HYATTSVILLE – For as long as Eleisha and Tonisha McCorkle can remember, they were part of a power team of three.
It was always the twins and their mom, Tonya, against the world, fighting to stay afloat and show everyone what they were made of.
“It was always just us three,” Eleisha said.
Their bond began immediately as Tonya fought for the twins while they were in the womb. Diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an incurable lung and lymph node disease, she was told her pregnancy should be terminated – that it was either her or the babies. She chose the babies.
“She called us her miracle babies because we all made it out alive,” Tonisha said.
But it wasn’t an easy path, as Eleisha and Tonisha’s father left the family when they were just seven and the twins were left to care for their mother and themselves on their own. They quickly learned to cook for themselves and take on responsibilities most children do not.
The family struggled to pay rent as the twins navigated typical childhood fears like walking to school on their own, and atypical duties like learning how to change their mother’s oxygen tanks. Instead of seeking independence in their teenager years, Eleisha and Tonisha jumped into it at eight years old.
“A story like ours – we really did grow up fast,” Tonisha said. “We became independent in elementary school. We just had to rely on each other.”
The pair found their stride in middle school as they joined the visual and performing arts (VPA) program at Hyattsville Middle School and began to delve into art. That is where they found their sanctuary. They followed art to Northwestern High School after they had auditioned for the VPA program there and found out on the first day of school, much to their surprise, that they had gotten in.
“VPA is the best thing ever. I can’t stress that enough,” Tonisha said. “I wouldn’t be here without this program.”
“And Miss Edwards,” Eleisha said.
Jamea Richmond-Edwards is a VPA art teacher at Northwestern and taught the McCorkle girls all four years at the high school. She has been with the twins through it all, but sees them as more than just two girls who had to overcome adversity and hardships.
“They really worked hard. They’re just really great, overall well-rounded students,” she said. “They’re very gregarious, a little chatty. They are very considerate of their classmates. They think about me and make sure I’m okay.”
And Tonisha and Eleisha thrived at Northwestern. They took part in an international studies program where they had the opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand, they participated in the Race Against Hunger, several Advanced Placement classes (Eleisha six and Tonisha four), were in the National Honor Society, the national art honor society, Culture Keepers and the auxiliary team for the high school’s marching band.
At the same time, they both held down jobs at the National Zoo and at Joe’s Movement Emporium to help pay the bills and buy food, since their mother could not work.
“We know at the end of the day, we’re all we have,” Eleisha said. “So Tonisha took up a job to help pay bills and put toiletries in the house.”
Through it all, though, their art began to grow and flourish and their bond grew stronger. But their senior year was stressful, as their mother was in and out of the hospital and they began to submit their college applications. Then in January, right after her 55th birthday, Tonya passed away in the same hospital where Tonisha and Eleisha were born.
They didn’t go to school for about a month.
“She was just an amazing person,” Eleisha said. “It was hard, but what scared me the most was Miss Edwards. She called and said, ‘if you don’t come to school, they’re going to do home visits.’ So we got ourselves together and came to school the next day.”
They came back stronger than ever, earning a 4.2 and 3.8 grade point average the semester their mother died. They kept pushing forward because they knew that was what their mother wanted.
“Our mom put a lot of drive in us. She was determined,” Tonisha said. “She was the most determined person I ever met. Down to her last breath.”
Tonisha graduated Northwestern with a 3.83 grade point average while Eleisha earned a 3.93. The pair graduated on May 31.
“It’s really great to see her dream actualize with them,” Richmond-Edwards said. “It’s really touching and I remember talking to mom and she said ‘I want to see them graduate. I want to see them walk across the stage’ and ultimately she didn’t get to do that.”
Next fall, both will attend New York University (NYU) with their tuition completely paid for as the two amassed more than $1 million in scholarships. Eleisha earned the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar Award and a student art scholarship and Tonisha was awarded the Steinhardt Arch Scholarship for studio art.
“She would have been bragging,” Tonisha explained, saying her mother loved to talk about her girls. “She loved to talk.”
And Tonya told her girls to never stop telling their story – they’re going to do that at NYU as they pursue their dreams in art and social justice.
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