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Essay winner seeks to inspire, motivate others
Gainesville senior strives to defy racial stereotypes with academic success
Gainesville High student Cody Stephens, right, and English teacher Cindy Lloyd meet after school on Thursday to discuss the senior’s recent award for an essay on being the “token black” kid.

Cody Stephens wants to become one of the first black valedictorians at Gainesville High School.

But he doesn't want the title for the glory. He wants to be an inspiration.

"I didn't care about being No. 1 just in itself. I didn't care about the honor or prestige," the 17-year-old Gainesville High senior said. "It's an incentive, to provide hope to other people."

He loves to read and write, enjoys math and wants to get an English degree from Emory University.

Stephens doesn't play sports. He's the captain of the school's Academic Team, and instead of being a leader on the football field or basketball court, he strives to be a strong, academic role model for other black youths like himself.

"In our community, a lot of times the African-American population in general is a matriarchal society," said Cindy Lloyd, a Gainesville High English teacher who taught Stephens. "We definitely need more strong, black male role models. Some of these young men who are growing up without a father figure, they don't have anybody to look up to who can model for them the importance of education and things like that."

Lloyd said today's society appears to value many black men chiefly for their athletic ability.

"The other morning Cody was in my room and we were talking and as he was leaving ... I introduced him to this young man in the hall. He's a sophomore and I think he had his football jersey on," Lloyd said.

"I said, ‘Hey have you met Cody Stephens? You guys should chat. He's a name you're going to want to know.' He said, ‘What sport do you play?'

"That's a stereotype you have to fight against but I thought that student's reaction really captured that."

Stephens said the lack of male role models has a lot to do with the media and its selective portrayal.

"We see music videos and things like athletes and rappers, and not people in classrooms," he said.

"It's not that they haven't worked, they've done what they needed to do, I just think it's bad they're our predominant role models, the ones that garner the most attention."

The term Stephens uses to describe his type of role model is the "token black." His experience inspired him to write a national prize-winning essay on the subject.

The essay began with an assignment in his independent studies writing class. Lloyd asked him to write an essay in the definition mode, and Stephens chose this topic because it came easiest to him.

"It's a description of my experiences as a successful African-American students and how I perceive the perceptions of me," Stephens said.

"It's about transcending negative stereotypes, but at the same time I feel obligated to maintain a racial identity."

Stephens said the phrase "token black" is to him a person held up to certain expectations to represent blacks and to serve their interests and needs.

"While the token label can be irritating, I don't resent it," his essay reads. "I typically speak ‘proper' English, though my parents and most of my black peers are most comfortable speaking Ebonics; I am one of four black males in my honors-level and Advanced Placement classes. I'm an anomaly, an exception to the rule."

As a role model, Stephens tries to help younger students with class work and homework. He said it's important to carry himself well, to be reserved and humble and to apply himself in school so others may follow his example.

Will Campbell, principal at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, knows Stephens' situation firsthand.

"Up until I met (my mentor) I planned on being a truck driver or installing cable or doing some type of labor," Campbell said. "Fast-forward 20 years later, I'm able to do what I do now. ... The resource that is needed, someone who knows a little bit more the education system, that can ask the right questions and get the right applications filled out."

Right now, a lot of negative stereotypes stem from the hip-hop culture. Campbell said it's important for both students and adults to balance some cultural aspects, such as saggy pants, with a professional demeanor, and not to judge others on just what they wear.

"That's a mask. When you sit down and talk to them, they have feelings and thoughts and ambitions just like every other child. We have to be careful not to misinterpret the way they look and what their intentions are," he said. "The sad thing is, when they dress that way, they are stereotyped and people, including myself, we assume or make judgments based on what we don't know."

Lloyd said there are plenty of students who, like Stephens, found stereotypes and chose not to conform to them. She said research shows this mindset has a lot to do with socioeconomic status, but her own research for her specialist's degree demonstrates something a little different.

"Looking at the senior class last year, the black and Hispanic students who were at the top of their class," she said. "... We looked back at their second-grade test scores, which a lot of research says are going to predict how successful they're going to be through their junior and senior year of high school, to see if that was true for our student population.

"A lot of that just boils down to language immersion and a kid in a high poverty situation is going to have half the vocabulary of a kid from a higher socioeconomic status background. That puts them at such a disadvantage in school and reading and everything else. We had some kids in our population who I knew had managed to be successful in spite of all this."

What it comes down to for these students, who pull ahead of stereotypes and achieve academically, is their parents and other role models who emphasize the importance of education.

Lloyd learned from teaching in two different counties that sometimes men who strive to succeed get made fun of. It's a concept Stephens is familiar with.

"(When I was younger) I felt really self-conscious and I felt tempted to tug my pants down a little so I don't get nagged. I got called a nerd and the whole gamut of insults," he said.

Now that he's in high school, however, the name-calling no longer persists.

"If (students) let the ridicule of being smart equals nerdy or ‘acting white,' get to them, they'll have that mentality for the rest of their lives," Campbell said. "You have to be willing to be thick-skinned. You have to decide what road you want to go on and make a decision about what you want to do in your future. It's hard for them to do that by themselves."


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