On Friday, May 26, Lezley McSpadden, mother of the late Michael Brown Jr., made headlines for her graduation from Jennings High School. She wasn’t the only member of her family among the 160 Jennings students in cap and gown that day, though – her daughter, Deja Brown, graduated too.
Though the two took classes during the same year, their schedules didn’t overlap much. While Brown took the standard senior classes, McSpadden was in the district’s Adult Education Program, established by Superintendent Art McCoy Jr. in consultation with McSpadden, who dropped out of Ladue Horton Watkins High School as a young mother 20 years ago.
“She would just go to afternoon class, so we never really interacted at school or in class or anything,” Brown said. “But I did help her on homework. Like, math, she was like, ‘I’m stuck! I don’t understand this!’ so I would try to help her the best I could, because it was Geometry, which I took already.”
Graduation was an emotional time for both mother and daughter. “I can’t really believe that I made it out of high school,” Brown enthused. Her mother, she said, had missed out, “having a baby early in school and stuff. I know it’s something that she’s wanted to do. She’s done it and she’s worked really hard, and she’s so excited and I’m excited for her!”
Brown will attend Tennessee State University in the fall to begin studies to become a neonatal nurse. She is already working in healthcare, with a job at a Schnucks pharmacy and plans to become a certified pharmacy technician in June.
Given that her older brother was killed by a Ferguson police officer, sparked a national protest movement and became an international symbol of police killing unarmed black males when she was a sophomore, Brown faced unusual challenges as a student.
“After what happened to my family, it was hard for me to process, it was hard to be focused in class and continue to keep my grades up,” she said. “Just realizing how supportive my support system was kept me going and kept me focused.”
She said her support system included her mom, aunt, grandmother, McCoy and a couple of teachers. “It was just a lot of people, even the people who I didn’t talk to on a regular basis, would just call me or text me, seeking me out to have conversations to let me know they would check up on me and everything,” she said.
Only this year did things settle down for her at school.
“To be honest, it felt like all four years in one, like I hadn’t had the chance to be in high school because there was so much going on,” she said. “It was like, I was asleep the whole time and senior year I was awake, experiencing everything that I never experienced before.”
One highlight was traveling to New York with McCoy and the Jennings NextJenn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) team. They met with CEOs and visited New York landmarks.
“I hadn’t done anything like that before, but I met a lot of different people, who are willing to help me with college tuition,” she said.
“She also got some New York pizza!” McCoy said.
McCoy expressed pride and enthusiasm for the leadership roles Deja took on in school.
“I just want to say I’m proud of Deja,” McCoy said. “She was a major leader and helped to do a lot of the advocacy and systems learning work, all about social justice, and educate others.”
Brown has spent much of high school speaking up about her brother’s death, but this year she looked towards the future.
“At the end of the day, that’s my brother and I’m always going to be his sister, but that’s not my name,” she said. “I just want people to know me for me and who I am, as well. I want to be known for me and my accomplishments.”
McCoy also looked toward the future.
“I’m glad she has taken all of her skills to the next level to become someone who helps people on a professional level,” McCoy said. “We hope to maybe hire her here at Jennings as a school nurse or something, so she comes back home!”
Sophie Hurwitz is a St. Louis American editorial intern from John Burroughs School.