nationality, sexuality, ability, intellect, mental health, language — every day.
No other place in the county addresses as many needs — educating, counseling, coaching, disciplining, feeding, transporting, supporting — every day.
We cannot demand this and more of our schools without also properly funding them.
It is time for this tax increase.
It is past time.
Yet what of those who can't afford it?
They are a husband and wife with a combined age of 151. Every dollar counts for them. A property tax increase is manageable if spread out incrementally. But at all once? What happens if the roof leaks? Or one of them gets sick? Or both?
"How many middle-class elderly homeowners are at their margin?" the wife asked.
To live within their means, they've given up so much: the daily newspaper, symphony tickets, trips to the outlet mall, donations to Room at the Inn, magazine subscriptions, HBO, landscaping. No more Christmas or birthday gifts. (They still scrape up cash gifts for grandkids.)
Forget the spa. Or painting the house.
One of them still works (part time, no benefits). They volunteer at Memorial hospital and still teach Sunday school.
Yet with fewer and fewer things to cut, this tax increase could really trouble their budget, especially with bills from a recent hospitalization.
Don't assume this couple is anti-education.
"We are educators by profession," she said. "That's what we did with our lives and our hearts, with five earned post-secondary degrees between us."
This tax increase? You can transform schools with something else besides money.
"Money counts, of course, but parents who are engaged with their K-12 students and teachers are the foundation that money can't buy," she said.
Engaged parents who value education is the key.
"Money can't buy that value," she said.
That little girl?
The last I heard, she's back with her mother.
And still in school.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at email@example.com.