Even though she was just 3 years old, Kai Leigh Harriott can remember the night that left her paralyzed from the chest down. She was on the porch of her family’s Dorchester home singing “Barney” songs when the shots rang out. Harriott was struck in the back by a stray bullet, her spine shattered. An older sister carried her inside and laid her on the floor.
“I guess I was bleeding. I felt like I was floating. I was crying for mom,” she recalled.
This week, Harriott, 18, will graduate from Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. She is preparing to attend college outside of Boston, and leave the place where street violence upended her life, but that also summoned her determination not to be defined by it.
In a city where gun violence has killed young, innocent victims like Trina Persad, 10, Jermaine Goffigan, 9, and Darlene Tiffany Moore, 12, Harriott emerged as a symbol of hope and resiliency. Despite being seriously wounded, Harriott survived, publicly forgave her shooter, and thrived.
She has played a role in the growing anti-gun-violence movement — helping to lead a protest recently at her high school — but she also wants time to be a “typical teenager’’ and just spend time with her friends.
“My mom’s kind of like, ‘You have a voice, you need to use it.’ I understand where she’s coming from,” she said. “I do have a platform to speak and I use it when I feel like I need to. I’m totally a kid of my generation.”
After she was shot in 2003, Harriott spent four months recovering at Franciscan Children’s hospital in Brighton before enrolling at Chinatown’s historic Josiah Quincy Elementary School and beginning her life anew in a wheelchair. At Josiah Quincy, she worked with physical and occupational therapists and got her first exposure to Mandarin, which she still studies.
A few days before Easter in 2006, when she was 5 years old, Harriott skipped school picture day at Josiah Quincy to go to the sentencing of the man responsible for paralyzing her.
Anthony Warren, a convicted felon from Hyde Park, had fired three shots to scare two women on the first floor of Harriott’s building after an argument. He had pleaded guilty and apologized to Harriott and her family.
But it was Harriott’s message to Warren that cemented her mark on the city.
“What you done to me was wrong,” she said in court. “But I still forgive him.”
Her sister, Kailana Harriott, 19, said Harriott didn’t discuss her plan to forgive Warren in advance.
“It was such an experience to see her forgive. I don’t think anyone was prepared for that,” she said. “At the time, we didn’t expect Kai to be that vocal. . . . When she did that. it was her taking the initiative and leading us through.”
Harriott said she visited Warren in prison during her sophomore year of high school.
“I didn’t have animosity towards him,” she said. “I just wanted to get to know him as a person.”
Warren has since been freed, and Harriott says she is glad. Her mother, Tonya David, said she met with Warren shortly after his release from prison.
“I think that he’s done the time and now it’s time for him to live his life. Forgiveness is forgiveness,” David said. “You have to forgive so that you can live your life, and I now stand by that. I just want him to succeed.”
Harriott is planning to attend the University of Arizona. An aspiring veterinarian, Harriott said she’d like to study animal science and Mandarin.
“I just love animals,” said Harriott, who has two pets, Bless, a cat who came to live with the family the same year Harriott was shot, and an 8-year-old cocker spaniel named Polo.
She considers herself an activist and feminist who is proud to be black and is undeterred by her disability.
“My family thinks I should do politics because I’m always arguing. I’m always talking about social justice,” she said. “When I was [at Josiah Quincy] they used to say, ‘You’re going to run for president. You’re going to be the first female president.’ I thought about it. Maybe.”
If Harriott wanted, she could put herself at the forefront of the youth-led anti-gun-violence movement that rose from the fatal shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14 by a former student.
Harriott said she’s energized by the new wave of anti-gun-violence activism, but she also wants time to enjoy her teenage years.
In April, Harriott helped organize a walkout at Newton Country Day, a Catholic school for girls, as part of national protests marking the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, said Brittany Borders, assistant director of admissions.
Harriott spoke during the demonstration, telling the gathering that she’s a living example of gun violence’s toll.
“She was really vocal speaking about her experience,” said Borders.
Harriott doesn’t conceal the scar on her back from the gunshot wound or hesitate to discuss being shot, but her friends and family said the shooting and its aftermath don’t define her. One of her closest friends, for example, said she knew Harriott for three years before she learned Harriott had been shot.
“We don’t look at her as Kai in a wheelchair,” said Ariana Gomes, 18, who has been Harriott’s friend since middle school. “We look at her as Kai.”
Kailana Harriott said her sister “goes beyond her chair.”
“I think the greatest thing I’ve learned from Kai aside forgiveness is just the beauty of bouncing back,” she said. “No matter what goes on in life, no matter what trouble she may face, she always is able to bounce back.”
Kai Harriott said that resiliency has carried her since the day she forgave Warren.
“I felt like I was just beginning my life,” she said. “I felt like there was nothing else from there to do but just live my life and that’s what I did.”
Before getting her high school diploma, Harriott returned to her Chinatown elementary school to complete her senior project. She spent a month volunteering at Josiah Quincy’s after-school program as part of her study of after-school programs in low-income communities.
“It really means a lot to me to come back here,” Harriott said last month as she waited at one of Josiah Quincy’s playgrounds for class to get out.
Her former Josiah Quincy teachers said they were delighted to have the vivacious teenager with dimples back at the school.
“The smile hasn’t changed. The beautiful eyes haven’t changed,” said Kelly Keefe, who taught Harriott in fourth grade. “It’s amazing to see the young lady she’s turned into. [It’s] not something I’m surprised about,” Keefe said. “She was always a fighter.”Laura Crimaldi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.