Tiesha’s closest friends told the other girls to stop, but they didn’t. As it turns out, Tiesha didn’t take down the other girls, but revealed her own perceived inadequacies.
“You’re so smart,” she told one white classmate. “You’re going to get into a great school. Because there aren’t enough qualified African-Americans, maybe I will, too. But my grades aren’t good enough.”
The next day, Tiesha made her rounds at school, apologizing for anything she said that might have made anyone uncomfortable. She was gracious again. The other side of Tiesha would wait for college to make a return appearance.
Tiesha was wait-listed at Yale, but never got off the list. There were those who blame Brearley for her not getting into an Ivy. “When they have five legacies at one school, they make a calculation,” one schoolmate says. “I don’t think they pushed her. They only have so many slots. It was sort of the Brearley way—She wouldn’t have gotten Wesleyan if she hadn’t been at Brearley. Wesleyan is good enough.” (A Brearley spokesperson says there are no slots, explaining, “The girls’ final decisions about where to make applications are their own, and Brearley enthusiastically supports each application.”)
Some in Prep for Prep consider Wesleyan almost Prep Part 2. A mini-Berkeley of the East, Wesleyan has a large percentage of minority students, and the campus is known for its progressive politics and multiculturalism. Tiesha began to shed the Brearley persona, plunging into an exploration of racial-identity politics. She steered much of her academic work to the study of a social archetype of her own creation that she called the Loud-talking Black Woman, or LBW. “The LBW was the woman who was not afraid to assert herself, who would risk being put down for not keeping her place, and who would challenge a black man trying to subjugate the black woman in order to assert his own manhood,” says Krishna Winston, the professor who coordinated Tiesha’s Mellon undergraduate fellowship, which funds minority students considering postgraduate work. In one paper on The Color Purple, Tiesha empathized with the mute narrator, Celie, but she clearly identified more with the bombastic Sofia. “She liked to see herself in that role,” Winston says, “as someone who was not afraid to speak her mind, who was prepared to challenge oppression, challenge assumptions about what’s appropriate.” The LBW, in other words, was Tiesha.
It’s no coincidence that most of her closest friends were from Prep. Even her high-school boyfriend 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.
The politicized Tiesha was still as charming and ambitious as ever. Her Wesleyan friends e-mailed lovingly after her death about how she’d fly into a “race rage” about some social slight and then laugh about it for twenty minutes; about “seeing her walk—ass out, virtually horizontal—as fast as she possibly could on her way to no place in particular with that Tiesha screw face on.” When she was an R.A. in the Malcolm X house for African-American students her sophomore year, she helped throw West Indian–themed parties and held dance rehearsals for Isis, the women-of-color troupe she founded. Isis performed at Jubilee, an annual people-of-color festival that Tiesha emceed. Tiesha and a friend founded Wellness Day, a program of activities for women of color. Living with her friends, she’d cook her mother’s Guyanese recipes, slipping into an island accent for effect.
After college, Tiesha spent a year working at the campus career center and living with a college boyfriend. Yet she knew she’d soon have a choice to make. She’d tell friends she wanted to be a poet or novelist, an Alice Walker or a Toni Morrison, but she was better known as the one who could file the paperwork on time to launch a club or event or use her Prep for Prep training to help her friends whip up résumés. She was torn between corporate America and her writing career, or something else—something more true to the Prep ethos of giving back.
“This is a struggle of all of our students of color when they come to a white-dominated institution like Wesleyan,” Winston says. “The escape from the community is often felt as betrayal.”
In New York, Tiesha’s ambition and conscience were soon at cross-purposes again. During one summer at Wesleyan, Tiesha interned at Goldman Sachs, and friends say she was offered a job there. Plenty of her Prep friends had gone to Goldman, but Tiesha chose not to. Her first job was an internship with Conde.net, where she set up Web pages for magazine contests and other projects. Tiesha was offered a chance at a real job at Conde.net within a year, but she was unwilling to wait, and in 2004, she took a job as a minority recruiter for Credit Suisse. Her charge was to visit the campuses of Morehouse, Harvard, and other colleges to find minority students for the CSFB internship program. Here, she thought, was a chance to earn enough to live on her own and satisfy her social conscience.