I had my life planned out at nine-years-old.
One Thursday night, while I was at my grandmother’s house for our weekly Cosby Show date, we discussed where I would go to college and graduate school. I knew Hillman College would prepare me to become a lawyer, an author, and a cashier. Cliff and Claire Huxtable went there. He was a doctor, and she was a lawyer. Denise was also enrolled there at the time, so I assumed it was the place to be. Maybe by the time I got there, Rudy and I could be classmates. I had everything figured out, until Evelyn, my grandmother who made me call her by her first name, dropped a bomb on me.
“Hillman is not a real college,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say. How could Hillman College be fake? I had seen the college for myself every Thursday on “A Different World.” I saw the buildings; the students. My little brain was blown.
“Where should I go then?” I asked Evelyn. “What’s the best college?”
“Spelman is a great school,” she said. I knew nothing about Spelman College, but I took her word for it. That’s where I would go and become a lawyer.
“Okay, I’ll go to Spelman,” I was really bummed about Hillman, but I was happy that she had another option for me.
“Great, now what about law school?” she asked next.
“What do you mean?”
“What school will go to become a lawyer?” she asked.
“I can’t become a lawyer at Spelman?” I asked. Claire Huxtable never mentioned a second school for becoming a lawyer. It was always just Hillman. I thought college was a one-stop shop.
“No, you have to go to a separate school to get a law degree,” Evelyn answered.
I think if I knew how to use swear words back then, I might have cussed. First, I found out there was no Hillman College, and now Evelyn was saying I had to go to a separate college to become a lawyer.
“Okay, well what’s a good school for that?” I asked her.
“Harvard,” she said.
“Okay, I’ll go to Harvard then,” I said, feeling a little defeated.
It was settled. I was going to Spelman College, the prominent black women’s college in Atlanta, and then to Harvard Law School, which I assumed was the best law school in the world, based on Evelyn’s advice.
“Wait, I have another question,” I said. I figured I should ask now before I made any more assumptions.
She waited for me to ask her whatever was on my mind.
“Do I need to go to another school to become a cashier?”
She smirked and caught herself before she actually laughed in my face.
“No…but when will you have time to be a cashier if you’re in court every day and writing books?”
“On the weekends,” I told her.
She just smiled.
Evelyn never understood why I wanted to become a cashier. I really liked cash registers. I liked all of the different colored buttons. I liked the way cashiers chewed gum and poked all the buttons with their index fingers. I wasn’t so into the scanners, so I really liked it when an item didn’t ring up properly and we got to watch the cashiers enter the item numbers manually. I was so envious of them.
One year, my great aunt, Evelyn’s sister, bought me a computer system that hooked up to the television. It was like a Leapfrog kind of thing. I was supposed to be working on grammar and math games, but instead I created a fake warehouse store, similar to Costco or Sam’s Club. I used the computer as a cash register, and I rang out my fake customers, whose fake names, addresses and phone numbers I kept in a Steno notebook. I was always signing up new members on my “cash register,” by pretending to type in all of their information.
One time Evelyn took me to a tag sale with her, and I almost convinced her to buy me an antique cash register. I told her I needed it for my store. We investigated the cash register. When she saw the $75 price tag, she asked me more questions about my operation. I think after she figured out that my multi-million-dollar business existed in my kitchen and had fake customers, she decided not to buy the cash register.
Evelyn died just a few years later, when I was 14-years-old. She had cancer. We had our last conversation on her deathbed. She told me that I could do or become whoever I wanted to be. She also reminded me that I could go to Harvard Law School. She died a few days after that.
Two years later, I became a cashier. I worked in a boutique that sold things like patchouli incense, handmade jewelry and wind chimes. One time, a customer asked me if she could read my palm. Another time, a man came into the store, went to the dressing room, and left the store butt-naked. It was a weird little place, but I was so happy to be ringing people out on a cashier with no scanner.
Eventually, my career as a cashier started to interfere with my after-school sports. I was on the soccer team, and I constantly needed coverage at the boutique, so I could play in my games. The owner told me that I needed to decide between working in her boutique or playing soccer, so I quit the store. I had gotten my cashier fix.
That same year, I found out about a six-week summer program for high school students at Spelman College. It was called the “Early College Program” or ECP. I applied, and the school accepted me after a brief hold on the waiting list. I was a B-/C+ student at the time, so I was really happy when I was accepted. I used money from an inheritance that Evelyn had left me after she died. It made me feel like I was taking her with me.
So off to southwest Atlanta I went. It would be my first time being away from home for that long. I was happy to be away. My parents had just split up, my great-grandmother had just died, Evelyn died the year before, and my grandfather moved to Indiana the year before that. I was ready to go away for a while.
