My Life, My Story, My Song

Mia Dunlap

Sometimes I feel like crawling under a desk and convincing God to allow me to die. Frankly, itís not easy being the first in my family to graduate high school in four years and also being the first to go to college. That reality puts an indescribable pressure on me that causes me to be too terrified to fail and even more afraid to admit to myself (let alone anyone else) when life gets overwhelming. Some nights I have found myself laying in my dorm room hiding under my pillow, wishing I didnít feel so alone, so empty and so forgotten. Most of my associates have decent relationships with their parents, giving them a place to be vulnerable and cry. I, on the other hand, have successfully mastered the unwanted skill of not knowing how to cry, even when I want or need to. In the moments where I have felt safe enough to be vulnerable, Iíve been too afraid to let those times slip away in fear of their infrequent return. In the rare instances that tears form, I surprise myself.

Spelman College did not always feel like an option for me; $27,000 a year seemed out of reach for a poor girl who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development and whose family income never exceeded the poverty line. But the nurturing environment at Spelman is priceless. Every once in a while, though, it would be comforting to get a card from my family that simply says ďBe encouraged,Ē or ďIím here if you need me,Ē or perhaps a telegram to say, ďI believe in you.Ē However, when that doesnít happen, I ask God for the strength to get out of bed and help me to encourage myself because giving up is not an option. Sometimes, my courage comes from reflecting on how history has proven that girls like me, living in the projects with a part-time father, have a slim chance of making it through high school, and college isnít even on the radar screen!

I hold on to God like Jacob did when I remember times my family pressed ourselves against the floor and froze at the sound of bullets outside our window. When I think about the time we were homeless, six of us living in a one-bedroom senior building because my eldest brother sought the help of gang-bangers to make money, I remember why I canít throw in the towel. I reflect on how I pretended to be strong when those gang bangers beat him into a jaw brace and a night in the hospital.

I think about how my mom had my brother when she was just 15 and me at 17 and never finished her sophomore year of high school and now is trying to reclaim her childhood. I remember wanting to see the face of my parents at my assemblies, plays and speaking events, and the day I stopped inviting them so I wouldnít continue to look for them. I remember wishing my father spent more time at home than he did in jail so that he could see me graduate college. I remember wondering why my family had to live in the projects for over half my life. I remember wishing my siblings and I had tangible examples of people overcoming the bondage of struggle, hurt and shame. I remember believing that I could break that cycle and every day Iím striving to do just that and be someone that my siblings and my community can look to and be proud of.

A rising junior, English major and philosophy minor at Spelman College in Atlanta, I plan to attend law school and earn a dual degree in law and social work. I want to be a social worker and a lobbyist for children in broken homes, detention centers and foster facilities. I want to give back to my ďinner-cityĒ community like mentors have given back to me. Along my journey, I have had many people and programs pour into me and help shape the woman I am becoming. People like Toni Straight, my 5th-8th grade teacher, who believed in a future I could not imagine; the University of Chicago program, where I was not only allowed to dream, but also met a number of women who took me under their wings; Sharon Tillman, my high school social worker, who always highlighted my resourcefulness and my strengths; Leak and Sons Funeral Home, who always has a job space for me whenever Iím home from college; the folks at Residentsí Journal, who are still trying to convince me to use my powers of communication to speak for my community; Lisa Rhodes, whose embrace helps make my college transition less frightening; Earick Rayburn, my high school calculus teacher, whose advice means the world to me; the mother figures and sister-friends in my church whoís loved me without question; Ora Sheares, whose thoughtfulness has brought me many smiles; and recently, Kanika Magee, my internship supervisor, who has a unique way of making me feel special. Although my family isnít very close with each other, they have certainly shared a part in my growth experience as well, especially my grandmother.

Each of these inspirations, and some who arenít named, have met me at critical stages in my plight and have played a large role in the direction that my life is guiding me.

When I read the quote in Lanterns, by Marion Wright Edelman, ďI startle myself at my audacity and am outraged by my timidity,Ē I instantly knew I could use it to describe myself. I am breaking the rules of my community and daring to believe that it is possible to progress. I am ripping apart the cycle that bound my family to drugs, jail, mental and physical abuse - the cycle that has betrayed my family for years. I am surviving and collecting the memories, the stories, and the song that have been a part of my voyage. I am exposing the truth of my journey in order to take charge of it. Unexpectedly, fear seeps in and prompts me to believe that I am dreaming too big and the risks Iím taking are too indefinite. And so again, I want to crawl under a desk.

But this time, as I pray, Iím reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.ís quote, ďIf you canít fly, run. If you canít run, walk. If you canít walk, crawl, but by all means keep moving!Ē

Fall 2008 / Volume 8/ Number 6