Michele Cubelli Harris (class of ’84) may have been shaped by a difficult past, but she certainly hasn’t been defined by it. Last year Michele was one of only ten writers accepted into the prestigious and highly competitive yearlong “Memoir Incubator” program at Grub Street, one of the nation’s leading creative writing centers. Michele revisited the journals she’s been keeping for a lifetime and set to work.
Harris’ parents were one of the first bi-racial couples to wed in New Hampshire in the 1960’s. Her mom, Madelyn Cubelli was raised by an Italian American family in Lawrence where she met Matthew Harris, an African-American man from Memphis. They’re wedding, in 1965, led to Madelyn’s family disowning her. The couple settled in Methuen on Chase Street.
Michele formed a strong bond with her paternal grandmother often spending summers with her large extended family in New Hampshire. “She epitomized for the strength and spirit of black womanhood. She was a fierce and loving godly woman with a strong conviction of self. The way she carried herself infused a knowing in me that our family legacy was one of resilience and hope. She was my real life Maya Angelou.”
That relationship proved vital to Michele. Her mother was a stay at home mom. “My mother kept a gorgeous and pristine home, and was always good at making sure we looked like we were put together, she kept up appearances.” Meanwhile, Michele’s dad, while working as a truck driver, had a secret, double life. “My father was selling drugs. Heroin. And, early on, my mother wasn’t aware of it.”
Michele’s home life became increasingly difficult. “It was always chaotic. Yelling…my father was physically abusive. There were horrible beatings that Michele describes in her memoir. The opening scene of her book is watching her father beat her mother. She was five. “I sat in the stone cold silence for a minute before I heard the rhythm of my mother’s feet stumbling through the kitchen and into the dining room. She didn’t dare utter a word, but a lightning bolt of her fear crackled through my body. She glanced my way and managed a smile. I heard his metal belt buckle come undone and his steel toe work boots pound the floor. I squeezed my eyes shut but I could her the belt strokes against my mother’s bare skin…”
When she was seven, Michele’s mother was forced to relocate to Elmira, New York along with Michele’s three brothers after their home was raided by the FBI. “My mother didn’t really explain it. We didn’t talk about a lot of the stuff going on…We were all scared, but we didn’t ask questions.”
Eventually, Michele’s father joined his family in New York, but the abuse and the drugs continued. After three years her mom had had enough and brought her children back to Lawrence. “My mother protected me from a lot of that stuff. She didn’t want me to know what was going on. That’s what mothers were supposed to do.”
Michele continued to have a relationship with her father as well. “I was a Daddy’s girl. I knew I made him happy and proud…he inflicted the pain, but he also comforted me…” He couldn’t escape the hard life of drug and alcohol addiction and he died at the age of 53.
Michele found solace at school. She was an A student at the Oliver Junior High School who made friends easily. “I compensated by doing well in school, just trying to fit in. I was really good at pretending that none of it was happening. I didn’t want to associate with it, I didn’t want it to be part of who I was.”
Greater Lawrence Tech was the next stop for Michele where she studied data management. “We had a great high school experience. I loved high school. I had really great friends, one of my best friends ended up being a girl from Andover – Kelly Horan. Her family became my surrogate family in high school.”
During Harris’s sophomore year her mother was involved in a near fatal car accident and spent more than two months in the hospital. “My mother had never used drugs. She came home and became addicted to percocets which eventually led to cocaine and heroin and she became an addict. It completely changed her. It was like losing my mother. And she was such an amazing mother…”
Luckily, Michele had people in her life she could count on, her friends Kelly and Vivian, her cousins Nanette Shannon (’85) and Donna, and her teachers. “I had Mrs. Campone, I loved her. She was like a mother hen – she was very doting, very sweet and calm. She just made you feel like you were at home. She was really good to us.”
And there was also David Bodenrader, Michele’s guidance counselor. “I’m friends with him on Facebook. He was very supportive, I’d drop by his office just to talk. He always instilled in me that I could go to college.”
“Miss Faris, my English teacher, encouraged me suggested to write. She knew what was going on in my home life because I was a cheerleader so I was around her more. One time, I was upset, and she brought me into the locker room and I just broke down to her. Homecoming night, when I was Homecoming Queen, my dad showed up but my mom didn’t and Miss Faris talked me through it.”
