There's something about Jameik Heron; everybody says so. You meet him once, and you come away thinking about 15-year-olds growing up in the North End of Hartford, kids who see the odds, and beat them anyway.
Jameik is one of 10 students chosen through essays and interviews at Lewis Fox Middle School for a June trip to South Africa under the guidance of longtime teacher Thomas L. Hardy.
Hardy dreams up impossible trips, and then — with massive input from his students — makes them happen. Hardy has taken kids up and down the East Coast. This overseas endeavor is a first. As part of Fox's Eugene Green and Mary McLeod Bethune Institutes, the students will attend a youth summit, meet government officials, and see South African culture up close. Mostly, though, they'll learn what it is to be a world citizen.
Money's an issue. This is not a rich school, and these are not rich kids. As student Reginald Bryant says, "I consider it a high privilege to be able to go."
Jameik signed up after his mother's co-workers at the neighborhood Dunkin' Donuts took up a collection. The group needs nearly $50,000 on top of the $18,000 they've already raised. Hardy has sent letters to everyone you can imagine, but the students are charged with fund-raising, as well.
So Jameik wrote a play, "The Test of Life," and set out to put it on. At a recent rehearsal, Jameik corralled unruly dancers, placated moody actors, and kept things moving toward the curtain's opening at 7 p.m. Thursday at the school.
The play concerns a troubled student, the kind of kid who'd toss a chair in frustration — something the actors seem nervous about. At the rehearsal, Jameik cries out, "Get to the anger!" and one boy does so, but cuts his hand when he flips the chair behind him. "Anybody got a Band-Aid?" he cries plaintively, and everyone laughs. The play's lead stomps through life until his father dies, and then he begins to make changes that include acing the Connecticut Mastery Tests, those infernal things that have now crept even into the artwork of Hartford's kids.
Still. There's something about Jameik, and maybe that comes from his family — which includes his mother, Kerryann, and brothers, Chase, 19 months, and the irrepressible 6-year-old, Jahni, who, given their mother's work schedule, is Jameik's charge most afternoons. Jahni is at rehearsals every day, bursting into song and generally testing Jameik's patience. At one of his outbursts, Jameik says menacingly, "Jahni, I am wearing my belt today," as if he'd actually use it. Jahni quiets a moment, and then ramps it back up.
You wouldn't know to look at him, but a few years ago leukemia tested Jameik. The family was in Brooklyn at the time with Jameik near death, but doctors and his mother's faith pulled him back. Soon after, they moved them to the relative ease of Hartford, where Jameik could start again in a world without hospitals and pain.
But pain has a way of finding you. Early on, Jameik would return from school each day worried about teasing. He's a big boy, he has a high voice, you know the drill. But Jameik threw himself into school and took advantage of every program — peer mediation, broadcasting, you name it.
And he adopted such a commanding presence that at a recent rehearsal, an actor goofing around backstage fell over a chair. Jameik assigned him five laps around the theater for interrupting practice, and the boy gamely took off running.
What do you do with a young man like this?
You take a deep breath, step back and get out of the way. And when he describes his dream of being the big boss of a television food show or network, you nod your head. As his mother says, whatever Jameik turns out to be, he worked for it.
Tickets for "The Test of Life" are available at the door. To contribute to the South Africa trip, contact Thomas Hardy at Fox Middle School, 305 Greenfield St., Hartford, CT 06112, or call Hardy at (860) 751-9572.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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