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  • Reverend James Squire


Photo by Florian Olivo

So how does someone become a Rhodes Scholar and achieve excellence when the odds are stacked against you? Donovan Dixon can show you how. He went to Philly’s own Central High School and was one of those students who teachers loved to have in class because he had a passion for learning as far back as when he was in first grade. But his background and struggles with poverty and being evicted from his home did not stop him from reaching his lofty goals.

He left Philadelphia for NYU with a full scholarship and with few valuables that others would have except for his key to his success. As people who read this blog know that I love sayings that motivate others and Donovan had discovered one as he reflected back on the challenges of his life. He was chosen from 22,000 students to give the graduation address at NYU in 2023. He shared in a few words which led to a culmination of four years of caring for others and becoming a Rhodes Scholar. He said, “I quickly learned that life is defined not by what you lack but by what you have. When money ran thin, my family had each other. When food was scarce, we had friends and neighbors. When we were evicted from the only home I knew, my grandmother took us in.” One word defined him. He had hope. But he had something else as well. He focused on not what he didn’t have, but focused on being grateful for what he did have, usually the people around him. He had hope and gratitude.

We Americans also love a story about someone who “makes it against all odds.” It’s why we loved the movie, Rocky, and if we hear that theme song, we feel that we could run through walls. The first time that I saw the movie in a theater I witnessed everyone cheering like their lives depended on his success. At EA we had a video that was made to get the troops in the mood for cheering our teams on against the Haverford School. The students asked me to be Rocky. I was running the same route that Rocky ran. The students went crazy when the video showed me running down a street in South Philly on the way to the stadium passed Pat’s Steaks culminating up the Art Museum’s steps.

Cheering on others was my first reaction to reading the article about Donovan Dixon and his Rocky like character. You want him to have everything that he wants out of life. I don’t know him but I was still rooting for him with hope and gratitude. He will study Comparative Social Policy at Oxford where he is currently in residence. When he returns to the states, he wants to be in social service working and rooting for those who are disenfranchised, the destitute, the homeless, and the those evicted from their homes. He knows the secret which is obvious that helping and cheering or rooting for others gives as much hope and gratitude to the giver as well as those on the receiving end.

It dawned on me as a self-reflection that I found himself rooting for my students whether it was in the classroom, in a theater production, or a game, etc. Rooting in particular for those who have much to overcome is critical. It made me angry when people would say that EA is where the spoiled preppys go to school with little or no challenges. We did have financial diversity, but not nearly what we would have wanted. We wanted a school where you received admission no matter how much money your family had, but there was more. Try doing what my students did. Day in and day out their classes began at 8. Then at 3 they would go to sports practice or a community service project. They left campus at 6. They went home, had dinner, and started hours of homework every day. Weekends? What weekends? Spoiled? Easy life? Think again!

As Chaplain of the School when I looked out into the congregation, I knew many of the back stories of heartache that the congregation endured. When they came to my office, often the conversations would begin with “This is no big deal, but I want to talk with you about something that is bothering me.” They would share with me the “no big deal” which would bring most people to their knees.

“Having it made” is not as easy as you think it is. But having hope and gratitude and feeling as though you are rooting for someone can bring you and others the most joy. It is the essence of faith.

I learned this lesson not in any of the fancy schools that I attended or in the steel mill where I worked to put the money together for college. I learned this from my Spanish and Latin teacher, Ms. Higgins, who died too young. Nobody told her that she was teaching in a public school in a working-class community that didn’t care much about education. She didn’t care what color you were as our school was integrated more so than most. Nobody told her that her students were from mixed financial backgrounds from the disenfranchised to those in the middle class.

I can still see her in the front of the classroom small in stature. I think she invented rooting for students at the high level she did. During a translation time in class and a student, particularly those who struggled would get it right, she would clap her hands in a lady like fashion, and get a big smile on her face. She had some tough guys and girls in her classes and never had a discipline problem. Why? Because she cared about us as much as she cared about teaching Spanish and Latin. She was a fulltime big-time rooter.

We worked hard. You got the grade you deserved, but we were willing to work very hard because she created a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all believed we could achieve at the highest level because she thought we could.

We didn’t have a college admissions office in the school. One of my classmates was a gifted science/mathematics student. When she heard that he wasn’t going on to college, she gave him a brochure to a school with a terrific engineering department. He went there and became a noteworthy chemical engineer. He has traveled to more places in the world than you can imagine solving engineering problems for his company. This classmate was a rooter for me and other students. He caught that hope and gratitude from Ms. Higgins. She died too early but she is still alive in the lives of the students she taught. Did she get something back? You betcha! Whenever we would see her in the hallways or extracurriculars she had a big smile and hello. Teachers change lives every day. I am convinced that the best teachers are rooters particularly for those with serious challenges. I know Donovan Dixon would agree because he said as much.

Hope, gratitude, and faith, are the winning combination for a life with meaning and what is necessary to live a purpose driven life. Recall Donavan Dixon loved learning even in the first grade. My memoir, The Times of My Life, had an orange cover. That was on purpose for I was too young to get a library card so I borrowed my older brother’s card. I read a group of about a dozen history books in a seris for children before I was in first grade. All of them had an orange cover. I didn’t know how grateful I should have been then for that desire to learn. It is the job of the teacher to be a cheer leader to keep the passion for learning in kids alive which is as important as the content. If that passion for learning isn’t there, it is the job of the teacher to be a cheer leader for students because that is what makes that passion for learning come alive if a student doesn’t have it yet.

Donovan Dixon would agree. Donovan Dixon would want us be a torchbearer for one another. The video of his graduation address at NYU is below!

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