Every spring, Harlem Academy’s eighth grade class visits Washington, D.C. to meet with some of our nation’s leaders. The four-day trip gives our students a tangible way to reflect on our country’s past and present – and to consider their role in its future. Here, one eighth grader shares his inspiring experience meeting Congressman John Lewis.
Even before my classmates and I arrived at Congressman John Lewis’ office, I knew it would be an experience I’d never forget. However, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the moment until he came out to greet us.
This is a man who embodies the civil rights movement. He has looked racism in the eye and has never averted his gaze. He has walked unflinchingly toward hate and terror to make life better for others. I shook his hand and instantly realized how fortunate I was to have this opportunity.
He led us into his office and the first thing I noticed was a poster of Nelson Mandela hanging on the wall. I remember thinking, “This is Black Excellence.” That feeling was amplified when Congressman Lewis brought us into an interior room so that we could all have a more intimate conversation. The room was filled with memories. There were pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights heroes, and meaningful items he’d collected throughout his life. I was overwhelmed by the realization that I was in the presence of an historical icon. I felt honored that he would take the time to talk to us.
“Are those your chickens?” I blurted out. Here I was, in the presence of a civil rights leader who changed the world and continues to do so today. And I asked him about chickens. The room went silent, waiting to see how Mr. Lewis would respond. He looked at me, and then turned to look at the painting of chickens behind him. “Yes, those are my chickens,” he said.
A few weeks before coming to Washington, D.C. I had read the first book in his series March, a retelling of his life story as a graphic novel. In it, he talks about how as a child growing up on a farm in segregated Alabama, he would care for and preach to the chickens. As he answered my question, he talked about those early childhood experiences, some of which I recognized from his book. The entire time he spoke he looked me in the eyes, and I felt a powerful connection that I can’t really explain. It felt like he was looking into my soul.
The rest of the conversation went by so quickly, and I was hooked on every word Mr. Lewis said. He spoke about the hardships he’s faced throughout his life and his experiences marching in Selma and fighting for social justice. Then he told us something that will stay with me forever: “You are the future and you have to be courageous enough to stand up for what you believe in. You have to lead.”
Before I knew it, it was time to go. Mr. Lewis shook our hands and gave each of us a hug. Shaking his hand was incredible in itself. But the hug made me happier than I can even describe. I had just hugged a living legend.
He also took the time to sign his business card for me and each of my classmates. That business card sits on my dresser. Every morning, I look at his autograph as a reminder of what was sacrificed to give me the opportunities that I have today and how I should make the most of them. I also keep it as a reminder of who I can become – a leader who can change the world, too.
Malik Middleton, pictured at far right, wrote this essay during his eighth grade year at Harlem Academy. He is now attending Trinity School.