On Saturday morning, Dr. Michael Allen, principal at Oakton Elementary School, offered these words to the young men of The Officer and Gentlemen Academy at the program's fourth annual kick-off and tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King.
Founded by Evanston Police Department Officer Adam Howard and Principals Harries and Greg Harris of Evanston/Skokie School District 65, The O&G Academy aims to educate, inspire, and empower young men to reach their full potential.
The program began at Nichols, but it has since expanded to include all D65 middle schools and Evanston Township High School (ETHS). All the officers involved in the program, which runs twice a week for 12 weeks each year, volunteer to mentor and support the young men.
Here's Dr. Allen:
"Speaking as an African American male every day on this earth, I’ve spent almost my entire adult life as a principal, I’ve never seen or read or experienced any program specifically focused on the excellence of black men; black boys in particular. I think it’s important to acknowledge that because I think there’s something special and truly amazing going on in Evanston, and I don’t want that to be lost in the translation of everything else that’s going on.
"How many of you have fathers in the home? I don’t ask that question to put anyone on the spot, I ask that question because I see a connection between you and me.
"My focus today is simple: the power of mentors, vulnerability, and character development.
"My story starts with me as a child on my ninth bday, receiving a call from my father promising to pick me up and take me for ice cream.
"Since I was the second oldest of my mother and father’s five children, I felt like I should have seen the writing on the wall. But I didn’t because nobody could tell me about MY dad. He failed my older brother a few times, but somehow I thought this time would be different because I wasn’t asking for much. I just wanted ice cream.
"But I was mistaken, just as the rest of my siblings were. My father was the first person to ever break my heart. And I will never forget that call on my birthday when he promised to pick me up. He never came.
"As I sat on the window sill, my sweatshirt was drenched in tears of pain, extreme isolation, and loneliness that entered my body and stayed with me for nearly 20 years.
"As I reflect, I just needed my father to make time for me, to tell me that I mattered to him. And I needed him to tell me that he loved me. I needed to hear his voice to tell me that he was proud of me for my report card, for my performance at countless track meets and math competitions and basketball games and football games, but he never came.
"Not one time.
"The dysfunction that I was part of caused me to express myself as a teenager through fighting, not trying my best in games, and I became fearful of showing people who I really was because I worried they would let me down and leave me just like my dad.
"But I met a man in middle school Reggie Johnson, whose son was in many of the same classes as me, and we hooped together. Reggie became my mentor. He taught me about fairness when he gave me the same amount of money that he handed his son each time we went to basketball games and movies.
"Reggie doesn’t know this, but his relationship with me as my mentor saved my life because he helped neutralize the effects of the pain that my father caused in my childhood.
"That relationship gave me hope. It took me from a fragile kid who peed in the bed because I was afraid of the mice and roaches in my family’s project apartment to the first graduate of college in my family, with a four year degree, a masters degree, and a doctorate. More importantly, as I get out of my car each day and walk into Oakton School, I get to live my dream as the best version of myself.
"So what does this have to do with you?
"The experience helped me to understand that if you can address your emotions, your dreams won’t be part of the distant past but they’ll a part of what you wake up to each day.
"My advice to each of you:
1. Try to remember that you’re more than enough.
2. Find a mentor — and that’s not hard for you because you’ve got this program — and be vulnerable with him. I told you my story because I want you to understand the power that lies in the emotions that radiate in your body. You cannot hold what you experience inside and expect to accomplish your dreams and your goals. You have to let it out. And your mentors will be able to help you make sense of it in a way that will allow you to make your dreams real.
3. Find your own dream. Many people are watching people like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant on TV live their dreams. But we’re making a mistake if we think that’s the same dream as our own.
4. Live your dream, not with pride but with dignity and integrity. Treat people with respect all the time, even people who don’t seem to deserve it.
"My journey through playing football at elementary school, high school, and college helped me understand that while our physical skills can give us the ability to entertain stadiums full of people, it is our emotions, and talents, and character that allow us to empower the masses.
"We have to stop seeing what we lack and start focusing on the power of the journey that our story gives each of us.
"It is my duty to use my voice to inspire people who come from places like me. I need you to know that while there is a world out there that’s counting on you to fail, there’s a community that traces back generations and resides in this room that’s expecting you to accomplish greatness and we won’t stop to make sure you get it.
"I need you to know that you have so much to offer the world and I’m not expecting anything less than excellence along your journey."