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Norwich Free Academy senior Teala Avery focused on social justice

Norwich — Norwich Free Academy senior Teala Avery had trouble concentrating on final school projects, scholarship applications and the unique graduation ceremony at Dodd Stadium on June 11.

Avery, 17, vice president of the Norwich NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council, attended and photographed protests in Hartford and Norwich following George Floyd's death under the pressed knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

But a different incident hit Avery even harder. On May 30, Atlanta police smashed the window of a car, Tased and dragged out the driver and the front-seat passenger during an Atlanta protest.

Atlanta news reports said the male driver, a Morehouse College student, suffered a broken wrist and a gash that required 21 stitches. Six officers were charged, four with felony aggravated assault, and two were fired.

The female passenger is a senior at Spelman College, where Avery will attend school this fall.

“This past week has been so draining emotionally, because this is a lot to take in,” Avery said. “We’ve heard all our lives what black people are going through in America. We are under this rule. Wow, this is really how America is set up?”

Avery, daughter of Terrlyn Curry Avery and Dion Avery of Norwich, was described by her mother, teachers and mentors as a serious student intent on chronicling social activism with her photography.

NFA Director of Diversity Leo Butler said Avery would not be pacified by a quick “it’ll be OK” when she brought troubling issues to his office.

“Every time she would come see me in my office, it would be something different,” Butler said. “Her mind was always seeing, reacting to something. She would come in and say: ‘Can I talk to you, Mr. Butler?'”

Mostly, Butler said, Avery would figure out how to respond or resolve the issue.

Avery will bring a broad set of experiences to Spelman, including trips to Europe with People to People International in the summer of 2018 and 2019. She had to raise more than $6,000 for each trip.

Like all high school seniors, Avery has dealt with COVID-19 disruptions. She was laid off from two jobs at the Foxwoods Resort Casino outlet mall and had to learn how to apply for unemployment compensation.

Her passions for social activism and photography came alive in a solo exhibit at Otis Library, “Acts that Shape Us: Youth and Social Justice.” Avery photographed NFA students doing community service projects, added portrait photos and vignettes on their perspectives.

The exhibit opened March 2 and the library hosted a reception and panel discussion March 14. The next day, Otis closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Avery’s works still adorning the community room.

“I’m not wallowing in what’s happening,” Avery said of COVID-19. “A lot of people have it a lot worse. A lot of people can’t say goodbye to family members who are dying of COVID. I’m just doing what I can, working on myself and working on scholarships and getting ready.”

Otis staff asked Teala and her sister, Ruby, to record a video tour of the exhibit. Ruby, 20, a public relations major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., coached Teala through multiple takes in recording each stop in the video tour.

“We kind of work together,” Ruby Avery said.

Her mother, Terrlyn Avery, a psychologist and Presbyterian minister, said her two daughters have a healthy competition that makes each strive to be her best. Teala is “wise beyond her years,” her mother said.

“She is the type of individual, once she puts her mind on something, she goes after it,” Teala’s mother said. “And she does the work that’s necessary and visualizes it coming to fruition. She doesn’t say ‘I can’t do X, Y and Z.' She pictures herself doing it and does the work.”

Teala Avery always knew she wanted to attend one of the historically black colleges and universities. At first she planned to follow her sister and several other relatives at Howard. But another cousin urged her to check out Spelman in Atlanta. Teala visited, shadowed two sophomores one day and said, "This is for sure where I want to be.”

Avery will major in photography with a double minor in culinary studies and entrepreneurialism, taking supplemental classes at Morehouse.

Avery took digital photography, including a portraiture project, in 10th grade and was hooked. She continued with advanced photography in 11th grade and an independent study with teacher Sarah LeFrancois this year. She loves portraits and tries to capture her subject’s personality and feelings — including her own in self-portraits.

“She sees people’s stories,” LeFrancois said, adding that Avery’s trips to Europe and her social activism allow her to see views and motivations.

“She’s got this really developed body of work I haven’t seen in a high school student,” LeFrancois said. “Being strong conceptually is hard to come by. Her upbringing and her involvement in the community has helped her a lot. ... She’s dedicated, hardworking and thinks very deeply.”

Elanah Sherman, a volunteer arts advocate, plans programs and exhibits at Otis Library. Every April, Sherman organizes a tribute to Sarah and Mary Harris, young African American sisters whose request in 1832 to go to school led to the opening of the Prudence Crandall school for black girls. Sherman wanted a prelude in March to today’s youth activism.

Sherman planned it as a group photo exhibit, until Butler at NFA introduced her to Avery. They started working on it in spring of 2019.

“Obviously, she had both the drive and the sensitivity to pull off a one-person show,” Sherman said.

Avery documented NFA students serving community meals, making blankets for hospitalized children, in Unified sports and fundraisers. She also took dozens of portraits of the students. Sherman loved them and asked her to interview the students to add their voices, as well.

About 30 people attended the March 14 reception and panel discussion.

Sherman had planned to rehang the exhibit at the Rose Arts Festival for its “Hometown Heroes" theme. That, too, was canceled. She is looking for other possible venues, including next year’s Rose Arts Festival.

“It was obvious at the reception that she was not only a product of her own drive, but of a strong family structure,” Sherman said. “For my last event (before Otis closed due to the pandemic) to be her show was really special.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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