Damian Lee was a two-year-old in rural South Carolina when his father was murdered.
“He was shot multiple times near our front yard,” Lee says.
Why? Lee, 20, does not know.
Since that horrid day, Lee has been forcing his path forward like water gathering to form a river. He has been guided by his mother, Emma Weaver, by his seven elder siblings who helped raise him, and by goals not yet realized that implore him onward.
In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lee has been asked to sing at a university event, A Tribute to the Dream: The Need for ‘Good Trouble,’ which will be streamed Monday at 3 p.m. on Northeastern’s Facebook page.
Lee, a third-year student in Africana studies and political science, performs Bridge Over Troubled Water. It is the right song for this day in these times, and he is its rightful singer.
“I want to say it affected me emotionally throughout my elementary school years,” Lee says of his father’s absence. “I didn’t understand those feelings I was feeling. All I knew was I was hurt. I didn’t know why.”
He remembers the exhaustion of his mother—the jobs she worked in addition to her career as an assisted-living caretaker, and then the ironing of clothes and preparation of meals and everything else she had to do in the early mornings before she worked late into the night.
When Lee was in fifth grade, his mother made him a deal. She was going to make the time and find the energy to help him with his schoolwork, and he, in turn, would study with a sense of purpose. He learned how to learn. He joined the school choir and began to sing.
On this resonant holiday, Lee sings of his mother’s love:
When you’re weary
When tears are in your eyes
I’ll dry them all
He sings of his nine siblings—including eight brothers all serving in the military, among them his fraternal twin, Damien:
I’m on your side
Oh, when times are rough
And friends just can’t
Can’t be found
With the force of welling empathy he sings:
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Lee is a Torch Scholar at Northeastern. The Torch program awards 13 scholarships annually to first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds.
“Torch Scholars are students who have overcome adversity, who fought for their education,” says Jennifer Schoen, director of opportunity scholarship and outreach programs at Northeastern. “We look at things beyond their test scores and their grade point average to really see what the student is going to bring to campus. Our selection process is a little different, and we get to work with amazing students because of it.”
Lee’s hometown, Lake City, is part of the South Carolina “Corridor of Shame,” a string of 36 school districts serving Black communities that historically have been underfunded. Three years ago, in anticipation of his Torch interview in Boston, Lee learned everything he could about the Northeastern decision-makers as well as his fellow applicants.
“Damian had done extensive research before he got here,” Schoen says. “He even knew who some of the students were. He would go up to them and say, ‘Hi, aren’t you that student who did …’ And he would tell them all the things he knew about them.
“We’d never had a student who did that level of research on the program,” Schoen says. “But it sort of freaked out some of the students who were like, ‘How does he know so much about it?’”
Lee had not left his future to chance. He had contacted previous Torch Scholars for advice and searched social media for clues about the program.
“I knew how much I needed that scholarship,” Lee says. “I went in wanting to be fully prepared.”
By comparison, Lee knows few details of his father, who was in his forties when he died. But he knows of his father’s spirit—his intelligence, his joy in bringing people to laughter, the love he expressed for his family.
“I have to see him through the eyes of others,” Lee says. On this holiday, he says, “I think of my father. I think of Martin Luther King. I think of my brothers, who have pushed me to never subject myself to stereotypes.”
Bridge Over Troubled Water is about the mergings of the past and what may be. Lee’s own experiences have prepared him for this performance. He thinks of the history that flows through the Black Lives Matter protests and the racial inequities of the COVID-19 pandemic. He thinks of his mother watching, and of the father he will come to know better someday, when the time is right.
It is all too much sometimes, the loss and the love that intersect his life. For he is the water, and he is the bridge.