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By Leah Bennett

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1998. My home was a cheap, run down apartment complex. It was also the home of drug deals, murders, and meth labs. I lived with my African-American dad and my white mother in a completely black community where my mother and I, with my lighter skin, got stares every time we left our home. My mother was an alcoholic, and we often got into car wrecks. I lost my two front teeth in a car accident. I didn’t get to celebrate like other kids when their teeth fell out. The tooth fairy didn’t visit me. Instead I waited at the police station with my dad for my mom to be bailed out of jail.

Two weeks after my 6th birthday my dad passed away from leukemia. My mom started smoking cigarettes again, her drinking increased dramatically, and she became addicted to prescription pills. She would often pass out and I would wash the vomit off of her face, and put a warm towel on her head. When she had the energy to leave the house, she would either leave me at home alone, or take me with her. We made trips to the houses of men who were strangers to us both, and I would sleep on the floor next to the bed, or on the couch alone in fear while she gave herself away.

My grandmother knew about the drug addiction and alcoholism. I would call her late at night when my mom was passed out and she’d come pick me up quietly and take me home with her. I always ate plenty at her house as there was never food in my home. She must have told my school, because one day in 3rd grade I was called into the principal’s office. A social worker was there and asked me about my home life. I didn’t want to get my mom into trouble, so I lied about almost everything, until they asked about food. She asked me to name every food we had in our house but I couldn’t because our fridge was mostly bare.

My grandmother would take me to school everyday and pick me up. She was like a mother to me. One weekend my grandmother and I drove past my school and saw a billboard that read, “Violin Lessons”. My grandmother immediately asked if I wanted lessons, and thank God my seven-year-old self said ‘yes’. The next week, I was signed up for the school orchestra. It was a brand new program at my inner-city school. On the first day the room was packed with maybe 70 kids. By the second day we all received our instruments, but there were half of us left. By the end of that week, the orchestra consisted of a 3rd grade cellist named Isaiah, and me. Our teacher remained upbeat though.

Within two weeks however, our school ended the program so I began to go for lessons at my teacher’s house after school, and it saved me. I will never forget her determination to share music with Isaiah and me. She was so in love with the music, and I had never seen someone so passionate about their job before. Instead of worrying about my mom, or our future, I fell in love with youtube videos of famous violinists that my grandmother would show me. I wanted to be the girl performing on the stage, clad in a beautiful dress, making people feel things they’d never felt.

On June 27th, 2007, two months before my ninth birthday, I woke up at my grandma’s house. My grandma yelled for me to come downstairs because my mother was on the phone. When I heard my mom’s overly cheerful voice on the line, I knew something was off. She said she was quitting smoking and drinking and wanted to start over and make life good for us. She said she had to shower and that she’d be over in an hour to pick me up and that we’d go straight to the park and then get ice cream. I was ecstatic. After an hour passed, I took my bag outside and waited on the front porch. Another hour passed, but I wasn’t upset because my mother was always late. More hours passed and it got dark outside. My mom wasn’t answering her phone. Later that evening my grandma got a call. She started crying, and I knew immediately what had happened. I had been anticipating it forever. She hung up and asked me if I wanted to stay or go, and I said stay. She told me I was a good girl, and left. They had found my mom dead in the bathtub—she had overdosed. I blamed myself. I wasn’t there to take care of her, to put a cold wet towel on her head, to throw the pills away.

Soon after, my aunt and uncle from Ohio came to Alabama for the funeral and I learned that they would adopt me. I started fourth grade in my new home, joined the school’s orchestra, and began to take private music lessons. My new parents encouraged me to make goals for myself, and presented me with as many musical opportunities as they could.

Leah violin

Music is something that can’t desert me, or be taken away from me. It never changes. I’ve been playing violin for 10 years now. I want to share my gift with as many people as possible and make a career out of what I love. Today I struggle with severe depression, ADD, and anxiety. It has been difficult at times to achieve good grades, but I attend therapy because I’m determined to beat my mental illness. I’ve been suicidal, and almost hospitalized, but I’ve overcome it. I know I have something to offer the world and I’m learning my worth. I’m a violinist, a pianist, a percussionist, a guitar player, composer, a beginner cellist, and a vocalist. I’ve been teaching violin and piano for three years and would love to teach in the future as well. My past experiences have made me a stronger musician, and I’ve learned to harness my illnesses through music. When I play, my ADD disappears, and I’m able to concentrate clearly. My anxiety melts and my depression fades when I’m deep in a piece of music. When I feel useless, when I can’t stand myself, I remind myself that I have a gift that others do not. Music is magic, it heals, and if I had not discovered it on a car ride with my grandmother so many years ago, I don’t know where I’d be today.

This piece was originally Leah’s college application essay.

Leah Bennett is 17 and lives in central Ohio, U.S.A, with her adopted parents and young brother. She is a senior in high school and will be attending Wittenberg University in the fall, where she plans on studying music.

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