Off-Ramp contributor Tanya Jo Miller is following a couple of young adults who graduated from Crenshaw High in 2012 as they make their way into the adult world. In this piece we meet Tyris Williams, who's starting up a new quarter at UC Irvine. He and his grandma are working hard to keep him in school. It's hard, even for a student like Tyris, who was fortunate enough to get scholarships and grants to pay for college.
I met Tyris just as he was about to graduate from Crenshaw High in South LA (aka South Central), which is still associated with urban decay and street crime. He was heading off to UC Irvine carrying a heavy load. Not a course load. Survivor's guilt, you might say.
Tyris' complicated story begins at birth. He was a twin. His mother, who was already sick, died in childbirth. His father fell into despair and began to drink. So Tyris moved in with his grandmother. Tyris and his twin were born prematurely and as a result, he says his brother had "all kinds of health issues." The state decided Tyris' grandmother couldn't care for his brother because of his special needs and put him in foster care. Tyris feels guilty about this.
"You could have flipped a coin and it could have easily been me."
Unlike his brother, Tyris thrived socially and academically. His high school English teacher, James Altuner, says Tyris raised the entire level of discourse in his class. He says Tyris, always eager to learn, challenged students in a school where kids don't always take kindly to academic critique. "They might not have liked it if another student called them out academically," says Altuner. "But Tyris got a pass because they thought of him as a scholar and they respected that."
A 2004 study shows that peer-to-peer influence in the classroom affects academic achievement. "Classrooms containing high numbers of students with poor academic skills or behavior problems are likely to promote these behaviors in individual students," says a study called Classroom Environment Influences on Aggression, Peer Relations, and Academic Focus. The converse is also true. Strong students promote more learning. Chavin Hannah, a former classmate of Tyris, says when she saw the way Tyris wrote and interacted with teachers it challenged her "to get on his level." "I am jealous of him", Chavin says, "but it's a good jealous."
This year, Tyris started UC Irvine. And while many freshman stepped onto campus with a sense of new-found freedom and weightlessness, Tyris felt the heavy pull from home. He had made it all the way to a top tier university, and now feels a giant responsibility to succeed for his team. The team includes his neighborhood, South Central, his mother who, he says, gave her life for him, and his twin brother, who because of his mental and physical problems, probably won't ever get to college.
But most importantly he wants to do well for his grandmother, who Tyris calls his role model.
"She's my mother, my father and my grandmother," he says. He packs his bags and kisses his grandmother goodbye. "Failure," he says, "is not an option for me."
Reporter Tanya Jo Miller will check back in with Tyris in future Off-Ramp episodes.