Every weekday, the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., and Domingas Dos Santos rolls over. Sometimes she would like to ignore it, but that’s not an option.
She taps the alarm, gets up, and gets herself ready. Then she makes breakfast for her three boys: Victor, 10, Diego, 8, and Christian, the baby, who is 4.
“With Christian, it’s eggs,” she says. “Every day, scrambled eggs. Christian’s got to have his eggs.”
They are out the door by 6:45, Domingas Dos Santos and her boys. They get on the 28 bus at Talbot Avenue and after heading up Blue Hill Avenue they get off at the Franklin Park Zoo. Then they take the 16 bus down Columbia Road and she drops her sons off at St. John Paul II Catholic Academy.
Once her sons are in school, Domingas Dos Santos goes to school. Sometimes she takes another bus, but more often she’ll walk, back up Columbia Road, through Uphams Corner, hanging a left on Hancock Street, then up Bowdoin Street.
Halfway down Bowdoin, she walks into the building that houses College Bound Dorchester and gets to work, a 30-year-old high school student going places.
Five years ago, Domingas Dos Santos arrived in Boston from Cape Verde with her husband, who has a large extended family here. She didn’t speak English, which became a big problem when she and her husband split up. Just as suddenly, she was homeless, with three kids.
She ended up at the St. Mary’s shelter for women and children on top of Jones Hill in Dorchester.
“The people there were very kind to my sons,” she said. “No one wants to live in a shelter, but my kids loved it there because people loved them.”
People at St. Mary’s told her about College Bound Dorchester and she began taking English classes.
Ashley Hannah, one of her teachers, noticed something immediately.
“I think all the teachers here looked at her and said, ‘This is the one.’ She stood out,” said Hannah. “She is the epitome of persistence. She looks at obstacles and figures out how to overcome them. She’s such a strong woman, an amazing mom. She’s not just an inspiration to other students, but to me.”
On those days when Ashley Hannah, working mom, is struggling with her toddler, she thinks about Domingas Dos Santos and suddenly things are in perspective.
It takes most people about seven years to master academic English, but Domingas Dos Santos did it in four. She is on course to pass her high school equivalency test by the end of the month. She hopes to acquire citizenship by the end of the year.
When she finishes her schoolwork, Domingas Dos Santos takes a couple more buses to her job as a cashier at the Home Depot in South Bay.
“They gave me some award,” she said the other day, sitting in the Panera across from Home Depot. “They said I was a good employee . . . I smile at all the customers and I’m nice to everybody. I don’t think that’s hard.”
It was harder a couple of years ago, when Victor and Diego were at different public schools, on different schedules. Juggling the kids and school, both hers and theirs, is still a constant struggle. Some people dream of things and she dreams of saving up enough to buy a car.
“My ex-husband’s family has been good,” she says. “They’ve helped with the kids. But a car would make things a lot easier. That’s my goal for the next year.”
She used to read to her boys at home, in part to improve her English.
“But then my kids kept making fun of my accent and laughing . . . so now I have them read books to me instead,” she said. “Diego is a great student. Victor says his belly hurts when I ask him to read a book. Diego, I don’t have to tell him to do his homework. He just does it. Victor, I have to tell him, but he does it.”
The boys are in bed by 8 p.m.
In her quiet time, Domingas Dos Santos sometimes second-guesses herself.
“I tell my boys, ‘Don’t be like me. I’m 30 years old and I’m still in high school.’ And they say, ‘But mommy, you’re a good mom.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but I should have finished college by now.’ ”
After she gets her high school equivalency, she will begin College Bound Dorchester’s bridge program to prepare for college. She wants to be a teacher. She is her boys’ teacher.
“I tell them a little about life every day,” she says. “I tell them there are two ways to go in life: a good way and a bad way. Education will bring them the good way, and they have to make good choices. I think I’m going to bring them to school until they graduate. Their grandmother says, ‘Give them a break, let them go to the park by themselves.’ But I say no, I’m going to bring them.’ ’’
Trying to figure out that balance, of being protective and letting her boys become more independent, is harder to master than English grammar.
“I’ve been lucky,” she says. “I’ve met good people who were good to me, good to my kids. I pray a lot. I pray for my kids. For myself.”
She prays at St. Patrick’s Church in Roxbury, too, and that’s where she’ll be on Mother’s Day, enjoying food and friends, watching her boys play.
For Domingas Dos Santos, every day is Mother’s Day. From the moment the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., until she closes her eyes at night and drifts toward what little rest she gets.
“I live for my kids,” she says, nodding, looking out at a parking lot in Dorchester, never so sure of anything she’s said in her life. “Everything I do, it’s for them. My kids come first. I come second. Because I’m a mom.”