Find your passion, dream big, make things happen was the message of a Friday morning meeting between a man from the White House and some Toledo high school students.
David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, met at Woodward High School with students who are active in the North Toledo school’s Young Men and Young Women of Excellence programs.
The meeting in the school’s auditorium was much more casual and intimate than his appearance at a Thursday-night event about racism and education, with Mr. Johns, 31, sitting on the edge of the stage fielding questions from the 50 or so students who attended.
He acknowledged that some of them might not like school, but by being there, are already on the way to doing the right thing.
He asked how many of the students knew someone who had dropped out of school and was doing something they shouldn’t be.
Most of the students raised their hands.
Well, what are they doing? Mr. Johns asked.
Selling drugs. Gang banging. Prostitution. Killing people.
Having babies. Running half-naked into snow banks (It’s called the “snow challenge.”)
Those are the people, he said, who will hold you back.
It doesn’t mean they aren’t smart — some of his friends growing up sold drugs and “they’re still brilliant, just misdirected.”
To get to where he’s at now — in his early 30s and working for the President — he had to be around peers who would make him better.
“All my friends are smarter than me,” he said. “You can’t be a dime if you’re running around with pennies and nickels.”
Even though some people say college isn’t for everyone, Mr. Johns said everyone should go.
“College is the time you can turn up,” he told the students.
You can travel abroad, take the classes you want, set your schedule, live on campus. “College is about you learning to control your life,” he said.
The advice was great, said Isaiah Jefferson, 16, and Silberia Mcbrayer, 16, both juniors, but having someone from outside the school tell them they can succeed meant more.
“I’m happy that people in Washington, D.C., actually care about this kind of community and want to help us as an organization and as African-American males and females and want us to do better,” the Jefferson youth said. “People expect us to go to prison, sell drugs, all that. Some of us are smart and know what we’re doing and what we’re talking about. We’re going to be something some day.
“[Young Women of Excellence and Young Men of Excellence] are going to own the White House,” he said.
Mr. Johns said he was “heartened” to see that students at Toledo Public Schools have a support system of adults who are “ensuring kids that they have people they know they can turn to. That should be in place everywhere.”
Mr. Johns said he will take back to Washington stories from students like Lyric Carter, a junior at Woodward.
She told Mr. Johns she ended her freshman year with a 0.2 grade-point average and was constantly in trouble. She joined Young Women of Excellence — not necessarily by choice — and has since become vice president of the chapter, her grades have improved tremendously, and she dreams of going to Spelman College in Atlanta.
When the Carter youth told Mr. Johns about her dreams, he asked for paper and a pen — he gave her names of current students and alumnae to contact with a “tell them I sent you” message.
“I’m looking forward to connecting these dots,” Mr. Johns said.