I called Mya Davis at the beginning of June 2020, amid the swell of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the world in direct response to police brutality and systemic racism against Black Americans. He greeted me hoarsely. “Oh God, my voice is kind of gone,” he chuckled. “See, um, I was out at my local protests yesterday. It was really good, and I just learned that my family owns a megaphone, so I’m definitely taking it out.”
Mya was referring to peaceful protests in Santa Clarita, a quiet Southern California suburb where he was spending summer at his childhood home. Incidentally, he had taken my call from the room where his mom had homeschooled him and his sister when they were kids. He gave me a tour by way of a cautious computer spin – across from him, cabinets sagged beneath stacks of books, papers, and past projects. A powered-off TV hid inside a closed cabinet, where Mya had grown up watching the Simpsons and playing Just Dance. Orange walls surrounded everything, hung with movie posters for Black Panther, Justice League, and Wonder Woman.
Mya set his laptop straight on his knees again and sat back, surveying the space. “Yeah, wow,” he said slowly. “This… one room. The last time I acknowledged it as the homeschooling room was five years ago.” To be fair, Mya’s mom had always preferred that the kids do their learning outside of the house — for the Davises, the world was the classroom.
Mya recalls crouching at the site of California's first gold discovery, The Oak of the Golden Dream, pretending to be a prospector, panning for gold flakes. On another occasion, Mya found himself rooting through a bag of igneous rocks that his mom had brought home for a lesson in geology. Together, they cracked open geodes, revealing glittering crystals. This sparked two weeks of Googling things like, 'What is a sedimentary rock?' and 'Where can I find amethyst?'
“I didn’t even realize how much my homeschooling upbringing shaped me into what I do and who I am today,” Mya said. "Some days, we didn't even have to complete a lesson in my Saxon Math Grade Six book because we would be going to the Griffith Observatory. My mom was like, 'I feel like this experience is going to impact my child today so much more than sitting down and reading this stuff.'"
For some field trips, Mya would spend the night in unfamiliar places. "Okay, I don't condone it now, but we went to SeaWorld," he laughed nervously. "I slept in the manatee habitat, and the manatees were sneezing all night. They woke me up, and I was like, 'How does that even work? How does your respiratory system work underwater?'”
As he had for all his field trips, Mya had brought his sketchbook along – a gift from his Uncle Cleve. He waited dutifully for everyone else to fall asleep before taking it out to sketch everything he had seen that day. "I just remember being under this huge woolly mammoth skeleton. And I was just sketching that jawn. I was like, 'How do these ribs curve?' As any artist would say, drawing from life is one of the best foundations, so I'm grateful for going to a bunch of different places. Whether it's the architecture, a certain plant species, or animals, I've drawn from life constantly. That enabled me to pull whatever I want out of imagination.”
The week we chatted, Mya had two projects on deck. One was an art installation of George Floyd, which was a collaboration between professors and students in Mya's program at USC. They were planning to split up an image of Mr. Floyd and render each piece individually, using any medium. The same team was also designing and preparing to drop-ship Black Lives Matter masks. "For the foreseeable future, we're going to be wearing masks. I see outfits as a 24/7 opportunity. As a canvas."
All around him, Mya finds new places to express himself, to inspire, to insert meaning into unused space. When he told me that he was looking forward to moving back to USC for the upcoming school year, he spent most of the time talking about the bookshelf that this roommate would be bringing. "It's going to be a living, breathing piece of our apartment,” he explained. “So whenever people visit, they can draw on it. They can paint on it. Oh, it'll just fill itself up. I just get really excited over little things like that."
But even with his two projects, Mya admitted to feeling reduced and creatively constrained in quarantine. I asked him to describe what he’s like when he feels most like himself, under normal circumstances.
Mya paused for a moment to reflect. “I would say I become fully myself when I am in person with others. Um, and then I would say when I am exposed to fresh environments as well,” he said.
In college, Mya is notorious for breathing life into the space around him. He and his friends might get to the classroom early and play music through the speaker system. “We’d just jam out completely,” explained his classmate, Sumit. “Like go crazy, right before class, dancing and all that. We’d get super sweaty, and I’d always walk out happy, no matter what my mood was before. We ended up blowing out one of the speakers.”
Even when we spoke in June of 2020, amid protests unfolding and in a nation confronting multi-generational Black trauma, Mya’s optimism was unmistakable. He chose each word slowly, confidently, insistently, seriously: “I always turn my grief, especially in recent times, into a question like, ‘What can I do?’ I’m glad that we’re doing something in this time of Black Lives Matter, but what’s the next thing? I’ll still be on the front lines of any type of justice.”
