Willy DuGray entered Streetfront about as quietly as someone could. Dressed entirely in black, with his hoodie all the way up. His face was a shadow. He was hunched over and didn’t utter a sound when I first met him. I knew his family, having taught his cousin 3 years earlier. His mom was desperate to find something that would awaken her son. He was becoming a shadow himself – an outline of her former son. He was 13 years old.
It was a strange application process, since Willy contributed absolutely nothing to the interview. His lack of words, body language (literally melting into the table to avoid any human interaction) and palpable anxiety told us this was one troubled youth. His mom talked of how he used to be a precocious and garrulous youngster. How he used to be filled with energy and vitality. A kid who loved to play basketball. We had no reason to doubt her but what we saw in front of us, couldn’t have been more to the contrary.
To make things stranger, were the physical demands Streetfront asks of their student’s. We start everyday with an intense, high cardio PE class; we run three 5-10 km runs per week; we go on 30+ outdoor exclusions and 3 camping trips per school year; most of our breaks are out on the field throwing the Frisbee. How was this kid going to make it? Couldn’t have seemed like a worse fit.
Willy came to Streetfront the next day and went straight to his assigned desk and put his head down. He stayed there till we told him we had PE. Reluctantly, he got up and followed us to the gym. Promptly sat down and put his head down between his knees. He stayed that way for the entire hour. Once that was done, he returned to class and buried himself inside his hoodie with his head on the desk. He didn’t utter a word or sound. He ignored everything. We tried to introduce him to his new classmates but that was less than successful. This continued for 2 MONTHS!!!!!!!
This was not easy for me. I’m a pretty high-energy teacher, some might say, hyper. I feed off the energy of the kids. Willy was killing me. He didn’t fall for my ploys. He ignored my tangents. He was immune to any charms I thought I possessed. I was getting nervous. What was I going to do with this kid?
One day I was teaching chemistry. I was walking around the classroom talking about protons and their matching electrons. At certain times pairs of electrons are shared, these are called covalent bonds. I had just started teaching this subject and posed a question that I assumed most wouldn’t know but would segue into the next lesson. As I walked back to my desk, I passed Willy. He was in the same exact position, he always was except beside his head, written in large letters was COVALENT BOND. He hadn’t been asleep. He was actually listening. There was life!!!!
Now as I taught, I recognized the nascent intelligence inside of Willy. He started to put a few answers down on his lesson reviews. He would complete most of the class notes. He still wouldn’t talk or take his head out of his hoodie, but we were making progress. PE and the runs were still an issue. We would ask him to play and reluctantly, he started to oblige. Soccer seemed to interest him the most. We played a lot of soccer. He liked defense, so he was always on my team and we were D partners. He wasn’t really playing, more like getting in the way, but we were ok with that.
He would walk the runs to start. That was a violation of Streetfront rules but we had to bend a bit. After a month or so, the walk turned into a shuffle, which morphed to a lope and finally a run was before us. He was still draped in black, with jeans, hoodie and skin that hadn’t seen the sun for years but he was doing it.
By the end of his grade 8 year, Willy began to speak. He started to mumble answers in our academic classes. He really liked science and it became evident he knew what he was now starting to talk about. Whenever I asked the class for an answer, Willy would pause, never wanting to speak over anyone, and then when nobody else had the answer, give me the correct answer. Eventually, I had to implement the Willy Rule – Willy could only answer the questions I posed to him. If I didn’t, Willy would answer every question. I’m not lying. Every question. Willy’s grades started to rise and as we’ve seen with so many of our students, he started to apply himself to all aspects of our program (except writing essays – that’s another story but you’ll be happy to know that he has conquered that too. See the end). Soon he was enthusiastic about our PE program, he was jumping off cliffs in his snowshoes, and he was making friends. His mom was getting her boy back.
He slowly broke through as a runner, as well. He threw up a lot in those first few 10’s but he persevered. The transformation was becoming ridiculous. By the end of his grade 10 year, if the weather was apt, he would run without his shirt on, hopping over any obstacle in his path. He eventually got up the courage to run his first half marathon. Then came his second and then his first full. Willy has went on to run 11 half marathons and 4 fulls, most of these with zero training. Like so many of our former students, they have mastered the mental aspect of long distance running. Willy will be running the in the Vancouver Marathon this May alongside all the other kids, like the fixture he’s become.
I have two memories that still make me smile about Willy. The first was when I received a letter from his brother, saying how proud he was of Willy and Streetfront’s role in that success. He, like Willy, had faced incredible adversity in his life.
As a young man Willy watched as his family fell apart. He calls his own life as ghetto as they come. His sister nearly died when she fell from the 3rd floor, headfirst into the alley outside of Willy’s apartment. Willy was 6. His brother, a career criminal from the age of 8 (ask Willy), eventually committed a major crime as a 14 year old and was sent to a juvenile detention centre until he turned 19 and then was sent to Kent Maximum Security Prison. Willy was 7.
Willy didn’t talk much about his family but I learned a few things about his brother. While in prison, he honed his art skills becoming a renowned prison tattoo artist. He got his high school diploma. He even was accepted into a stained glass program, a rare thing for certain level inmates. In his letter, he mentioned that he had something for the program and he wanted Willy to give it to me. I had no idea what this gift was but I returned a letter to him, saying I’d be honoured to receive such a gift. A few weeks later Willy walked in with the greatest gift I’ve ever received – a wonderfully crafted stained glass window with the word STREETFRONT written across it. I got Barry and Gord to get the sawzall out and within a few hours, they had cut a perfect rectangle above the door to our office and inserted the stained glass window. The most beautiful transom you have ever seen is still there, just waiting for someone to ask me where it came from.
The second memory to some wouldn’t warrant much attention but to me it meant the world. I love books, maybe too much if you ask Pauline but I think it’s not the worst vice to have. I am always yapping to my students about books and movies – art, basically, hoping that one-day, they would find in books, what I found; a constant friend and companion that always teach you something.
Willy came back to Streetfront the fall of his grade 11 year to visit. He quickly started telling me something that I had waited years to hear. He told me he had read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic commentary on what might be in store in a McCarthy dominated USA. He was so excited to talk about the censorship issues and the larger political themes. I added a bit but basically just let him roll. I was so happy for Willy. He found it. He found the beauty in learning. He wanted to engage with those pages, not because he had to but because he wanted to. He wanted to know more.
Willy went on to become an integral part of the Streetfront family. He graduated high school at the top of his class; became a senior mentor with the Yo’ Bro Youth Initiative (an amazing non-profit that works to give kids a chance to reconnect with everything positive in life); became a manager at a recycling depot and was getting an A+ in his essay writing course (I told you, he’d conquer that). He continued his connection to Streetfront, showing up in the mornings for our PE classes and always coming back when I needed him to.
Willy will be travelling to Taiwan this summer with his girlfriend. When he gets back, he’ll start classes at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Who knows, maybe you’ll be sitting beside him in class? He’ll be easy to find. He’ll be sitting up taller than anyone else in that classroom.
I’d like to introduce you to Willy Valour DuGray.