Dereke Townsend Jr. is the 2018 class valedictorian of Brainerd High School and he is woke.
At least, that is how the 18-year-old graduate describes himself. As a young, black male getting ready to leave home for the University of Tennessee this fall, Townsend explained that, to him, being "woke" means being conscious of how the world operates around him.
"I understand why things are the way they are for African-Americans," Townsend said. "Yet, I also see how we aren't doing much to help our situation. I have a clear vision on things that are in our face, while most don't notice it. That's what I feel woke is."
Sitting on the front steps of his parent's home east of downtown, Townsend said his high school career taught him where his place is and how he can contribute to society. If the last four years are any indication of what is ahead for Townsend, then he is well on his way to making a difference. The native Chattanoogan plans to study criminal justice at UT's campus in Knoxville and is considering going into law in the future.
Townsend said one of the lessons that has stuck with him the most through school is one that can't be taught in a textbook. He said his ninth-grade history teacher often mentored him and the other black males in his class about the challenges they will face in life.
Townsend recalls a figurative example his teacher gave about two boys, one black and one white. More than 90 percent of the students at Brainerd High School are black or Hispanic, according to the 2017 State Report Card.
"He said the white one might get more just because of the color of his skin," Townsend recalled. "But he said we shouldn't give up. We should make sure to go past that and succeed."
For much of Townsend's high school career, Mary Rausch was his guidance counselor. She said Townsend is a "calm" and "thoughtful" kid who is always looking for opportunities to engage and learn.
"He's kind-hearted and generous with his time and quick to look out for others," she said.
During high school, Townsend acted as a voice for other teens in the community in several capacities. A group of high-schoolers, which included Townsend, inspired Hamilton County Schools to adopt an updated and nicotine-free tobacco policy across all schools this year that also accounts for the rise of modern tobacco products and electronic cigarettes.
Townsend was also president of Key Club, a national, student-led service program, played trombone in the school's band all four years and was part of the National Honor Society. In his high school career, Townsend advocated for more funding for Hamilton County Schools through UnifiED and also helped with improvements at his school, such as painting railings that had rusted at the nearly 60-year-old school.
Townsend worked part time like many other teens his age and graduated at the top of his more than 150-student graduating class with a 3.797 GPA, he said. Townsend enjoys video games and sports, but more uniquely, he enjoys the "spoken word."
In his valedictorian speech, Townsend recited a poem he wrote. While he is naturally soft spoken, the content of his words spoke volumes. Townsend said he wanted to let his peers know that they are still striving for greatness and are not done yet.
"Like Rosa [Parks], our seats are not in the back," he recited to his peers. "We have to continue fighting to get what's ours."
Townsend later added, "Where there's comfort, there's failure. And where there's uncertainty, there is so much in store."
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk at email@example.com, @Allison_Shirk or 423-757-6651.