By now, we’ve all heard about Richard “Tre” Jenkins, the teen that went from homeless to Harvard. He has been featured on CNN ,The Root, Ebony, The New York Post and countless other news outlets. When CNN asked his mom, Quiana, if she was surprised, she said, “No, I always knew he would get in any school he wanted to attend.” Richard was nicknamed “Harvard” by bullies for being a bookworm. Now, he is going to the same Ivy League school on a full scholarship. Jenkins recently graduated from Girard College, a boarding school in north Philadelphia, and he was the 2018 valedictorian.
With all of the pomp and circumstance regarding “Tre”, we were so delighted to find out that his MOM is an active Blended and Black community member! She’s been a part of #TheFam for quite a while and I had no clue of how much of a big deal she is. When her close friend Aesha Shabazz let me know that The Harvard Mom’s story should be heard, we set up an interview. I must say, Quiana is the epitome of humility. She did not want any recognition and she is not fond of tradition, so we decided to not share her last name. When I explained to her that other parents should know what she did to help her child find success, she was compelled to share.
Quiana and I sat down for a conversation on womanhood, mothering and all things in between.
Describe your educational experience as it relates to how you envisioned becoming a mother.
I was educated in the School District of Philadelphia from grades 1 through 12. I attended public schools all of my life. From a young age, my intelligence was seen and acknowledged. So I was in Academics Plus (accelerated) classrooms during my elementary school years. I was also in the Mentally Gifted (MG) program. I was in MG classes in elementary, middle school as well as in high school.
In college, I majored in psychology. I attended West Chester University of PA as a Board of Governor’s Scholar right after graduating from Central High School in Philadelphia, PA.
While my plan was to graduate from college, and to also get a graduate degree before having children, that didn’t happen. During college, my focus changed, and I became a mother for the first time before graduating from college. I didn’t graduate from college.
How have modern practices of public education, considering your own experiences, shaped your outlook and approach to your children’s academic journey?
While being educated as a youth in the public school system of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I enjoyed being a student. I loved learning! I still do! I found my teachers to be learned, informative, caring, and they also made learning fun at times.
As I stated, I was an enthusiastic and gifted learner. As such, I matriculated accordingly. I was put into academics plus classes (accelerated) and into mentally gifted classes. This was all done with my mother’s permission, or at least with her knowledge. She was very aware of my intelligence and she encouraged me to keep performing well in school, to read and to keep going further and higher in my education. She recognized my academic abilities, and she stayed involved in my education. She urged me to apply to top high schools and she never missed any of my Back to School Nights or parent teacher conferences, even when she was fighting cancer. My mother was a great example of being a good parent. She saw my talents and she pushed me forward along my path.
Following her lead, I have always been involved in my children’s education. I’ve always applied to the best schools for them to attend and I have attended almost every school meeting and school event for each one of them. For the past year and some change, I have been homeschooling my two minor children. In the past, my children have attended public, charter and private/independent schools. In those schools, their classroom sizes have ranged from about 15 to 30 students. Their school days ranged from 6 to 8 hours per day on average. The same was true for my own educational experiences when I was a student. I found the days to be too long for 2 of my children, and the student to teacher ratio to be too large to give them the amount of attention and focus that they deserve. So now I homeschool them. That is what has worked best for their education. So that is what we now do.
While all of my sons have different gifts and interests, it is my job to see what their individual strengths and passions are and to push them forward and to give them options based upon their specific talents and strengths. Whatever their individual likes and strengths are, I focus on those things with them. For instance, with my son, Ray, who aspires to be a professional athlete, some of his talents and interests lie in athletics. So I keep him as active in sports as I can. I also make sure that he has outlets for his abundance of physical energy. We have a mini trampoline, and he plays outside often. We go to the trampoline park sometimes to have fun and release energy. We also go to professional sporting events. So that he can see what his work in his adult years may look like.
