Cierra Lee, 18, and acting like she's 20 years older, is one of the top students in Hamilton County, graduating Saturday from Howard School of Academics and Technology with a 3.12 GPA and the early résumé of someone going far in life.
College-level courses in math and U.S. history. The track team (4 x 100, 4 x 200, running long jump and discus). Varsity cheerleader. Winner of five college scholarships.
Prom queen. The respect of teachers and teenagers. A desire to study criminal justice. A weekend job, perfect attendance at a Saturday tutoring clinic, and an ACT score probably higher than yours and mine.
"She is outspoken and stands firm on issues of right and wrong," said Bill Abel, her advanced placement calculus teacher.
All of it makes me want to say one thing to her.
Happy Mother's Day, Cierra.
"I'm willing to do anything for him," she said.
She's talking about Jaiden, her son, who will celebrate his first birthday this July. If you read anything in this column, read this: Cierra Lee's life has been hard. So hard it makes bad news look good.
"She's overcome obstacles, trials and tribulations," said Howard Principal Paul Smith. "At home, in her neighborhood, at school."
But she's a fighter. Survivor. A mother. It's as if she has some magnetic pole in her heart, responding to some faraway force that keeps pulling her off the street when life knocks her down.
"The world out here is too rough," she said. "But there is nothing I can't overcome."
Each morning, Cierra wakes up at that mama-early-time, when mothers across Chattanooga yawn and start their impossibly long list of responsibilities, unfolding before them like a scroll written fresh each day.
A bottle and clean diaper for Jaiden. Finishing homework if she didn't the night before. Helping her sisters -- twins -- get ready for the day. Checking in on her grandmother and mother. All six of them share a too-small apartment.
School by 8:45 a.m. Practice -- cheerleading and track -- in the afternoons. Then home, to fix dinner, start homework, love on Jaiden. On weekends -- after ACT classes -- she picks up trash, wipes windows and cleans bathrooms to earn extra money.
She's a mother-student-athlete. A (Hustlin') tiger mom.
"That's why I'm going to college, so he [Jaiden] can have a house to come up in, because I've never had that," she said.
Her current neighborhood has all the right mix of badness.
"The street," said Smith.
Smith has known Cierra since she was a seventh-grader in his Orchard Knob Middle School classroom. Offered the principal job at Howard, Smith had one request -- he wanted Cierra to be a student there.
"I believe in her," he said.
"I love him," she said. "He was very hurt when I got pregnant. He was about to cry. He expected more out of me, but I let him know a baby is not going to stop me."
Trust her. Ask Gerald and Diane Lesley Mason, owners of Kandy Kastle Child Development Center, who gave Cierra a four-year scholarship. Ask Donna Taheri, the director of Howard's Safe Journey, a program for teen moms and dads. Ask Smith.
"If she can get out of her environment, she will make a wonderful cover story one day on somebody's magazine," he said.
She'll have to fight the ghosts of her past, as the violent residue of her environment can linger. Cierra -- like all of us -- is not perfect.
This fall, Cierra's going to Tennessee State University, where Smith -- who paid for her college application -- predicts she will meet "upwardly mobile African-Americans just as determined as she is." Jaiden will live with her once she gets settled.
"I want to teach him to build a staircase because I'm building a staircase of my own," she said. "He can succeed and he can look up to me and see my steps, and what I want to be in life."
Indeed. Happy Mother's Day Cierra.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...