There’s a saying at Marian Middle School that if there’s something going on with a Marian girl, you’ll have to contend not just with her parents, but with Ms. Grimes.
“I just want the best for them,” says School President Mary Elizabeth Grimes. “I want them to have a bright future ahead of them, and to make a tremendous impact in the world.”
There is no doubt that these young women will make an impact on the world, thanks in part to Grimes and the Marian community. Marian Middle School was founded in 1999 by seven religious communities that came together with the mission of breaking the cycle of poverty, by providing excellent education and support for girls with lots of potential but limited means. What began with just 14 students in a borrowed building has expanded to Marian’s home today in Tower Grove South.
“We are now in a facility that is paid for and being upgraded, and we go from fifth grade to eighth grade. We continue to stay with our girls through high school and college and help them get their first job,” says Grimes. “That dream, with a mission to break the cycle of poverty, has been expanded to the breadth of a trajectory from fifth grade all the way to what we call career success.”
One of the goals of a Marian education is to make sure that the students are well-versed in both the history of women in the United States, and the women making history now, whom they can look to as guides for their own goals and aspirations.
“What you see does leave some image and inspiration as to who you become,” says Grimes. Witnessing the first woman elected to the second-highest office in the U.S. government fills Grimes with pride and hope — especially since Vice President Kamala Harris is a woman of color.
“I took a moment to just reflect on what it meant in history, and I sent a note to the Marian students, so that they could reflect on it as well,” says Grimes, “because clearly in their generation, this is someone who they can look to, for what is possible for them.”
In addition to reflecting on this moment in history, Grimes wanted the students to appreciate all the women who paved the way for Vice President Harris.
“There are other women that I wanted them to be aware of, if they hadn’t heard about them, who made this moment possible. Consider the suffragists and that movement, there were African-American women who were a part of that movement very early on; Sojourner Truth spoke at one of their conventions,” says Grimes. “Barbara Jordan was the first African-American senator. Shirley Chisholm was not only a Congresswoman, but also the first African-American woman to run for president. These are the women that have made it possible, whose shoulders all of us stand on, to look to, to continue to be proud and hopeful.”
For Marian alumna Naya Tandy, seeing Vice President Harris in her new role is especially meaningful. Tandy is currently studying law at Howard University, the historically Black university that is also the alma mater of the vice president.
“Being an aspiring lawyer, and being a Black woman, you don’t really see a lot of representation,” says Tandy. “You don’t really see a lot of Black women who are in politics, or who look like you, who are in the courtroom.” Tandy sees Harris’ election to the office as a win not just for Harris personally, but for all women of color.
“To see Kamala in office, it does feel like a victory for all,” says Tandy. “I still believe there’s so much more work to do, but just to see her in such a high position in our country, and to be a Black woman — it’s amazing.”
Micayia Jett, 7th grade Marian student, recalls that in her classes “American Protest Literature” and “Women in History,” she was taught about important people and events often left out of typical textbooks. “We learned about women, not only people like Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks or Ruby Bridges,” says Jett, “but we learned about people who not everybody knows about.” Jett has been inspired by the role models throughout history that she’s learned of in her studies, and now adds Vice President Harris to that list.
“It just made me feel like, okay, so if I wanted to become a president or a vice president, that I could,” says Jett. “And it kind of opened the door just for me and other women of color or just women in general.”
Marian Middle School alumna and Nerinx Hall High School senior Lonjay Hemphill thinks about how seeing Vice President Harris take office will inspire the younger generation for whom the first vice president that they learn about of will be a woman of color. She also thinks of her sister.
“She’s 11 years old, and she has these big dreams, like she wants to be the president someday. She knows the rules, that you have to be 35. She’s been saying this since she was, like, seven,” Hemphill says, smiling. “And I think with Kamala Harris being in office now, I think that’s just boosting her confidence more. Now she’s like, ‘if she can do it, I can do it.’ And I really hope she does become president one day.“
Hemphill has dreams of her own that Marian Middle School is helping her realize, even though it’s been four years since she graduated. She plans to be a child psychologist, and Marian’s graduate program has helped her with college visits and scholarships to help make that happen. The wrap-around model of support that Marian provides for its alumna assists with books, uniforms, financial assistance and more. Hemphill recalls that the above-and-beyond support has always been there for her as a Marian student, especially in the last two weeks of her eighth-grade year when her family experienced a house fire. The Marian community stepped up — from Principal Walker taking her shopping for hygiene products, to classmates donating clothes, to teachers helping her prepare for exams even though her books were burned in the fire.
“I still got through those exams with As,” Hemphill grins. “I was fine. I realized that a bunch of materialistic stuff wasn’t that important. And I had a lot of people that helped me get through the last two weeks.”
Dyawna Gamble credits the Marian community with helping her family through tumultuous times as well. “Marian has gotten me through a lot,” says Gamble. “They helped me through all of our transitioning when we were homeless, and just with a lot of that, they supported us through. They have supported us through everything and they still do.” Despite having dealt with medical issues, hospital stays and COVID-19 in the past year, Gamble remains positive and has even launched her own business, a press-on nail company called DeZiner Nails STL. Her entrepreneurial spirit has been inspired by her mother (a local filmmaker, Jana Gamble), family friend and newly elected Congresswoman Cori Bush, and Vice President Harris.
“Because she did, I know I can aspire to be anything I want to be,” says Gamble. “Seeing Kamala lead as a Black woman makes me feel empowered.”
What is A Marian Girl?
Grimes acknowledges that like Hemphill and Gamble, many Marian Middle School students face difficulties in their path to success. “These are young women who truly are heroes to me, because they have to overcome tremendous obstacles to do the things that they do. Sometimes I am filled with tears when I see some of the things that they do and accomplish,” says Grimes, “because I know the backstory, I know about the food insecurity, I know about the trauma through gun violence or abuse, I know about homelessness, and so, these are all of the things that they have to endure, but also overcome, because they’re in an environment that is helping to empower them, that sees them and that values them. That’s what a Marian girl is.”
Grimes hopes that Vice President Harris, along with President Joe Biden, will be a unifying force for the country. She paraphrases a line from the play Hamilton in her directive to the vice president: “Kamala Harris: history, and Marian girls, have their eyes on you. And we know that you will represent our country well, we know that you represent women well, we know that you will represent people of color well.”
“What I want her to know about Marian girls is that she has made a path for them to follow.”
If she could speak with Vice President Harris, Jett would say: “Thank you for opening the door for other kids like me.”