Recent years have been difficult on Cleburne High School graduate Rylee Mullen to say the least as she’s had to grow up fast in the aftermath of a normal childhood thrown off course. Now, with departure from Cleburne and Texas Tech University looming, she anticipates new possibilities and challenges. 

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, but Mullen persevered, day by day at times, by hanging onto her dreams, putting her head down and doing the hard work necessary to move past tragedy. 

Mullen, 18,  described the path ahead as thrilling and frightening. In the weeks ahead that path will take Mullen from the comforts of family, friends and hometown to new adventures in Lubbock.

2020 has so far played out surreal for all but particularly for graduates who endured a senior year like no other in recent memory.

“It’s definitely been an interesting experience these last few months,” Mullen said. “It was the week before spring break and [COVID-19] had been a hot topic and everyone was talking about it. We were in our certified nursing assistant classroom waiting for announcements and they were like, ‘It’s official now. Two weeks of spring break instead of just one.’ And from there it just kept getting longer and longer.”

CHS students never returned to school and instead finished out the year via distance learning.

“It was hard to remember to study because this whole year felt like a really long spring break and, when you’re on break, you’re not really thinking about school work,” Mullen said. “But then you log in and see all these assignments and remember, ‘Oh, I’m still in school and I’m supposed to be doing all this stuff.’”

But remember she did, going on to graduate with a 4.276 GPA while earning a string of accolades, awards and scholarships. Accomplishments all the more impressive given that the bottom dropped out of Mullen’s life two years ago.

Mullen, with a tinge of sadness, joked that it’s ironic that she recently won the Marti Foundation Scholarship given that her mother, Niki Mullen, taught at Marti Elementary School.

“One day in 2018 I asked my mom if we could go to Burleson but she said no because she wasn’t feeling well,” Mullen said. “I thought that’s okay, she just has a stomachache or something today. The next day I got a call from my grandma who found her on the floor and was saying we had to call 911 right now.”

Niki Mullen, 47, was pale, out of it and dehydrated, Mullen said.

“She goes to the hospital and they say they’re going to do a colonoscopy because she was having intestinal issues,” Mullen said. “They do that and it’s all dead and they don’t know why. Even now, there’s no solid answer as to why it happened. Even on the autopsy and death certificate it’s unknown.”

Mullen pauses and tears up while recalling that day.

“No, I like telling the story,” Mullen says when asked if she wants to go on. “I’m just really bad at it.”

Mullen’s memories from that point become more painful.

“So she goes to the hospital and they’re getting her set up in the ER and that was the last time she spoke coherently,” Mullen said. “And she said, ‘I love you.’”

In the days ahead Niki Mullen responded to some treatments but not others.

“So,” Mullen said before a long pause. “We got a call one day that she was brain dead. So we all gathered around her and they took her off life support and the next day she did pass. And the next day after that I was supposed to start school, but I definitely didn’t go. It was my junior year. I was 16.”

Mullen said she continues to work through the loss of her mom.

“It feels like just a while ago but it also feels like it’s been years and years and years,” Mullen said. “It’s been really hard because my parents were divorced and she was a single parent and my dad was off living somewhere else. But mom was really amazing. At Marti she taught ESL and special education.”

Mullen and her sister, Delanee, now 10, moved in with their grandparents on their father’s side.

Practical complications compounded the sadness of loss.

“It was really difficult to adjust in so many ways,” Mullen said. “I hadn’t gotten my driver’s license yet and was having to mooch rides off people and everything. Time passed really, really fast after that.”

The end of 2018 brought additional heartbreak.

“It was Dec. 31,” Mullen said. “Well, the police actually showed up at our grandparent’s house on Jan. 3 or so to talk to my grandparents. And my grandparents said, ‘Take your sister upstairs.’ They came up later and told us our dad had been found in a parking lot and had passed away under unknown circumstances. 

“My grandparents were devastated because that was their son. And even though my parents had been divorced for a while and he didn’t live with us it was still so hard. I think it was harder for Delanee because I had more time when I knew him.”

Mullen said it’s hard not to second guess her relationship with her father from time to time.

“He had visitation and would come up and see us,” Mullen said. “But at that point I was an angsty teenager and angsty teenagers fight with their parents so I was very much not wanting to be involved with him. Now I look back and think, ‘Man, I wish I hadn’t done that.’”

Staying focused on school and activities during the time since losing her parents has been tough but also healing.

“The hardest part is that there are these events in life like getting your driver’s license and graduating that you think your parents are going to be there for,” Mullen said. “I think that’s been the hardest part of it all. But the real hardest part is that I feel really bad for my sister because I got more time with them than she did. She was only 8 at the time.”

Tough, too, has been being there for her sister, Mullen said, while dealing with the normal life issues sibling, eight years separated face.

