#BeYourOwnIcon: Liz Murray
“The fork in the road happens over a hundred times a day, and it’s the choices that you make that will determine the shape of your life.”- Liz Murray.
Our childhood experiences have a great impact in the quality of lives we live as adults. Tragic experiences during childhood can make or break someone, depending on an individuals attitude towards those experiences. Liz Murray is one phenomenal woman who allowed her tragic childhood to lead her to the ‘mountain top’. She chose, from a young age, to turn her childhood pain into a source of inspiration for others. Today, her life story has become an American bestseller and she continues to soar greater heights and show the world that possibility is a reality.
Liz Murray is the founder and director of Manifest Living and An international motivational speaker. She is also the author of New York Times (US) and Sunday Times (UK) bestselling memoir "Breaking Night". Her life story was in 2003 made into a film called Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story. The acclaimed film awakened people to the realities of the homeless.
CHILDHOOD, POVERTY AND PARENTS’ DRUG ADDICTION
Murray was born in the Bronx, New York on September 23, 1980 to poor and drug-addicted parents, both of whom would later contract HIV. Some of her earliest memories are of her parents spending their welfare payments on cocaine and heroin when she and her sister were starving: "We ate ice cubes because it felt like eating. We split a tube of toothpaste between us for dinner."
Despite their addiction, she talks frequently about how much she loved them and how much they loved her, how they were highly intelligent but rendered hopeless at parenting by their drug dependence and consequent poverty. She remembers her mother stealing her birthday money, selling the television, and even the Thanksgiving turkey a church had given them, to scrape together money to score a hit of coke. Her mother's mantra was "one day life is going to be better", then she would spend all day throwing up and being nursed by her daughter or slumped in withdrawal, arms tracked with needle marks. Liz would turn up to school lice-ridden and was bullied for being smelly and scruffy and eventually dropped out.
HOMELESSNESS AND HIGH AMBITIONS
When Liz's father failed to pay the rent on their flat and moved to a homeless shelter, Liz was out on the streets. During this time, her mother succumbed to AIDS. Her mother's death inspired Liz to change her life. “I saw her die without fulfilling her dreams and I knew that my time was now or maybe never," she says. She decided go to high school, even though she was still homeless.
After many rejections, she finally opted for an "alternative" high school - Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan, graduating in two years. She did a year's work a term and went to night classes. A teacher saw her gumption and mentored her. When he took his top 10 students to Harvard, she stood outside the university and instead of feeling intimidated she admired its architecture – and decided it was within her reach. She was awarded a New York Times scholarship for needy students and was accepted into Harvard University, matriculating in the fall semester of 2000. In late 2006, her father died of AIDS. His saving grace was that he encouraged her to read – and stole books from libraries to give her a love of literature. Just before he passed away, he wrote Murray a card which read: 'Lizzy, I left my dreams behind a long time ago. But I know now they're safe with you."
On May 19, 2013, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of public service and gave the commencement address at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.
Oprah Winfrey gave her a chutzpah award and she met Bill Clinton. She has given speeches at events alongside Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. She talks to teenagers about resisting the temptations of drugs and gangs. She also urges them not to use childhood hardship as an excuse not to take opportunities.
Regardless of her rough start at life, Murray chose the high road and decided she would not live her life as a victim of circumstances. She rose above her poverty, her pain and her lack of support to become one of America’s most famous international speakers. Her story is an inspiration to other people going through a rough patch in life. It’s a daily reminder that an individual’s destiny rests solely on the individual’s hands, and that possibility isn’t far beyond anyone’s reach. For her ambition and desire to rise above her past and inspire other people with her beautiful story, American Sunglass would like to name her as one of America’s Icons!