Cook: Muscles we didn't know we had

Cook: Muscles we didn't know we had

February 23rd, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

My last two columns have focused on Normal Park Magnet School. It's a heck of a place, but not the only school in town levitating kids to the educational rock that is higher.

I'm ready to write about another school doing such work. I've got one in mind.

Howard School of Academics and Technology.

Particularly Mason West's afternoon class.

"Follow me, please," Alexis Walter says. "Let me escort you to Mr. West's class."

Escort? I haven't heard a teenager use that word in years. As we walk from the front office to West's second-floor classroom, Alexis is charming and disarming, like an 18-year-old secretary of state. I asked her what she's studying. You know, to make small talk.

"Fiscal policy. M1 and M2 mainly," she answers.

Yes. M1. M2. I nod, hoping to look smart. I wonder if she's talking about a Tom Cruise movie.

"Of course," I say. "These are global policies?"

"Oh no," she says. I think I see her giggle. "Just in the U.S."

We reach West's classroom. As students - sophomores, juniors and seniors - enter his class, they turn to me, introduce themselves and shake my hand. I feel like a flight attendant.

The bell rings. The Talented Tenth Leadership Program begins.

"The purpose of the program is to empower youth to influence their peers, their government and their economy as agents of social change," West told me earlier in the week.

You want to see students ready for the 21st century? Kids engaged, empowered, intelligent like an i-Teen? Stop by sometime. But schedule it ahead.

The Talented Tenth is awfully busy this spring.

On March 11, they're participating in a four-tiered competition at UTC. Acting as president of the United States, they can deliver a State of the Union speech they've written. There's a team debate contest. Then an individual extemporaneous contest. Followed by an entrepreneurial challenge.

College scholarships are part of the prize. So are money and services from venture capitalists in the area. $10,000 worth.

After that, they go to Washington to present a proposal to leaders in the Department of Justice and Department of Education. And the World Bank.

Then to Jamaica to present their analysis of that country's economy to government and university leaders. And you went to Club La Vela in Panama City over spring break, didn't you?

"So this Saturday, 9:45 in the morning, meet here to go to the Company Lab," West says to the class, preparing them for their entrepreneurial work. "Who's in?"

Several hands shoot up. While West is talking, I whisper with Derquazia Smartt, a senior. I want to know about the South Carolina college acceptance letter on her desk.

"It's about a scholarship," she said. "I'm also looking at in-state options."

And suddenly, she's talking and I can no longer understand her. The whole room is talking: students and West, back and forth. I wish I could tell you what they said. But I can't even write it down.

They're all speaking German.

I'm the dumbest guy in the room. I turn to Derquazia for help.

"I said: Good morning. I am Derquazia and I am in the 12th grade," she translates.

Danke schön, Derquazia.

In next Thursday's column, I'll explain why they're working so hard to learn this second language. Until then, check out what this one student says after a mouthful of German.

"It makes me use muscles I didn't even know I had," another student shouts.

That says it all. West has created a program that takes these kids and transforms them into a bigger-than-ever-before version of themselves. Like Popeye for their brains and hearts. It is a beautiful thing to see. Kids are drawn to him and this education.

Drawn, like a magnet.

David Cook can be reached at