When Dasani Decided to Leave the House.
Pennsylvania is a state she’s known all her life. People come here to be free, and here is the place they go. Chanel Sykes fled her crack-addicted father as a child by taking a bus from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh. Dasani, now 13, will attend a residential school in rural Hershey, Pennsylvania, that aims to rescue children from impoverishment.
To gain a better education, Dasani stated in her essay that she wished to attend the Milton Hershey school. She was looking forward to being “apart from my family for a short while,” but she knew she’d get to see them again around the holidays, so she was content.
There was not a single one of Dasani’s seven siblings who had ever ventured outside of their house before. Throughout their time as street kids, living in New York City shelters with their mother Chanel and her husband Supreme, they had remained close. When they finally found a place to call home in Staten Island’s North Shore in October 2014, it was in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence and evictions. On the 26th of January of the following year, Dasani was getting ready to head to Hershey for the first time.
Her mother told Baby Lee-Lee that morning, “You know Sani’s leaving, right?” ‘No, no, no, no,” the toddler mumbled as she pressed her tiny nose against Dasani’s face. She then popped a piece of Bazooka bubble gum into Dasani’s eye and stabbed him in the face.
‘She don’t understand,’ Dasani said. “Yet.”
Even Dasani was naive about the ramifications of her leaving. She had learned to change diapers by the time she was in kindergarten, having spent her difficult childhood ensuring the well-being of her younger siblings. Her “full blood” sister, Avianna, their four half siblings, Maya, Hada, Papa and Lee-Lee, and two stepsiblings, Khaliq and Nana, all ranged in age from 2 to 12, making her a parent figure to them all.
Dasani told me that family was really important to her. She had no idea what life would have been like without them.
She pretended to be watching “Peg + Cat” for the sake of avoiding saying goodbye to Lee-Lee and slipped away before the child noticed. In addition to the photos of her family, she had a bottle of perfume, and an unassuming black purse in which she stashed several coins. Supreme, Dasani’s 37-year-old stepfather, was standing in the snow on the porch. He squeezed Dasani’s neck tightly and muttered, “I love you,” something he’d never spoken before. Then he wept as he watched her go away.
He whispered, “I’m envious as hell,” before walking away. “I’d do it all over again if I could. Gosh, I’d want to go back to school. “In order to attend college.”
When Route 78 ends in Hershey, Dasani observes as a country road winds across large cornfields. Chanel, who had just turned 37, sat next to me in the driver’s seat. Avianna and Nana, Dasani’s two older sisters, have joined her on the trip. Their eyes are drawn to the skyline of nearby farms and grain silos as they drive by. Dasani searches the horizon with her squint and only sees hills. She screams like a country child when she hears the cows, as if city vermin had alarmed her.
Avianna had an expression of wonder on her face. She and Dasani, who were born 11 months apart, call each other “twins.” There are only a handful of people in the world with names like their mother, Chanel, which conjure images of expensive substances sold in bottles. They had the same bed, dresser, and mattress for many years.