Sage joins the students on the stage to take questions from the audience. “Now keep your questions to just questions,” she says into the mic. “No comments or reciting your application essay.”
The audience laughs, but I don’t. I’d be the one to recite my essay as a spoken-word piece if it would increase my chances of getting in.
I keep raising my hand, but Sage doesn’t call on me. So I stand up and raise my hand high. I hear whispers around me, but I don’t care.
“Yes,” Sage says, finally noticing me. “With the afro.”
A girl standing in the aisle with a mic passes it over to me. As soon as I take it, my stomach sinks, but I swallow back my fear. “Hi,” I say, clearing my throat. “How can I get a scholarship to Howard?”
Everybody shifts in their seat, and some even giggle. My voice echoes, and my whole body goes warm. Still, I hold my head high and wait for an answer as the girl takes the mic away.
“Howard University reviews applications on a case-by-case basis. You can ask your guidance counselor for help. We look forward to hearing from you,” one of the students on the stage responds.
It’s an answer I already knew, but I sit back down and tell myself that I won’t stop asking questions until I get in. I don’t care how I look.
When Professor Bello begins her lecture, I take out my notebook to write down everything she says. Her words fill my ears, the students fill my eyes, and I have the overwhelming sense that I belong here. I imagine myself in this place, getting dressed for class, walking with my new friends to the dining hall, joining the poetry club. I sigh big and feel my body swell with hope about this new beginning. The professor keeps talking and I keep dreaming and I begin to write a letter to the founder.
Dear Mr. Oliver Otis Howard,
I wonder if when we name places
after important people, we’ve made them
immortal in some way. That their ghosts
can linger in corners and halls and dusty
dorm rooms to see me writing this letter
to some dead white man who probably could
never have imagined that I’d exist. Have you
heard of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Howard?
Or maybe you’ve heard about a slave revolt
that happened in a country called Haiti? These are the
places that made the people that made me. Those are
places that, in 1867, girls like me would not dream of being
in somewhere like your university. And this is why I want to
come to your school, Mr. Howard. There is more to learn
about my old, old self, and black and brown girls like me
from hoods all over this country want to take over the world,
but there’s something missing
in our history books the public schools give us.
At least that’s what my papi says,
so he makes me read a lot, and that’s where I found out
about the Mecca in this book called
Between the World and Me
and I’m thinking that I need to come here so I can gather
these wisdoms found in old, dusty books written by
wrinkled brown hands and gather them within the folds
of my wide skirt, tuck them into the pockets of my jeans,
and take them with me back home to sprinkle all over
Bushwick like rain showers, Mr. Howard.
“HI, I’M SONIA,” a girl says as she reaches for my hand to shake. We walk up the auditorium stairs and into the hallway. I see that she’s about my height and my age. “Thank you for that question. Just about everybody up in here is trying to get a scholarship.”
“Really? Oh,” I say. “I’m Zuri, by the way.”
We head out into the yard.
“Yes, really. You know how many people get in and can’t pay? Some can’t even finish,” Sonia says.
“I hope that doesn’t happen to me,” I say. Fear settles in my belly like one of Mama’s heavy meals.
“Well, you just gotta play your cards right. Get them grades up, and extracurricular activities are your ticket. Where you from, anyway?”
When she says this, I immediately think of my poems. I hope that’s something that’ll set me apart. I’m willing to use any skills I have to get into the school of my dreams. “Bushwick,” I say. I rep hard for my hood wherever I go.
Sonia scrunches up her face.
“It’s in Brooklyn,” I add.
“Oh. Why didn’t you just say Brooklyn?”
“’Cause Brooklyn is not Bushwick” is all I say.
“Oh, that’s really cool. If you’re from Brooklyn, then you probably liked Professor Bello’s lecture.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I thought people from Brooklyn are extra woke or whatever. And besides, Professor Bello is from Brooklyn, or that’s what I read in her bio. Bed-Stuy do or die, or something like that.”
“Really?” I feel my whole soul light up when she says this.
“Yeah, really. You should really try to get to know her. She runs an open mic at Busboys and Poets.”
We were walking toward the exit of the campus, but I stop dead in my tracks. “What did you just say?”
“An open mic at Busboys and Poets . . . it’s a bookstore that’s really close to here, if you want to check it out.”
“How do you know all this?” I ask. The Brooklyn in me is not ready to trust this girl all the way.
“I’m from D.C., so I know all about Howard.”
“Thanks, Sonia,” I say with a genuine smile. If she’s from around here, then she must be keeping it real with me.
“Nice meeting you, Zuri,” she says. “Maybe I’ll see you back here for freshman orientation.”
I smile. “I hope so.”
We wave goodbye to each other, and suddenly, a giant bubble of hope begins to well up inside me. I might just have a chance at this school.
“Busboys and Poets,” I say out loud, and start to make my way off campus. I have just enough time to head over there before I need to catch my bus back to New York.
I walk out onto Georgia Avenue and take in the scenery: the shinier-than-usual cars, the well-dressed people, the wide, clean buildings. This part of D.C. is kind of like Brooklyn, but not Bushwick or Bed-Stuy, where everything looks old, used, and tired. Here, it looks as if people care—as if they’re always expecting company, so everything has to look presentable for strangers.
I use my phone to find Busboys and Poets, and I step inside knowing that writers and poets come here to get their words right, to think big thoughts about the world, and to have deep talks like the ones Papi and his homies have on the stoop.
I’m drawn to the nonfiction shelf, where I try to find the thickest book of them all, no matter what it’s about. It’s a big book of art, so I hold it close to my chest, put my bag down, crouch down on a stepstool near the corner, and get lost in its pages. Mama texts me, and I send her a photo of the bookstore so she knows I’m safe and in a place I love. Layla sends me a silly meme, and I text her back a smiley face. I see that Warren has finally responded to my texts with a photo of him hanging out on my block, and I smile. Charlise sends me a pic of her and Colin, but I roll my eyes and I ignore it.
I pull out three more books; one of them is a poetry collection by Langston Hughes, and I read in his bio that this place is named for him because he was a busboy and a poet. I swim in his words until a voice talks over a microphone somewhere in another part of the restaurant. “Good afternoon, and welcome to Busboys and Poets!” he says. A few voices cheer.
My belly twists and my heart races, because time has slipped from me. I dig into my bag for my phone and see that it’s five o’clock already. My bus leaves at seven. I’ll need to get to the station in an hour, but I still have time to see what all this noise is about. I follow the voice that says he’ll be inviting poets up to the stage in just a few minutes and advises anyone who wants to sign up to do so now, before they close the list.
My belly knots again, because his words are a command. There’s no one here who knows me. There’s no one from the hood who’ll spread a rumor about me getting on the mic to spit some corny rhyme about love or the hood or my sisters. The last time I shared my poems in public was for the after-school performance in June, and even that was only for the kids who had taken that poetry class.