GRU graduation speaker shares life story

From a hungry child on the streets to graduating from Harvard University, Liz Murray can look with gratitude on a life celebrated in a movie and even to the drug-addicted parents who tried to raise her.

“You wouldn’t be who you are if not for them,” she said. “I don’t think I would be who I am if not for all of this.”

Murray, who was portrayed in the movie, Homeless to Harvard and wrote a memoir, Breaking Night, was the graduation speaker Friday for Georgia Regents University. While there to celebrate the graduates, Murray is also looking at the circle of family and friends who helped them get there.

“It tells you a bit of a story of the tapestry that is someone’s education,” she said, “because no one gets where they’re going alone.”

She knows that to be true in her own life. With parents who were loving but addicted to cocaine and heroin, she was often left to fend for herself as a child.

“I would go look for friends outside the home and I would go eat in their homes,” Murray said. “So I was resourceful in that way. We went through bouts where we just didn’t eat much, and you got really tired and really skinny.”

School was an occasional thing.

“I showed up sometimes,” Murray said. “I had to introduce myself to the kids in the class several times. ‘No I really am your classmate, I really do go here. What’s your name, teacher?’”

She was often on the streets and it wasn’t until after her mother died when she was 16 that she began to think seriously of trying to go to school, where classmates often teased her for dirty clothes and appearance.

“I don’t know that I felt necessarily that I did belong but I thought maybe I would try to be brave,” Murray said. She begged for change and used payphones to call alternative high schools she heard about on the street until she finally got into the newly opened Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan.

“I went in off the street and suddenly I’m looking around at this school and you see these kids that look pretty thug and they’re reading Shakespeare,” Murray said. She also found her voice there after nights when she thought about freezing to death on a bench and doubting anyone would notice.

“I went from feeling like that, which is essentially feeling like you don’t matter, to going to this community and realizing that if I spoke people stopped and listened,” Murray said.

She did so well she got a scholarship from The New York Times, was featured in the paper and also in a lengthy ABC News 20/20 segment that got Hollywood’s attention. It was at Harvard that Murray was able to reconcile with her father, now sober. She took care of him while she was taking classes and he died just before she graduated.

“He knew I was on a good road when he passed away,” Murray said. “He was also eight years sober when he died and we had a healed relationship.”

Just three weeks before he died, he gave her a birthday card with a note that she can recite from memory.

“Lizzie, I left my dreams behind a long time ago but I know now they are safe with you,” Murray said. There is a still a reminder of him in her 2½-year-old son.

“I see my father’s face in my son,” Murray said. “You can completely see that’s my father’s grandson. I wish I could introduce them, you know?”

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