Donnell Bell, American Graduate Champion for July, challenges youth to “Go Hard. Be On Course. Stay the Course.”
Bell recently completed an American Graduate road tour going to Mississippi high schools with 2014 Miss Mississippi Jasmine Murray to speak on staying in school through graduation. The tour began at Lanier High School in Jackson and continued to Water Valley High School and on to Gentry High School in Indianola. Students were captivated by Bell’s story of having grown up in the project in Aberdeen, Mississippi and overcoming the obstacles of poverty and vision problems. Bell did succeed. He finished high school going on to Jackson State University and completing his degrees in Social Work, Guidance Counseling and Public Policy and Administration. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Educational Leadership. He is the Division Director of School Counseling at the Mississippi Department of Education.
Donnell’s story in his own words:
Being able to connect with the key people was the main factor for me being as successful as I am, if you want to call where I am successful. I was able to make connections with people who could see beyond the project. Back in the era when I was raised, there wasn’t a lot expected of us because we were raised in a housing project. Everything was in place to be a failure. Single parent, large family, there were nine of us, economically poor background. (Even though I didn’t know how poor I was until I got ready to go to college.) One person, other than my mother, saw some potential in me. No one was addressing the issues that I had. Most of the time, I sat in the back of the class and I daydreamed about all the things I didn’t have. Sitting back in the back of class, I didn’t even know I had a vision problem. I didn’t try to keep up with what the instructor was doing or what the teacher was teaching. I’d just sit there and I would take that opportunity to just fantasize or daydream.
During my formative years, I had a strong mother. My mother was the backbone of our family. She was very wise beyond her formal education. I learned from her. She challenged me to take a step up. She told me often that she wanted us to be better than what she is. I didn’t understand that. She said I have to raise you in these projects, but don’t let the project be in you. At that time, it was a mentality. She didn’t want us to have the “project mentality.” She would say, “If you want better, you have to strive for better. You have to do better.” She was my ‘everything’. When I got ready to drop out of school, she challenged me to go back to school. She said, “Just do the best that you can and be the smartest in your section. Be as smart as you can be.” That encouraged me.
There have been several other people who were very instrumental in my success. One gave me my first job and that afforded me to buy new clothes. Because I didn’t get new clothes that often, it was a feel-good experience. I was able to dress without patches and change clothes every day for the first time. I was getting ready to enter high school.
Now when I work with a student, I don’t assume anything. When I look into their faces (before I look into the heart, I look into the face) I see me. I remember the struggles that I had when I was their age. I don’t assume anything. I don’t assume that kids that were labeled bad were born bad. Before I look into or touch into their hearts, I look into their eyes. The eyes will tell me there is a lot more there, a lot of pain. The issues that impede our children in Mississippi from being successful can’t be remedied with rigor in the classroom. Can’t be remedied with academic enhancements. We are going to have to deal with them on a personal, social and emotional level.
It can’t be test score driven. We have to deal with the personal issues, the social issues, the family issues. Those are the issues that impede their success. I don’t agree with the statistic. If you look at the statistics out there now, they indicate that the children in Mississippi are the most academically challenged children in the United States. We are number 50 in education. It is not because our children can’t learn. It’s that no one has reached out to address those issues that are impeding them from being successful.
When I go in, I look at the whole child. I let them tell me the things that are impeding them, that are causing them even to act up. “Why are you here? Why are you acting up? Why did you get separated from the regular population? Why are you in an isolated area where you have been labeled? Tell me what you think about that label.” I ask a kid, also, “What can I help you work on?” I don’t go in and just say what we are going to work on. Even when practiced as a therapist, I met the children where they were. I was able to do what we called counter transference, putting myself in the place of the child. Seeing the world as they see it--If you can’t see where they are, you can’t lead them out. Before kids can be successful in school, there is a healing part that includes healing of the heart that has to occur. If they are hurting on the inside, the academics are not going to happen.
I worked for years as a psychotherapist, and I was given the kids that nobody else wanted to work with. The hard kids. The kids that had really been traumatized. I was able to help them turn their lives around. Go back to what I was saying about the healing process. Some of my greatest accomplishments have been with those children that no one has wanted to serve. Everybody else felt that it was hopeless. I would take the toughest kid with the deepest issues and work with them from where they were. As a therapist I would meet them where they were. And, then I would help them walk where they wanted to go. I have about nine young people that have, I have either taught or counseled, who have gone on to receive their terminal degree. A lot of them credit it to their involvement with me. One young lady walked up to me and said “It’s your fault that I have taken on the responsibility of being director of a program at the head of the school. I could easily have gone to McDonald’s, had you not come into my life.” She said it in a jokingly manner.
So, I’ve been told on several occasions that I made an impact on the young people’s life. A lot of it is because I don’t sugar coat the truth. I let them know that I have not been where I am all my life. I let them know that I too was on their end. I let them know that I am able to empathize with them, that I do feel them. One of the greatest terms that the kids have out today is “I feel you” I was able to feel the young people that I have worked with. I was able to understand where they are and understand how they got where they are, realizing that they were not born there. Once I was able to tap into them and get their trust, know that I am non-threatening, we have a foundation of trust. Then they are able to share with me who they really are. They let their guards down. And, once you find out who the child really is, you are able to build a program that will allow them to grow and come out of where they are.
I would like to challenge the youth to “Go Hard. Get On Course. Stay the Course.” There will be hurricanes of peer pressure, tornadoes of disappointments. There will be earthquakes of misunderstanding that are going to shake them up. Hang in there. Stay the Course. As I would tell my youngest daughter when she would leave the house, “Trust God and Go Hard.”