“Who is Ebony Watkins?”
“She’s that girl with the shaved head.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay.” I’ve seen the young woman Gabe is talking about. She’s a high school student with Iowa Big, which is located in Vault, the co-working space Flow Media operates out of. I didn’t know her name before, but she’s hard to miss. Strikingly beautiful, great smile, a good sense of style, and yeah, she’s got a shaved head.
“Troy says she’s got an interesting story. Might be good for Corridor Characters.” Gabe gives me a few sentences of background, enough to make me nervous about the idea, but also curious.
The next time I see Ebony, I introduce myself, tell her about Corridor Characters, and ask her if she’s up for an interview. She’s hesitant but agrees.
A couple days later, we meet at a coffee shop and find a quiet table in the back where we can sit and talk while Ebony eats her egg sandwich. I try to make these conversations as comfortable as possible, but this one is tough. There’s just no way to make it easy when her life story includes so much pain.
Take the episode of her shaved head: something you might expect to be about nothing more than a teenage whim.
So, what’s with the shaved head?
When I had hair, I had to get it permed all the time, or “relaxed” straight. And my grandma would always do it, because she was like, “Well, I know how to do it, and no one else knows how to do it, so I’m gonna do it.” But the only problem was when she did it, my head would burn like crazy. That stuff, it hurts. It feels like fire on your head. And so I had to do that like every couple months. That was just so much pain, and it was a lot of work to maintain.
I got to this point where I’m like, “Screw it. I don’t care about you guys. I’m just going to shave it off.” But I thought, I should probably respect them and be nice. So I told my dad, “Hey, I wanna get my head shaved, so can you do it tomorrow?”
He said, “Let me think about that.” And that’s it. So the next day I had someone else shave my head.
How did they react?
It was pretty bad. When my dad finally got home from work, he came into my room to talk to me about something, and he walked in and he looked at me and then he did this turn and then walked straight out. He came back hours later and he started yelling at me. “You shouldn’t have done this. People are going to be mean to you and they’re going to call you names. [It went on for a while] and somehow he brought my mom into it. But the entire time he couldn’t even look at me.
As she speaks, Ebony rips pieces from the croissant on her egg sandwich into smaller and smaller bits. By the end of this story she is in tears.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it was just the hair, just her dad yelling at her like most dads do from time to time. But then he had to bring Ebony’s mom into it, the woman she hadn’t lived with for more than ten years.
It shouldn’t have had anything to do with her mother.
But of course, in a way, everything came back to her eventually. Strangely, Ebony has no memories of her life before one watershed moment when she was seven years old. That was the day her mother overdosed on methamphetamines. She didn’t die from the OD, but she did lose custody of her three daughters. Ebony’s sisters had a different father than her. She was separated from them and sent to live with her own father.
Actually, she first went to live with her grandparents, but then her dad moved in too. Her great-grandparents and some cousins were also in the house.
“I feel like black people have this stereotype of families being loud, and happy, and loud, [sic] and that’s totally what it was.”
It was also chaotic.
The family moved a lot, Ebony says. “I was actually sitting down one day for scholarship stuff, trying to figure out all the times I’ve moved. I’ve moved over twenty times.” Ebony is eighteen years old. “It was hard,” she continues, “because some of those places I don’t remember. I know that we moved from one house to another house because something happened, but I can’t remember the spot in between. I know there was a spot in between, but it’s kind of frustrating.”
The constant instability made it difficult to form any kind of lasting friendships. And when she did make friends, it felt impossible to bring them to her home. Alcohol abuse was “a big issue”.
Ebony describes one good friend she made and the problem of having her over. “She would always come over at the wrong times, when my grandparents were not themselves. She ended up finding out about a lot of things I didn’t want her to find out about. It’s just embarrassing to have your grandparents drinking and drunk and yelling at each other when she was over. And then her coming to our new apartment, and I was super excited because it’s actually kind of nice, but then they’re doing it again, and my dad’s there and he’s doing the same thing.”
“She’s one of those people who lights up every room she walks into.”
The way she describes her childhood and home life, it seems Ebony has every reason to be angry, unstable, and antisocial. And yet, when I ask a fellow student about Ebony, she tells me, “Ebony is an amazing person. She’s one of those people who lights up every room she walks into.”
