School has just let out at Dailey Middle School, and Carolyn White-Mosley is surveying a stack of cheeseburgers in the cafeteria.
As students walk in to participate in the after-school program she runs, she nudges them to take one.
“A lot of kids don’t have meals at home,” she says, “so we make sure we provide a meal for them.”
White-Mosley began overseeing the school’s Learning Enrichment Afterschool in Del Valle (LEAD) program five years ago, and in that time she’s earned a reputation as a beloved mentor with an open door and an open heart.
But what many of the students who rely on her for daily advice don’t know is that with every hug and encouraging word she’s also paying tribute to her late daughter, Ortralla Mosley, who 15 years ago was murdered inside a school not unlike this one.
Ortralla Mosley, a cheerleader who as a 15-year-old sophomore was already taking college courses, had everything going for her, White-Mosley said.
“She was an angel,” White-Mosley said, adding that her daughter, whom she called Trella, adored butterflies. “She was loving, kind, tender, patient, respectable, understanding, happy. She was the kind of person everybody would want to know. We were as close as a mother and daughter can be.”
In March 2003, White-Mosley’s world came crashing down when she received the news that Ortralla had been stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, Marcus McTear, in a hallway at Reagan High School. McTear admitted that he killed her and is serving a 40-year sentence.
Ortralla had voiced concerns about McTear’s behavior in the past, and White-Mosley said she had been working with his parents on a solution in the days leading up to her daughter's death.
“(Trella) went to school all happy that day. She felt like everything was going to work out fine because she asked me to get him some help,” White-Mosley said. “I still say we lost two children that day.”
In the midst of her devastation, White-Mosley ordered a headstone in the shape of a butterfly for her daughter and made the necessary funeral arrangements. But once the condolence flowers had withered and the casserole dishes had been cleared away, she faced a new challenge: figuring out how to assemble the patchwork of her life knowing some of the pieces would forever be missing.
BECOMING AN ADVOCATE
Almost immediately, White-Mosley threw herself into advocating against teen dating violence.
“It was a lot of unfamiliar ground that I was walking on,” White-Mosley said. “Trella wasn’t the first person that got killed that way, but I was a mother that decided not to hush about it and go out and speak about it.”
She worked with a community safety task force that formed in light of her daughter’s death to recommend safety measures to the Austin Independent School District, many of which were implemented in 2004. She also advocated that the Violence Against Women Act be updated to include language addressing teen violence, which led to an emotional meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in 2013.
“It made me happy that Trella’s death, it was not all in vain,” said White-Mosley, who also earned degrees in psychology and criminal justice after her daughter’s death. “It was the cause behind it.”
But, she would learn, placing her focus on advocacy came with a price.
“It took me years to realize that it’s time for me to get myself some help,” White-Mosley said. “I handled it by being an advocate for teen dating violence prevention and awareness, but my mind stayed on trying to help someone else and not helping myself. I closed myself off.”
“In other words,” adds Nancy Ramirez, White-Mosley’s best friend of 25 years, “she never grieved.”
LEARNING TO GRIEVE
For years, White-Mosley wished to be able to see her daughter’s face in her dreams.
“It took a long while,” she said. “I used to pray to God, 'Just let me see her, just let me feel her, just let me be around her.' Just recently I’ve started dreaming about her.”
White-Mosley believes she receives other signs from her daughter, too. Like raindrops that fall unexpectedly from the sky like tears. Or strong gusts of wind that come out of nowhere when she’s standing at her daughter’s gravesite.
“I feel like it’s her talking to me,” White-Mosley said.
And butterflies. Always butterflies.
“Whenever I see a butterfly, I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time,” White-Mosley said. “If I see a butterfly, I’m supposed to be there.”
SOLACE AT SCHOOL
Multicolored butcher-paper butterflies adorn the door leading into White-Mosley’s office at Dailey Middle School, where it’s her job to provide experiential learning opportunities such as yoga, science, theater, cheerleading, chess and cooking classes to students in the LEAD after-school program.
On a recent Thursday, White-Mosley walked the halls with a group of students whose sneakers squeaked on the floor as they made their way to classes.
“Come here, baby,” she said to one who was running late. “Let’s go to yoga.”
Her favorite class is cooking because it reminds her of testing out recipes with Trella and her older daughter, Cassma.
“I love cooking,” she said. “It’s something I used to do with my children. When they were younger, I cooked a lot.”
Principal Mario Palacios said he first heard White-Mosley’s story when she spoke at a safety conference for administrators that he attended in Corpus Christi.
“There was not a dry eye,” Palacios said. “It made safety such an important thing after hearing her speak. I truly take that to heart.”
A couple of years later, in 2013, he was surprised and thrilled to discover that she would be working alongside him, facilitating the LEAD program at his school.
“I told her it was fate. It was meant to be,” Palacios said. “She does everything for our kids. She motivates us to be better. I love working with her, and I’m lucky to be working with her.”
On the wall outside her office there’s a poster that White-Mosley hung that reads, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” It’s a sentiment that could double as White-Mosley’s personal motto.
“She’s changed a lot,” said Ramirez, adding that stepping back from the advocacy role and into one that’s hands-on with students makes perfect sense for her best friend. “She’s more like a mother to these kids that she works with. They respect her a lot. I’ve seen it.”
White-Mosley also believes she’s found the right fit.
“I know I’m there to love on these children and show them some respect. The love I give to them will never, ever be as much as the love that I had for Trella, but it’s a little something that gives back to me so I can be there for them,” she said. “I have children that have behavior issues, that teachers cannot take care of, but they’ll say, ‘I want to go talk to Ms. Mosley.’ Bring ‘em on. Let’s talk.”
Twice a year, White-Mosley speaks to Del Valle ISD students about teen dating violence prevention, and those events always hit home for them. They still hit home for White-Mosley, too.
“It hurts a lot of them. The ones that are close, they cry, they say, ‘Ms. Mosley, I didn’t know that happened to you. I didn’t know that was you. And look who you are today,’” she said. “Well, I am who I am today because of yesterday. That’s who I am.”
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