Growing up in Richmond, Ebone Taylor was always a good student. She typically brought home A grades without having to study.
That all changed on Feb. 12, 2005.
She was riding in a car with friends when it veered off the road and slammed into a tree, breaking Taylor's neck and causing brain damage.
She woke up in a hospital a week later with no memory of what had happened.
"The doctors told my mom I would be a vegetable," Taylor said in an interview Friday.
Did she ever prove them wrong.
At Old Dominion University's fall commencement exercises today, Taylor, 24 - whose first name is pronounced like "ebony" - will receive her master's degree in early childhood education with a 3.61 grade-point average.
The accident changed the trajectory of her life in multiple ways.
For one, it caused her to rethink her career goals. She had always wanted to be a pediatrician, but her extended hospital stay alongside children with profound birth defects prompted second thoughts.
"I didn't think I could take it emotionally," she said. "But I still had a passion for kids."
So she decided to become a teacher - a choice that presented challenges of its own.
Her traumatic brain injury had a dramatic effect on her memory and her ability to learn. Memorization, a key skill in absorbing facts and passing tests, became a steep hill she had to climb.
"When I got to college, I realized: It isn't the way it used to be - I have to study now," she said.
"My learning became different. But I was still able to learn."
She developed techniques - taking copious notes, making up acronyms, seeking out context clues - to bolster her memory. After getting her undergraduate degree from ODU, she plunged ahead to graduate school.
Every test was a challenge. It took her three tries to pass the Praxis I, a crucial gateway exam for aspiring teachers. There were times when she almost gave up.
"It's been a long 6-1/2 years," she said. "But I'm a fighter."
In addition to her studies, Taylor immersed herself in extracurricular activities at ODU, always with a focus on children.
She was a volunteer mentor at Larchmont Elementary School in Norfolk. She organized a "Homework Helpers" program in which ODU students helped kids with their homework at a city recreation center in the Lamberts Point neighborhood near the campus.
She spent her spring breaks on community service trips. Last year, she went to Alabama after a series of devastating tornadoes, cleaning up debris and helping families that lost their homes.
"Those trips showed me everybody has a story," she said. "You see the world through somebody else's eyes. It made me value my life and what I have. It was a humbling experience."
Her mother, who encouraged her at every turn, will be in the audience at today's ceremony.
With her degree in hand, Taylor plans to find a teaching job in Hampton Roads so she can help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds do what she did - overcome whatever obstacles lie in the way of learning.
Her decision to become a teacher was reinforced yet again this month, on her last day of practice teaching at Newtown Elementary School in Virginia Beach. When she said goodbye, one student burst into tears.
She knows her career path will never make her rich.
"But I'm not in it for that," she said. "It's about making a difference in their lives."
Bill Sizemore, 757-446-2276, email@example.com