If you have troubling doubts about the future of our country based upon its youth then I have the perfect potent antidote. Do yourself an immense favor and buy a ticket to the next annual Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS Shining Star Gala. Last Thursday evening, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend this event, and I have to say that a smile has not left my face since I exited the Ward 8 high school.
Just meeting Mr. Lloyd, the leader of TMA’s English Department, made me feel like a better person. His 10th grade exploration was entitled “From Book Club to Classroom.” Students, stationed at various desks, were there to talk about works they had read that have now replaced the use of textbooks and form the sophomore course curriculum. There I met Kiyaari Wilson, who spent her middle school years at Meridian PCS. She had recently finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Ms. Wilson, speaking as if she had been presenting in front of the public for all of her life, explained to me that the 15 year-old boy in the book sees the world in a different way from ordinary people. She detailed that he does not think like you or I, and his facial expressions and emotions are incongruous to events taking place around him. Of course, Ms. Wilson is describing someone who is autistic, but as the student detailed when this book was written in 2004 the syndrome was not nearly as well understood as it is today. I don’t want to give away the story but I learned the plot is centered around love, trust, and truth; concepts that resonate deeply with Ms. Wilson.
It took me a few minutes to arrive at my next destination which was Ms. Alvaredo-Sieg’s Spanish class. In the hallway my eyes were drawn to the banners hanging from the ceiling that proclaimed facts about TMA such as “Thurgood Marshall Academy is among the highest achieving open-enrollment high schools in the District of Columbia,” and “100% of Thurgood Marshall Academy Graduates have been accepted to college since 2005.” Also, I was delayed by waiters and waitresses offering me scrumptious morsels of food.
Once I reached room 107 I met sophomore Amya Hudson, who attended middle school at Achievement Prep PCS. Her assignment had been to study one of two individuals who had fought for social justice. Since she was already familiar with Cesar Chavez, she instead decided to learn about Rigoberta Menchú, a 1992 Nobel Peace Prize awardee who had fought for the human rights of the indigenous people of Guatemala. Ms. Hudson detailed that Ms. Menchú became drawn to her cause after the brutal torture and murder of her mother and brother. Much of the student’s research had come from reading this hero’s book, I, Rigoberta Menchú.
My fate turned for the worse when I entered the Applied Integrated Science classroom and met two “physicians.” Dr. Hudgens, a freshman who last year went to Mary McLead Bethune PCS, was partnered with Dr. Jones, a sophomore, who attended a Maryland public school for the ninth grade. Based upon some inventive physical symptoms I described I was efficiently diagnosed as having adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD, a genetic disorder), and told that the organelle (cellular part, similar to an organ) responsible was peroxisomes.
I was relieved to end the focus on myself when I ran into Richard Pohlman, Thurgood Marshall’s executive director. Last November, Mr. Pohlman announced that after four years in his position this school year would be his last. Each time I come to Shining Stars I get tremendous joy out of watching Mr. Pohlman’s interactions with his scholars, and it was a bond with students that he spoke about when I asked him about his legacy. “It has been all about the people,” the head of TMA related. “Too often in our work you think everything is built around the effort of one individual. But this is not the case here. The success of Thurgood Marshall is the result of a series of many connections between human beings. You need some great adults who are supporting our great kids in allowing them to reach their full potential. It is then about maintaining this tradition. I’m so proud of the work being done every day in this building.”
It was then on to the SoapBox Speeches, which the evening’s professionally produced brochure explained are part of a program TMA students compete in each year organized by the Mikva Challenge. There attendees listened to Jayla Holdip, a government student, talk openly about the dilemma she finds herself in when she is trying to forcefully argue for societal change. Often, she observed, she is relegated to the category of “angry black woman.” She added that she is undeterred by the generalization being made of her.
I learned after hearing her talk that Ms. Holdip came to TMA from Basis PCS. She will be attending the University of Rochester in the fall where she will create her own major based around science, anthropology, and public policy. Eventually, her goal is to be a civil rights lawyer. Ms. Holdip has received a full-ride scholarship to college.
Once the classroom explorations were concluded, the guests moved to the school’s gymnasium for dessert. I had a chance to speak with Raymond Weeden, Jr., the gentleman who has been selected to become the school’s next executive director on July 1st. Mr. Weeden’s background includes serving as principal of DC Prep PCS’s Benning Elementary campus and then as the same school’s senior director of policy and community engagement. He was also previously the principal of Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy’s Parkside Middle School. Mr. Weeden expressed to me that for 16 years he has greatly appreciated the academic achievements being accomplished by Thurgood Marshall Academy and he is excited and honored to be a part of this community.
The evening concluded with the crowd hearing from Ms. Holdip for themselves. In an even more forceful tone and diction than I recalled from the classroom setting, she took the audience through her educational milestones, and expressed her strong gratitude and respect for every person in the school. I have a strong feeling that I have not heard the last from Ms. Holdip.