Alonso High valedictorian overcomes tragedy to become leader, role model
It was a trip of a lifetime for Ayushe Misra, a monthlong tour of her native India with her family, filled with five-star hotels, sightseeing and shopping.
She had asked for the vacation, and her parents happily obliged. They made a good living, and Ayushe was near the start of her senior year at Tampa’s Alonso High School, where she was ranked first in her class.
Toward the end of the trip, something strange happened. On July 26, while the family was shopping in a city close to her father’s hometown of Auraiya, Ayushe noticed a man following them from store to store.
"We’ve got to get out of here," she told her parents.
The family finished their shopping without incident and headed back that evening to her grandparents’ home.
Ayushe heard a noise in middle of the night, but she stayed in bed. When she woke up in the morning she found that the family’s luggage had been tossed around the house. Her mother, Anshul Misra, bound and gagged, was lying dead on the bed. Her father, Ganesh Dutt, was in the next room, also tied up but alive.
"I was hysterical," she recalls.
Two days later her father was arrested, along with three family members and two other men, and charged with her mother’s killing.
At that moment, Ayushe and her 9-year-old sister essentially became orphans. And the 17-year-old’s future, which seemed so bright, was now in serious jeopardy.
Two weeks later, as Ayushe sat on the plane before takeoff, she glanced outside the window, said a prayer and briefly shut her eyes.
She looked at her sister, who was fast asleep, and wondered: Now what?
• • •
In the days after the murder, Ayushe made it clear that she wanted to go home to Tampa, where she has lived since she was 5 and where her sister was born. The question was how.
Because they were minors and now wards of the state, the girls could not live by themselves in the family’s three-bedroom Westchase home.
Officials took inventory of everyone the Misra family knew. There was an uncle in New Jersey, but it didn’t make sense for the girls to move there. They had a handful of family friends around the Tampa Bay area.
Douglas Kirk, 43, had worked with Ayushe’s father at Syniverse Technologies, a Tampa mobile communications company, before Dutt left the company in 2008 to work for the New York Stock Exchange.
Kirk said he had gotten a call from a mutual friend of his and Dutt’s, who explained the situation. He had met Ayushe only once when the Misras had come to a Super Bowl party at his home.
"I thought, well, I’ve known Ganesh a long time. I think I’ll help," said Kirk, who is married with two sons, ages 14 and 10. "Ayushe has such a bright future, I just couldn’t stand the thought of things not working out the best way possible."
Unfortunately, though Kirk was willing to take the girls in, his Dade City home was more than 40 miles from the girls’ schools. He called his mother, Pat, who is retired and lives in Tampa’s Forest Hills neighborhood.
She, too, had worked with Dutt at Syniverse. She also had met the girls only once.
"I saw a need," Pat Kirk said as she sat in the living room of her modest three-bedroom home. "I was completely astonished by what had happened."
The Kirks became the girls’ temporary guardians, responsible for attending numerous court hearings and meetings that would be held throughout the year.
Pat Kirk cleared out an 11- by 12-foot bedroom near her home’s front door. Social services provided a pair of twin beds, and law enforcement officers took the girls to their now-unoccupied home to fetch some belongings.
"It was rushed, and I was in a frantic state of mind," Ayushe said of that first visit back to the family home. "It seemed like forever since I lived there."
She quickly grabbed clothes from her room and stuffed them in a suitcase; her sister took clothes, along with stuffed animals of various sizes.
But Ayushe also grabbed a photo of her family, a snapshot of the four of them standing in front of the CN Tower in Toronto during a vacation. The inscription on the light-blue picture frame:
“Families are the rich soil from which we grow and to which we return for the nourishment of our roots.”
• • •
School had always been a place of comfort for Ayushe. She had excelled from the age of 3, when she entered her first classroom in India.
Her mother had a master’s degree in statistics, and her maternal grandparents were community college principals. Ayushe learned to read when she was 4 and was writing her name in cursive by age 5 when she moved to Tampa.
