Central High School senior Davornne Lindo was 3 months old when, 18 years ago, her single mother left her four children with relatives in Jamaica. As the only adult in their extended family who could read and write, Michelle Canaan sought a job and a better life for them in America.
They now laugh about Canaan’s last name being known as the Promised Land – because she indeed forged a future that enabled Davornne’s destination to seem like a promise fulfilled:
A full scholarship to Yale University, worth more than $250,000.
When she fretted she wouldn’t achieve her dream, Davornne’s mother told her, “Go on, baby. You’re going to get in. You got it.”
Yes, she did.
After surviving in a “shack” without indoor plumbing in Jamaica — making their three-bedroom house in Phenix City feel like a “mansion” — and after failing first grade in Columbus because she couldn’t speak standard English, Davornne has thrived so impressively in academics, athletics and other activities, she had the luxury of turning down full scholarships to Dartmouth University and the U.S. Naval Academy so she could accept the offer from Yale.
Davornne chose Yale because of its reputation for excellence in liberal arts. She plans to major in political science, attend law school and ultimately become a U.S. senator.
“I love shedding new light on something that people haven’t necessarily thought about,” she said.
Davornne reflected on the challenges she has overcome and said, “Even when I was in a poverty-ridden state, my goal was always to do my best in school, always to make it to the next level. So once I got the opportunity to come here and amplify that even more, I took full advantage of it. It’s only right to do that for people who don’t get this experience.”
‘God, please help me’
Canaan put her family’s Jamaican environment in perspective when she said, “The best way to put it is that the worst of life you live in America is the best of life in Jamaica.”
That’s why she vowed to herself when she departed her homeland in 2000, “My children will not struggle the way I struggled.”
And she prayed, “God, please help me. Give me the strength to give my children a better life.”
Canaan first worked as a housekeeper at a hotel in Colorado, then as a cashier in New York and then as a nursing assistant in New Jersey. She married, earned a green card and moved with her husband to Columbus, where she manages the Subway sandwich shop on Airport Thruway. Now divorced, she moved to Phenix City when Davornne was in fifth grade. Both are now American citizens.
It took Canaan seven years to establish herself securely enough to allow her children to join her in the U.S.
“It was a very, very hard decision,” Canaan said. “I had to swallow my pride and tell myself, ‘You’ve just got to suck it up, Michelle, and do what you have to do. It was hard. Many days, I was just crying and crying. … But I worked my butt off for them to have what they need.”
When she hears what her mother did to improve their lives, Davornne thinks, “I have to make good use of this opportunity so it will not be in vain.”
‘I knew my potential’
Although standard English is the official language of Jamaica, Davornne spoke the Jamaican patois, which is considered broken English and borrows from many languages. No wonder she felt “crippled” as a first-grader at Lonnie Jackson Academy in Columbus.
“I came from somewhere where I was excelling,” she said. “To come from all that to failing, that was crazy.”
But she didn’t lose confidence.
“I knew my potential,” she said. “No matter what the setback was, I knew it was because I was getting acclimated to a new language and culture. I knew once I got past that barrier, I knew I would be able to get back to my excelling mode.”
In fact, she excelled so much after repeating first grade, she skipped second grade and rejoined her peers in third grade.
Last year, in a four-week span, Davornne:
▪ Won the local, district, division and state competitions in the American Legion Oratorical Contest, totaling $6,500 in scholarship money and qualifying for the national final in Indianapolis.
▪ Gained entry into the U.S. Naval Academy Summer Seminar, a prestigious one-week camp for prospective midshipmen.
▪ Interviewed with the Alabama Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps board and was selected as the organization’s first female state president.
▪ Finished second in medical spelling during the Health Occupations Students of America state conference to qualify for the national championships in Orlando.
This year, she finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles and 10th in the 300-meter hurdles at the Alabama Class 7A state track meet.
Central principal Tommy Vickers praises Davornne for what she has done, but he also appreciates her for who she is.
“Her personality has always struck me as being her best attribute because she’s so genuine and humble,” Vickers said. “… She displays the characteristics of someone who feels very blessed — and she is, when you think about where she’s come from.”
In his 27 years as an educator, Vickers said, Davornne ranks among the top five who have come so far.
“We have a lot of students who’ve overcome adversity,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ve seen someone get the accolades that she’s gotten.”
The last Central student who received a full scholarship to an Ivy League school was Michael Bellamy from Brown University in 2012, Vickers said.
‘She doesn’t stop’
Canaan insists she never doubted her daughter.
“The reason she is so successful, she doesn’t stop,” the mother said. “When she reads, if she doesn’t understand something, she will break it down. She wants to know the why and the how. She asks a lot of questions.”
Davornne admitted she didn’t read a lot for pleasure while in elementary school; she did it for the Accelerated Reader points that resulted in prizes.
“Even on the weekends, everyone would be out in the yard or riding bikes and playing tag, and I’d be curled up in a corner reading this giant Harry Potter book or something,” she said with a smile.
The last time Davornne received less than an A on a report card was in fifth grade.
“I’ve always had this very competitive spirit,” she said.
Her mother agrees.
“She’s very hard on herself,” Canaan said. “She don’t settle for nothing.”
‘Let me give it a shot’
Davornne is Central’s salutatorian this year. Maja Nearing nipped her for the valedictorian honor by one-tenth of a point. In her graduation speech, Davornne urges her classmates to not dwell on their failures but embrace them – to learn from them.
She laughed as she recalled needing four attempts to pass her driver’s license test. And, she emphasized, she needed to apply twice to get her scholarship to Yale.
But getting into an Ivy League college wasn’t a realistic goal when she reached high school, Davornne said.
“No one from here was talking about it,” she said. “It just seemed farfetched.”
Then in October she received a letter from QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, Calif. According to its website, QuestBridge “connects the nation’s most exceptional, low-income youth with leading colleges and opportunities.”
That prompted Davornne to decide, “Let me give it a shot.”
She made it through two of the three phases, but she didn’t get matched with a college. So she had to reapply through regular decision. And she got accepted in March.
“Little did I know it was going to work out like this,” she said with a smile. “It all worked out perfectly.”
Canaan is grateful for the opportunities Davornne has received and the ones to come. Her two oldest children are in the U.S. Army, and her youngest child, age 10, is an honor roll student at Lakewood Elementary School.
“I am thankful to God,” she said. “Every one of them is on a good path.”
Davornne hopes her journey of beating the odds can inspire others to overcome their obstacles.
“Have an optimistic outlook, and always stay motivated,” she said. “Also, pray a lot. Believe in somebody. Believe in God. Whatever it is, you have to put your faith in it wholeheartedly and know that it’s going to happen for you. … Keep going. Always persevere. Don’t give up.”