This is Josephine Noble’s story.
She was the fifth of seven children, born to a single mother on welfare in the Bronx, New York. Her father was abusive – “he abused drugs, he abused my mother” – he was an infrequent presence at home, and when Josephine was nine, he died of what the family suspected was AIDS.
Josephine was quiet. Josephine was smart. When she was in 5th grade, a program called Prep For Prep, which helped prepare minority students for private school, noticed her.
For two summers and a year, Josephine took extra classes in Manhattan, twice a week, in addition to her regular public school in the Bronx. The program was hard; she thought about quitting after the first summer.
“But they kept calling. They would visit with my mom, and visit with me, and they would say, you need to do this, we can see this being really good for you.”
In seventh grade, she was accepted to Brearley, the elite private girls’ school in Manhattan.
“I fell in love with Brearley. I knew I was different, but I didn’t feel I was less than anyone else. One of the things I remember is that I couldn’t tell anyone apart, because to me everyone looked the same – everyone had long brown hair and was white. But after a while I got to see each person as an individual.”
Her classmates asked about Salt ‘n’ Pepa, and other rappers whose pictures she’d pasted onto her notebook. They asked about her hair, or about life in her neighborhood. “But I wasn’t offended,” Josephine says. “I just thought, why would they know? And there weren’t issues with talking, which was good. In my family I was considered to ‘talk white,’ and I had always been teased about that. No one at Brearley thought I spoke slang or had a Bronx accent or anything like that.”
Josephine’s mother began to get sick around this time. A strong-willed woman, the unifying force in the family, she hid her illness from her children and continued to work as a teacher’s assistant in a day-care center. She took classes and got her associate’s degree. But over the course of two years, the HIV symptoms grew worse.
“Eventually it got to the point where I would massage her temples every night, because it hurt so much; or I would get up in the nighttime – I slept with her in the living room when she got really sick – and I had to walk her to the bathroom because she was so frail. And she had dementia one evening, and it was really scary, because she didn’t recognize us as her children. And we said, you know, ‘Mommy, it’s us, it’s JoJo, it’s Eli,’ and she said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I want to go home. Please take me home.’ So that was when I knew that she was really gone.”
She died in 1992. Josephine was 13.
After their mother’s death, Josephine and four of her siblings moved from the Bronx to Brooklyn, to live with an older brother. “Bed-Sty,” Bedford-Stuyvesant, was a predominantly black, lower-income neighborhood, different in many ways from the chiefly Dominican neighborhood Josephine had grown up in.
“I hated it. I didn’t feel safe at all. There had been drugs in the Bronx, but I just felt like it was much more overt here. And there were many more homeless people just standing about.”
She continued to commute to Brearley, loving her “friendly peers, brilliant teachers, and its safe, warm environment.” She became president of the student government and played on the varsity volleyball team. When she was featured on the news show “48 Hours,” a viewer was so inspired he started a college fund for Josephine. In 1995, Josephine came to Harvard.
What could go wrong? She was the girl who’d made good. Not many friends at Harvard knew about her life back home. “I didn’t want to be stigmatized, I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. That was something that was separate, and this was something that was new, and I didn’t want the two to overlap.
“Eventually it sort of caught up with me.”
During her freshman year, one of her sisters was homeless. Another had tried to commit suicide. “I felt terribly guilty, I can’t even express it. I just felt like, I should not be the one who’s here, so comfortable. I also felt like I had abandoned my little brother and sister, I felt like their lives would be totally different if I had been there.”
Her bouts with depression had started in high school. Now they came in earnest. She stopped going to classes. She locked herself in the bathroom for hours at a time, so no one could speak to her. She slept. At the end of her junior year, she was asked to take a leave of absence, because she was doing so poorly academically.
Back in New York, she moved in with an old boyfriend’s brother, who needed a roommate. She worked at a foundation that funded neuroscience research. She and her old boyfriend, another Prep For Prep graduate with whom she’d remained close when he went to Columbia University and she to Harvard, renewed their ties.
When she learned she was pregnant, things turned sour between them. “We had a very, very bad time.” But she knew she was going to have the baby. And she knew she was going to return to Harvard.
On July 31, 1999, her daughter Lucia was born. Josephine and the baby lived with Lucia’s father for six months.
In January 2000, Josephine came back to Harvard. She and Lucia moved into an off-campus apartment.
Josephine had friends at Harvard, and was still in touch with her mentors from Prep for Prep, and people from Brearley. “The masters of my House, the House administrators, the financial aid officers – everyone sort of gathered together with me to help me find all the resources that I needed.”
Still, it was hard-taking Lucia to daycare every day, walking up and down Memorial Drive because cabs were expensive. Working a work-study job, going to classes. Having troubles with Lucia’s father.
“I was getting A’s in my classes at this time, because that was the only thing that made sense to me – going to class, writing papers, that was no problem. But everything else was a mess.” And she was depressed again.
At her lowest point, she became suicidal. “That’s when it started to occur to me, that I couldn’t let this consume me.” She began seeing a counselor regularly and taking medication for her depression. She and her family started communicating more.
“It’s been a long road. Sometimes I can’t believe the difference between where I am now and where I was last year.” Josephine finished her senior thesis in the sociology department this spring, interviewing African-American students at Harvard about their experiences living in predominantly white environments. She’s been accepted to law school and plans to start a nonprofit dedicated to helping underprivileged youth and their families. This June, her brothers and sisters are coming to Harvard to see her graduate.
“I know that they feel, you know, Jo Jo has done it, she’s going to get her degree and go to law school, she’s going to be someone who’s going to make it.
“I don’t ever want someone to say that I’m a sellout, or that I haven’t made a difference. I definitely want to be someone who’s known in her community for coming back to the community and giving back to the community, even though she has her own independent success.”