At her lowest — when she was kicked out of her Philadelphia public school, when she suffered housing insecurity and financial hardship during the pandemic — it was tough for Lyric Wise to see that she was destined for great things.
But the 18-year-old West Philadelphia teen’s potential was on full display Thursday, when Robin Roberts and a Good Morning America audience of millions watched Wise claim a surprise $50,000 scholarship on live, national TV.
“I know not a lot of kids get access to opportunities, so I have to take them and make the best out of them,” said Wise. “You give me something to do, I’m going to be the best.”
Top report card marks always came easy to Wise, but when her father died just as she was starting high school, school was a struggle.
“I lost hope,” said Wise. “I kept thinking, ‘Why try? Something bad’s always going to happen.’”
Wise hung out with the wrong crowd, sought out conflict and negativity, she said. Eventually, she was kicked out of Parkway West High School and terrified about what would come next. Then, a former principal who believed in Wise called Richard Gordon, the principal of Robeson High School in West Philadelphia.
In Wise, Gordon saw a Robeson student, a kid whose academic record doesn’t begin to tell the full story about them.
“Lyric had a lot of challenges, but she had a lot of potential,” Gordon said. “A lot.”
It was the reset Wise needed. The small school, with just 312 students, suited her; its community of caring teachers embraced and challenged her.
Wise knew it was going to be OK the first time she talked to Gordon, who was named the top principal in the U.S. last fall by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“Nobody had ever asked me, ‘What do you really want to be?’ like a serious question, not like you ask a little kid,” Wise said. “It was a real tough conversation. I knew I wanted to be someone.”
She busied herself with activities, playing softball, volleyball, and cheerleading. She enrolled in programs at the University City Science Center, at Drexel, at Penn, at the Community College of Philadelphia.
There were bumps along the way, for sure. Bubbly, expressive, and relentlessly intelligent, Wise can also butt heads with the people she trusts. Gordon remembers vividly a time when he and Lauren Curtis, Lyric’s mom, were on the phone with each other “because she was driving us both crazy — me at school and her at home.” But, Gordon says, Wise always gets it together.
COVID-19 dealt her family another blow. Curtis’ hours got cut at work, and the family lost their place to live. The family had to split up for a time.
Online school has been tough, a chunk of her junior year and all of her senior year lost to in-person learning. There have been myriad tech challenges, Wise said, but she coped in part by taking her laptop to Robeson, at 41st and Ludlow, to work in the nearly empty school as often as Gordon would let her.
Wise, salutatorian of the senior class, would cry to Gordon sometimes over worries about her four siblings, or frustration about her day-to-day.
“We’re not in school, and school was my outlet,” she said. “But like I tell people, just keep going.”
Eventually, college offers came rolling in for Wise; she chose Drexel, in large part because of its emphasis on postcollege success. But money remained a worry — the $500 deposit was a big hurdle for her family.
Then came Thursday. Wise was told she was a finalist for a $10,000 scholarship and would find out on a live Good Morning America spot whether she won.
So when Curtis led her outside their home and Gordon, the Drexel mascot, and the cheerleading team were there, it began to feel like a dream. She didn’t win $10,000 to help her through college, she won $50,000 from Tallo, an online platform that connects students with scholarship opportunities.
Wise and Curtis wept, screamed, hugged.
“I am so ecstatic, I am overwhelmed, I am happy, I am overwhelmed, I am everything!” Wise said Thursday morning.
Casey Welch, Tallo’s CEO, said choosing Wise was easy. “Lyric has done everything right,” Welch said. “She’s an inspiration.”
In a video made for her, Robeson teacher Andrew Saltz said, “Lyric, they can’t stop you. They’re not ready for you.”
For Wise, that “Did that just happen?” feeling remained Thursday afternoon.
But she was clearer on what the money would mean for her.
“Finances aren’t a dark cloud hanging over me anymore,” said Wise, who wants to double major in communications and humanities.
Gordon said he’s certain that wherever Wise lands, she’s going to make an impact.
“Lyric is the essence of resiliency,” he said. “Even when she has her moments, she bounces back strong.”