This time of year always conjures up an assortment of thoughts and emotions within me. It’s graduation season, and typically the first thing I think about each year during this time is how much older I’ve gotten.
Twenty-one years ago I graduated from Creighton Preparatory High School in my native Omaha, Nebraska. I had a few plans, including a desire to major in journalism, but still hadn’t fully figured out what I wanted to do with my life yet.
I admit that I spent more time in high school trying to find ways to avoid putting my best academic foot forward than I did thinking and planning ahead for my post secondary future. Most of that had absolutely nothing to do with ability and everything to do with priorities and effort.
Foolishly, I came into my time in high school protesting the school I went to. It’s an all-boys, Jesuit institution, where there were so few people who looked like me by the skin tone that I likened myself to being a raisin in a bowl of milk.
So early on, I felt that if I just did a bad job academically, my parents would get tired of the whole ordeal and acquiesce to my desire to attend another school.
It didn’t work.
Later on — like years later — I learned to appreciate my mother doubling down and making me stay where I didn’t want to be. It set the precedence for me that in life, your best moments of growth will often come through your willingness to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Not taking the easy way out — the road less traveled and all that.
A little transparency: I finished my time in high school with a grade point average just a shade under 2.0. To put into perspective how badly I botched my first years in high school, that 1.8 graduating GPA was only brought up because I’d had a cumulative 3.7 for my junior and senior years. You do the math on that to see how putrid my first two academic years were.
I got enrolled to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a journalism major, despite not having the minimum 2.0 GPA requirement because — beyond some divine intervention — I wowed them on my application essay and scored a 24 on the ACT. I then went on to spend the next three semesters at UNL on the dean’s list and earned more scholarships and several internships due to my progress in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
So ability to achieve was never my issue.
Over the years, I’ve come to discover that I wasn’t the only one who had to learn about high school underachievement the hard way. Through the last almost 10 years that I’ve covered high school sports in Georgia, I’ve talked with many an athlete who had a similar story, yet were able to recover and move on to achieve that goal of free education.
All of them spoke a similar refrain: “If I could go back to my freshman year, I’d do things so much differently.” That’s admirable. I always say never waste the experience of making mistakes by refusing to learn from them. No matter how bad you may have messed up in the past, the ability to learn from it can make your future so much sweeter than the past.
All these thoughts rushed to the forefront of my mind as I chatted recently with graduating Newton and Kennesaw State bound basketball player Armani Harris.
After he made it known that he’d be signing on with the Owls’ program, and after he talked about all those typical things that young athletes talk about when they discuss why they chose the college they chose, Harris shifted gears and began to wax reminiscent about how his KSU reality was more of a pipe dream when he first stepped foot onto Newton’s campus.
He told an all-too-familiar tale of a young kid who overestimated the ability of his athletic talent to justify his decision to underestimate the importance of his academic work ethic.
“My freshman year, I was too happy coming into high school,” Harris said. “I was too hype and being on the basketball team, that was just way too much for me to handle at that point. It took me a while to realize I couldn’t be playing around.”
By his own admittance, Harris’ visions of dunking on peers on the basketball court rose high and above any ideations of standing tall above them in the classroom. But when reality hit, it hit hard.
“Coach (Rick Rasmussen) told me I couldn’t play for a couple of months,” Harris said. “I had two F’s, a couple of A’s and B’s and two C’s. When I couldn’t play because of those F’s, it was like, lesson learned. No more C’s. All A’s and B’s the rest of the year.”
Eventually Harris got things turned around, but not before he felt the sting of having to watch others do what his classroom struggles kept him from.
“Watching everybody like Ashton (Hagans), Tyrease (Brown) who was playing JV at the time, I don’t know, I just felt bad for myself,” Harris said. “I kept thinking that I’m supposed to be doing the same thing that they’re doing right now, and I was just messing up.”
Those moments served as a turning point for the 6-foot-7 soon-to-be-Kennesaw State freshman.
“I’m really looking at this situation, and I’m saying I need to take it more seriously in the classroom so I can do what I wanted,” he said. “So I could play basketball in high school, and eventually in college. I felt like was falling back instead of going forward.”
Long story short, Harris put in the work, but he acknowledged that it wasn’t easy. But in a sense, he says he’s glad it wasn’t easy because it helps him appreciate more what he’s achieved, but also because it gives him the credibility to do give to younger students coming behind him the kind of advice I find myself giving to my 8-year old son.
“I’d tell the ones coming up behind me to keep focused, put in the work and know that what you’re doing in high school means a lot for what you want to do beyond high school,” Harris said. “I’d tell them that the first year will be the hardest if you make it the hardest. If you come in and mess up as a freshman, starting off with that 1.8 or 2.3 GPA, it’s hard to bring that thing up each year. If you start off good, it’s easier to maintain it.”
Harris now joins 1,125 other high school graduates from the Newton County School System's 2019 class who will walk proudly with cap and gown this week, en route to taking that next — and arguably biggest — step into adulthood.
Those students, whether athletes or otherwise, deserve all the pomp and circumstance that the graduation season has to offer. Some of these students have overcome amazing, seemingly insurmountable odds just to get to this point.
These students have overcome obstacles — some that had absolutely nothing to do with them — in order to get here. Some may have seemingly had an easier road than others, but I can safely say that none of them got here without having to endure some struggles.
Here’s why this time of year excites and encourages me, even 21 years removed from my big graduation day: It’s because I know the power of living life through lessons learned. I understand that sometimes it’s the toughest experiences — whether we deal with them through the luck of the draw or by our own bad choices — that teach us what it truly means to live.
The bitter moments teach us how to appreciate and relish the sweet. The smiles and good times hit differently when they were preluded by some tears and pain. For many, grabbing that high school diploma represents the first in what will hopefully be a long line of major life achievements — the kind that don’t just get handed to you outside of hard work.
Now, people like Harris and the 1,500-plus high school students in the Newton County area, even beyond the NCSS borders, are more equipped than ever to not only reach ahead for greatness, but also to reach back to help take others along who are trying to get to where they now stand.
The Covington News salutes and congratulates you all for this major milestone you’ll celebrate this weekend. Go ahead and get your fun out. Eat, drink (non-alcoholic beverages, of course) and be merry with family, friends and classmates. But then go out into this big, crazy, sometimes dark but awesome world be the change you want to see.
This milestone, this accomplishment, this success despite the struggle, has deputized you with permission to go and change the world. Use it wisely.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor at The Covington News. He can be reached for story tips at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.