"No one had to tell me, ‘You have to do well,’ " she said.
Now, with so much unsettled in her life, she needed school more than ever. A week before classes started, she visited the Alonso High campus for an open house. She sought out Deborah Isaac, her student government adviser whom she had know since freshman year, and told her the whole story.
"I didn’t know what to say," Isaac recalled. "But I thought: ‘What is going to happen to her?’ "
Guidance counselor Brandon DeLacey saw Ayushe in the hallway that day and asked how her summer trip went.
"It was fine," he remembers her saying. "She was very casual about it."
Ayushe approached him later, during the first week of school, and told him — in detail — what happened.
"There were no emotions. Maybe she was still in shock," DeLacey said. "But maybe it was Ayushe dealing with it in her own way."
"I said, ‘Whatever I have to do to help you, just ask.’ "
Ayushe’s situation was known only to a small group of administrators, counselors and teachers. “Probably fewer than 10 people,” Isaac said.
"She became ours. She became our daughter," Isaac said. "We would do whatever it took to get her to stay here, even if it meant picking her up every day."
Ayushe also didn’t want her classmates to know, telling only her three closest friends.
"She didn’t want special treatment or a pity party," said Nia Joseph, her best friend since sophomore year.
• • •
Ayushe settled into a hectic senior class schedule, with four Advanced Placement courses and several school leadership positions: National Honor Society president, student government president and yearbook editor in chief.
But there were also new responsibilities. There was her sister, who was always looked after by their stay-at-home mom. Every day, Anshul Misra would prepare their meals, take them to and from school and have food ready for them when they got home.
"I had become the sole parental figure in my sister’s life," Ayushe said. "But I told her there’s no way I could replace Mom."
Ayushe makes sure to check her sister’s homework and tuck her in at night.
Another new challenge was money. She didn’t have any.
"My parents gave me everything I needed," Ayushe said. "I never needed a job."
Her father provided a comfortable living and a home in one of the county’s most desirable communities. He always told her he’d be able to pay for her college, no matter where she decided to go.
But now she had no access to her father’s bank accounts. Soon after she and her sister arrived back in Florida, she started working part time to cover gas, clothes and other things the two needed.
She began working twice a week as a tutor at Kumon Learning Center. In the spring, she added a 20-hour-a-week job as a food server at Aston Gardens, a senior living community near Westchase.
"She’s so sweet and down to earth," said Angela Johnson, culinary services manager at Aston Gardens. "A very hard worker, with nothing but compliments from diners."
Recently, she took a third job, at Aéropostale at Tampa’s International Plaza, though she hasn’t had time to work a shift there yet.
Ayushe said she doesn’t like asking people for things, especially money. But others have pitched in.
Pat Kirk cooks meals for the girls and takes them out to eat. She also drives Ayushe’s sister to and from school every day. Doug Kirk takes them shopping. Another family friend pays Ayushe’s cellphone bill. A neighbor mows the grass at the family’s unoccupied home, which the father still owns. Alonso advisers paid for her graduation cap and gown and yearbook.
"I don’t know how I’ll be able to say thank you," Ayushe said.
• • •
DeLacey, the guidance counselor, said he worried at first whether Ayushe would be able to juggle such a load. On top of everything, there were colleges to apply for and scholarships to pursue.
"She’s a procrastinator, and she knows it," he said.
Yet he watched in amazement as Ayushe made it all work. “Her adversity last summer taught her how to excel at another level,” he said. “It’s been impressive.”
Ayushe manages her hectic schedule through Google Calendar on her cellphone and by getting only about three to four hours’ sleep a night. She admits to steady doses of Red Bull and Starbucks.
In the fall, she applied to a handful of public and private universities, and DeLacey helped her find and apply for scholarships.
Ayushe said the tragedy has given her a newfound sense of urgency that now drives her life.
