Drifting through the Bronx without a home, a dime or a prayer, then-18-year-old Liz Murray had it all figured out.
The B-train took 70 minutes to run from one end of the city to the other--she could study with the Humanities Preparatory Academy principal until the janitor finally locked them out, go to her job, read all night on the subway and make it back to class just a few minutes early.
Murray, who kicked off Community Service Week last night with a keynote speech before 200 people in Page Auditorium, spoke with an aura of confidence. Nervous laughter came through at times, but for the most part, she raced through a Dickensian life story as if it were hardly out of the ordinary.
Once dodging social workers only to protect a sense of freedom that left her scrounging through the dumpsters each week for food, Murray turned her life around and wound up on the path to Harvard University, a scholarship from The New York Times, an Emmy-nominated Lifetime movie and a forthcoming memoir, "Breaking Night."
And it all started, she said, with a revelation.
Sitting with friends one night a few weeks after her mother, a near-blind alcoholic and cocaine addict, died of AIDS, Murray said she heard a voice.
"I felt like someone had come over and whispered something no one else had heard," Murray said. "It was that life is short; I really felt it then. And I realized I had to give school another chance."
Murray's life up until then had not been easy. Welfare checks brought the only sure income and a sense of giddiness matched only by a trip to McDonald's. "That was good eating for us," she recalled. The rest of the time, after the $20 or $30 Murray's parents spent on groceries for her sister, Lisa, and her, the two would beg from door to door, drawn by smells of Spanish cooking permeating the tenement.
When her mother broke the windows in a drunken fit, they stayed broken for the cold winter. The bathtub oozed black water and stunk up the apartment. But in the midst of it all, Murray said, she always felt loved.
"You come to understand that addiction really is a disease," Murray said. "If I hadn't had a solid meal in two days, my mother hadn't had one in three.... I felt extremely loved because I saw that they loved me within their limits."
At 15, Murray hit the streets to flee her mother's abusive boyfriend, who had authorized a PINS--person in need of supervision--warrant that would force her into an institution should social workers ever find her.
For a while, it was a Doritos-filled, sleep-as-late-as-you-can, endless sleepover, as Murray traversed the city with her best friend Chris. Then came her mother's death.
"I was standing on a street corner on Staten Island, and I thought, 'What if I just took every day and worked really hard, for every one of those days I wasted?'" she said.
Deciding she needed just three things to succeed--money, an address and a high school--Murray found work with NightPIRG, a door-to-door public interest group, eventually earning more money than any of her bosses. She traveled the city in search of an alternative high school that would accept her, finally finding her place with Perry, principal of the Humanities Preparatory Academy and a selfless mentor.
Taking 10 classes her first semester, Murray earned a 96 average overall. She did the same thing three more times, graduating two years early, eating meals at a soup kitchen and working a job all along.
Finally, she said, she "stepped on a magic carpet."
Murray won a $12,000 annual scholarship from The New York Times, gaining the attention and assistance of thousands of New Yorkers, and gained admission to Harvard.
"I don't feel like I'm separate from people anymore, I feel like we're all one," she said.
Now a senior, Murray transferred to Columbia University this year to be closer to her AIDS-stricken father.
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