Learning about foreign languages while I was a young student has also made an impact on my approach to teaching my children. I started learning foreign language during my elementary school years. Once or twice a week, a visiting or floating teacher would come to my classroom and teach myself and my classmates Latin. We sang songs and played games, all utilizing the language of Latin! She also taught us that “Latin is the root of the romance languages — English, Spanish, French, Italian.” This means that many languages contain Latin roots. As I got older, I became aware that Latin is also used in medical and legal terminology. All of this knowledge has stuck with me throughout my life. So I have gone on to teach all of my children some words and phrases in Spanish, the language that I studied from middle school to college. I also plan on teaching them some Latin. I believe learning another language other than your native tongue is very important. Of course learning another language is important so that we can be able to communicate with more people, but it is also important because learning foreign languages reminds us that the world is bigger than just us and people who look and speak as we do. The world is much bigger than we think!
It is with this awareness that I also make sure that my children and I travel. It is one thing to read about other places and cultures, it is another to see it with your own eyes up close and in person. Seeing is truly believing! So I make sure that we go places and do different types of things. We also watch shows and documentaries on many different cultures and places.
What 3 parenting principles guide your journey?
Positive Parenting has been a game changer for me. Instead of saying no a lot. I say WHEN they can do what it is that they are asking to do. It’s just a matter of changing around how I choose to speak with them, but it makes a big difference in their attitudes and moods. (Words can build up or they can tear down. Words can heal or they can harm.) For instance, when one of my sons asks if they can play a video game, instead of saying “No.”, I might say, “You can play the game after you clean up your toys.” or “You can play the game when you have shown me that you deserve it with your good behavior.” Turning my answer into a positive statement rather than a negative one makes it more probable that I will get a positive response or behavior back from them. It makes our home happier.
I also no longer spank or put them into time out. I do give them time to calm down alone if necesaary with toys and comforting things, but I also remind them that they can come back to the living room and join us, whenever they have truly calmed down. Spanking hurts them and time out allienates them. I do not want to do either of those things. So I don’t.
I support my children as much as possible. Whatever they want to do, they can do, within reason and within our means. Even if as they get older they begin to do things that I don’t agree with for myself, I will still support them in doing so. We are each our own person. They don’t have to like what I like and vice versa. I don’t seek to control them. I want to teach them, and then watch them fly on their own some day. I feel no ownership of them. They are souls who passed through me, but they do not belong to me.
Tell us about Quiana, Richard, Ray & Corey?
I’m in my late thirties, hoping to approach 40 with a bang!!! Lol. Whatever I am doing well, I want to do it better. The next level IS calling ME! Whatever I can improve upon, I will.
I’m intelligent. I’m generous. I’m a reader. I’m a writer. I’m a singer. I’m sweet at times, but I do not take anyone’s mess! I am NOT the one.
Rich is a first year student at Harvard College. He’s 18 years old. He’s always been very academically inclined. His interests are technology, science, psychology, and writing. He also likes to stay active, doing things like boxing and martial arts. He’s a people person. He likes making new friends, texting and talking on the phone. Now that he is 18, he’s also become “a tattoo guy”, as my 7 year-old would say. 🙂
Ray is 13 years old. He wants to become a professional football or basketball player. He likes most sports and has lots of energy. He is very helpful. Ray also enjoys playing video games, creating art and playing outside. He’s also a great beat maker.
Corey is 7. He’s a fast learner and a good reader. He likes basketball, football, and baseball, as well as UFC and WWE. He enjoys watching TV. He is also a very talented singer and dancer. He has a great ear.
Do you aspire to have more children?
I do hope to have more children some day.
Please share your experience of finding yourself homeless…what does homeless, in such an affluent society, look, sound, smell, taste and FEEL like?
We were homeless for about a year at two different times. In a country where the President wants to funnel funds into space defense, there is still a need for more low and moderate income affordable housing. A lack of earnings and savings on my part is what made us homeless. However, if more affordable housing existed, my family and many others would not have been homeless.
Having a home is necessary. However, when you don’t have a home, sometimes you find yourself in a shelter. In a country and culture that is so obsessed with materialism, it can be hard, on a young person especially, to find themselves without a basic necessity such as a home. So I am sure my oldest son, Rich, had somewhat of a hard time when we were homeless. It’s looked down upon to reside in a shelter, when you exist among people who regard having lots of things and only the best of things as what is acceptable. However, a shelter is just what was needed. Let’s define the word shelter. A shelter protects us from the environmental elements. It keeps what is outside out, and it keeps us safe inside. A shelter can also provide warmth and meals. So is a shelter a bad thing? No. It provides what you truly need. However, most people don’t see it as such. They’re caught up in what society says you must have — a great, big home with lots of stuff that you don’t need, but makes life easier. Those things are nice, but they aren’t needed.
