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Nine Blocks From Home

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From left, Tiesha in 2004; with her friends Kimika Sergeant (left) and Natalie Swaby at a Prep for Prep fund-raiser in 1998; Keve Huggins in a film still from Rap War One (2004).  

As the saying goes, Spence girls date doctors and lawyers, and Chapin girls marry doctors and lawyers, but Brearley girls are doctors and lawyers. Of all the all-girl Upper East Side prep schools, Brearley has the most intellectually rigorous reputation. Having never known failure, Tiesha walked into Brearley with almost crushing expectations; she was determined not to disappoint her family, Prep, or herself. “To handle all that with grace is not easy,” says one Brearley classmate of Tiesha’s who was also in Prep for Prep. “But Tiesha was the get-it-done person. She was very serious.”

Every few years, a school like Brearley has a superstar student who seems to be everywhere at once, and this was Tiesha. She was a co-head of the student government, the junior-prom princess, second soprano in the chorus, played field hockey, tutored younger kids. If the curtains opened, she was onstage, dancing and singing. Teachers and students got used to her speaking up in class, almost as a daily performance piece. Her teachers remember her as a sharp, persuasive writer—this in an English program that’s said to be better than those at a lot of colleges.

If Tiesha was beloved, she was also on display. “She knew all eyes were on her—the girl from Prep, the head of the class,” says Anna Mirer, a Brearley friend. “There was a feeling that her every success and failure meant more because it was her.”

Tiesha made good grades (Billings-Burford recalls a B-plus average), but to her they weren’t good enough. Prep kids are told that academic excellence is the most important thing in their lives; Ivy League colleges are considered Valhalla. “On her college-application brag sheet, Tiesha put, ‘I have always performed below the level I could,’ ” says Billings-Burford. “A good part of my time was spent saying, ‘You’re a great kid, don’t be so hard on yourself.’ ”

There were also the inevitable class issues. The other girls never took the bus or subway; they talked about the cars their parents drove, the second and third homes they had, and the vacations they took. “Class conflict at Brearley means which floor you shop at in Barneys,” one of Tiesha’s old schoolmates says. Tiesha, meanwhile, was self-conscious about her family. Most of her Brearley friends never saw where she lived.

As one of just four black girls in her 40-student class, Tiesha felt pressure to assimilate into the white girls’ world, and in some ways she did—she went to the same parties, played the same sports. But Tiesha wasn’t afraid to talk about race. When a white classmate would touch her hair and make a remark about how coarse it was, she would want to go back and teach that person about black people’s hair. Her yearbook page included six quotations from Alice Walker. She campaigned for the school to discuss the fallacies of The Bell Curve. It’s no coincidence that most of her closest friends were from Prep. Even her high-school boyfriend, Franklin Amoo, was a Prep kid from Collegiate. They were the only ones who understood what it felt like to belong to two worlds, and to neither.

At the same time that Tiesha was asserting her racial identity, her Prep friends say, she was somewhat naïve about the neighborhood she called home. “She wasn’t streetwise the way ghetto New Yorkers are,” one friend says. “We’d be on a subway and I’d get my Spidey sense and want to move to the next car, or I’d say, ‘No, don’t take the wallet out and buy that hot dog because those guys a half-block down are looking at us.’ And she wouldn’t understand.”

The notion that there were two Tieshas was never more clear than on the night before Brearley’s Senior Cut Day. The whole class was together at a party at one student’s large downtown apartment. A friend says Tiesha had something to drink that night, maybe for the first time, and that or the exuberance of the moment led Tiesha to start saying things she’d never said before—like telling someone they should do their hair a different way. This was a Tiesha none of them had seen—less polished, less perfect, more honest; not the Tiesha of the guarded white world but perhaps the Tiesha of the real, “black” one—and some of the girls found it intoxicating. In no time, girls were lining up to hear Tiesha’s real opinions of them. Part of them seemed to want to feel the bracing sting of a little cold truth about themselves, delivered by an outsider. Another part seemed to sense intuitively that Tiesha, the infallible black superstar, might say something ugly and bring herself down.


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