By Keith Chambers
While she scrubbed floors in a hospital during the day, her son was busy building a 5.1 grade point average at Morgan Park High School.
On Monday, June 12, 37-year-old Melanie Tucker, a single mother of five, took time off from her grueling schedule to watch her 18-year-old son, Brian Dunn, walk across the stage as class valedictorian. Exactly one week later, Tucker watched her 14-year-old daughter, Tomia Ousley, finish at the top of her class at Burnham Math and Science Academy for middle school students.
With commencement ceremonies in high gear for thousands of high school graduates in Chicago Public Schools, some proud parents whose children are valedictorians are especially happy. But Tucker is bursting with pride. She has not one, but two children who are number one in their respective classes.
It’s an extraordinary achievement for a single mother who for years raised five children alone while working full time as a housekeeper in the maternity ward at a major medical center.
It’s about 16 miles from where Tucker lives in Calumet Heights on the Far South Side, where for years she took two buses to work to put food on the table and raise five children. Her other three children are also exceptional students in Chicago’s public school system.
Two of her children are in the spotlight for now as they finish at the top of their classes as valedictorians. But the attention is also on Tucker, whose success as a single mother of five high-achieving students is perhaps an even greater accomplishment.
Brian, her oldest son who is now class valedictorian, was born in 1998 when Tucker was just 18. A year later 17-year-old Shannon Dunn was born. Then came Brandon Dunn, 16 in 2001. Daughter Tomia Ousley, now 14, was born in 2002, her 12-year-old sister Taya Ousley was born in 2004.
At one time on welfare, Tucker persevered through hard times to give her children a future. That meant little time for her to get her life together.
Tucker said Brian’s father, Brian Dunn Sr., was in jail for armed robbery when his son was born, leaving her to raise his children on her own. He was released in 2003. Tucker says today, Dunn Sr. remains active in his children’s lives as does Tomia and Taya’s father, Thomas Ousley.
Brian’s father has liver and lung cancer but was able to attend his son’s graduation, at the House of Hope mega church. Tomia’s graduation ceremony was at Corliss High School.
Today, Tucker works full time at a major medical center complex. She rises at 4:45 a.m. every morning to get to work at 7 a.m. from her far south Calumet Heights neighborhood. Tucker has lived in the community for the past two years after living with her mother and at various places in Indiana and Illinois.
She has worked at the medical center for seven years. She says her job has been the most stable aspect of her life.
“Periodically we had our own place but its been hard. We overcame all of that,” Tucker said.
She doesn’t have a car so she takes two buses to get to work. It’s close to a two hour trek each way, everyday. There’s little time for rest. She must prepare dinner, review homework and do household chores before she finally goes to bed to rest before another grueling day.
With the honor of two of her children being class valedictorians, her hard work is worth it says Tucker.
It was the second such distinction for Brian Dunn Jr. He was also valedictorian of his junior high school class at the closed Robert H. Lawrence school now Burnham Academy.
“I didn’t envision this happening again twice in a row,” Brian said. Asked if he aims for a similar achievement in college, Brian said “if it happens again that would be nice but that’s not my goal.”
Tucker said she wasn’t surprised the day Brian told her he was the valedictorian of his high school class.
“He was always a scholar,” Tucker said. “He was always an achiever and great role model for my children.”
At Morgan Park, Brian was an Illinois State Scholar and was in the school’s prestigious IB program for gifted students. He was also a member of the National Honor Society.
Brian has won a full scholarship to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where he will study to become a dentist. Tucker plans to host a big sendoff party for Brian before he leaves for college.
Tomia will attend Gwendolyn Brooks High School. “She wants to be a lawyer because she definitely has the gift of gab,” Tucker said.
Once confused, and with limited resources and a family to raise, Tucker said now, life for herself and her children is more than she imagined.
“I can’t believe that this is my story,” Tucker said. In the beginning I was young and silly, but it turned out totally different from what I thought.”