“I love my sister but we definitely don’t relate to the same things right now,” Mullen said. “I’m sure when we grow up and both of us are in our 20s it will be a lot easier.”

Also difficult was the loss of her childhood home, Mullen said. 

“We actually live next door to the house I grew up in,” Mullen said. “I can still look at it. It’s hard, but part of me is also okay with change. Sometimes you just need the new environment. That house, I’m glad I don’t live in it because there’s too many memories in it.”

 

Love of theater

Mullen credits Plaza Theatre Co. and CHS’s theater department with helping her get through, having developed a love of performing before her parents passed away.

First came singing then the rest thanks to her grandmother, Mullen said.

“I always loved singing,” Mullen said. “Taylor Swift, Sugarland and others. I would just memorize the songs and sing them with my little country twang and belt them out in the back seat of my grandmother’s car. She thought I was good and she took me to voice lessons and from then on I sang a whole bunch, Field Street Baptist Church and other places.”

Mullen’s mother enrolled her in classes at Plaza Academy in 2010.

“I was in a class called Show Stoppers that would put on musicals,” Mullen said. “They started out really small with a musical call ‘Safety Kids.’ I was in ensemble, in the back and very quiet. But next year I could audition for big roles in the advanced class. Because I had been taking voice lessons before [attending Plaza Academy] they didn’t know I could sing, or even speak probably.”

Plaza Education Director Tina Barrus agreed.

“That’s an understatement,” Barrus said. “We always joke that Rylee was so quiet and hardly spoke at all at first. But then she blew us all away with her powerhouse voice. When she sang, her voice was bigger than she was we used to say.”

Mullen went on to appear in numerous Plaza productions and attended the theater’s trips to the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta all four years that Plaza has participated.

“Rylee’s mother went too and loved going with us,” Barrus said. “She was such a big supporter of her kids and Plaza and the JTF. She always took Rylee.”

Plaza participation, Mullen said, improved her social skills among other things.

“Oh yeah, I was a very shy kid,” Mullen said. “I’m still not the most social person but thanks to Tina and everyone else at Plaza because they really brought me out of my shell. I’m able to speak in front of crowds a lot better. I’m less afraid to take chances.”

Self deprecating, Mullen said she loves performing but at the same time plays down her talents.

“I always liked singing but I didn’t know how to act or dance when I started,” Mullen said. “Acting was a learning curve and I wasn’t very good at it but I’ve gotten better over the years from doing show after show. 

“Dancing, on the other hand, I’m still not very good at. But I’m good at copy catting other people and pretending like I know how to do it.”

Barrus disagrees.

“When Rylee started, her strong point was definitely her vocals,” Barrus said. “But even then she was always a very intuitive actress even at a young age. You could always see the workings going on in her brain as she was internalizing her lines and so forth. She’s grown a lot for sure. But that’s what you would expect from someone growing up and taking classes. 

“But she always had incredible instinct from the beginning. She wasn’t super confident in her dancing at first but she has become a very talented dancer. It’s because of her powerhouse voice she usually ends up in the singing more than the dancing roles.”

CHS theater teacher Keli Price seconded those emotions, Mullen having played Belle in CHS’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” in addition to having starred in other school plays.

“The thing with Rylee is I’m not sure she realizes how talented she is,” Price said. “During her time here she set the bar and showed everyone how this is supposed to look. She knew all her lines, got it down. I don’t know that I’ve seen a harder worker.”

Michael Johnson, a family friend, characterized Mullen as incredible both in performing arts and life in general.

“She’s not going to say anything about her success, which, that’s a noble thing in some ways,” Johnson said. “But creatively she’s incredible. Despite the adverse things that have happened in her life she’s always dug deep and didn’t try to use those misfortunes as an excuse to fail but instead used them as a way to be stronger than that and move forward.”

Mullen said she hopes to stay involved in acting — she has a role in Plaza’s upcoming production of “Smoke on the Mountain” — but said her focus now is on Texas Tech and her dream to become a doctor. 

As a child Mullen fluctuated between wanting to be a doctor, a veterinarian — she loves animals and previously volunteered at the Cleburne Animal Shelter — or an astronomer. Mullen credits CHS and Hill College, where she took dual-credit courses, for narrowing and focusing her decision.

Soon she will have her certified nurse assistant certification, after COVID-19 closure delayed the testing.

“We actually got to go to Colonial Manor and care for people in the nursing home, which was a great experience because I’ve always loved helping people,” Mullen said. 

With Texas Tech comes more adjustment.

“I haven’t lived outside of Cleburne,” Mullen said. “I’m scared but excited. It’s a whole new place. I’m going to meet new people, new restaurants and places to go and classes to take. The other part of me is scared. I know Cleburne like the back of my hand. 

“But Lubbock is going to be completely new and I don’t know where anything is. I’ll be using GPS for the next couple of years I’m pretty sure.”

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