Fortunately for me, I never bought into the idea of being too materialistic. I never cared (even as a teenager) which designer’s name was on my purse or jeans, nor how many purses and pairs of jeans I had. What has always mattered to me is if I have what I really need. A shelter provided those necessary things like a roof and beds for me and mine when I couldn’t. So I was grateful to be in a shelter. Was I happy not to be in my own home? No, of course not. I don’t like having a lot of people under one roof. (I’m primarily an introvert.) That can get pretty loud at times, although the shelters we stayed in weren’t loud. They were well managed. Fortunately for us, the shelters we were in were also generally clean. What we usually smelled was food cooking, and an occasional dirty diaper. I like having my own space. In one shelter, we had to share a room with another small family. However, I was grateful to have what we needed. The shelters we stayed in served their purpose, and I learned some good things there from money management to better methods of cleaning a house. So while being homeless didn’t feel great, it wasn’t bad either. At times, I felt down, but it was simply because I was tired of waiting for my name to become first on a waiting list for affordable housing. I’ve never been very patient.
What kept you sane? Can you articulate your phenomenal RESILIENCE?
People have often asked what kept me sane or in good spirits during that time. During that time, I was a Christian. So it was my faith in God and the belief that things would get better for us that kept me sane and at peace. We attended church regularly and I read my Bible diligently. That kept me in good spirits most of the time. Also, seeing my children still doing well in school and happy and having friends kept me calm as well.
I’ve always been an optimistic person, and that didn’t change when I was homeless. No matter what you face, know that circumstances are just temporary. If you are doing your best, given the circumstances, and you have faith that things will change for the better, then they will.
I would definitely call myself a resilient person. Unfortunately, my resilience comes from being disappointed and hurt so much over the course of my life.
So parents, when you worry about not being able to get your children all that they want or if you are going through tough times with your children, please know that strength and great character, along with resilience is also built in learning to live with adversity. So it’s not all bad.
How did you do it Quiana? How did you persevere and overcome this life to realize your very own customized American Dream?
My optimism has truly served me well. It was never a time when I didn’t think that things would not improve for me. Troubles come, but they do not last! Life is a like a roller coaster. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. Learn to ride all the waves of life with grace and a smile, and never, ever give up hope.
Also, part of my upbringing has truly prepared me for this journey called life and parenthood. While my mother was raising me, she never once told me that I could not accomplish something. She never told me that I couldn’t do something. When I wanted to be a doctor, she never once told me that I couldn’t do it or that it was too hard. When I wanted to take a very difficult course in high school and I needed her to sign off on my course selection form, she didn’t discourage me from taking the course. She did talk to me about the seriousness of my selection and asked me if I really wanted to take the course. After speaking with me briefly, she signed the form, giving me her approval.
What I am saying is that my mother supported me. She never once told me that something was too hard for me or that I wasn’t capable of realizing my dreams. Quite the contrary. She cheered me on! When a child has support from their loved ones or from a special teacher, they then begin to have confidence in themself.
With that confidence, I am now able to go into anything, any task or adventure and know that I will be successful despite any obstacles. Why? Because I was not raised to have fear or a sense of inferiority, and I believe in myself.
So no, I never thought that because we were homeless that my children wouldn’t amount to much. No, I knew better than that. Belief comes from within. You can choose to look at your humble surroundings or your circumstances and let that dictate how far you or your children can go, or you can choose to believe that not even the sky is the limit. I choose to believe the latter.
I really wish I had superpowers. If I had to choose one super-power, I would love to be able to teleport. That way, I could have cheese eggs, bacon and grits with my Grandma in Memphis every morning, go for a mid-day swim in Antigua while listening to God, have lunch in Rome with perfect strangers and be home in time for dinner with my Husband in Harlem, NYC. I also run MissNaja.com- a blog dedicated to Redefining The Domestic Woman.