BELFAST, Maine — Ruby Day didn’t think she had a shot at college. Despite being a smart young woman who is ranked seventh in her class of 132, she didn’t think she’d get into college — let alone receive generous financial aid that she’d need to go.
But she did.
Day, of Belfast, has the pick of nine colleges, including Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and Ithaca College. She’s been offered funding to help pay for it as well. And she’s even received a special scholarship designed for those displaying perseverance in overcoming adversity.
After all, that’s just what she’s doing. Day’s future could have been diminished by the painful reverberations of generational poverty and trauma that helped shape her childhood. Instead, she’s using her intelligence, talents and drive to forge forward to a better life.
And that, she said, is making her family — and herself — proud.
“My family is proud of me. I’m a bit proud of me. I didn’t know that I would get into college,” Day said. “My next worry is, am I going to make it through college. Poverty is a cycle. I think that education is really important to breaking out of the cycle. But it’s a really complicated process.”
Day, a smart, thoughtful senior at Belfast Area High School, is the youngest of six siblings. The others are so much older than her that she grew up essentially as an only child, according to her eldest sister, Ane Mathieson, 36.
Before Day was born, the family was fragmented, she said. Mental health struggles, incarceration, substance use, family violence, trauma and poverty had taken a toll.
“Because life was so hard, there were so many fractures between relationships that our immediate family had. There were long periods of time that we didn’t talk to each other,” Mathieson said. “It was Ruby, her birth and her life that brought us back together… It really shifted the trajectory that my family was on.”
Day’s parents met while working in Belfast at the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant. Her parents also delivered newspapers, and Day would get up at 3 a.m. to go with them. Her father, who had left school after the sixth grade to help his family, also worked as a clamdigger. Her mother, who has a high school diploma, still cleans houses and offices in Camden.
At home, there was love. But there were also darkness and hard times. Trauma — the kind that extends from one generation to the next — is hard to shake. In Day’s life, one of the ways it manifested was through economic and housing insecurity.
When she was little, they lived in a camper. Then they moved into a mobile home that burned down when she was in the first grade. After that, they moved into a dilapidated mobile home “that wasn’t really great,” Day said, followed by a brief move to Virginia. Then there was a return to Maine, and a three-year stint in a small apartment where she and her aunt both slept in the living room.
Finally, they found their current rental, a crowded mobile home on a busy curve of Route 52.
Day was the new kid in school a lot. She spent a lot of time alone. But she used that time to read, to write, to practice violin and to teach herself how to draw with the help of countless hours of YouTube videos, her sister said.
“When things were too intense at home, she could enter into this world of art,” Mathieson said.
Art is one of her strengths. One of her paintings was chosen to be displayed at the Portland Museum of Art’s all-digital Youth Art Month in March. She also loves reading, writing and animals, especially her best friend, a wriggly, bright-eyed dog.
“What really changed my life was in third grade when I got Ginger Cupcake,” the teen said. “She’s been with me through everything. I give her as much support as she gives me, because sometimes things get rough, and we’re together. Animals are way easier than people.”
Day is working on finding ways to make interactions with people feel better. She is “naturally silly and loud,” but her anxiety has meant that at school she is the opposite.
“I was voted ‘most quiet’ in the yearbook, and I was in middle school, too,” she said.
Last year, Day started therapy, which helped her understand her anxiety and gain skills to break the negative mental cycle.
“Breathing and self-care is really important,” she said. “And you’ve got to really just do things in life. I kind of had to force myself.”
One of the things she made herself do was to enroll in Advanced Placement classes, which had seemed out of her reach.
“I believed that I would not be able to handle it at all,” she said.
But that’s not what happened. Zach Smith, her AP English teacher, described her as “just a fantastic student,” who despite not being very loud always has important things to say. When he held a debate competition in the class last year, Day’s shyness was obvious. But so was her intelligence and ability.
“She kept doing well in the debates, and would have to do another one the next week, because she’d advance in the tournament we organized,” he said. “For three weeks in a row, I’d have to say, ‘I’m sorry, Ruby. You won again.’ It’s not in her nature not to do her very best.”
She was also named the top art student in her freshman year, the top science student in her sophomore year and the top English student in her junior year.
“I think her future’s going to be so bright,” Smith said. “I couldn’t be more proud of her, particularly because of what she’s overcome.”
For Day, her siblings are a source of strength and comfort.
“They would provide this sort of stability in my life,” she said. “All my siblings have helped with college. Ane’s the one really helping me to navigate everything. She’s just really excited for me to begin my life.”
With her sister’s encouragement, Day sought, and won, a scholarship from the Horatio Alger Scholarship Program, designed for students who have faced and overcome great obstacles in their lives.
Mathieson, who went to college herself and has earned a master’s degree, was confident her sister would be accepted by the schools she applied to. But that feeling was not shared by Day. And even after she opened her acceptance letters, it was hard for her to believe in herself.
“Her first response was, ‘Oh, I don’t belong there,’” Mathieson said.
She’s working on that.
And the sisters know that getting accepted isn’t the end of the story.
“Another big challenge for her will be to go into an institution with people who have access to resources, who have had stable, loving, comfortable childhoods,” Mathieson said. “It’ll be really hard for her to carve out her space. I’m really confident she can do it. But it’s going to be hard.”
But Day, who is interested in veterinary science, psychology, writing and art, is excited about her wide-open future.
“Everyone has their own paths. I’m going to go and figure it out,” she said. “I have a lot of possible routes.”