The Khadijah Williams Story Reduced Me To Tears

I was reduced to tears reading the story of Khadijah Williams in The Los Angeles Times. It is the drenching, heart-warming story of a homeless girl overcoming incredible odds and earning a full scholarship to attend Harvard University.

It is required reading for anyone believing our public education system is in the tank. In Khadijah’s case, the system worked with help from a benevolent family in Rancho Palos Verdes, a Los Angeles suburb.

Read the entire story and you will agree it is what makes America great, a phrase I seldom use in today’s highly-polarized political environment. I hope the story is true and Khadijah realizes her dreams as a lawyer.There’s nothing more I can say and wonder out loud what our readers would say.

Read it and weep:

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.”

“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, Khadijah says about her mother.

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 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.”

Author: JERRY K. REMMERS, TMV Columnist

Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.

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23 Comments

  1. This is truly an inspirational story! Her struggles completely dwarf anything I have ever faced. A good lesson for all of us. I posted my commentary on this story as well as other inspirational pieces at my blog: http://www.inspirewe.com

  2. Hi this is Patricia London and the story is very true. Khadijah has lived with us for the last 7 months and she is very real.

  3. Hi Patricia,
    I just read about Khadijah in today's Seattle Times Sunday Edition and I was so moved by her story. She sounds like an amazing person, overcoming such adversity and obstacles in her life and finally reaching her goal of going to Harvard. Is Khadijah on Facebook? If so, I'd like to send her a personal message. Thanks.

    Sincerely – Matthew Cloner

  4. For all of us who wine at the minute disruptions in our daily lives, this should make everyone (1) shut-up, (2) be ever so grateful and (3) know that with hard work and diligence anything is possible. God Bless Her!!!!

  5. Thank you Patricia and to your husband…you are angels in Khadijah's life! I pray for more people like you both in this world!

    My prayers to you both…Gail

  6. Thank you Patricia and to your husband…you are angels in Khadijah's life! I pray for more people like you both in this world!

    My prayers to you both…Gail

  7. I was so amazed at this story..I am also amazed at how you took her in and taught her things that would be essential to her growth..I am sure you will remain behind her and push her..You deserve to be honored as well.God always have an angel in place for those who believe..I wish you all of the bountiful blessings of heaven for helping make this happen for this young girl….

  8. Africans have the highest educational attainment rates of any immigrant group in the United States, with higher levels of completion than the stereotyped Asian American model minority.[4] It is not only the first generation that does well, as estimates indicate that a highly disproportionate percentage of black students at elite universities are African or the children of African immigrants.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_immigratio

  9. I could not hold back the tears as I read this story of triumph over adversity. I shared it with my two children who were in awe. You are a great person Khadijah and I wish you all the success you so deserve, thank you for inspiring me.

    Verleen

  10. i could not hold back the tears as I read this story of triumph over adversity. you have inspired me

  11. patricia london, god bless you and your family

  12. Hi Khadijah, I am a retired educator and I am currently working with a 10 year old girl who is pretty much in your lane of adversity. I admire what you have done thus far. Congratulations to you and the couple that took you in. I sure wish I could have my little mentee become a pen Pal with you. I will share your story of success with my little Sherrelle. May God bless all who helped you get this far, especially your mother. I admire her a lot. I'm sure she has an unbelievable story to tell as well. Keep up the excellent work Khadijah. If I can be of help in any way, please don't hesitate to contack me at Laidye@aol.com. Love, Joy and Peace, the Peace that passeth all understandings.
    Ms. Laidye Askew

  13. She's on Facebook. You'll find her on the Harvard 2013 group.

    We'll be classmates next year. I've had my struggles, all of us have, but her story is absolutely incredible. Knowing her makes me proud to be a Harvard student. I'm proud to be her peer, glad to know her.

  14. God bless you and your husband for nurturing this child's voice and allowing her to realize her true potentials.

  15. To: Mr. & Mrs. London, may God's richest blessings be with you both. You are an inspiration to my wife an I. Keep up the good work you are doing to help your fellowman. True love is colorless.

    To: Khadijah, I know life for you has not been a crystal stair however, you keep on believing in yourself and your dreams. I do not know what is your faith or what are your religious affiliations but, I want you to know that immediately I prayed for you and your family upon reading your story on the internet. I will continue to pray for you all and your safety. I hope your mom and little sister can join you in the Boston area just so that you can have family near you for support. Finally, “In all yours ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy path” Prov.3:6. Additionally, “Through wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding it is established” Prov. 24:3. Above all, Jesus is just a prayer away so keep in touch with Him. I have been inspired to send a financial gift to help defray some of your expenses. Please forward the details to my email. Thanks, Hiram Rahming (Jackie-wife)

  16. Applause and Congratulations to Ms. Khadijah Williams. In the face of adversity, there is always one who shines. Parents, consider sharing this story with your children, especially your teens.

  17. I'm a case manager for a non-profit organization and i work with homeless kids and less fortunate kids. Khadijah's story just made me want to work harder and do the best i can to help as many kids as possible.

    Khadijah, you are very strong and determined. You are mine inspiration. YOur story is so powerful and moving. It's incredible that you stayed and graduated from high school and many people would consider that a great accomplishment but you did more than that. I'm so proud of you and I wish you nothing but the best. I wish for your mom and sister for their safety and well being. Good luck in college. I know that you will be great and successful one day. You're amazing. Please enjoy your college experience as it will be one of the best time in your life.

    Thank you so much for motivating me. I will be sharing your story to all my clients. Thanks you again.

  18. yes, this is an amazing story. i know khadijah personally and she is one of the most vibrant people i have met thus far. i too attend the cornell summer program. Without knowing her story or who she is, one would never guess she'd have such a rich history. She doesnt brag or complain about anything rather, she is always positive and looking for the next best thing. She deserves the best! Also, the London's are very blessed to have had her in their lives. Not only have they helped her trumendously but, she, i am certain, has done the same for them!

  19. Patricia,

    I a currently sitting in the Detroit Library and writing a narrative education piece that has a working title of “Tuning Out the Commotion.” I am a teacher at University Prep Science and Math Middle School, and when I was sent Khadijah's story on July 14th, I cried, but the tears of joy mixed with sadness fueled a fire in me to let my students know that no matter what they are going through, they can reach their goals by having tunnel vision, just like Khadijah has. You are truly a God send, and your compassion, just reminds me of the compassion that I must continue to have with my students. When the article is completed, I would love to send you a copy.

  20. Thank you all for your kind words for Khadijah and those that supported her. Khadijah has started her freshman year at Harvard College and has a website that provides updates – http:///www.khadijahwilliams.com.

    Khadijah was interviewed this week for an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show entitled “Don't Stop Believing.” It is scheduled to air on Friday, October 2. Watch for Oprah's surprise for Khadijah!

  21. The air date for Khadijah's Oprah interview has been changed to Monday, October 5th.

  22. When my husband and I saw Khadijah's interview on OPRAH, we were brough to tears as well! One of God's treasures was discovered and with the speed of a Mach 5 take off, she is now at Harvard University! How magnificent is that? Her story made me think of the old addage about: “I cried desperately because I wanted a pair of shoes until I met a man who had no feet!” And now this brilliant, talented young woman will get to go further than most of us who have been on this earth for 66 years or more! She will be going to Africa with OPRAH in November! I hope we get to find out how she continues to progress. Just think…there are probably thousands of other Khadija's out there! That's what our President wants all Americans to do…”Be The Change!”

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