"To postpone the pursuit of my own dreams — to pursue them with anything less than passion — is to risk their extinction," she wrote in an essay she submitted with her application for the Barnes Scholarship, an award sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times.
But she also has tried to find normalcy amid the frenzied pace of her life.
She makes time to hang out with friends at the mall, or at her favorite eatery, Panda Express.
"She can be silly," friend Nia Joseph said. "I think many people don’t realize that about her."
The two often hang out at Nia’s home in Westchase, watching TV or surfing the Internet. “Just a lot of nothing,” Nia said.
What’s striking to many is the composure with which Ayushe lives her life. She’s seldom emotional, they say.
She admits to good days and bad days.
"Christmas was difficult," she said. Not so much because her family was religious, but because it was a time of year when families are together.
• • •
College acceptance letters started to roll in over the winter. The University of Alabama was first, followed by two Florida schools and a handful of private universities up North.
But with all the uncertainties in her life, Ayushe wasn’t sure where she would — or could — go.
She said her father, 45, calls periodically, proclaiming his innocence and offering assurances that things will be okay.
She last heard from him in April, and the two spoke for about 20 minutes. She told him she and her sister were doing well in school. He told her he was worried about how things were going with his case.
"He could sense his release from prison wasn’t going to happen soon," she said. "And his trial wasn’t going to start any time soon."
Ayushe said she doesn’t know what to think about his guilt or innocence. It hasn’t been the problem foremost in her mind. What has been is her sister’s future. The Kirks had agreed to take the girls in for the school year, which would allow Ayushe to graduate from Alonso and her sister to finish fifth grade at Westchase Elementary.
But there was no plan beyond that.
Ayushe said she was prepared to forgo more prestigious college opportunities and stay in Tampa with her sister and attend the University of South Florida.
But recently that uncertainty was eased when another family friend, in Safety Harbor, agreed to take her sister in.
"I think that took a huge weight off her shoulders," said Isaac, her student government adviser.
In April, she chose Columbia University in New York.
• • •
On a recent evening, hundreds of Alonso High seniors, along with their parents and other family and friends, put on their Sunday best and streamed into the school auditorium for an awards ceremony.
Ayushe arrived in a beautiful red dress that she bought, with her best friend Nia at her side.
Ayushe was called to the stage repeatedly — to receive the National Merit Scholar award, the Tampa Tribune Honor Scholar recognition and the President’s Education Award. She was one of 10 Golden Ravens, an award given to the top all-around seniors.
Presenters rattled off her many achievements: winner of the Barnes Scholarship, worth up to $60,000 over four years, and the national Horatio Alger Scholarship, worth $20,000; and acceptance to the University of Alabama, the University of Florida, Fordham University, New York University and Columbia, where she has accepted a full scholarship and expects to study business and journalism.
They also announced she would be the class valedictorian, finishing with the highest grade-point average in the 12-year history of the school — a weighted 7.32 — drawing gasps from the audience.
She also received a standing ovation after being one of two students to receive the night’s biggest prize, the Principal’s Award.
Ayushe, her sister and the Kirks posed for pictures, with the teenager struggling to hold on to her many awards and a bouquet of flowers.
• • •
A year ago, as a junior, Ayushe volunteered as an usher at Alonso High’s graduation. Her parents drove her there and decided to stick around to watch.
They noticed that the parents of the valedictorian and salutatorian got to sit in a reserved section up front.
"Hey, next year we get to sit up front, and you get to speak," they told her.
On Wednesday, Ayushe will feel their absence.
"It will hit me at some point," she expects. "Maybe at rehearsal."
But when she looks out at the audience, she knows that her sister will be there, along with the Kirks and other family friends. Her caseworker and court-appointed legal advocate have been invited, too. And, of course, her Alonso High family.
"It’s not that they will ever replace Mom and Dad," she said, "but there’s still someone out there cheering for me."