Overcoming Tragedy and Celebrating Life Again
Born in Norfolk, Va., and raised by a single mother, I felt a special responsibility to go to college but, at first, I failed at it – quite literally. But I turned my life around and see a pathway to success. Studying in London as a Frederick Douglass Global Fellow was instrumental in healing my wounds and making me whole again.
First enrolled as a college student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., I left school my freshman year because it wasn’t a good fit for me. A year later, I transferred near home to a historically black college, Norfolk State University, but I abruptly left during my second semester when tragedy struck in a way that I could have never imagined.
In a scuffle on campus, one of my friends, Sean Williams, was tragically stabbed to death. Like me, Sean was a classically-trained vocalist. I was in such shock from his murder, I left school and didn’t even tell my teachers why.
I moved to Florida, where I fell in love and was blessed to have a son. I wanted to make a positive future for my son, but I really didn’t know how. I thought about it long and hard and decided I wanted to be a lawyer in arts and entertainment. I knew I needed to be in New York City. I knew I had to go back to school.
I got my transcripts. I put myself in a suit and put myself on a bus and, transcripts ain hand, I went to the headquarters of City University of New York, CUNY.
The admissions counselor opened up my transcripts and said, “Uhhhh….”
I said, “I know.”
I had a 1.0 GPA.
“These are the grades I have,” I told him. “I’m willing to start completely over.”
He said, “It’s going to be competitive,” but handed me a list of schools and I returned to Florida.
But I came back and wanted to attend the first school on the list, LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y.
I met with a counselor. She said, “These grades….”
I told her, “If I had known when I was just young what I know now, I would have done things differently. I just didn’t know. Unfortunately, this is what happened. I plan on being a lawyer.”
She asked: “You want to be a lawyer?”
I responded, “I will be a lawyer.”
She arched her eyebrows and said, “I like the way that you said that.”
She told me what I needed to do to be admitted: take a math and English entrance exam. I passed English, but failed math by two points. I took a remedial math course, passed and was admitted. I learned I loved math and started tutoring other students. I earned my associate’s degree in legal studies and received an invitation to join the President’s Society for students with excellent academic records. That’s right, I was invited. When I received the Frederick Douglass Fellowship, I called my mother to share the good news.
In London, though, as a Frederick Douglass Fellow, I felt like an outsider. I was older than the other students. I was a father. I came from a single-family household. But I realized something profound in London. During a workshop, a videographer asked us, “Tell us a time when you had to face your privilege?”
The image of my friend, Sean, came to me. He was the motivating factor in my life. When my turn to speak arrived, I told the Fellows around me, “I lost a friend who never got to see his full potential. The biggest privilege I have is just being alive. My friend died when he was 18.”
I broke down in tears. That was one of the first moments that my friend’s murder hit me. I told the Fellows: “You all just need to appreciate just being here. Just having breath in your lungs.”
We were all crying together. We were all celebrating life together. In that moment, I realized something beautiful and profound: our common humanity.
Written by Peire Wilson.