Family traits of hard work, drive have threefold payoff

Second in a seven-part series

Eighteen years ago, Alma Kennedy was devastated to learn she was carrying triplets. Twins ran in the family, but three?

Today, she says, her heart is bursting with joy. Her three daughters prepare to graduate from Independence High with top grades, college scholarships and a long list of honors.

Iman, Ebony and Aja Kennedy are the kind of students any school would love to have in triplicate. They hold three of the top 10 spots in their class, each with a weighted grade-point average over 4.7. They love calculus, Spanish and helping younger kids at Community School of the Arts. All are polite and hard-working, says their guidance counselor, Reginald Spears.

“They've got the world ahead of them,” he said. “What they've accomplished in four years is remarkable.”

Alma Kennedy says she's not sure where her daughters' academic talent comes from. She and their father, Anthony Kennedy, were athletes, not star students.

But it's not hard to figure out where the girls got their work ethic.

Both parents were working at Pillowtex textile mill when the triplets were born. They already had two children. Anthony worked days, Alma nights, with Anthony's mother pitching in to care for the babies.

When the girls were 3, Alma recalls, she found a copy of Hooked on Phonics for $10 at a yard sale. Aja and Ebony light up at the memory, using identical hand gestures to demonstrate paging through stories, learning to read.

They were strong students from the time they entered kindergarten at J.H. Gunn Elementary. They moved up to Northridge Middle.

When it was time to start high school, Independence launched its Academy of International Studies, offering students a smaller setting where they could learn languages and focus on world cultures. The Kennedys signed up. They considered learning Chinese, but decided Spanish was more practical.

As teens, the triplets look enough alike that history teacher George Walker has distinguished himself by being the only faculty member never to call any of them by the wrong name, they say.

But they have distinct lives.

Iman (pronounced EYE-man), the first and largest baby, tops her 6-foot sisters by 3 inches. She's the athlete, a standout in volleyball, basketball and soccer. The volleyball coach at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, recruited her to join the team – and she earned an academic scholarship to pay the way.

The other two are musicians – Aja (pronounced AH-zha) plays flute and piccolo, Ebony clarinet and saxophone.

Ebony says she always wanted to go to UNC Chapel Hill. Aja wavered, but decided to apply there, too. Both got in. It's not clear whether they'll be roommates: “(Aja) requested me but I didn't request her,” Ebony says, grinning.

They all had options: Florida A&M offered a full ride, plus laptops, to all three, their mom says.

Despite their accomplishments and awards, the girls haven't had charmed lives.

Pillowtex closed in 2003, throwing their parents out of work. They eventually divorced.

For a long stretch, Alma Kennedy worked from 3:45 to 7:15 a.m. at UPS, then dashed to a day job at a law firm – all while keeping up with her daughters' active lives. She recently got hired at the U.S. Post Office, allowing her to scale back to one job.

“I told them, ‘You can go as high as you want to go; just set forth the effort and do it,' ” she said. “I've been telling them and telling them, ‘Y'all got to get the scholarships. I don't have the money.'”

Thursday she'll go to Cricket Arena to celebrate success – times three.