At age 15, Liz Murray stood on a street corner in Manhattan, feeling as dark inside as the gothic kid she looked like. Pizza and school were on her mind. It had come down to this: "Go get a slice and just give up on school."
"I had enough money to buy the pizza and the subway home," Murray said during a weekend visit to Salt Lake City. "I really wanted that pizza, and I really didn't want to get another rejection from another school. The way I looked, I wouldn't have admitted me, either."
Twelve years later, standing in front of about 1,000 people Friday at the Grand America hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, it had come to this: "Most of the biggest decisions in life can hinge on the most mundane choice of a single moment."
Her life had brought her to that street corner and to her first encounter with what she calls my 'What if?' voice. "Instead of 'What if I get rejected again,' it said, 'What if I get accepted? What if I got straight A's?"'
She headed away from the pizza and took the short walk to the Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea. They turned out to be the first steps away from her life as a daughter of drug-addicted, HIV-positive parents and chronic homelessness. They were steps toward Harvard University, special recognition by Oprah Winfrey, to being the subject of a book and movie, and being a keynote speaker in high demand nationwide.
"I had gotten the message that things weren't my fault, but I didn't realize I had choices that were mine despite my circumstances," Murray told the audience gathered at the annual YWCA of Salt Lake awards luncheon.
"I had learned by that time, by the time my mother was so sick she didn't want the strawberry shakes I'd bring or listen to golden oldies anymore, that it was OK if I didn't try as hard or do as well."
She wasn't OK with the notion. "I was ditched by my parents, and I was this goth kid who showed anger to the world. But I also knew I was more, and I'm more certain every day that my mother turned up the volume of that 'What if?' enough that I heard it."
The exceptionally high arc of Murray's life is the reason Murray was invited to Salt Lake. It's the backdrop, but it's not her message.
"When you see someone who is homeless or living in the margins and isn't right in line with you and they're pierced and dark and wearing their anger in ever possible spiked way, remember that living like that is like living behind a giant brick wall," Murray said.
"Before you judge, remember you can stay on that side of wall because you can afford to," she said. "I could steal and take because it doesn't hurt those on the other side of that wall. It didn't really matter to them; I could steal because I didn't matter."
She said she did in fact eat out of dumpsters, and she stole food, clothing and whatever suited her at the time. She shoplifted and then sold or pawned a lot of what she took.
"I stole and sold books from Barnes and Noble. I'm sure 'The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People' was in the stack more than once," she said, noting that the irony of stealing and pawning the best-selling motivational book by Utahn Stephen R. Covey was irresistible at the time.
By the time her mother died, her father had lost their apartment because he had stopped paying the rent. Her home became a space on the floor shared by a group of friends just like her who could find every excuse for their downtrodden condition. They would announce how they were going to get their lives turned around in spite of it all someday, just not now.
"I went to a friend's house after my mother died, and he was screaming at his mother for burning the pork chops, and I realized another gift my mother gave me a sense of urgency," Murray said. "It had come to me in the worst possible way. I felt so overwhelmingly alone when my mother died. And that night, at my friend's house, I realized that life is now. It happens right now.
"You can write down all the things you could complain about, and if you are looking for what's wrong with your life and all the things you don't have and why, the evidence is endless," she said. "I had nothing, not one tangible thing. But I had two hands, two legs and the air in my lungs, and I got back into school and back into life.
"Once you realize you have everything you need and that you have the power inside you, that power will move you forward," she said. "Problems are complicated; solutions are simple."
She decided she wanted to stop stealing, and wanted to excel in school. She finished high school in just two years while camping out in New York City parks and subway stations. She was awarded a scholarship by the New York Times and attended Harvard University. She attended Columbia University to be closer to her ailing father and has returned to Harvard to complete her degree.
Lifetime Television produced a movie about her life entitled "From Homeless to Harvard," which premiered in April 2003. Murray is also the recipient of Winfrey's first-ever Chutzpah Award. Murray is currently writing her memoirs for Hyperion books.
"The act of being accepted in that prep school made me part of something bigger than myself. And when you realize you are part of something bigger, you want to give, you stop wanting to take," she said Friday.No matter a person's circumstances or place in life, Murray said, "I have realized that we all have choices. Nothing erases that fact. How involved you are in your relationships, how much effort you put into things you do, how well you listen, how you don't. How you overreact or don't react at all. I know that there are situations that aren't my fault, but I am always responsible for my choices."