Mya’s joy is his trademark, vibrant even in the finer touches; according to his friends, everyone he encounters gets a wide smile, a warm check-in, a dance move in passing, or all three; each little thing saying something along the lines of I see you, I appreciate you, and I think you’re doing great. "I want to make sure that everyone I interact with gets their day brightened somehow,” Mya told me.
“I have been known to have an unconditional amount of optimism,” he explained. “I have no idea how many other people share my view of the world, but I always think that action can offset a bad thing, or make a good thing a great thing. I’m always thinking about that. Some people take it as, ‘Mya, why are you never angry? I’ve never heard you cuss somebody out. I’ve never seen you cry.’ I do cry rarely,” he said, raising his eyebrows in acknowledgment. “I’m definitely comfortable with vulnerability. But I’m never stuck.”
Mya explained that his parents, Annett and Byron Davis, had shown him what kindness could be as a form of power, something that she had learned in their time as professional athletes. "If you want to get into my family's sports history, my mom and her best friend and partner in beach volleyball, Jenny Johnson Jordan, went to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. My father, Byron Davis, was just three-tenths of a second away from being the first African American on an Olympic team for swimming. My dad taught me not to change for others but rather ask, how can I be of service to you? He's amazing." Mya said, grinning. “And how can I ever forget? I also have a godmother named Betsy. She, first of all, is powerful." (Mya's godmother Betsy is married to Rafer Johnson, an accomplished Olympic decathlete.)
Byron went on to build a career in motivational speaking, and was frequently away on business. While traveling for her volleyball, Annett homeschooled Mya and his sister largely on her own, taking great care to mold their minds and their spirits. "Both my mom and my granny made me want to [be kind]. I was shown so much, and in turn, I want to give so much.”
Annett had chosen to homeschool Mya for the opportunity to stoke Mya’s natural curiosities. “She wrapped basic subjects within my passions and interests, and I’ll forever be grateful for her doing that,” Mya explained. Together, they had the freedom to dive deeply into whatever they wanted – and in some cases, they got to wrestle with material that couldn't be found in schools. Annett honored Black History Month every February, reading James Baldwin out loud and walking Mya through the rich history of the African diaspora. "You don't get that in public school,” Mya said, laughing. “You get maybe like, a chapter and a half on slavery, but you get so much on the lineage of European royalty.”
Homeschooling meant that Mya was able to learn at whatever pace was instinctive to him. When he wanted to, he could sprint through the material, or leisurely explore every tangential question he had. Mya’s natural diligence propelled him through his math, spelling, and writing workbooks. He accelerated through lessons until Annett no longer needed to lecture him, so she assigned him books to read on his own, which he completed quickly, shortening the school day. This left the afternoon wide open for getting lost in whatever else caught Mya's attention. And once he struck against something that resonated, nothing could pull him out of it. “I want to be productive all the time,” said Mya. “But I take a lot of time just soaking in stuff because I’m really curious about a bunch of weird, random things. I go down huge rabbit holes.”
This kind of learning was strongly encouraged by Mya’s Uncle "Cleve" Cleveland, a filmmaker, who Mya considers his primary creative mentor. Mya would spend many of his afternoons visiting his uncle’s house, where the two built all sorts of creative environments together; taking casual but deep dives into GarageBand, Logic, amongst other digital audio workstations and editing softwares; and putting on record after record for inspiration.
"I like to think of him as my 'creative father,'" explained Mya. "He got me into loving music. He put me onto everything. And then he would be like, 'Let's go see a movie. I’mma show you all the classics of film.' And we just got down and we did it. There was just something in me that was calling me and drawing me to the world. I was like, 'there are people who had to make this.' I'll never forget what really set me off into just kind of looking deeper and deeper into how things are connected.
My uncle was away one time. I was in my Granny's house, snooping around as kids do. And I stumbled across my uncle's comic collection. And I was like, 'Yo, what are these?' I pick up a Calvin and Hobbes book – Something Under the Bed is Drooling. I didn't even understand too many of the jokes,” Mya admitted. “They flew over my head. But I was up all night reading that book. The next day, I brought this book to my uncle and I was like, 'Do you have any more of these?' He gave them to me, and that kindness impacted me.
I wanted to see who inspired Bill Watterson to become Bill Watterson. So I went to Charles Schultz. I ordered stuff from my library that was out of town. I read every single Peanuts comic. And then I was like, 'What's next? What's next? Who else did Charles Schulz impact? And what other amazing creations spawn from there?'"
This is the type of exploration that might happen in a film studies course; Mya was just six years old. As he's gotten older, he has begun to see those extra afternoon hours as the foundations of his creative growth. "Homeschooling really made it possible for me to even go on these endeavors as in-depth as I did,” he explained. “If I was in public school or even private school, I'd be there 8:00 to 3:00. When I got to public school, in high school, I was like, 'A lot of these hours of the day, I'm really on someone else's agenda. And I'm learning some useful things.' But in the back of my head all throughout high school, I knew that I could have been using that amount of time to be developing the skills that I wanted to develop. Homeschooling gave me that."
