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A new song: Sister’s memory inspired A.L. Brown grad to succeed

KANNAPOLIS — As she sat in the living room of the family home on Copel Street on a recent Sunday afternoon, Malika Graham was the picture of a young woman ready to succeed.
A lifelong Kannapolis resident, Graham graduates from A.L. Brown High School on Saturday with a list of accomplishments and experiences that many would be proud of.
She’s been a student-athlete, a Naval JROTC cadet and a dancer. She’s also been determined to graduate from high school and excel in life.
But that wasn’t always the case, Graham said.
“When I started high school,” Graham said, “it wasn’t that good.”
“I took it as a joke,” she said, “because when I was in middle school, I just thought they would pass me along.”
She had to repeat ninth grade because of that outlook. But something happened that made Graham change the way she looks at life.
“My sister died in 2012,” Graham said.
Her big sister, Santoria Jordan, passed away at age 22, a victim of leukemia.
“I call her Songbird, because she sings a lot,” Malika said.
Her sister was a guiding influence on Malika, family members said, both before and after her passing.
And today, Jordan is still present: in photos, and in the memories of her friends and loved ones.
When Graham walks across to get her diploma Saturday, she said she knows her “Songbird” will be there, watching.
Santoria Jordan, called Tori by friends and family, had been a basketball player at A.L. Brown, but many people in the community know her from her singing, family members said.
After high school, Jordan lived in Concord, but she was known throughout Kannapolis for her music, grandmother Etheleen Williamson said.
“She had formed a little group, a girls’ gospel group,” Williamson said. Known as Divine Praise, they would often sing in the community.
When Malika was younger, getting into trouble at school and not doing her best, “Tori used to message me,” Malika said. “We talked over Facebook.”
Part of what Malika said held her back earlier on was not trying hard enough.
“I never studied,” Graham said. “… I guess when I ask a teacher about something, it makes me feel like I’m dumb, so I never asked.”
But through those talks, Malika said, Tori would try to encourage her — to motivate her to do better.
The memories brought Malika to tears. With her family gathered around her in the living room of the family home, her grandfather, Jeffrey Williamson, said he and Malika share one particular trait.
“She also has a stubborn attitude, too,” Williamson said. “Her attitude is, ‘I’m going to do this no matter what.’ ”
Tori’s influence and faith helped Malika channel that stubbornness and determination into positive changes.
And Tori was dedicated to her faith, family members said.
“Tori was a Christian. She did not play,” Etheleen Williamson said.
Although Tori and her siblings weren’t always together, Etheleen said, “(Tori) tried to bring her sisters to her. … When Tori got to the point where the Lord changed her, (Tori) tried to change them and be an inspiration to them.”
After being diagnosed with leukemia, Tori still kept her faith, family members said.
The last post on Tori’s Facebook timeline said, in all caps: “Lord, I love you more than anything!”
“We don’t worry about Tori,” Etheleen Williamson said.
And soon, she said, Malika was determined that nobody would have to worry about her.
The first thing that had to change was her attitude, Malika said, “and that was basically it.”
“I brought my grades up from F’s to A’s, B’s and C’s,” she said.
And she started to get more involved, participating in Naval JROTC in her 10th and 11th grade years, joining the track team and being more involved at school in general.
She’s also been a liturgical dancer at Marable Memorial AME Zion Church.
Kevin Garay, principal of A.L. Brown High School, said he had known both Tori and Malika in his time working there.
“Malika is a student that has grown tremendously,” Garay said. “She has always shown a great deal of maturity in handling situations … and I see a lot of Tori in Malika, in her mannerisms and the way she carries herself.”
Garay was recently one of the judges for Malika’s senior project presentation at A.L. Brown — a project on cancer research. She dedicated that presentation to her sister.
“I was touched by this and impressed that a high school senior had the courage to choose a topic that was likely very difficult because of her personal experiences,” Garay said.
Ashlyn Sumner, who taught Malika dance this semester and last fall, said her student had shown “such a tremendous amount of growth.”
“She went from being indifferent … to a reluctant performer,” Sumner said in an e-mail interview, but added that Malika had “truly blossomed” over time.
“She was enthusiastic, insightful and began to choreograph dances with personal meaning,” Sumner said.
“If I were given the task to choose one student who showed the most growth and improvement throughout this school year, I would choose Malika, hands down,” Sumner said.
Also, Garay said, “I know that (Tori) would be proud of what her sister has accomplished during her time at A.L. Brown. … She has been a solid student and has grown into a fine young lady.”
And Malika is a songbird herself. She, too, said she loves singing gospel songs — in particular one made famous by Deitrick Haddon called “He’s Able.”
There’s one verse that stands out to her family: “God is able to do just what He said He would do.”
Her grandmother said her best advice to Graham has always been to focus on her faith. “Keep God in her life, and continue to look up, and everything is possible,” Williamson said. “Everything she would want.”
As she graduates from A.L. Brown High School this weekend, Graham says she’s planning to take some time off and visit with her mother, who lives in Mississippi.
She then plans to enlist in the U.S. Navy and train as a nurse — a field where she said she knows she can do good for people.
Later in life, Graham said she wants to look toward an artistic career. “Probably something to do with fashion,” she said.
“I think she can achieve whatever she puts her mind to,” her aunt Melody Hines said. “There’s nothing too hard for her.”
Malika is not a perfect student — among other things, she still doesn’t like math, she said.
Even so, she knows advice that would help students like herself pull through.
She said the first year of high school is an important transition time. “Your first year really matters. It’s really not a game,” she said.
“Don’t think you can just go along through high school with them passing you along for no reason,” Graham said. “Just put your mind into it.”
And, she said, when she walks across the stage this Saturday, she knows her sister will be watching.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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