Study hall of fame – interview with homeless star student Camara Barrett – Interview
The young man pictured at right is: ABC
A. Eighteen years old
C. A star student
D. All of the above
When eighteen-year-old Camara Barrett found himself living on the streets, he took his dreams underground, studying for his exams in the quietest place he knew – the subway
Last year, as millions of high school Juniors across the country prepared for their SATs in their homes and classrooms, Camara Barrett was forced to make the subway trains between Brooklyn and Manhattan his study hall. Barrett, a Jamaican immigrant, had moved to New York one year earlier to live with his estranged mother – whom he hadn’t seen in nine years – her new husband, and his half brother. But just four days before his SATs, Barrett left his mother’s house and was living on the streets. Despite this extraordinary hardship, this past June, Barrett graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York, where he was student-body president and valedictorian of his class. And, perhaps more significantly, Barrett did well enough on his SATs to be accepted by several of the best schools in the country. This fall, Barrett enters Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., on a full scholarship. We spoke to him at the Independence Inn in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a homeless shelter for young men, where he’s been living for the past year.
WILLIAM GEORGIADES: What did you expect when you were sitting on the subway studying for your exams?
CAMARA BARRETT: I never thought I’d get all this attention. I didn’t want publicity or money – I just wanted a scholarship because I knew I couldn’t pay for college, and sitting on the subway for four days and three nights was the only way I knew how to do it.
WG: Were you holding down a job at the time?
CB: I was busing and waiting tables at a restaurant in Manhattan and I’d get off work at three or four in the morning and just ride for a couple hours on the train, do my homework, and study.
WG: Did you ever have any trouble on the subway?
CB: I’m a small guy, but nobody really hassled me. I had a couple of incidents where a bunch of punks came up to me, but I was like, “I’m supposed to be working. I’m just reading a book here.” Once I got a ticket – it was late, and I was shut out of the subway so I squeezed past the turnstile. [When the cops stopped me] I was mortified. I was like, “Things can’t get much worse. Now I’m in trouble with the law.” I was like, “I hope this won’t go on my record. I hope this won’t keep me out of college.”
WG: That thought must have been terrifying. Did you ever think you wouldn’t pass your exams?
CB: Failing would have meant losing out on all my ambitions, and I’d have ended up in the gutter somewhere, so I didn’t think about it too much because it was too scary.
WG: How did you end up on the street? What happened between you and your mother?
CB: My mother didn’t know a lot about me [when I moved here from Jamaica]. and my image of her was based on some childhood memory.
WG: Are you in touch with her?
CB: Depends on what you mean by “in touch.” No, I haven’t seen her in a while, but I’ve spoken with her on the phone several times.
WG: Is she proud of what you’ve accomplished?
CB: It’s hard to say – I hope so. After I leave and get some security in my life, I’ll try to straighten out what went wrong [between us]. Now that I know there is someplace else [for me] to go, I’d like to try.
WG: What will you be studying at Cornell?
CB: I’m enrolled in the premed program. I love the sciences and have done volunteer work at the East New York Diagnostic Treatment Center.
WG: Can you let yourself relax a little now that you’ve gotten into college?
CB: Cornell is definitely going to be the biggest hurdle I’ve had to face yet. I’ll be among “the best and the brightest,” you know? So I’m not sitting on my cards yet, not until it’s really over.
WG: And when will that be?
CS: I honestly don’t know. But I figure it will be over when I have the security that I haven’t had growing up . . . knowing that there is a place where I can go and always be welcome.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group