Personal Journeys: A class by herself

The death of her mother pushes Marisela Lozada to academic stardom.


One day in the spring of her junior year in high school, Marisela Lozada turned on her laptop. The cursor winked at her, as if it knew a secret.

And perhaps it was a secret – or, at the very least, information she’d not shared with a lot of people. When you’re 17, your world is defined by family and friends; no need to tell everyone your plans.

For plans she had, and grand ones. She’d come to that place in her life that her mother – Mama, who’d come from Mexico with dreams – had always imagined. For perhaps the millionth time, Marisela thought of Mama, dead now.

But Irene Tapia’s words lived on in her daughter’s memory: Mija echale ganas. Try your best, daughter.

Marisela paused, fingers poised over the keys. She could feel Mama in the room.

“On December 15, 2009, the woman who gave birth to me died,” she wrote. “On this day, everything changed, but most importantly, I changed.”

If life is measured by change, Marisela, now 18, is nearing a crossroads. Marisela, a 2018 graduate of Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School in Atlanta’s Grant Park, is readying to go to college – just as Mama wished.

She will be the first in her family to go to a four-year school. It’s an all-expenses-paid journey. None of her classmates will go with her; no one from the school, in fact, has ever attended this university.

She will be saying goodbye to her father, three siblings and friends. Marisela probably will take a lingering look at the street where she came of age, in a neighborhood abutting hard against the U.S. Penitentiary. She’ll make sure she has email addresses and phone numbers to stay in touch.

Marisela Lozada, whose mother prayed that her daughter would get an education, is going to Harvard University.

‘Always a good student’

To know more about Marisela, you have to look south to Pachuca, a municipality in the state of Hidalgo in east-central Mexico. Three decades ago, Silvestre Lozada eyed a pretty girl named Irene who lived in Pachuca. Their courtship was long, their marriage, happy.

He came to America to find work, settling briefly in California before moving to Atlanta for steady employment in construction, concrete work and lawn care. In time, he sent for his wife.

Three kids came pretty quickly after that: Brenda, Charley, Marisela. Eight years would pass before the Lozadas added a fourth child – Ivan, now 10. They lived in an apartment in Grant Park before moving to a neat frame home in McDonough Guise, a cluster of homes on the back side of the federal prison.

Marisela is as Atlanta as you can get. Born at Grady Memorial Hospital, she attended Benteen Elementary School, Price Middle School, and Maynard Jackson.

She came to Maynard Jackson, an Atlanta Public Schools facility, not long after it had undergone a multi-million-dollar revamp. With its rooftop garden, wide halls, college-prep courses and world-class gymnasium, it’s a school to which administrators point with pride: Why else would they name it after one of Atlanta’s most-renowned mayors?

Marisela fit right in. “My four years here,” she said in a recent talk at an Atlanta coffee shop, “have been great.”

But the greatness started before that. Even in elementary school, Marisela said, she felt compelled to do well. She states it as a fact, with no luster. “I’ve always been a good student.”

She remembers her early years, when everyone tried to do well in class. But something happened, she recalled, in middle school. Some of her friends (and, truth told, her siblings) seemed to lose interest in academic excellence about the time they hit puberty. They no longer had la cabeza, the head for education.

Marisela, instead, bore down. Why?

“Honestly? Education is something I have control of,” she said. “It keeps me busy.”

That busyness has had its rewards. She’s in the National Honor Society as well as the Beta Club, and is a graduate of the Georgia Youth Leadership Program. She’s also a Horatio Alger National Scholar and is a Questbridge Scholar – achievements that helped guide her in applying for Harvard. Marisela recently finished Emory Pipeline Collaborative, a three-year summertime program that readies students for collegiate courses in medicine. She wants to be a doctor specializing in obstetrics-gynecology.

Marisela also found time to be on the school’s dance team.

“Oh!” she recalled. “I played soccer, too.”

Why so busy? “I’ve always wanted to be engaged in my school and my community,” she said – knowing, even as the words left her mouth, how uncool that sounds. But it’s true.

Marisela realizes that she’s kind of shy, too. “This makes me engage and break out of my shell.”

Her best subject, paradoxically, is her least favorite. “Math,” she said. Math: Marisela made the word sound vaguely like a lightweight cuss word. “I hate math so much, but I’m good at it.”

Another paradox, and this may well be the core of her being: Her mother’s death has translated into academic stardom.

