by Mpaza S. Kapembwa
It is heartbreaking to see all the negative news surrounding the DeKalb County School system over the past year. We shouldn’t end the year on a negative note. There is a lot of good in our schools beneath everything that we hear. I can’t speak for every school or student, but I will speak of my experience at one school that has changed my life. I know other students have had similar experiences at their respective schools too.
I am a 2011 Cross Keys High School Alumni. I currently attend Williams College in Massachusetts. I know what most of you are thinking. “Williams? Never heard of it.” That’s okay because I didn’t either until senior year of high school. Williams is a liberal arts college. It has been ranked the number one college in America for the past two years by Forbes magazine and its alumni, 10-19 years out, make the most money out of any college in America.
Almost everyone at Williams who comes from Atlanta attended private school. When I met other students from a DeKalb public school, I was thrilled. One Friday night, I was in the student center and two other DeKalb students joined me. We talked about the schools we came from and one of the students said she was proud of me because I came from the worst school in the county. She went on to say Cross Keys might as well not be considered a DeKalb school because it is “different.”
I have heard this many times but it never bothers me. I wanted to be mad at her but I couldn’t. I live by a simple saying; I won’t let other people’s ignorance define who I am. I know that person is not alone in thinking that Cross Keys is the worst school in DeKalb. Some parents may think that if they send their kids to Cross Keys or any of its feeder schools, they are doing them a disservice. Others have the perception that Cross Keys is run by gangs and they won’t have their kids sit next to “those kids.” I don’t have resentment to anyone who thinks like that because they don’t know the real Cross Keys.
It’s no secret, parental involvement at Cross Keys is very low. My mother works two jobs, and I barely see her and that’s the case with many of the parents. Unlike many schools, we don’t have a strong Parent Teacher Association or a Booster Club for any of our sports teams and YES, we don’t have a lot of things that your school or child’s school may have. We know those who don’t know about us think very low of us. I saw it at one of the nation’s elite colleges, I saw it when our school was featured on WSB TV and called “disgusting,” and I see it when we are wait-listed for critical renovations.
Please don’t get me wrong. Despite all this, I have never felt like a victim. I went to school with some of the most courageous people I have ever known. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” We rarely get all the resources we want, we have a hard time raising money to pay for our robotics team to compete or get the new track we want, but we never stop fighting. After fighting for years, we finally saw some of the renovations we needed; that was a rare victory. Our football team is the laughingstock of DeKalb football. I was part of the football team for two years. We wore our green and gold uniforms with pride and went to take on powerhouses like Buford. We knew we had already been licked but we fought till the last whistle. 70-0. Coaches of the opposing teams would tell us how much heart we had, and we played for that every Friday night. In two years I won two games, but I wouldn’t trade that for a state championship.
I used to get upset when people confused my college with the College of William & Mary. I would try to straighten them out and tell them to go look up Williams College because it was the best school in America and it was absurd that they didn’t know about it. My admission officer put me out of my misery. “Mpaza, those who matter know about Williams.” It didn’t take me long to figure that out. Every major Wall Street firm shows up on campus weekly to try to snatch up seniors and get everyone else to know that they will be coming for them.
We at Cross Keys might be looked down upon by most of DeKalb County but those who matter, know the real Cross Keys. Williams College, Pomona College, Stanford University and the University College London, some of the best institutes of higher learning on the planet, all know about Cross Keys. The Gates Millennium Scholarship, arguably the most prestigious scholarship a high-schooler can be awarded, knows about us, the Coca Cola Scholars Foundation, the most competitive high school scholarship in the country, the Dell Scholars Program, The Buick Achievement Program, Questbridge Scholars Program, The Bank of America Student Leaders Program, 100 Black Men of Atlanta, the Comcast Scholars Program, the Atlanta National Football Foundation and many more all know about Cross Keys. Those who think Cross Keys is a place for gangs and “those kids” are focusing on the wrong thing. What we focus on, we magnify. When your child comes to Cross Keys, chances are he or she will be sitting next to a future scholar and not a gang member as other may have you believe. These types of achievements are also found at just about every high school in the county.
I am proud to be a Cross Keys Indian, and I represent that everywhere I go. At the Coca Cola Scholarship Banquet in April, I was the only student from Atlanta being honored; therefore I had the privilege to sit with Mayor Kasim Reed, the First Lady of Georgia Mrs. Sandra Deal, and The Coca-Cola Company CEO Mr. Muhtar Kent. I talked to Mr. Kent and he told me he was from an immigrant family, like most of us at Cross Keys, and that he started out as a truck driver in Coca-Cola in 1978 and now, he is heading the company worldwide. I was amazed.
When I hear people saying Cross Keys only produces students who attend technical schools, I just smile because I know some of the world’s great leaders started out from humble beginnings. It’s funny how quickly we condemn young people to failure. The First Lady asked me why I had decided to go to Massachusetts instead of attend school in Georgia, I hesitated in answering that question. A minute later, I went back to her and told her I didn’t want to enter the Georgia University System because of how unfairly the state colleges treat certain students, mainly Hispanics.
When I got to the mayor, I just dared him to run for senator after his term was up. Everywhere I go I look to represent my school. I know that night the people at the table not only looked at me as a great student but knew I had to be coming from a great place. I was. Later that summer I was in D.C representing the Cross Keys Indians as I met Congressmen Hank Johnson and John Lewis.
I consider myself very blessed for the three years I spent at Cross Keys. I helped captain the soccer team to its first ever final four appearance, and I am very hopeful the team will go further this year. I was there to witness Leonel Ayala, a good friend, win back to back Cross Country State Championships, and to watch our track team compete in the state championships every year. I am very fortunate to have been on the football team that broke a 40 game losing streak and went on to win two in a row and was honored as FOX 5 Team of the week and to have played for a soccer coach who garnered 50 wins in four years.
I do realize that a lot of problems exist in DeKalb and within individual schools, but the negativity of the past year has not been very constructive. It is almost self-destructive. As I continue to embark on a remarkable journey at Williams, I will keep fighting for Cross Keys. Not by offending anyone or by extortion but by representing it in my actions. I hope hearing from a Cross Keys alum will change the way you look at Cross Keys and start looking deeper in other schools that you might be disparaging. What you focus on, you will magnify.
Mpaza S. Kapembwa, a student at Williams College, is a 2011 Cross Keys graduate, Gates Millennium Scholar, Coca Cola Scholar, Dell Scholar and Bank of America Student Leader.