I look up at my sister in shock.
“Just go, for a day. I’ll deal with Mama and Papi.”
“Really?” I can barely get the word out, I’m so excited. A whole day to myself, exploring Howard.
“Yes, really. What are big sisters for?”
Of course my whole family has to escort me to Times Square at the crack of dawn, where I’ll be hopping on a six-o’clock bus to D.C. I am so hyped about this trip that I haven’t slept. I keep this giant ball of joy inside me so no one takes it away.
I worry that Papi will change his mind any minute. He’s concerned that I’ll be traveling alone. “I wanna make sure they see my face. And I wanna look each one of those bus passengers in the eye,” he says.
But Mama is excited. It’s starting to sink in that she’s about to have two “baby girls” in college.
Mama packs three Tupperware containers of food for me to eat on the bus, and foil-wrapped snacks to eat over the course of the trip. Marisol typed up a budget for me. I’m supposed to spread out the twenty bucks Papi gave me over the whole day.
And after waving to my family until the bus pulls off, I finally make it out of Manhattan.
I mostly stare out the window, watching this part of the country pass. New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
I take selfies and pics of the fast-moving world to send to my sisters and Charlise. I text Warren, but he doesn’t text back right away, like he normally does. The last text I got from him was from last night, telling me to have a safe trip. Him and our almost-kiss linger in my mind as the bus zooms toward D.C.
D.C. is almost like Brooklyn, but much cleaner with way fewer people crowded onto the streets. And less black and brown people too, though I wonder if they’ve been boxed in somewhere else, like in Brooklyn.
“D.C. used to be called Chocolate City,” the woman sitting next to me says. She probably noticed how my face has been glued to the window for almost the whole ride.
“Well, I see a whole lotta vanilla,” I say.
“Yep. I’m from Bed-Stuy. We’re starting to see a whole lotta vanilla there too.”
“Is that happening all over?”
“I don’t know,” the woman says. “I haven’t been to all over. Have you?”
I don’t answer her as the bus pulls into Union Station. From there, I take the Metro north, up to Howard University.
I walk toward the entrance, and it’s exactly how I’ve seen it in videos and pictures. The brown brick buildings are regal. Giant green lawns spread across the campus. It kind of looks like Maria Hernandez Park, but without the playground, or the surrounding brownstones and buildings. Most important, without the new white people. There’s just people like me, as far as my eyes can see. And it already feels like home.
All of Howard is clean and airy. No clutter. No sirens and loud music coming from outside. No bodega gates rolling up, and shopping-cart wheels on jagged sidewalks. Being here expands my whole world much farther than I could’ve ever imagined, and I text Janae one giant THANK-YOU in all caps followed by smiley faces, hearts, and balloons.
We have to meet our tour guides in the Administration Building. Inside, there’s a long table with a sign hanging in the front that reads WELCOME TO HOWARD. Two girls are seated behind it, wearing big smiles and the cutest outfits I’ve ever seen. Their hair is done in long braids, and one of them has fancy designs on her nails. So I walk over to them.
“Hi, Zuri!” one of the girls sings after I introduce myself. “I’m Diane, and this is Sage. We’re juniors here at Howard and we’re student ambassadors.”
Sage gets up to give me a hug over the table. “Okay, Zuri. About ten other prospective applicants will join us for a brief tour, and you can learn about Howard University,” Sage says. While her hug felt real, that little spiel didn’t. But I don’t mind because this must be her job.
In just a few minutes, I’m surrounded by other kids who look about my age. Diane and Sage step away from the table and, with clipboards in hand, lead the group toward the other end of the yard.
“And here we have our Founders Library,” Diane says as we approach a large redbrick building. “Built in 1939, it’s open twenty-four hours a day, so there’ll be no excuse to not get those papers in on time.”
The library is majestic with its glowing white clock tower. I feel smarter just by standing in front of it. There’s enough wide-open space for me to feel like I can actually chase my dreams here, and I’ll be able to reach them too.
Diane and Sage then walk us over to the Tubman Quad. I think of Hope Gardens, back in Bushwick, with its quads too, but with less green grass and cleanliness, and less of just about everything. Thinking of the projects makes me think of Warren, so I snap a pic for him and text, You might wanna rethink Morehouse and come to Howard. I send a grinning face.
As we walk through the campus, I get to feel what it’s like to be in college, to be in a place where new ideas and people will reveal themselves to me every single day. And not just any college—a historically black college, one of the first in this country. I wonder what the girls who’ve slept in my future dorm room over the years are doing with their lives right now. I wonder if they’ve gone back to their blocks or their towns and changed them in any way. I wonder if Howard changed them, and maybe they couldn’t go back to their old hoods because they’ve grown too big, too tall. Not in size, but in . . . experience. In . . . feeling. I wonder how I’ll change too.
After about a half hour of touring the lower and upper quads, some of the dorms, and the Cramton Auditorium, it’s time to sit in on a lecture by one of Howard’s professors.
As we finish our tour, some cute guys from across the yard call out, “H-U!”
Sage and Diane respond, “You know!”
Me and the other kids on the tour laugh and look around at each other.
“Y’all don’t get to say that until you get accepted,” Diane says.
But I whisper, “You know!” under my breath anyway as a sort of prayer.
We’re back in the Administration Building, where Diane and Sage pull out another clipboard for us to sign up for a lecture. Fewer kids add their names for this one. Good. Less competition.
The lecture is on African American history, and the professor is someone I’ve read about online. Other high school students are here too. Not the ones who were on the tour. Suddenly my stomach is in knots. This is my competition. I look at my future classmates as we all walk through the campus yard toward Cramton Auditorium, where current Howard students will talk to us before Professor Kenyatta Bello starts her lecture. I wonder which of these kids I can rock with, and which ones I’ll learn to stay away from.
We all spill into the giant auditorium, where there’s a huge stage and screen in the front. Janae told me that some classes are held in auditoriums like this, and I’ll have to always sit in the front to get the professors’ attention. I do just that so I can be seen, noticed, and heard.
But other kids have the same bright idea, and the first few rows close to the stage are almost full. There’s one last empty seat at the other end of the stage, and I head straight for it. This is musical chairs, and I’m trying to stay in the game.
But a girl places her hand on the seat’s armrest, looks dead at me, and says, “Are you with Alpha Kappa Alpha?”
“Who?” I ask.
“The AKA scholarship group? These seats are reserved for them,” she says with an even brighter smile.
“Oh” is all I say, even though I want to know what an AKA is and how I can get into their scholarship group. But I decide that girl doesn’t need to know that—I can look it up online later.
A tall girl with flowing hair and a pink blazer walks over to the seat that should’ve been mine and sits down. I look around at the first few rows and notice that everyone’s already teamed up. They’re talking to each other and laughing, and I wish that I had brought one of my sisters with me. But still, I grab a seat near the back and stay focused. I didn’t come here to make friends.
The first part of the session begins. I listen to every word those Howard students say about the different majors and clubs and activities the school has to offer. I hear about their newspaper, the Hilltop, and their literary journal, Amistad. I’m at the edge of my seat, and my heart feels like it’s about to leap out of my chest from excitement. If only I could skip my senior year at Bushwick and move in, like, next week.