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Using Her Voice to Rise Above

Still on she came.

The rows of headstones at the cemetery next to West Side look like stone toes poking up from the snow. Half the basketball team is sick. On a Saturday morning when the Lady Rough Riders have an away game, the players straggle up to the school, some in ski masks to hold off the cold. The gym is warm and glowing. There is no sign of Felicia. When it's time to load up, Coach Thompson gives her orders. The bus pulls away from school.

Just as they are about to pass Bradley Court, Thompson yells for the driver to stop. Felicia is standing on the curb, holding her basketball gear.

For a citywide talent show, Felicia wants to sing about teenage life in Newark. "I'm just saying, who holds tomorrow?" she asks. "You are not promised even today. Bullets ain't got no names on them." (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Braving the Streets Her Way: Music has gotten Felicia Holt through the hardest moments of her life.
_____Live Discussion_____
Monday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull will be online to discuss her series on gays in America.
_____Gay in Real America_____
In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won (The Washington Post, Sep 26, 2004)
A Slow Journey From Isolation (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2004)
Braving the Streets Her Way (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 2004)
About This Series

With the Holt family's permission, Washington Post reporter Anne Hull began following Felicia after the stabbing death of her friend Sakia Gunn. The reporter spent hundreds of hours with Felicia and her friends as they struggled with the aftermath of violence, accompanying the girls to school, basketball games, family dinners and meanderings through the neighborhoods of Newark. The events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by the reporter unless otherwise noted.

Gunn's accused killer, Richard McCullough, 29, is scheduled to be tried in November in New Jersey's Essex County. He is charged with murder and bias intimidation.

"Fee!" one player shouts, as Felicia climbs into the bus with her uniform slung over her shoulder. "Hey, daddy, what, are you special?"

Felicia has a wicked cough but manages a smile. "I didn't say I was special."

The players make room, giving her a choice seat in the back. "Watch her," one of the younger players confides to another, "she'll play like she ain't even sick."

The bus cruises through the Bergen toll plaza as the team eats a breakfast of corn chips and sodas. Valencia wears a gold necklace that says "Becky" while the actual Becky rests her head in Valencia's lap. No one bats an eye, but not everyone is accepting. "My preacher will say that this is wrong," says a player named Artis. "My gay friends know what they are doing is wrong. I wouldn't say they are born that way."

Valencia pipes up. "So what's my excuse? My issue is, I never liked dudes."

Artis won't bend. "In the Bible, it doesn't say a woman and a woman!"

"Artis!" snaps a player named Ciara. All this Bible talk works her nerves.

Finally, the bus turns into the parking lot of Paramus High, an imposing campus with a great lawn. Felicia studies the building. "All these schools look alike," she says.

The players press to the windows. "They design them the same on purpose," Ciara says.

They watch as the snow falls, their faces and hoodies crowded up to the white light of winter. No one says anything until Felicia's singing voice breaks the silence.

Hand me the world

On a silver platter

And what good would it be?

Everyone knows the Alicia Keys ballad, and the bus turns into a mighty choir singing about the emptiness of money and power. Finally, they leave their snow globe, and as they walk into the sparkling new gym, they are greeted by hard rock and bleachers crowded with home-team parents and cheerleaders who've brought buttered bagels from home. With their half-gone bottles of Snapple and gusty coughs, the Rough Riders trounce the Spartans.

In the days that follow, Felicia begins to slip emotionally. Estranged from home, she tries to maintain a cheerful front at school. "Leave your drama at the door," is her motto. "It's all good." But the accumulation of anxiety is too much. She gets into a fight with a man downtown -- he had apparently disrespected Felicia's aunt -- and Felicia loses, getting slapped hard in the face. That night, she can't stop crying and goes to the medicine cabinet at a friend's house and swallows a handful of pills.

She is admitted into the adolescent psychiatric unit at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. She arrives by ambulance, strapped down in a chair. Her mother visits. Her father visits. Her aunt brings her new sneakers. The switchboard is jammed with messages from school friends. The outpouring surprises Felicia, who by day four at Beth Israel wants some hot wings and her own bed, and is tired of "doing all these little crazy-people activities." On the morning of her release, she dresses in a chocolate brown warm-up suit and asks her mom to drop her off at school. She receives a hero's welcome. "You had us scared, big head!" a friend shouts, throwing her arms around Felicia's neck.

Felicia holds court on the frozen sidewalk after school. "My doctor says I'm not supposed to put myself under stress," she says. But her doctor doesn't live near the corner store on Stuyvesant Avenue, where fresh graffiti spells the word "MURDERVILLE."

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