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Author talks homelessness, education

By Staff | Oct 6, 2017

Chronicle photo by Jessica Sharpless New York Times Bestselling author Liz Murray speaks during Shepherd University’s Common Reading Program on Tuesday evening.

As New York Times Bestselling author Liz Murray took the stage for the Shepherd University Common Reading Program, it was difficult to see her as anything but successful and educated.

Murray looked well put together and poised, even with her self-pointed out mismatch shoes. Her life and the story she told gave a greater picture of her life – with much more perspective.

Murray was born into urban poverty in the Bronx. There she lived a childhood facing the realities of her parents’ drug use, near starvation and, eventually, being a homeless teenager. All of this before having a tragic experience which changed her life and got her to move forward. She eventually graduated from Harvard and wrote her book “Breaking Night: A memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My journey from Homeless to Harvard.”

Murray’s lecture gave Shepherd students, faculty and members of the community a look into the details of her amazing journey. Beginning her delivery with humor, talking about her early childhood waiting for monthly welfare checks with her family.

“I thought that money came from the mailbox when I was little,” she said.

While giving humor and love to her parents and her childhood, Murray painted a picture of living in a world where “survival becomes the highest aspiration.” A place where winter coats and having enough food become everyday questions, which often end in disappointment.

This environment impacted every piece of life and how she was treated by others, she said.

Teachers and other authorities often responded with pity or other strong emptions to Murray’s situation, giving her the feeling of something wrong with her.

“I think if you treat someone like they’re broken, they will feel broken,” Murray said.

Then, according to Murray, something even more unthinkable happened that would change her life, and her way of thinking. Her mother, who was already hospitalized due to having HIV, died.

Murray vividly recounted going to attend what little of a funeral her mother got in a nailed pinewood box, with black marker noting her name on it. In the aftermath, Murray said she decided to finish school and go somewhere in her life.

Murray’s journey began there and went through a high school in Manhattan, where a teacher took the time to motivate her. Eventually she earned the New York Times Scholarship to attend Harvard, an event that thrust her into national spotlight.

“When 20/20 got hold of my story, that was it. That’s how you know life got weird,” she said.

Murray’s experiences led her to later open a nonprofit and to give talks on her journey.

“I believe there are gifts in where we come from,” Murray said.

With all of her humor and tongue-in-check nature, Murray’s overarching message was simple: any behavior or human interaction can change a life.

“I believe no one knows what is really possible to do, until they are doing it,” Murray said, cautioning the audience to, “Beware of cynicism – none of us is an island.”