Likewise, in spite of so many factors stacking the odds against success, Ebony is also a strong student (she graduated high school a semester early this year) and a stand-out musician. She played first chair violin in the Washington orchestra.
I ask her how this happened.
“I guess my first motivation–I don’t know–I was always trying to get good grades, trying to be the best student ever, because if I was the best student ever, then maybe my mom would get her stuff together and come get me, and we’d go somewhere else. And then I realized that wasn’t gonna happen.”
Eventually that first motivation–to be rescued by her mother–changed into a determination to forge her own path. “I was scared to be like my family,” she says. “I don’t want to be anything like them.”
In sixth grade, Ebony was introduced to the violin, and she began to pour herself into music.
“I like music because there are no words. You can feel a whole lot of emotion through something that you don’t even have to really understand. I love working with other musicians and getting to see their strengths and what they can improve on. Just the whole collaborating thing makes me really happy.”
She tells me about her first teaching experience. “There was one day when my orchestra teacher couldn’t come to school. She was sick and couldn’t find a substitute, so she says, ‘Can you teach class today?’ So I did, and it was kinda rough, but it was pretty fun!”
Her achievements in school continued to earn Ebony recognition from her peers and teachers. But there’s never really anything that can replace the love and attention a parent should give. At the time of our interview, the last Ebony had heard from her mother was when she was evading arrest for parole violations. More than once her mom has asked to borrow Ebony’s debit card to get a hotel room because she didn’t have a place to live. Her father and his family provided shelter and some material necessities, but not a lot of care.
“I would do something good, and no one would really care. Or maybe something bad would happen, and still no one would care.” For example, “Every orchestra concert I have is always really important to me even if I feel like I’m gonna blow it or whatever. It’s really important either way. And there were just times when I would have an orchestra concert and my dad would come and and he’d be sitting in back–and I’d be first chair–and he would put on his headphones and fall asleep. I mean, it’s just a concert. You could come and enjoy it. Those little things I just stopped inviting people to.”
It’s hard to maintain the calm presence of an interviewer as I listen to stories like this.
I feel myself getting angry. Throughout the interview, the pain Ebony has felt in her life is so palpably evident. It calls to mind other suffering, other wrongs, other injustices and messed up situations that saturate our world.
When I ask Ebony how she deals with it, her response is sobering. “I’m not very good at dealing with things.” She laughs. “I tend to bottle everything up, and then one day I explode. I used to have breakdowns all the time. I mean, I still have them. I get to a point where I just can’t talk. I’m crying nonstop. It feels like I have to tear my skin apart. I’m like that for hours. And then eventually I don’t feel anything anymore.”
When I hear this, the anger morphs into compassion, a protective concern. And from what Ebony tells me, this is a common response among teachers and other adults in her life. They want to take care of her, to befriend her, to shelter her and provide for her. They want to make up to her some the things she seems to be missing at home. They also see her hard work, her determination to be a positive person, and they respond by giving her special treatment she doesn’t feel like she deserves.
The situation causes conflicting feelings for Ebony. On the one hand, she wants to feel grateful for the people who have gone out of their way to help her in various ways. On the other hand, she hates feeling like everyone else’s special case.
Mostly, Ebony wants to find some measure of peace in her life where she can be left alone to do her thing. She wants to feel normal.
The problem is, she’s not normal. She’s outstanding. She’s strong and intelligent and caring and has overcome experiences in her life that most of her peers–thankfully–will never have to face. Her history, her abilities, and her grit have shaped her into a person that others will always treat as special, because she is, well…special.
But peace, yes. I do hope Ebony can find peace. From what I can tell, as much as she struggles with negative feelings, she is on a promising path. She’s moved out of her home and now lives with one of her teachers from the Iowa Big School, a program that she says has become like a little family to her. If all goes as planned she will start her college career this fall studying music education.
Long term, her dream is to run her own music school, accessible to “everyone,” she says. “I mean everyone–kids and adults. I’m going to be a music teacher, and I hope to have a bunch of really awesome people in my space that help me do really awesome things.”
The thought I’m left with at the end of our conversation: God, I hope that happens.
Story by Courtney Ball. Photos by Gabe Erickson