Mirra was about 15 when she came to the conclusion that if she wanted her life to be a success, she would have to leave Newnan. She’d been living with her brother and her grandmother, trying to do her best in school, but it seemed that everyone around her was involved with drugs, joining gangs, tangling with the police, and going to jail. Then she learned that two of her cousins had been shot dead.
“It was just back-to-back stuff,” she says. “The people that I was around and knew were getting killed. A friend of the family who was around my age – he got killed; they found him in a ditch. So I was like, Yeah, I got to go.”
A middle-school honor-roll student and accomplished gymnast, Mirra rose through high school taking A.P. physics, A.P. Spanish, and advanced chemistry. She played on the varsity basketball team and competed in the state championships for the high jump. “Not many people in my family had graduated high school,” she says, “so I definitely didn’t want to be another statistic of not graduating and not doing something in their life. That’s another thing that really just pushed me to do what I wanted to do.”
After Mirra turned 16 her grandmother died, and the girl went back to live with her mother, who was at home caring for her younger children. Her mother lived in a place called Highland Apartments, an income-based complex of subsidized homes. But she spent most of her time with a cousin she loves in a band of apartments called Eastgate, a semicircle of red-shuttered buildings facing a parking lot, with only one road leading in and out. It was there that she saw the drugs being dealt and the fights breaking out, and there that she invited me to make her portrait.
In an effort to support herself and her mom, Mirra got her first job: making pizza and working the cash register at Little Caesars. She began buying her own school clothes, her own shoes. “I started working and helping her out a lot more,” she says of her mother, “and stuff started falling into place. . . . So I started thinking if I just get out and get on my feet for real, I’ll be good. . . .
“I knew I could be independent because everything I was doing I was doing on my own,” she says.
In 11th grade, with a cousin in the Navy, Mirra made up her mind that after she graduated she would enlist. “Most people go straight to college out of high school,” she says, “but I didn’t feel like that was for me, because school was already stressful. I knew that by going to the military they would help me pay for college. So I was like: that was the place for me. I had to get to a spot where I was stable enough on my own.”
Since the portrait of Mirra was made, in her senior year at Newnan High, she has done her basic training in Chicago, completed her coursework in Fort Lee, Virginia, and been assigned to the U.S. Bulkeley, a ship stationed in Norfolk. She’s been trained as a culinary specialist – making meals for her fellow sailors, such as seafood Newburg and beef yakisoba (“I never heard of that in Newnan,” she says). And for the first time she has traveled outside the country, with deployments in Portugal, Greece, and Spain, putting in the 24 months of service that will make her eligible for college-tuition assistance.
Mirra says that when she’s done with college she’d like to be a cosmetologist or work in the medical field, and she’d like to move back to Georgia, maybe to Atlanta. When I ask her if there is anything at all that might make Newnan an attractive place to live, she says, “Nothing.
“Nothing is there in Newnan. Nothing. There’s nothing. Like, there is absolutely nothing for me there.”