Yvonne Abraham

Brighton High to Harvard: She’s defying, altering labels

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 19, 2011

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Two labels Christina Ta would never have applied to herself: Poor, and Harvard type.

The poor part was always true, but she didn’t see it. The Harvard part? She didn’t see that, either — until recently.

More than a river stands between kids from Brighton High and the Yard. Her friends at the exam schools, which send kids to Harvard all the time, thought of Brighton High as the public school you transferred to if the Latins and the O’Bryant were too tough.

“My principal always says, people don’t expect much from an urban high school,’’ Ta said. “I can’t say we have the best reputation.’’

But Brighton High is better than people think, she says. There’s a great debate team, for example, though nobody ever hears about it. And a student went from Brighton to Harvard when Ta was a freshman.

Ta thrived at Brighton, though after a few minutes with the 18-year-old, you get the sense she would have thrived anywhere.

She had to.

Her parents left the pig farms of Dong Nai, Vietnam, in the 1980s, to give their kids a chance at something more. Life was better here, but it was never easy: Ta’s father grew ill. Her mother had a stroke when she was carrying Ta and never fully recovered. Neither could work, so they supported their six kids on disability payments.

Ta grew up in subsidized housing, in neighborhoods where her mother didn’t like to let her outside. She and her sisters weren’t allowed to take part in after-school activities in elementary and middle school. They were never out at night.

“She’s not a Tiger mom or anything,’’ Ta said. She was just scared.

“We had a traditional upbringing, and our neighborhoods weren’t the safest,’’ Ta said, sitting in her Dorchester Avenue living room Friday evening, as a fan whirred and a siren blared by. The always-partying tenants upstairs had the music turned up so loudly that you wondered how Ta could ever hear herself think, let alone spend hours over AP calculus and Margaret Atwood night after night.

But her mother and father worked hard building a wall around their kids. For Ta, the neighborhood never got in.

“My mother only had a grade school education,’’ Ta said. “She had to provide so much with so little. We saw them struggling to take care of us, and we knew education would give us higher-paying jobs.’’

It’s no coincidence that, year after year, so many Boston High School valedictorians are the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. Just getting into this country, especially from places that are poorer and troubled, requires the kind of resiliency that shoots kids into the stratosphere. And every day, their parents confront them with potent examples of guts and self-sacrifice.

“If your family is from another country, you always think, where would you be if they’d stayed there?’’ Ta said. “It’s a responsibility you feel. I see their struggle, and I’m grateful, and I don’t want to have to struggle like them.’’

So she lived her parents’ lessons and threw herself into her schoolwork.

“Our days were always, you get up and you go to school,’’ Ta said. “We were just kids — we lived our lives. It didn’t occur to us that we lived in poverty.’’

Not that Ta had that much time to think about it on her way to a 4.97 GPA (She took six AP courses in her last two years, which put her GPA over 4.0.)

And then, last summer, her father died — two months after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. But she remained determined not to veer off her path.

“I know it was for the best,’’ she said. “I couldn’t let it overtake me.’’

Whatever space her studies left she filled with other things: swimming, marching for gay marriage, volunteering with a community theater in Brighton.

She applied to 10 colleges. At first, Harvard wasn’t one of them.

“You know you’re probably not going to get into Harvard,’’ she said. “Harvard takes kids who have done amazing things. I didn’t think that was me.’’ A counselor persuaded her to add them to her list at the last minute.

So now Christina Ta, Brighton High valedictorian, is getting used to that Harvard label.

And the other one, which came up during a conversation in chemistry class a few weeks ago. Her friends, having entered the stage of life where anxiety about getting into college yields to anxiety about paying for it, were commiserating, worrying about all the debt they faced.

“Christina is getting a full ride because she’s poor,’’ one of her friends said, not unkindly, but-matter-of-factly.

Ta wasn’t offended. But she was shocked.

“When I think of poor, I think of people living on the streets,’’ Ta said. She had so much compared with them.

Somehow, she had made it through her entire childhood without ever feeling poor.

Of all the gifts Ta’s parents gave her, this was the greatest.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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