Jamilla Shabazz had woken up early, enough time to do her makeup, her hair and make a round of phone calls reminding friends and family to be at James Brown Arena at 11 a.m. sharp.
But as some canceled or said they couldn’t make it, her heart sank. When her close friend and godbrother both said they didn’t have rides downtown, she drove across town to pick them up, not able to imagine their faces not being there in the crowd.
Then the white flats she picked out last week didn’t look right, so she made a pitstop in Southgate Plaza for a new pair of high heels.
About 10:50 a.m., more than an hour after her Glenn Hills High School classmates began filing two-by-two backstage, Shabazz rushed in just before Pomp and Circumstance cued up.
The morning fell in line with a theme that had draped much of Shabazz’s life: despite the struggles that fell in her lap, Shabazz, 18, always found a way to make it.
“This was a goal I set for myself, and I was going to get it no matter what,” Shabazz said. “Dropping out was never an option. I had the mind frame to work hard and get through it.”
On Tuesday, the first day of Richmond County school system’s high school graduations, Shabazz received her diploma and crossed one life goal off the list.
It came after the odds were set against her: She was raised by a single mother who did not graduate high school. She changed schools three times in four years. Most devastating of all, during the summer going into her junior year, her mother died of a sudden brain
aneurysm, causing Shabazz and her three siblings to move from house to house, often separated, without a permanent place to call home.
“Your parents are the people who you could run to for anything,” Shabazz said. “When I didn’t have her, I had to run to myself.”
Shabazz moved from Long Island, N.Y., during her fifth-grade year with her mother and three siblings to Augusta, where she had several relatives and extended family.
The Augusta Chronicle profiled Shabazz in 2009 as she began her journey in high school as a student at-risk for dropping out. She began at T.W. Josey and switched to Academy of Richmond County during her freshman year. She changed again to Glenn Hills during 10th grade, where she remained and met guidance counselor Monique D. Sheppard, who Shabazz said helped her stay focused on graduation.
After her mother died in 2011, Shabazz lived with different friends until she moved in with Sheppard’s cousin late last year. She had some attendance problems her junior year after her mother’s death and some medical issues of her own. But for the most part, Shabazz said school was always a priority, even if it meant calling around for rides when she missed the bus before she had her own car.
Shabazz and her sister, Shynasia, also worked with mentoring program Teens in Action with Goals for support through the years. Founder Wendolyn Lacy, who watched from the audience as Shabazz walked across the stage, said the strength and independence in the teen still amazes her today.
“I am totally inspired by them graduating without a mother or a father,” Lacy said of the sisters. “It was just awesome. I think their story in itself will speak a lot to others who just only have one parent or no parents, that by being focused and striving they can do anything.”
To the amazement of her peers and teachers, Shabazz finished high school with mostly A’s and B’s and has been accepted to four colleges. She would like to attend Georgia Regents University to major in business administration but still has to begin the application process.
For now, Shabazz said she plans to get a full-time job while she figures out college and hopes to move into an apartment of her own with savings.
On Tuesday, she was just worried about savoring the moment. She snapped photos and spent time with friends and family who made a point to see the completion of her success story.
Outside James Brown Arena, she clutched the new white heels that pinched her feet all the way across the stage and exhaled.
“I feel like I made it,” Shabazz said. “I really do.”