Salena Sullivan, who rose from the projects of Hurt Park in Roanoke to the hallowed wrought-iron gates of Harvard University, could not believe her good luck.
It was June 2012 and, with her golden ticket in hand — her brand-new Harvard diploma — she’d just landed a coveted Teach For America job in rural Mississippi. Only one in five Harvard applicants is hired for TFA and, in the general applicant pool, the odds are only one in 10.
The best news of all: That clunker of a car Salena bought for $200 and had been driving since her days at William Fleming High School, the 1989 Chevy Cavalier that is part primer-colored, part rust and part Windex blue?
It actually made it all the way to the poverty-soaked cotton and cane fields of Pointe Coupee Parish, La., where Salena, 22, was determined to return a little of what she’d learned in Roanoke and at Harvard. She would teach middle school English and social studies to some of the most at-risk kids in the nation.
But the summer of 2012 would become the most challenging in the young woman’s life. For the first time, the high-school valedictorian who danced her way into the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company, crewed with a rowing team on the Charles River and lived just above the dorm room once occupied by John F. Kennedy, had an altogether new lesson to learn:
The Library’s Child, everyone called her — including Tanya Sullivan, the independent single mom who raised her. At 6 weeks old, Salena took her first outing to the Gainsboro branch of the Roanoke City Library, where Tanya had once worked as a teen page.
The girl followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a page under the tutelage of family mentor and “auntie” Carla Lewis, who ran the stacks at Gainsboro for 36 years before retiring in 2009. Salena was working at that same wooden checkout counter that afternoon in late 2008 when she learned she’d been accepted to Harvard, with an almost-full ride.
Old men put down the newspapers they were reading and wept at her news. Carla Lewis and a host of other regulars screamed. They’d raised money for Salena’s high school field trip to France and advised her mother when she bought her first house, and they’d help Salena figure out college, too.
Not that Salena wasn’t capable of making her own way. At Harvard, where she majored in history, she worked at the Widener Library, the storied 10-floor repository containing 5 million titles — including a first edition copy of a 15th-century Gutenberg Bible.
She got used to living in such rarefied air, and she did not let it intimidate her. In her suite lived the daughter of foreign diplomats, a student who seemed to be out of the country as often as she was on campus. Some friends thought nothing of spending $70 on a single meal out.
“My freshman year, my roommate’s parents came and did all her laundry every two weeks,” she recalled.
Salena’s biggest splurge? She bought a pair of $65 snow boots for her first Cambridge winter and kept them all four years. When her mom took the train to visit her in Cambridge, she bunked in Salena’s twin bed next to her, their heads to feet.
She loved living among the brainiacs at Harvard, where she adapted to the notion of not being the brightest in the class and stopped driving herself so hard. She earned a 3.3 grade-point average and made a mess of friends.
‘Come home, Salena’
When Salena learned she’d gotten the TFA job in February of her senior year, her plans were laid out: She would teach two years, then go to graduate school for her master’s in library science, using the $10,000 bonus that TFA’ers get for completing the program.
“I wanted to do something with my history major, and so teaching in a low-income, high-need community, like the one I’d come from, I thought, I’ll pay it a little bit forward,” she said.
But Salena found herself ill-equipped to handle the discipline problems and the ingrained hopelessness that seemed to plague the rural school system. Forget crewing on the Charles; some of these kids lived 10 miles away from the Mississippi River and had never laid eyes on it. Many were children of undocumented farm workers who couldn’t write or speak English.
“It was the first time I’ve done something I was terrible at,” she said.
Some students hated her, she said, recalling the “BICTH” she found scrawled by her name on a classroom wall. The few successes she did have usually involved turning kids on to her first love: books.
She had panic attacks in the midst of 18-hour workdays. She phoned her mom daily in tears. She developed a temporary nerve condition called Bell’s palsy and walked around for days unable to move one side of her face.
She sent her mom a photo of herself — slouched face and furrowed brow — and, as Tanya Sullivan recalls it, “That was it.”
She told her daughter: “I don’t care what they say or how much they’re trying to put a guilt trip on you, you’re no good to the kids if you’re feeling that bad.
“Come home, Salena.”
After three months in Louisiana, Salena packed up the rusted Cavalier and headed back to her mom’s suburban ranch in Northwest Roanoke, an additional $2,000-plus in debt. She had to reimburse the program for moving and training expenses. (She owes another $8,000 in college loans.)
The Cavalier made it as far as northern Alabama before it limped into a radiator shop.
Back home in October 2012, she applied for 25 jobs and got called for three interviews. The only work she could nab after three months was manning collections in a Wells Fargo call center.
“I was cussed out daily,” she said. “But it was better than teaching.”
There were more than a few moments when it occurred to her: I went to Harvard for this?
‘A born librarian’
When Roanoke library director Sheila Umberger advertised for the position of Library Assistant II at the Williamson Road branch last summer, she had no idea Salena was back in town.
Two hundred people applied for the job, Umberger said. When she saw Salena’s name amid the applications, she remembered her boundless swirl of energy — the computer proficiency, Salena’s ability to wait on four customers with disparate needs at once — and knew she was up to the task.
A new program at Williamson paired neighborhood shut-ins with library volunteers who delivered books to their door. That was something Salena had done informally in Gainsboro — when she was 14.
“She’s a born librarian,” said Umberger, who hired her in August. “We were like, if she wants to work in libraries, we want her for Roanoke.” Salena plans to start her graduate coursework in library science, the step to becoming an official librarian, next year.
On a recent afternoon, she recited the new regulations governing GED tests for a patron, helped a refugee fax an immigration document to Washington and gave movie advice to a patron whose wife prefers romantic comedies while he’s addicted to spy thrillers. (“She likes to cry, but she doesn’t like British accents so that cuts out a lot of movies,” Salena said, thinking the tsunami movie, “The Impossible,” might very well satisfy both their film desires.)
“It’s like each person who walks in the door has been a friend of hers all her life,” said volunteer Shannon Cox.
“I heart you,” said Salena, now 23, to another volunteer who answered the phone, freeing her to help live customers instead.
The branch is among the busiest in the city, Umberger says, and growing busier by the year. Williamson Road patrons have checked out 85,778 items in the past year, double the number in 2004. Plans to renovate and enlarge the branch will be under way next year.
Among Salena’s favorite patron questions to answer — with buoyant, unchecked glee — is this one: How much does it cost to get a library card?
“It’s Free Ninety-Nine,” she jokes.
Her favorite hobby is baking for her coworkers and volunteers, and her current fixation is pie. On a recent weekday, she brought in ramekins filled with a new recipe featuring apples and egg custard. She felt zero shame moving back into her old bedroom in her mother’s house since, after all, her mother has always been her best friend.
For Tanya’s recent 50th birthday, Salena made her a sweet potato-bourbon-pecan pie and bought her a tattoo to match the butterfly Salena already has on her hand.
Salena treated herself with a new tattoo on her left wrist: the National Library Symbol, which depicts a generic human figure reading a book.
She shows it off to people, and if they ask, she’ll shout it happily from the Williamson Road stacks: Yes, the Cavalier is still limping along — at present, it has 182,000 miles and the heater is even working.
And, yes, she very proudly went to Harvard. For this.