Khadijah Williams, 18, overcomes a lifetime in shelters and on skid row.
Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times --Khadijah Williams, with her mother, Chantwuan, left, and sister Jeanine at a storage facility, says of her mother: “She would tell me I had a gift, she would call me Oprah.”
By Esmeralda Bermudez | LA Times
June 19, 2009 -- Khadijah Williams stepped into chemistry class and instantly tuned out the commotion.
She walked past students laughing, gossiping, napping and combing one another's hair. Past a cellphone blaring rap songs. And past a substitute teacher sitting in a near-daze.
Quietly, the 18-year-old settled into an empty table, flipped open her physics book and focused. Nothing mattered now except homework.
"No wonder you're going to Harvard," a girl teased her.
Around here, Khadijah is known as "Harvard girl," the "smart girl" and the girl with the contagious smile who landed at Jefferson High School only 18 months ago.
What students don't know is that she is also a homeless girl.
As long as she can remember, Khadijah has floated from shelters to motels to armories along the West Coast with her mother. She has attended 12 schools in 12 years; lived out of garbage bags among pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. Every morning, she upheld her dignity, making sure she didn't smell or look disheveled.
On the streets, she learned how to hunt for their next meal, plot the next bus route and help choose a secure place to sleep -- survival skills she applied with passion to her education.
Only a few mentors and Harvard officials know her background. She never wanted other students to know her secret -- not until her plane left for the East Coast hours after her Friday evening graduation.
"I was so proud of being smart I never wanted people to say, 'You got the easy way out because you're homeless,' " she said. "I never saw it as an excuse."
A drive to succeed
"I have felt the anger at having to catch up in school . . . being bullied because they knew I was poor, different, and read too much," she wrote in her college essays. "I knew that if I wanted to become a smart, successful scholar, I should talk to other smart people."
Khadijah was in third grade when she first realized the power of test scores, placing in the 99th percentile on a state exam. Her teachers marked the 9-year-old as gifted, a special category that Khadijah, even at that early age, vowed to keep.
"I still remember that exact number," Khadijah said. "It meant only 0.01 students tested better than I did."
In the years that followed, her mother, Chantwuan Williams, pulled her out of school eight more times. When shelters closed, money ran out or her mother didn't feel safe, they packed what little they carried and boarded buses to find housing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Ventura, San Diego, San Bernardino and Orange County, staying for months, at most, in one place.
She finished only half of fourth grade, half of fifth and skipped sixth. Seventh grade was split between Los Angeles and San Diego. Eighth grade consisted of two weeks in San Bernardino.
At every stop, Khadijah pushed to keep herself in each school's gifted program. She read nutrition charts, newspapers and four to five books a month, anything to transport her mind away from the chaos and the sour smell.
At school, she was the outsider. At the shelter, she was often bullied. "You ain't college-bound," the pimps barked. "You live in skid row!"
In 10th grade, Khadijah realized that if she wanted to succeed, she couldn't do it alone. She began to reach out to organizations and mentors: the Upward Bound Program, Higher Edge L.A., Experience Berkeley and South Central Scholars; teachers, counselors and college alumni networks. They helped her enroll in summer community college classes, gave her access to computers and scholarship applications and taught her about networking.
When she enrolled in the fall of her junior year at Jefferson High School, she was determined to stay put, regardless of where her mother moved. Graduation was not far off and she needed strong college letters of recommendation from teachers who were familiar with her work.
This soon meant commuting by bus from an Orange County armory. She awoke at 4 a.m. and returned at 11 p.m., and kept her grade-point average at just below a 4.0 while participating in the Academic Decathlon, the debate team and leading the school's track and field team.
"That's when I was really stressed," she says, at once sighing and laughing.
Khadijah graduated Friday evening with high honors, fourth in her class. She was accepted to more than 20 universities nationwide, including Brown, Columbia, Amherst and Williams. She chose a full scholarship to Harvard and aspires to become an education attorney.
She tried her best; she never smoked or drank, never did drugs, and she never put us in abusive situations. However, that was the best she could do.
There are questions about her mother Khadijah is not ready to ask, answers she is not ready to hear. How did her mother end up on the streets? How come she never found a stable home for her daughters? Why wasn't there family to turn to, no father, no grandparents? And what will become of her little sister?
"I don't know. I don't know," is often her response. Ask personal questions about her mother and the fire in Khadijah's eyes turns dim. She knows when she arrives in Cambridge, Mass., she will need to seek counseling. So much of her life is a blur.
She knows she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a 14-year-old mother. She thinks Chantwuan might have been ostracized from her family. She may have tried to attend school, but the stress of a baby proved too much. When Khadijah was a toddler, they moved to California. A few years later, Jeanine was born.
She has chosen not to criticize her mother. Instead Khadijah said she inspired her to learn. "She would tell me I had a gift, she would call me Oprah."
When her college applications were due in December, James and Patricia London of South Central Scholars invited Khadijah to their home in Rancho Palos Verdes to help her write her essays.
When they went to return her to skid row, her mother and sister were gone.
Khadijah accepted the Londons' invitation to spend the rest of her school year with them.
In their comfortable hilltop home, Khadijah learned a new set of lessons. The orthopedic doctor and nurse taught her table manners, money management and grooming.
She won't be the first homeless student to arrive at Harvard.
Julie Hilden, the Harvard interviewer who met with Khadijah to gauge whether she should be accepted, said it was clear from the start that Khadijah was a top candidate. But school officials had to make sure they could provide what she needed to make the transition successful.
They plan to connect her with faculty mentors and potentially, a host family to check in with every so often. She will also attend a Harvard summer program at Cornell to take college-prep courses.
"I strongly recommended her," Hilden said. "I told them, 'If you don't take her, you might be missing out on the next Michelle Obama. Don't make this mistake.' "
"I think about how I can convince my peers about the value of education. . . . I have found that after all the teasing, these peers start to respect me . . . . I decided that I could be the one to uplift my peers . . . . My work is far reaching and never finished."
Khadijah expected to feel more connected after nearly two years at Jefferson, to make at least one good friend.
Students flock to the smart girl for help with homework and tests and class questions. She walks through campus tenderly waving and smiling and complimenting everyone she knows.
But when prom pictures arrive, they show her posing alone in a silky black and white dress. In her yearbook, hundreds of familiar faces look back, but the memories are missing.
"It's a nice, glossy, shiny, colorful yearbook," she said. "But it feels like they're all strangers. I'm nowhere in these pages."
In the last six months, she saw her mother only a few times and on Thursday tried to find her. Khadijah headed to a South-Central storage facility where they last stored their belongings.
She found Chantwuan sitting on a garbage bag full of clothes.
"Khadijah's here!" her sister Jeanine yells. Chantwuan's face lit up.
She explained the details of her graduation, the bus route to get there and gave her mother a prom picture. She said she would leave for summer school Friday.
There is no talk of coming home of for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Proudly, Khadijah modeled her hunter green graduation cap and gown and practiced switching the tassel from right to left as she would during the ceremony.
"Look at you," her mother says. "You're really going to Harvard, huh?"
"Yeah," she says, pausing. "I'm going to Harvard."