Party of five: Junior Ashlyn Pearson pieces together a family history of hope

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From left to right: Ryan, Ashlyn’s mother Lindsay, Ashlyn’s father Matthew Wessels, Jayden, and Ashlyn. “It’s disappointing to know that the people you love will make bad decisions and have kids when it’s not a good idea,” Ashlyn said about her biological parents. Photo courtesy of Ashlyn Pearson.
by Namratha Prasad, FEATURES EDITOR
29 May 2019

Ashlyn’s biological mother was a drug addict. No one knows where she is these days. Today, Ashlyn’s mom is the biological sister of her biological father, making Ashlyn’s biological uncle — now — her father.

It’s not confusing to Ashlyn.

It’s simply us.

At a young age, junior Ashlyn Pearson was left to take care of herself and her younger brothers. For many teenagers her age, raising a family at a really young age is scary. Ashlyn did this for the first seven years of her life.

Nine years after this, I knock on her door apprehensively. After a couple moments, she answers the door. She is a 5-foot-six brunette with glasses. On the outside, Ashlyn Pearson is like every other junior at East. She tries her best in school, gets good grades, and looks forward to her future. However, no matter how ready she is for the future, there is one thing she often forgets to include about herself: her past.

After a few minutes of small talk, I know that Ashlyn is vice-president of NHS, vice-president of PAC, and an AP & honors student. After listing her many accolades and extracurriculars, she adds, almost absentmindedly, “Oh and I’m adopted.” I am taken aback. Ashlyn says that this is a shocking fact for most people, as she does not tell people about it.

Ashlyn and her two biological younger brothers were born in California. Her birth mother was a drug addict, and her birth father was in prison. She recalls that her life was bleak. Most days, she didn’t and couldn’t go to school. She adds that this might be why she cares so much about school now. “For most people, unless you don’t want to be anything, you have to do something to get where you want to go.” She adds through a chortled laugh that she wants to get where she wants to get there and get there fast. After all she went through, she wants to get through life without any added struggles, which is why she tries to achieve all her accolades.

All Ashlyn can recall about life before Illinois was that it was tough. She lived in a small apartment complex. Her birth mom was not around as much, and she was left to take care of her two younger brothers. They couldn’t eat much, and her parents fought a lot. She pauses for a while, then continues. She went back and forth, from her grandparent’s house back to her parents’ house. “I didn’t know anything different from it, and when you get something different from it you’re like ‘oh crap, that was bad,’” Ashlyn says solemnly.

Ashlyn moved to Illinois when she was seven years old, with one of her younger brothers, while the other one was still in California. Her birth dad is her adoptive mother’s brother. So, her adoptive mother is actually her aunt. First, she lived in downtown Chicago, and then moved to Oswego in the fifth grade. She currently lives with her aunt, uncle, biological brothers, as well as two other siblings born to her aunt and uncle, who she now refers to as her mom and dad.

I look around the room and see a picture of her little brother and her. I ask her about her relationship with her brothers, and she says that she is basically their second mom. She always told them what to do, and loved them unconditionally, especially when her birth mom was not around. “I love them to death and I don’t want them to end up like our parents did,” she reflects.

Ashlyn also prides herself on being more mature than a lot of other teens, because she had to grow up and be there for her brothers when she was only six years old. She explains that she doesn’t resent her birth parents for doing what they did, but it is just disappointing. Ashlyn receives letters from her father once in a while, but she says he is not her favorite in the world by any means.

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We take another brief break, and I ask her if she truly resents her birth parents when she was younger for putting her in such a situation. She says that she was disappointed in their decision-making. She describes a few scenarios in which she wished they did not do drugs, or have kids when they weren’t ready. The upsetting part was them putting her and her brothers in such a negative situation. “It’s annoying and frustrating and disappointing, and you just have to look at the world a thousand times over again, and it’s like, no, that’s not okay.” Ashlyn says this with a passion I have not seen before this point. She is frustrated and stirs around in her seat. Somehow, the dignified tone of her voice talking about the situation melts away.

Ashlyn really does not talk about her past a lot. She tells me that it simply “doesn’t define [her].” And she doesn’t let it define her. In fact, her best friend Iman Sheikh recalled the day Ashlyn told her she was adopted. They were at lunch, and Sheikh told Ashlyn that she would be tall like her dad. Ashlyn couldn’t keep it to herself anymore and told her that she was adopted. It took her three years to tell Sheikh that she is adopted. This part of Ashlyn does not see the light of day very often. “I met Ashlyn in fifth grade, and she didn’t tell me she was adopted until eighth grade,” Iman Sheikh recollects. However, no matter what, Ashlyn says that most of her friends accept her for who she is after she tells them.

When I reached out to Sheikh, all she had to say were the kindest of words about Ashlyn. “Ashlyn is super strong and hardworking, and I truly admire her for it,” Sheikh emphasized. Ashlyn has big plans for the future and is determined to get there. She wants to do something in politics in the future. She simply wants a chance to save the world. All she wants to do is be able to have a say in the future, to help make the world a safer place. She “wouldn’t be able to move through life knowing what’s happening in the world and not try to fix it.”

Ashlyn knows her future is bright, no matter how she got her start. She may not know where her birth mother is or talk to her birth father, but she does not need to. She is a strong girl who has had a rough past, but that does not let that stop her. In that room, with all the pictures of her and her non-biological family, Ashlyn looks on at them happily. She is content with her life. “For me, it was just a rough start and having to deal with it from there.” It is just something Ashlyn will have to do for the rest of her life. But she’s not complaining, because she is looking forward to a future of happiness and politics.

As I walk out the door, her dad says hello, and they talk with one another like any father and daughter would. They joke around. Her dad, a six-foot-nine redhead who looks nothing like Ashlyn hugs her and greets her and asks about our interview. He talks about his hopes for Ashlyn’s future and how responsible she is. “I love how caring and kind and dependable she is,” he says. He then shoots her a silly glance as he starts talking about her less desirable habits: her failure to not do chores every once in a while, her unwillingness sometimes to watch her siblings, her messy bedroom. Ashlyn laughs as she defends herself and her actions.

And truly, her bedroom may very well be a mess.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of her life is anymore.

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