I had something very cool happen to me yesterday. I literally drove past someone that I have searched for, for the last 10 years since I said goodbye to her at age 12 when I left Connecticut for the last time. I sat in my car in shock for a few minutes to collect myself as she walked up with her sister, before I gingerly got out and called out to them.
Despite having the good fortune to spend my four undergraduate years at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the biggest lesson/s I learned at Yale came from this aforementioned former 12 year old named Laquasha who lived in the impoverished inner city that surreally surrounds the enchanting square mile that is Yale. It was a 22 year old Laquasha that I spotted on the street, with her stunning 6 foot tall “little” sister Shaniqua that caused me to pull over in shock yesterday.
Let me back up to our story.
I came to Yale as a 17 year old, fresh out of my sheltered life and storybook perfect upbringing in the mountains of North Vancouver. Coming to New Haven, was thrilling, and exciting, and while I later learned that the inner city surrounding the school was one of its drawbacks, I was fascinated, grateful and drawn to it immediately. I was pretty sure that life wasn’t the bubble I grew up in and I was curious to learn more.
So one day my freshman year, when I saw that there was an opportunity to become a reading buddy to a child at a local inner city school, I jumped on the opportunity. And the little girl I was paired with was a stunning little girl named Laquasha. She had a sweet personality, big blue eyes and a big smile that contrasted beautifully with her chocolate brown skin. I tutored her at the end of my freshman year, and was connected with her again my sophomore year.
For some reason, perhaps already fascinated by this different world, I decided I wanted to take a more active role in mentoring her and invited her mom and 2 little sisters, Shaniqua and Diamond to one of my soccer games that fall. If I remember the story right, only Laquasha came, and I went in to pick her up, and afterwards I dropped her off, and went up and hung out with her sister and mom and would do so regularly until I graduated.
Completely naive because of my sheltered upbringing, I couldn’t help but stare around their dilapidated 2nd floor apartment that had graffiti on the walls on the staircase that I had to walk up to get there. The apartment itself had 2 rooms, for Laquasha and her 2 sisters and Mom. One room was a living room, furnished sparsely with a couch with stuffing hanging out of it, and in the other room, a big mattress on the floor that 4 of them slept on. I’d get phone calls through the years from Laquasha describing the atmosphere around her home, which included Shaniqua’s bike getting thrown at someone in a gang fight and a prostitute arrested in their backyard, mid-service. It blew my mind that a 5 minute drive from my dorm room and beautiful campus, this was the reality for a wonderful little girl and her equally wonderful Mom and sisters.
I naively wondered was there a part of town in Vancouver, Canada, where I grew up, that was like this. I embarrassingly realized that there was, a night that following Christmas when I was home. I was out downtown with my friends, and since the Lions Gate Bridge was closed (a straight shot from downtown, through the nice part of the city to home), I was forced to drive through the east side of town home and got the reality check of learning that there was poverty too in my city. I was disgusted with myself that at 19 years old, someone such as myself who thought of themselves as somewhat worldly, would only be realizing a place without white picket fences and lush soccer fields existed, in her own hometown.
I grew close with Laquasha, her mom and little sisters, and would take the 3 girls to the movies and they’d stay over in my apartment through my junior and senior year. One of my favourite stories that cemented my relationship with Laquasha was the morning of my second semester junior year, when I got a phone call from 10 year old Laquasha at 9am. It went something like this. “Ciara its Laquasha, I just got de-spended from school” I tried to wipe the just-woken-up fog out of my head, and responded, “de-spended? What does that mean, what did you do?” Laquasha answered, “I got into a fight on the school bus and I’m in the principal’s office right now and I’m supposed to call my Mom, but I want you to come and get me because she’s going to be really mad.” I chuckled realizing that she had gotten “sus”-pended” and told her that I was heading down to get her, and blew off my first class of the semester.
Once I arrived in the principal’s office, he took one look at my white face, and Laquasha’s brown one, and said to Laquasha, “this isn’t your sister.” She looked at me firmly and said “yes it is.” I looked at the confused principal and told him, that no, I wasn’t her sister, but I was her tutor and I’d take her to her Mom. I think I had a smile on my face for a few days, knowing that she thought of me in the same familial terms that I had come to think of her.
I struggled with the unfairness of Laquasha’s life often, especially the summer that I babysat for some of my professors and then would spend the evening hanging out with her and her sisters. I’d pick up my professor’s children from airy summer schools, where there was an abundance of support and guidance and money, and then I’d wade my way up to Laquasha’s cramped apartment. What blew me away was the one time Laquasha and I sat down to read, a few days after she got “honours” and I realized that her little sister Diamond, who was 6 could read better than she could. She had an obvious learning disability, and was just getting pushed through the system. Her mom who hadn’t finished high school herself, was none the wiser.
I started to get mad, realizing how unfair life was. That beautiful kids such as Laquasha, Shaniqua and Diamond, who were smart, wonderful little girls, were getting the crumbs of a life and education, while the professor’s kids I babysat only a ten minute drive on the other side of town, were growing up with every opportunity. We hear about the disparity between rich and poor, but to see it so up close and personal hit me in a way that little else in life ever has.
I started looking around at Yale and getting resentful. All of us to some degree I felt had started to buy into thinking that in some way we were better, smarter, higher, for getting in and going to school there, including myself. In reality, most of us just had been born on the right side of town, and given every opportunity to reach our potential. I couldn’t stop talking to my friends about how if we just took a tiny amount of the wealth that lay on the campus, or the ability and gave back to those that were less fortunate, just in our own city, the kind of changes that would be possible in New Haven, not to mention the world. And it made me realize how unbelievably self-absorbed, all of us that have so much, are.
My time with Laquasha humbled any sense of importance that I had, and planted a deep realization within me, that it was my duty as a human being that had been given so much, to give back in some way, shape or form. To some degree since I said goodbye to her 11 years ago, I’ve missed that daily reminder of that world and that lesson, although she has always stayed close to my heart in terms of the choices that I have made since.
And as is often the case when we go to do something for someone “less fortunate,” they teach us far more, than we ever could have imagined teaching them.
As I’ve driven around New Haven in the last nine months, I’ve often wondered if she was still there, or where or how I could find her. I had given up after internet searches had led me no where. That is why, when I saw a striking woman pushing a baby pram down the street, and recognized Shaniqua’s distinct features immediately, I sat in my car in shock, especially when I realized that it was Laquasha that was with her.
And in the same way that I’m sure people looked at me with a couple of inner city girls cruising around the Yale campus over a decade ago, wondering how the 3 of us fit together, we got the same looks of wonderment in our joyful reunion on the street corner in New Haven yesterday.
They couldn’t believe how I remembered them, as well as their sister’s and mom’s name. I couldn’t even give them the words to explain just how much they meant to me and how they’ve influenced my life and my thinking every day since I met them.
Finding them again was an unbelievable gift.