I met senior photography major Constantina Davis my first semester after she transferred to Columbia from Malcolm X College. When she told me she was raising four kids by herself, working as a security guard at The Art Institute of Chicago and studying photography at Columbia, I could not imagine how she balanced it all.
Chicago Public Schools closed its in-person classrooms for almost a year during the pandemic, and currently 145,000 students are learning remotely from home. As the pandemic progressed, Davis’ story came to mind.
Although CPS students were given the option to go back to in-person learning starting March 8, Davis was not ready for her children to return.
“I think they opened it back up too soon,” Davis said. “They should have waited until everybody got vaccinated and all that before they let the kids go back.”
Davis said she now only works during the weekend, so she can “make sure [all her kids] are focused.”
I arrived at Davis’ apartment in the Austin neighborhood early on a Monday afternoon on Feb. 22 and found myself immediately immersed in what had become routine for the family over the last few months.
Davis’ two youngest children, 12-year-old Tre’von and 9-year-old Savanah, were attending class from the dining room, while their mother tuned into her photography class from her bedroom.
As the day went on, Davis’ kids participated in a number of classes, with little change or movement, other than Savanah participating in her PE class, before going back to staring at her computer screen across from her brother.
After Tre’von and Savanah got out of class at 3:30 p.m., the chatter from online school stopped, the apartment became quiet and they retreated into their rooms to decompress.
Davis’ oldest daughter, Teanna, who is 20, scrolled through social media in her room while Dillan, who is 16, played games online with his friend in the next room. Tre’von started to draw for his art class, as Savanah spun around the apartment on her electric hoverboard.
Meanwhile, Davis attempted to wrap up her “Image Strategies” class. In 2019, after graduating from Malcolm X College in 2011 with an associate in arts degree, Davis returned to college life at Columbia to study photography, with a long-term goal of owning her own photography business.
Davis lived with her mother while she was in school. However, following a house fire in 2011, she had to find a job to support her children independently.
As her children got older and were able to watch the younger ones when she was away, Davis began to take classes at Columbia. She enrolled in 2019 and relies on help from the government to cover some of the costs for housing and food.
“I wouldn’t be able to go back to school if it wasn’t for Section 8,” Davis said referring to the housing choice voucher program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist low-income residents with rent payments. “Because I would have to spend [all] my time working [and] trying to pay bills.”
Even with this assistance, Davis’ three-bedroom apartment in Austin costs around $1,450 a month without on-site laundry.
“I think it’s too much for this apartment,” Davis said. “But … I appreciate it because some people don’t have it as good as I have.”
On weekends, Davis wakes up at 7 a.m. ahead of her long commute to The Art Institute of Chicago. After changing into her security uniform, applying makeup and getting ready for the day, she drives to the Central Green Line Station, 350 N. Central Ave., to get to her eight-hour shift.
The full commute usually takes Davis around 40 minutes, but she takes it in stride, the expression on her face only scrunching with concern when unmasked passengers board the train. After arriving downtown, she catches a ride with a co-worker, their chatter and laughter filling the car as they drive toward the museum.
Davis has been working for The Art Institute of Chicago as a security guard for close to eight years. She said that although it was inspiring to work at the museum, she has started to get depressed when waking up for work.
“[You] go to work, come home, go to work, come home. You’re stuck in that trap,” Davis said. “I don’t want to be a security guard for the rest of my life.”
She said for her, studying photography has felt like a way to create another avenue for herself.
“I think going back to school will be my outlet,” Davis said. “So that I [can] get into entrepreneurship, doing something more exciting.”
Davis said the loss of her mother has made her hope to spend more time with her children.
I just think about how hard my mom worked because she used to work for the CTA,” Davis said. “I wanted to do something I enjoy. I didn’t want to go to work and come home and not really [enjoy] life.”