Keon Pearson is not your average high achiever.
The 17-year-old senior at St. Francis de Sales High School grew up in humble circumstances, the child of a teenage single mother who gave birth to him while in foster care. He spent the early years of his life in public housing and weathered various central-city schools before being accepted into St. Francis with financial aid.
Despite all of this, the Old West End resident is the epitome of success. This year, he became the first African-American valedictorian in St. Francis' 55-year history. He excels in class and outside school and was recently accepted to Harvard University to study molecular biology.
In light of his achievements, and to honor one of his biggest heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr., young Pearson Monday will address a crowd of thousands at Toledo's 10th annual event to remember the slain civil rights leader.
Beginning at 9:30 a.m., the MLK holiday tribute will feature speeches from local leaders and other area youths at the University of Toledo's Savage Hall. For the first time, it will be televised live on WUPW-TV, Channel 36.
The St. Francis student plans to talk about his dreams for a more equal society and his hopes that other young people like him will find the encouragement and determination they need to succeed.
“My thesis is that poverty is the one thing that is preventing us from having any real unity in this country,” he said. “It's not necessarily a racial divide but economic, educational, communication, all of these different facets in which some people are impoverished, some people are wealthy, and it's that divide that's really keeping us from uniting.
“My call is for the adults who are listening to really reach out, be mentors, help to bridge that gap,” he continued. “And for the youth to be open to that help and be willing to advance themselves and to be humble enough to ask for it so that they can all make that advance.”
He credits his achievements to an immense love of learning, a strong ability to focus, and a great deal of hard work. From a young age, he said, he had a passion for knowledge and actively sought to get a better education after attending what he felt were failing public schools. His desire to learn more and make something of himself led him to seek admission to St. Francis on his own initiative, he said.
Today, he can boast a slew of achievements, including being top of his class every year since ninth grade, becoming a member of the National Honor Society, and reaching the semifinals in the still-to-be-decided National Merit Scholarship contest, which awards scholarships to the top-scoring high school students in the country.
He also studies trumpet, is an accomplished chess player, and sings in the St. Francis de Sales Men's Chorus. He is captain of the quiz bowl team, president of his school's Afro-American Club and Junior State of America debate forum, and is a regular contributor to Toledo's African-American newspaper, the Sojourner's Truth. His dream is to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, someone who specializes in operating on the heart and lung systems.
He emphasized that a crucial component to his success so far has been the guidance and encouragement he received from some adults in his life. He gives particular credit to his great-grandmother, Norma Turner, who he said is the person he most admires.
The now-73-year-old often took care of him while he was growing up and spurred him to learn as much as possible and to be a good person, he said. Although Ms. Turner never finished high school, he said she loves to read and study by herself.
“She's been such an integral part of my life. It's almost like what she says is automatically incorporated into my psyche,” the teen said. “I would not be able to do nearly as much as I do without my great-grandmother, the mentors that I've had. … I want to do that for others.”
Lincoln Kynard, the teen's school guidance counselor, recommended him as a speaker for Monday's event. He said the youth exemplifies the rewards that come with determination and perseverance. “His body of work and all that he's accomplished, I [thought] he'd be a great presence to have address both students and adults in a Dr. Martin Luther King-related celebration.”
In pondering King's legacy, young Pearson said he believes the civil rights leader's call for unity and equality is just as relevant nowr. He said that need for equality extends beyond racial groups and is more about narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
The student added that Martin Luther King, Jr., is an inspiration in his own life.
“He was amazing. I mean, brilliant, brilliant guy. He could have been a brilliant businessman or a brilliant politician. He could have been whatever he wanted,” he said. “But he used that brilliance for others. … That quality of character really resonates with me.”