“If she hadn’t passed away, I don’t think I’d be in the position I am in today, honestly,” she said. “I wouldn’t have tried my hardest or my best.”

Visit from a witch

One of her lasting memories: she and her mom, painting each other’s toenails. She was just a child, with a child’s interests, but Mama listened. They laughed over the absurd plots in the telenovelas on TV. Such twists and turns!

Ultimately, the talk always turned to school. Mama repeated herself: Mija echale ganas. Try your best, daughter.

“She never had the chance to get educated herself,” Marisela said. Irene dropped out of school when she was 10.

When Irene enrolled her elder daughter, Brenda, at Benteen Elementary, the mom knew: This was her children’s way to a better life.

She didn’t know cancer would shorten her own life. Eleven years ago she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was pregnant with Ivan, their final child. Marisela was 7 when the family got the news; her mom, 33.

When you’re 7, words like “cancer” exist in the abstract. Marisela hardly realized the full implications of what her mother faced. Cancer is implacable; it stalks its victims.

The family tried traditional medicine – chemotherapy and bed rest, but that only left Mama listless. Desperate, they turned to a curandera espiritual, a spiritual healer. Marisela likened her to a good-intentioned witch.

The old woman prescribed dried rattlesnake rattles, somehow procured in the gray markets where taxes aren’t paid and questions not asked. Irene ate them. They seemed to work, too: the cancer subsided. Mama was soon up and about.

But the curandera died. After 12 months of renewed hope that she’d beaten cancer, Irene relapsed. Her family took Irene to the Atlanta Medical Center, where she remained for two months.

Irene left the hospital and stayed with a cousin in Forest Park – close to her family, but not impeding their day-to-activities. Her husband and children visited at night. As 2009 wound down, that trip turned into a routine – the dark drive to Forest Park, the kiss on the cheek. Buenas noches, Mama.

December came, and with it a school holiday pageant. Marisela had a part in the production, taking place Dec. 15. She couldn’t miss that. Tell Mama I will see her tomorrow, she told her family. When she got home later that night, Marisela noticed that her father and others had not returned from seeing Irene. She shrugged and turned off the lights.

The next morning, Charley, her brother, delivered the news:

“Mom’s dead.”

Marisela: “Don’t say that!”

Marisela went to school, found a favorite teacher, and wept.

For Silvestre, his wife’s death was life’s cruelest indignity. The man who’d worked long hours to provide for his family took to bed, depressed. Marisela suddenly was a surrogate mother to Ivan. She struggled to keep the house as clean as Irene had. Her siblings pitched in to keep intact a household that threatened to fall apart now that Mama was gone.

In that environment, Marisela reached the same conclusion that Mama had: School was her way out.

Poems and essays

Jacqueline Keeler remembers “Night Shift,” the Sylvia Plath poem decrying industrialization’s “muted boom” and its dehumanization of workers. She gave Marisela 20 minutes to read the poem, and eight minutes to explain it to her classmates.

Marisela took the allotted time, stood up…

Keeler can take it from here. Marisela accomplished it, Keeler said, with hardly a stumble – laying out the imagery and explaining it, talking to her classmates as if she were the teacher, not another student.

“What she did,” said Keeler, who teaches International Baccalaureate literature at Jackson, “was phenomenal.”

A word about International Baccalaureate, or IB. It’s tough. Students in IB courses are expected to perform at collegiate level. Taking IB courses gives students a considerable leg up in choosing colleges.

“It’s the most rigorous in the world,” said Keeler, an educator at Jackson for 16 years.

Marisela took classes with Keeler for two years. They studied literary concepts and authors’ techniques. They pondered the demons that drove the millionaire in “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s account of life in the gilded ‘20s.

In that time, said Keeler, she did not have a student who excelled more than Marisela. “She’s one of the best students I’ve ever had, yes.”

When Marisela asked her to write a letter of recommendation in her application to Harvard, Keeler didn’t hesitate. “I told her I’d write 9,000 letters of recommendation to wherever she wanted to apply.”

That letter, and the rest of Marisela’s application, landed in Abdiel Garcia’s hands. An admissions officer at Harvard, he recalls her grades, letters of recommendation and the essay – especially, that essay.

“I think Marisela is someone I will remember for a long, long time,” he said. Garcia was on a swing through Los Angeles, one of the regions he covers for Harvard, but stopped to talk about Marisela.

