Henry and Imelda Sargeant had led a solid middle-class life in Guyana. Imelda was a mining-company clerk, and Henry was the company’s customs supervisor and a leader in an international labor union. They married in 1979, Tiesha was born the next year, and by 1982 the couple had settled in a rent-stabilized, one-bedroom, $300-a-month apartment on Clarkson Avenue in Crown Heights. Imelda worked late in a back-office job at Credit Lyonnais, and Henry trained for his electrician’s license.
In time, Henry, Imelda, and Tiesha were joined by two older children of Henry’s, Idi and Sia, whom Imelda raised as her own. Later came Tweba, born four years after Tiesha, and Malaika, who is now 13 and is physically and mentally impaired. The family lived comfortably, but this was the Brooklyn of the eighties, when crack and aids were still on the rise, and Henry and Imelda made a point of keeping their kids away from other children in the neighborhood. Tiesha never played double Dutch on the corner after school or on the weekends—not even once. Instead, she’d stay home and play Monopoly and memory games. In the summer, the children would visit relatives in California or Guyana. Later, friends would remark on how unconnected Tiesha was with the world she grew up in.
Imelda was the moral authority of the house—a loving but traditional West Indian mom. Henry was a hard-driving dad. He’d drill them in the alphabet until they could recite it forward and backward starting with any letter, and dispatch them to look up words in the dictionary. He also had a fierce sense of self-reliance. “People talk about Tiesha like we were a downtrodden family who went after the American Dream,” he says. “We don’t see ourselves as any embodiment of any dream of any place. We were the embodiment of the Sargeants. We think we should go to the best schools and do the best things. That’s how I taught my kids.”
As for race, that was a myth to be ignored. “I said, ‘Come on! You know the deal. Take all the white and black people in the world, and there are still more Chinese. How come no one is talking about the Chinese? No matter what, kiddo, people are just people.’ ”
None of Henry’s children took to his teachings like Tiesha. The local public school was a snap; she was reading Times editorials at age 4. Tiesha also picked up her mother’s moral sensibility. “Tiesha was like me because of her demeanor,” Henry says. “That highbrow, carry your ass around like you’re in charge, that confidence and arrogance. But when it comes to honesty, that’s from Mommy. No one wanted to say something bad about anybody else when she was around. She had a majesty about her.”
Henry liked to tease Tiesha—even, especially, after she tasted success. “Tiesha would come home laughing and saying, ‘Daddy, I got a scholarship.’ I’d say, ‘Kid, one day we’re gonna have to pay for it.’
“She said, ‘But, Daddy, it’s free.’
“I said, ‘Kiddo, ain’t shit free. You paid for it with your hard work. One day, there’s gonna be an auditor, whether it’s God or the devil.”
Almost every poor, bright minority public-school kid knows the basics about Prep for Prep—how if you do well on certain fourth-grade reading and math tests, you can take more tests, including an IQ test, and if you’re among the best, you can get free access to a private school your friends could only dream of attending. Founded in 1978 by a South Bronx schoolteacher, Prep for Prep is aimed not just at helping poor kids, but also at grooming future leaders who will give back to their communities. Students embark on a fourteen-month training program encompassing the summer before and after sixth grade, plus Saturdays and afternoons during the school year in between. They’re usually placed in prep schools in seventh grade, and their training continues during weekend retreats and at after-school sessions through high school; there’s even collegiate and postcollegiate counseling.
Tiesha’s parents jumped at the chance for her to apply, and she was a natural. During her sixth-grade Prep training, she seemed to find a home she never realized she didn’t have. “You’ve finally found this place where it’s cool to be smart, to want to read, to be ambitious,” says Diahann Billings-Burford, Tiesha’s Prep counselor. Even among the best kids in Prep, Billings-Burford says, “Tiesha was more ambitious, more driven, more passionate.”
The training year prepared Tiesha academically for the switch to private school. But the only preparation she got for being suddenly dropped into an alien world was one course, the summer before she started at Brearley. She and the others were debriefed on “isms,” like racism and sexism. But the emphasis was on self-reliance. The course was called “Invictus,” after the William Ernest Henley poem that ends, “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” The message was clear: It’s not about race. Or gender. Or anything else, but who you are. It’s on you to achieve—and to stay true to your community.