On the first day of ninth grade, Mya stood in the cafeteria at West Ranch Valley High, feeling overwhelmed. His homeschooling journey had ended; he wanted to run track and experience a typical high school. Intellectually, Mya was well-off. Because homeschooling had allowed him to take schoolwork at his own pace, he was two years ahead of the class in math and one year ahead in Spanish. And although Mya had formed friendships before, this was different – crowds of students appeared to form everywhere, swelling to fill the open space. How he could fit into that crowd and where he could sit at lunch were both unclear. With kids filing into seats from all directions, the bathroom seemed like an easy out. Mya soon found himself eating his PB&J above a line of crawling ants.
The bathroom lunches lasted for two or three weeks, until Mya hatched a plan to make exactly one friend. He decided to try something he had picked up while homeschooling. When he wasn't making comics or watching movies, Mya had spent his homeschooling afternoons consuming everything he could about close-up magic. He had watched every magic special and tutorial that he had found, checked out books about tricks, and practiced sleight-of-hand on his own.
Mya smiled earnestly. "My grandfather, Big Daddy, always loved playing cards and doing card tricks. He died when I was six, but what keeps me connected to him are magic tricks.” Magic had connected Mya to his grandfather, and he thought it might help him connect with a classmate, too.
“I started doing card tricks for just one person. I thought, 'If I can just show this really cool trick to one person in PE, then, you know, I will have progressed,’” said Mya. He showed a trick to a classmate named Brett. “I do something where I switch a card I have in my hand to be under his foot. And he’s blown away – socks off – he's barefoot," Mya recalled, beaming proudly with his hands up, for emphasis. "He’s now one of my best friends. Eventually, I have a huge crowd around me at recess, and I'm doing a magic routine for the girl I had a crush on… I’m like, 'How am I here right now?' Magic was an excellent tool,” he laughed. “I mean, I still do it.”
As his friends explained, Mya found his social stride then and there. “You could always find him with a deck of cards,” said Joel, one of Mya’s former classmates. “He could draw crowds, whether it was at Venice boardwalk, the bleachers of a football game, or the back of a classroom. Once, he got a teacher to participate in a trick, and the entire class went wild. The thing is, wherever Mya went, he could speak the language. He’s the definition of ‘jack of all trades’ – minus the ‘master of none’ part.”
"I hear a big stereotype that homeschoolers don't do well socially," Mya said carefully. "Looking back on it, I was okay." Mya had been part of a few different communities while homeschooling, including Boy Scouts, where he learned about leadership; and multiple co-ops, which are groups of homeschooling families that organize learning together for certain subjects. A classical co-op that taught logic as a subject encouraged Mya to analyze arguments with a critical eye, while another co-op led group field trips and group events, the most memorable of which was called Entrepreneurship Day.
“I don’t know if they had this in elementary schools,” said Mya. “But one co-op had this event that really catapulted my sense of wanting to create my own things. Entrepreneurship Day allowed everyone in the co-op to sell their own creations, whatever they love. I was like, ‘Yo, this is a fantastic chance for me to try and make my own comic book.” Mya wrote The Davis Family, a comic strip about a Black family, which he modeled after The Simpsons and his own household. In one week, he made twenty comic strips, and Annett took him to Kinkos to make spiral-bound copies. These became his first volumes. With his mom's help, Mya recorded the costs to print each copy, then took his books to Entrepreneurship Day, where he sold his books to strangers in a booth in the park, signing his name in each cover. "It taught me that creating something, and having an entrepreneurial mindset, is an incredible feeling.”
When it comes time to think about college, most ambitious high schoolers opt for majors that set them on a well-defined pathway to a stable career. Mya thought differently, hoping for a learning environment that would give his passions space to flourish at the same time, an experience not unlike his homeschooling days. He looked for programs that encouraged students to think beyond the boundaries of well-defined job titles and build on raw ideas. “That's why my college program appealed to me most above all other programs,” said Mya, speaking of the USC Iovine & Young Academy, where he’s now a rising sophomore. “They're not going to give you a set education, but rather the tools that you can use to create wherever you want. I was like, 'Enough said. I want to go there.'"
Mya seems to have found the environment that he was looking for. When I asked some of his college classmates how they’d describe him, they each provided different answers: "The kid has non-stop ideas," said one classmate. "I would probably describe him as humble, attentive, and intentional," said another. "I don't think there's a singular word that best fits that." The others chose titles: Magician. Innovator. Trendsetter. Dancer. Optimist. Designer. Visionary. Music maker. Friend. My favorite? Artist of unconventional mediums.