Willow Blythe/KERA News
Meet Phantasia Chavers. She may only be 14, but she’s already experienced a lot of heartache. When she was 7, the man who raised her was killed in a car crash. Last year, a cousin her age was shot in the head and killed.
Phantasia’s one of the students we’re following all the way through high school in the Class of ’17 series, part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative. She has big plans as she begins her freshmen year — if she can just overcome a few more hurdles.
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Phantasia had her heart set on the volleyball court, not the football field. Then came volleyball tryouts and the news that she didn’t make the team.
“I just wanted to quit all sports when they said I did not make the team because they made me do all that work,” she says.
That’s when her best friend talked Phantasia into becoming a trainer for the JV football team at the Cedar Hill Ninth Grade Center.
“I just don’t want to be one of those girls that just go to school and come back home,” she says. “I feel…I wouldn’t say I feel worthless, but I feel like I’m not doing nothing to better myself.”
And better isn’t quite good enough for this 14-year-old. She’s in pre-AP English class, which she describes as “easy.” And she’s not embarrassed to stand on the sidelines, grabbing water bottles for football players or helping wrap an injury.
Yet she’d be the first to tell you that “easy” isn’t how she’d describe her life. Losing the man she called “Dad” when she was only 7 was devastating. She was also bullied in elementary school and had to battle low self-esteem.
“In my case, my tragedies happened sooner, so my miracles will come later in life and my tragedies won’t be as bad, so my life will get better,” she says.
Phantasia’s mom, Jameka Chavers, says the death of her first husband was tough on everybody. He died when his car ran underneath a parked 18-wheeler.
Here’s the thing, though: He was a drug dealer. So Jameka though about telling her two daughters that he’d been sent to jail for a very long time. Ultimately, she came clean and in the long run says his absence might actually be better for the family. Even Phantasia.
“It just took us some time to adapt for him not to be there,” mom says. “For her, it was her life. But to me and my oldest daughter we could survive without him. But to her, you know, ‘that’s my daddy.’ They were together 24-7.”
Today, Jameka’s a single mom, and Phantasia’s stepfather is in prison. That’s why she and her sister, Jaquaylla Williams, are so close — and why Jaquaylla’s start at Fisk University in Tennessee is so tough. She was the one who held the family together.
“She was like our backbone. When we were sad, she would make us happy,” Mom says. “And if I didn’t want to get up and cook…She’ll make sure they order some pizza… That’s really her mom, my oldest daughter is her mom because she took care of her for so many years.”
Still, they’re sisters. And at Jaquaylla’s recent going-away party, the two were barely speaking to each other until the day before because of a spat over a friend who was staying with them.
Jaquaylla likes to point out how they’re so different.
“She’s quiet, I’m loud. She’s shy. I’m outgoing. And she holds a lot in. I put a lot out,” Jayquaylla says with a chuckle.
They’re not immune to some good old fashion sibling rivalry. Phantasia says she already knows what she wants when she graduates: “People can see I did more. And I have opportunities. Even though she had opportunities because she was really smart, I wanna have more. Colleges just want me.”
Still, she misses her sister.
“I ain’t gonna lie. I cried,” Phantasia says about her sister’s move to college. “Cuz, it’s like, ‘why you so far away? Why couldn’t you go to a school in Texas, which would have been so much easier?’ ”
Phantasia’s taking big steps on her own journey this fall – as a freshmen at Cedar Hill, as a trainer on the football sidelines, and maybe even as basketball player when she tries out for the team later this year.