“I read every application that comes to me,” Garcia said in a phone interview. That’s “several hundred” annually.

What was it about her application? Garcia didn’t hesitate.

“Her story,” he said. “She has overcome a lot. We don’t take that lightly.”

For good reason. Marisela is getting a full scholarship to Harvard, where undergraduate costs will reach or exceed $70,000 in the coming academic year. She’ll be among a freshman class comprising about 1,660 people from across the country and world.

Each newcomer, said Garcia, got a careful review before Harvard made its offer. “We want to get to know the student behind the application.

“Yes, you can be very bright,” he said. “But we’re looking for students who will be much more than that.”

He is confident that Marisela will be a good fit at a school steeped in tradition and old money. Harvard’s alumni list reads like a Who’s Who of renowned family names: Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush.

And, perhaps in a few years: Lozada.

“She has made the most of the opportunities before her [at Jackson],” Garcia said. “She’ll do that at Harvard, too.”

Marisela has done a service for Jackson High, believes Adam Danser, the 1,200-student school’s principal. By enrolling at Harvard later this year, he said, she will become an ambassador for a school that has never sent a student to the Cambridge, Mass., school.

Danser occupies a corner office at Jackson; in the final days of the school year, a Mylar balloon danced in its air-conditioned currents. Thanks For All You Do, it read.

Marisela, said Danser, has done a lot for Jackson, home of the Jaguars. She is the latest student to excel in a school where graduation rates have been moving steadily upward. This year, more than 230 seniors got diplomas from the Grant Park school. About 90 percent are going on to higher education or the military.

Findings from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement underscore Danser’s optimism. The organization, which charts the achievements of every public elementary, middle and high school in Georgia, says Jackson is in its Beating the Odds category. The school is performing better than those with comparable demographics.

Despite that assessment, Jackson is a school where the majority of students come from lower-income homes – a fact that has an impact on grades and graduation rates. Everyone in the school, for example, receives a free lunch.

While no one else in Jackson’s class of 2018 is going to Harvard, Danser was quick to note that grads will be heading to UGA, Georgia Tech, Louisiana State, University of Chicago, Bard and more. They amassed scholarships totaling $13 million, a school record.

Those grads will leave Jackson, he said, knowing that hard work really does pay off.

“Schools like Harvard?” he said. “You may not come from the wealthiest family, but you can get in there.”

Marisela may be the first Jackson grad to enter Harvard, Danser said, but she won’t be the last. “We’re going to see more and more of that happening.”

‘I’m proud’

Her face is still smooth, unlined and not marked by woes that life surely will deliver. His face is proof that no one makes it to the grave without shedding tears along the way.

Still, Marisela is Silvestre’s daughter, no doubt. They look alike – the same dark eyes glittering with intellect, the way they tilt their heads. He has a way of looking at his daughter and beaming. He knows: She has la cabeza, the head for what is to come. She calls him Pa.

Disabled now, he spent his working life building houses, laying cement, pushing mowers. Silvestre Lozada, 57, didn’t have much time for education – a fact his daughter made clear in her application to Harvard.

“My father was indifferent,” she wrote. “‘I don’t care about your A. Go to college or not, just know that I’m not paying.’”

As one year followed the next, her grade-point average sitting squarely on 4.0, Marisela accepted the fact that her dad would not be in the stands, would not sit at the table for annual parent-teacher conferences. He struggled just to understand English; navigating the intricacies of the school system was beyond him.

Even now, knowing his daughter is heading off to an Ivy League school, Silvestre Lozada admits that he doesn’t fully grasp what has happened – or what will happen. In some ways, she’s still that little girl, painting Mama’s toenails. When he remembers that scene, he smiles.

“I don’t understand the whole concept,” he said, speaking Spanish while his daughter interpreted. “I kind of get it.”

He gets this much: “I’m proud.”

On Aug. 27, Harvard will open its doors to the freshman class. Her dad is driving her there. For him, it will be another reminder of just how far his daughter has traveled, and how much further still she has to go. This ninita, this little girl.

He planned to take another trip this month – back to Mexico, where lie the remains of a pretty girl who turned his head decades earlier. He will visit Irene’s grave and give her the news.

“I will thank her for four wonderful kids,” he said. “I will ask her (Irene) to watch over Marisela.”

Mama surely will. She always has.



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