Looking for her shot, young, scrappy, hungry

Savannah Morning News

Aug. 19, 2017

Alijah Dorsey is young. She’s scrappy. She’s hungry. Two hundred years after the face, she’s Alexander Hamilton in drag. She has his grit, his perseverance, his desire. Lin-Manuel Miranda thought he was writing about an American founding father in his blockbuster Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” No, sir. He was writing about Alijah Dorsey. She knew it the minute she heard the lyrics from a classmate at St. Vincent’s Academy. This was her homeboy, her alter ego. Different time period. Different gender. Different race. Didn’t matter. This was her story.

Right about that time she was on a plane to California. As chair of the Chatham County Youth Commission she was headed to a National League of Cities meeting.  That’s when she decided to memorize the 1,0000-word song, “My Shot.” She was smitten with the energy, the story. It was her story.

When she got back to Savannah she acted on that energy. As the co-editor-in-chief of Pleiades, SVA’s literary magazine, she and her staff were tasked with presenting an assembly to the rest of the school. It was their job to make poetry cool and accessible. With four days to go she recruited three members of her staff and convinced them to memorize five songs from “Hamilton.” Alijah wanted the poetry to “wow” the audience. They did it.  Alijah was Hamilton. She sang “My Shot,” as in, “I’m not throwing away my shot.”

And she’s not. She’s taking her shot. But it hasn’t been easy. It’s not a slam-dunk.  As a high school senior she made the usual round of colleges. At Georgia Southern, she felt as if she were drowning. UGA? Too big. But when she visited Mercer University in Macon, “the light went off.” That’s how her mother, Amelia, saw it. “This was her niche.”

Her mother promised to help. So did her sister, Alexis, another SVA alumni. Alexis, 27, a substance abuse counselor, is a force. She has a masters from Savannah State University and is going for a doctorate.

“She’s the one who got me to go for the Youth Commission,” Alijah said, her blue SVA graduation ring catching the light.  “I wasn’t going to do it. I was too nervous. But Alexis insisted. She changed all my passwords to my phone, my computer, all my social media until I said yes. She knew I would like it.”

These three women are tight. They got through Alexis’ diagnosis with lupus when she was a high school freshman. They got through Alijah’s bout with ovarian cancer when she was 10 “when all the doctors told me it was because she was overweight,” her mother said. “But I didn’t buy it. I kept changing doctors. it turned out she had a tumor the size of a softball.”

They knew college was expensive, especially Mercer. Her mother, a teacher who has worked at a family day care center for decades, promised to help. “We gonna do this,” she said. “You set the goal. I’ll help you get there.”

Alijah, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA average, applied for early acceptance to Mercer. When she got deferred she tried again. And again. Three times. She got in. She got a partial scholarship from the Center for Collaborative Journalism. She and her future roommates met on line. They picked the colors for their dorm room. They decided who would bring what. All was set. Then her mother ran into a glitch. A bureaucratic glitch. The money she thought was there was not. Time was – and is – running out. They needed $4,000. Classes start Aug. 22.

Alijah, calm, determined, rational sat her mother down and said she was going to ask for money through an online GoFundMe campaign. Her mother, who doesn’t like telling house business, protested. Alijah said, “Mom. We’re broke. You’re going to have to put your pride aside.”

In six days the fund raised nearly $2,000 from 39 people, much of it in $25 and $50 increments (“She will persist,” wrote one), much of from SVA alumni, faculty and classmates of Alijah, “girls that know of you but don’t really know you,” said Alijah. “That touched my heart. They gave me hope. Money, yes, but hope too. I can’t repay that.”

“When St. Vincent’s speaks of a sisterhood they mean it,” said Alijah’s mother. “It’s a family and it starts the minute you walk through the door.”

Alijah, optimistic and focused, wants to be a journalist. She already had a front page story on the Savannah Tribune. She wants to “make people feel stuff. I feel I have a responsibility to tell people what’s happening. I want to make a difference.” She’s convincing without being heavy-handed.

She even got her mother to come around to “Hamilton.” They were driving to a poetry competition in McRae, Ga., where Alijah was performing “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou and Tony Hoagland’s “Personal” when all they could find on the radio was static. That’s when Alijah, who listens to classical music when she studies, popped in “Hamilton.” By the time they got there her mother was singing along.

“And I’m not throwing away my shot/I am not throwing away my shot/Hey yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry…”