Wednesday, May 18, 2011

BTW grads embrace President Obama's message

President Barack Obama delivers a rousing message to Booker T. Washington graduates at the Memphis Cook Convention Center while their principal,  Alisha Kiner, looks on. (Photos by Wiley Henry)

   It was Christopher Dean's proudest moment. The Booker T. Washington graduate got the opportunity of a lifetime when he introduced the President of the United States of America to the graduating Class of 2011 at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
    He stood bold and confident on the same stage with the most powerful leader of the "free world" and announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, the speaker of the Booker T. Washington High School Class of 2011 Commencement Exercise, the President of the United States: President Barack Obama."
    Still cameras flashed and TV cameras rolled to capture that moment on May 16, before a capacity crowd of 3,000, when President Obama embraced the young man whose anguish was reflected in the winning video that he'd selected in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.
Christopher Dean introduces the President of the USA. 
    This time Christopher was smiling and proud to be a "warrior" -- BTW's mascot -- so were 149 other graduating seniors who beat the odds despite having to live and attend school in an area of South Memphis that is often beset by poverty and crime.
    President Obama understood their struggle and celebrated their triumph, saying, "If success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. And if it can happen in Memphis, it can happen anywhere in Tennessee. And if it can happen anywhere in Tennessee, it can happen all across America."
    Some of the graduates were arrayed in green caps and gowns, others in yellow. They understood what the President was conveying. They listened intently, wept with joy, and focused their attention on the first black president who came to Memphis to give them the presidential seal of approval for their hard-fought success.
    "We are here today because every one of you stood tall and said, 'Yes, we can. Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can succeed,'" he told the ecstatic graduates. "You decided you would not be defined by where you come from but by where you want to go, by what you want to achieve, by the dreams you hope to fulfill."
     Christopher hopes to fulfill his dreams and vowed they would not be deferred just because he's from South Memphis. The President's message was the catapult that he and the others needed to get them to the next phase in life.
    "Yes, you’re from South Memphis," the President said. "Yes, you’ve always been underdogs. Nobody has handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you will have earned it. Whatever rewards and joys you reap, you’ll appreciate them that much more because they will have come through your own sweat and tears, products of your own effort and your own talents."
    Ashley Woodard liked what she heard -- and especially seeing President Obama up close and personal. "I liked the stuff he was saying in his speech," the 18-year-old said. She is planning to attend Tennessee State University.
     The day for Ricky Roberts, also 18, will no doubt last a lifetime. "I was happy," he said. His father, just as eager to see the President himself, understood why his son was beaming as bright as sunlight in a galaxy containing the biggest star.
    "I was already proud that he's graduating," Ricky Roberts I said about his son. "But I was more proud that the President was here."
    It was a moving and emotional experience for the entire family, said Roberts, a BTW graduate himself. "My son's aunts, uncle and sister graduated from Booker T. Washington as well," he said.
    Courtney Taylor, Ricky's 22-year-old sister, graduated from BTW in 2007. The commencement speaker for her class was not as famous as the President, didn't arrive in Air Force One, and didn't need Secret Service protection.
    It would have been a grand experience, she said, if President Obama had been the commencement speaker for the Class of 2007. Nevertheless, she's happy for her brother.
    "It was a long time coming," said Courtney. "We should have had him from the jump. We needed him to tell us to go to school instead of roaming the streets. You see, it's possible."

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