If Astra Armstrong’s life were a play, the opening scene would show an elementary school playground in Southeast Washington in the middle of the night. There, a basketball hoop without a net would sit near a slide and a set of monkey bars.
The area would look empty, at first.
We would then notice movement near a covered nook, and there, we would see her, an 11-year-old girl curled up on the ground, trying to sleep.
Armstrong’s life, of course, is not a play. But the 21-year-old recent college graduate has learned to think in scenes and dialogue, and she hopes to one day use those skills to show the world where she came from. She also plans to use them to help kids who remain where she once was, living in an unstable home, searching for a safe place.
“I slept on that playground twice or three times a month,” Armstrong recalled when I spoke to her recently. At the time, she said, her mother was deep into drugs and dating a man who sold them. Armstrong said she would head to the playground when her mom was too high to take care of her. On those nights, she usually slept in her elementary school uniform, woke up and wore the same clothes to school.
“I didn’t have really anything,” she said. “I didn’t have clothes. I didn’t have shoes. I didn’t have parents.”
Right now, we are in the middle of graduation season. Across the country, young people are tossing caps in the air and listening to speeches about how the future belongs to them. This happens every year, but this time, it feels different.
This year, the national college admissions scandal has forced us to consider who deserves to walk across those stages — and who doesn’t.
Schools have already started booting students whose parents have been accused of buying their way in. Yale got rid of one. Stanford did, too. And on Wednesday, Georgetown University announced that it plans to expel two students.
That same day, Georgetown student Adam Semprevivo filed a lawsuit, seeking to block the university from imposing sanctions against him. He did this even though his father, who was accused of paying $400,000 so his son could get in as a tennis recruit, pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy.
I don’t know much about Semprevivo. He may be a smart young man. He may have worked hard in college these last three years. His 3.18 GPA seems to indicate that.
He may really believe he deserves that seat.
A court can decide his case. But here is why the scandal is meaningful and why if we let students connected to it remain in these colleges, it will especially hurt people like Armstrong.
It doesn’t matter whether those wealthy students knew their parents were paying big bucks to up their SAT scores or fabricate their athletic abilities, college admission should not be a gift that can be bought. And if we make exceptions for any of these students, we are saying that it is. We are saying that cheating is okay, sometimes.
We are also confirming what many poor people grow up believing: College isn’t for them.
“None of my family wanted me to go to college,” Armstrong said. “They felt it was a scam. It was a rip-off.”
Davie Yarborough, who was Armstrong’s English teacher for two years at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, recalled the first time they talked about the possibility of her going beyond high school.
“Ms. Yarborough, I’m not going to college,” she recalled Armstrong saying. Yarborough thought she was joking. When she realized she wasn’t, she said, they talked it through, going over costs and possible majors.
“A week later, she told me about an HBCU tour she wanted to go on,” Yarborough said, referring to historically black colleges.
The two grew close at Duke Ellington. Yarborough bought Armstrong food when she was hungry and gave her rides when she needed them. She helped her fill out scholarship applications, knowing she didn’t have anyone at home who would.
In 2012, at the end of her freshman year, Armstrong lost her mother. Armstrong said it was an overdose and she made it home to see her mom before the paramedics took her. Afterward, she went to live with her brother, his partner and their children in a one-bedroom apartment. There, she slept on the couch.
“She’s one of the most resilient people I’ve ever met,” Yarborough said. “I know she’s going to be big in some way. This child is going to do whatever she wants to do. When you look at where she was and you look at all she’s accomplished with so little resources, she’s made a lot with a little.”
While still in high school, Armstrong took a Greyhound bus by herself to visit Norfolk State University and decided that was the place for her. In her four years there, she wrote a play and saw it performed, traveled to South Africa for a theater internship and spent time in Costa Rica, teaching literacy.
Earlier this month, at the school’s graduation, she stood on the stage and gave a speech as the Student Government Association president.
“So much about the way I grew up suggests that I shouldn’t be here,” she said, pausing at times to wave away tears as she spoke about her upbringing. “I came to Norfolk State University with an open mind, empty pockets and no home to return to.”
After graduation, many of the students packed up and left the area. But she didn’t. She remains in a dorm on campus, with nowhere to live in the District and no savings to put toward an apartment in Atlanta, where in August she will start teaching elementary school while pursuing a master’s degree in education. People who know her or have heard about her have started sending donations to a GoFundMe page set up to help her make that transition. As of Friday, it had raised about $800 of its $4,000 target.
Armstrong said her ultimate goal is to teach juveniles in detention facilities and open a theater in Washington for children who come from circumstances similar to hers. She also dreams of becoming the next Tyler Perry, who was homeless and living out of his car before he became a performer, writer and producer.
Knowing Perry’s history, she said, often kept her going. It reminded her, she said, that her story didn’t have to end where it began.
“He started from a car,” she said. “I started from a playground.”