Michele worked at Prudential Insurance in Lawrence for her co-op job both junior and senior year doing data entry in the health claims division. She became pregnant a year after she graduated and despite being accepted into a few four year colleges she decided to put school off and was hired by Prudential on a permanent basis. She spent ten years there, but didn’t give up on her plans for school.
Every day Michele would get on a city bus with her son, drop him off at the babysitter’s and then walk to work. Two nights a week she would take a cab to Northern Essex in Haverhill. Eventually, her mother was able to help out. “I had dragged her in and out of rehab, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Finally it stuck and she moved in with us when she became sober.”
Madelyn slept on the couch in her daughter’s small apartment babysitting little Jarad while Michele was either at school or working her second job at McDonald’s on Essex Street. Meanwhile, Michele, had her second child and found herself, once again, like so many children exposed to domestic violence, in a second abusive relationship. In 1993, after a year spent sober, Michele’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and passed away at the age of 48.
“At that time I had an epiphany and decided I wasn’t going to stay in an abusive relationship. I wasn’t going to lose my life at such a young age like my mother and never have love – genuine, healthy love. My mother’s death saved me in a way…saved me from a life of misery. I just knew I wasn’t going to raise my kids in that same kind of environment.” Michele began the next part of her journey.
She started working for the City of Lawrence in the community development office for Robin Campbell who was tasked with bringing Emerson College to the city. Robin became her mentor. “She guided me, instilled in me that I deserved a college education – that I was talented and bright and could do whatever I wanted to do.” Michele began taking courses at Merrimack.
In 1998, she applied for a job at Northern Essex as assistant to the Dean of Enrollment Services in Student Affairs. The Vice President, Steve Sullivan, hired her on the spot. Michele had a new mentor who would also become a dear, lifelong friend.
“When he hired me he said ‘I sense a simpatico between us, but I don’t expect you’re going to be in this position for long. I see you doing far bigger things, I want you to and I’m going to support that.” Sullivan allowed Michele to have a schedule flexible enough so that she could go back to school. In 2000, she graduated from Lesley University with her Bachelor’s in Human Services. “Steve was there, my kids were there, and Kelly, my friend from GLTS, threw my graduation party at her home.” Harris was promoted to Coordinator of Recruitment.
In 2002 Michele returned to school to pursue a Master’s Degree at Cambridge College when life dealt another cruel blow. She was diagnosed with advanced stage three breast cancer and was found to be BRCA 1 positive. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and an aggressive chemo and radiation regimen. And still she persevered.
Harris completed her Masters of Education three years later in Counseling. Her mentor and dear friend, Steve, was moving on to a different position and Michele decided to do the same and became an Academic Counselor in the Admissions at North Shore Community College. She stayed in that role for several years, eventually becoming the department’s liaison working with community based organizations.
When Michele’s two children left for college and she was left with an empty nest she went on a soul searching experience to see what she was going to do next. “I was always Jarad and Michaela’s mother, and I didn’t have an identity without them. The one thing I did know, was that I always wanted to be a therapist; someone to help people – like me – help them figure out how to get the hell out of “there”, wherever “there” was – drugs, domestic violence… So I went back to school at Lesley and completed a certificate of graduate students in clinical mental health counseling. When I retire someday, I plan to open a private practice.”
Michele works part time at The Center for Hope and Healing (formerly known as The Lowell Rape Crisis Center) where she meets with clients and has developed a twelve week self-love workshop series for empowering women. In addition to that, she has taken a new position at North Shore as the Senior Special Programs Coordinator working for the Vice President of Student Affairs, designing programs for minority, low income, first generation and underprivileged male students – the highest population of students not succeeding in college.
And then there is the writing. A few nights a week Michele devotes to telling her story, a story of overcoming adversity, enduring, loving and hoping – a story that she first attempted writing in a GLTS English class. Her teacher, Anne Marie Faris, gave her an A+ and commented “a wonderful paper. At some point you must do some writing about your journey so others can learn from you.”
Michele has also been the team leader/planner (a labor of love, she calls it) for all the 1984 GLTS HS reunions (5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 30th, and now…35th).
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