My mom took me to Atlanta, and we explored the area. I was so happy to be around so many other black girls. It was such a difference from being at an all-white prep school in Connecticut, although I really thought it was funny to hear young people have southern accents. Up until that point, I had only heard my great-grandparents, my grandfather and maybe a few older people at my church speak with southern accents because they migrated from the south. I had always associated southern accents with being old, until I got to Spelman.
I was also amazed that Spelman was so close to other black colleges on a larger “campus” called the Atlanta University Center, which included Morehouse College, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other amazing black men went to school, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College. I was really impressed with all of the schools, but knew for sure that Spelman was the place to be when I saw a shirt hanging in a clothing store that said, “Spelman/Morehouse students use pens, Clark Atlanta students use pencils, and Morris Brown students use crayons.”
I made lots of friends quickly with the other girls in my program, but my little “crew” formed when four of us just happened to sit together during our lunch period in Spelman’s cafeteria. I loved their cafeteria. There was such a wide variety of food, and they played R&B over the loud speaker. The boys from Morehouse’s summer program ate there too. It was in that cafeteria, where we publicly shamed one of the boys for writing the same love letter to me and another girl in my program. It wasn’t even original; it was lyrics to a Boyz II Men song. The program was so much fun.
During that summer, I fell in love with down south music. I was mesmerized by Pastor Troy’s “No More Play in G.A.” and Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” had just come out. Our crew made up a dance to the chorus. We did it every time we heard the song. We even had got other people doing it at parties.
There was one particular party that we went to, which I think prevented me from getting accepted into Spelman, the next year that I applied.
I think the party was on Morehouse’s campus. Almost all of the girls in my program went. Almost all of the girls who went to this party missed our dorm curfew. I don’t remember what the punishment was for missing the curfew, but you just didn’t want to miss it. Anyhow, we all pretty much got back to our dorm at the same time. Girls ran in every which direction trying to bolt past the Resident Advisors who, if they saw us, could record our names. Many of the girls ran straight to their rooms. My crew and I ran out of time and decided to hide behind a plant…in the lobby, where we obviously got caught.
The woman that caught us asked for our names and told us that she knew people in the admissions office. She said she would make sure that we didn’t get in. I thought she was bluffing at the time. But when the admissions office mysteriously lost my early application and I ended up having to wait for a decision with the applicants applying for the regular deadline, I thought of this woman who threatened us. It also did not seem like a random coincidence that the other girls, who hid in the plant with me, also did not attend Spelman for college.
Once again, Spelman offered me a spot on the waiting list. It was at that time I decided against putting my name on their list, and I chose Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Florida instead. I was disappointed with the whole admissions process.
I stayed at FAMU for three years, before transferring to Fordham for a semester. I could not afford Fordham’s $30,000 annual tuition bill, so I transferred once more to Southern Connecticut State University, where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. During my last year in college, I stuck to the plan Evelyn and I made when I was nine-years-old, and I applied to law school.
I really did not have a passion for law, but there was a part of me that felt obligated to apply to law school because of the last conversation I had with Evelyn before she died. I also thought I could make some decent money as a lawyer.
Harvard and every other law school I applied to rejected me. So there I was, not having earned a bachelor’s degree from Spelman and knowing that I would not earn a law degree from Harvard. I broke my agreement with Evelyn. What would she say if she were still living? I felt horrible. It ate at me for a while. Even after I had earned a master’s degree in journalism, worked as a newspaper reporter for several years, and won national and local journalism awards, I was still trying to figure out how I could finagle my way into Spelman College and Harvard Law School.
Maybe I could get a second bachelor’s degree at Spelman, which I learned the school does not offer.
Maybe I could get a job at Spelman, then convince the administration to create a program for people interested in earning a second bachelor’s degree. I could be one of the first students to enroll in the program.
Maybe I could get a second master’s degree at Harvard’s Extension school, get good grades, take a class to help me with the standardized Law School Admissions Test, then I could get in.
Maybe I could a job at Harvard Law School and get to know the professors and admissions committee there, and then I could get in. I came up with all kinds of scenarios, but I didn’t pursue any of them.
Eventually I realized that Evelyn just wanted me to know that I had options. I didn’t have to stick to our plan, but she wanted me to know that I could go to college, that I could go to graduate school, and that I could achieve more than she had as an operating room worker in a hospital.
Looking back on it now, I think she would be very disappointed if she knew that I struggled with this the way that I did. If I became a lawyer, I think she would be extremely disappointed if she found out that I only became one because of an impromptu conversation we had in her kitchen when I was nine-years-old, especially if I was more passionate about journalism and storytelling.
In the end, I think she would be proud that I did get to experience Spelman for a short time, and I even went to Harvard Business School for a summer program. I graduated from college and graduate school, and I became a writer and the cashier that I always wanted to be. Even though things didn’t turn out exactly how we planned 25 years ago, I think she’d still be happy with me.