Last Thursday, March 25, I had the pleasure of being a guest at Douglass High School on North Waller Avenue. Years back, it was primarily a middle school but has been converted into a high school. I was invited by Dr. Louverta Hurt, our preeminent educator here on the West Side to participate in Career Day at the school. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
I had never been inside Douglass before and I didn’t know what to expect. But after having worked with the young students from Collins High School in North Lawndale earlier this year on a political forum, I know that our young people are negatively portrayed at every opportunity. Too much emphasis has been placed by the media on one or two negative events and rarely is the spotlight shown on the positive things they do.
I was greeted at the parking lot door by members of the ROTC unit. With their spiffy uniforms and fresh faces, these young people immediately brought a smile to my face. They were well mannered, efficient, and demonstrated responsible behavior with nary an adult in sight. They offered to help me with my suitcase full of books and to escort me wherever I needed to go.
Upon checking in at the library, I was given an itinerary to follow for the day. I had the opportunity to speak to four classes. As luck would have it, the classes I got were perfect for me; two were for the Spanish class and two were computer science. As one who majored in Spanish in college and worked for over 20 years as a computer programmer, well, the fit was perfect.
I spoke to the students on a variety of subjects. I told them about getting a job writing for this paper simply because of my weekly letters to the editor. I spoke about writing my first novel, Billion Dollar Winner, and being inspired by listening to activists who always knew the answers but rarely have the money to fix the problems. I spoke about living in this community and loving technology so much that I normally travel with my laptop wherever I go.
When one young man asked if I were concerned about someone stealing it, my reply was swift and without hesitation: I live in this community. I am not allowing that type of negative mindset to infiltrate my reality. I don’t believe this community is full of thieves and therefore don’t subscribe to it.
The young man was taken aback with my response. He has probably spent too much of his young life being labeled a thief without proof. From being watched every time he goes into a store to being profiled by the police, criminal behavior can often be painted on our children whether it is justifiable or not. But he wouldn’t get that label from me. What he did get was a lecture that reminded him and others that just because there are those who expect them to fail doesn’t mean they have to buy into that mindset. His goals in life should be the ones he strives to achieve and he shouldn’t fall prey to the lack of expectations that others want him to buy into.
Douglass nicknames itself the Jewel of the West Side. And like any jewel in its unpolished and natural state, it doesn’t reflect the light as it should. But once cut into the right shape, an unpolished diamond will become a brilliant stone. Getting a good education is akin to becoming a polished stone.
My message to all the students at Douglass High is this: achieve even though many don’t expect you to achieve. Soar to the highest level of the sky, leaving those behind who do not or can’t soar with you. Learn from everyone because even a fool can teach you how not to be one. Think, and think critically, about what you are being taught. Don’t accept “no” for an answer when you know it’s not right. Strive to be the best because only by being the best can you really get to know yourself. Read everything you can get your hands on and ask questions. Be curious about learning and open to learning new things. As I always like to remind people, the most brilliant of all brain surgeons was once a snot-nosed 2-year-old. You came into this world not knowing how to walk or talk and have mastered those two things. You can master everything else if you put your mind, energy and effort into it.
One of the special treats of the entire day was to have a meal prepared by the culinary students at the school. I had baked chicken with a maple cream sauce, rice pilaf and asparagus with lemon butter. Oh my goodness, was that food good! The students in the culinary program acted as the wait staff and did a fantastic job. I am normally not a dessert person, but the pound cake with fresh strawberry topping was so good I ate mine and that of my tablemates who didn’t want theirs. One of our local restaurants should consider having a special event and allowing these students to cook so everyone in the community can taste what they whip up in the kitchen.
To the parents of the students at Douglass High School, your children need to know that we as a community care about them. The tax dollars from this community cannot go to the top five high schools while children from this community are short-changed.
I’ll end my column with this. Thank you, students at Douglass High School. Thank you for allowing me into your classrooms; for letting me intrude on your school day. Thanks for reaffirming that we have hundreds of hidden jewels in this community, and all we need to do is open our eyes to see them.