Be the Change

Umar is the nominated speaker for the senior class of 2012 at Newark Collegiate Academy. This is the speech he gave to his peers and the school community on graduation day.

Eight years ago, before I came to TEAM, school was a term I hated. School meant a place where you were verbally or even physically abused by your peers. I have a ton of bad memories from that experience, but now when I think of it, all I can do is smile -- to think I was once misguided enough to hate school. Everything back then was so negative until, one day, my younger brother made a friend, little Jah-raquan Farmer. That started me on the journey that has put me here tonight.

Jah-raqaun lived in our neighborhood so we started carpooling with his grandma. That summer, our mother told us that she wanted to start driving all of us to school in the fall.

We told her that unfortunately, Jah-raquan was transferring to some school we had never heard of named TEAM Academy. Little did we know, Jah-raquan's transfer would turn out to be very fortunate for us. For some reason, as soon as my mother heard where Jah-raquan was going, she jumped out her chair and headed over to his house.

Next thing we knew, we applied to TEAM and were placed on a waiting list. A few weeks later, my mother got a call, and in the blink of an eye, my mother, brother and I were in front of an old rundown church on Custer Avenue. I remember thinking, "What in the world did Jah-raquan get us into?"

Inside TEAM Academy, we found out that my brother had been accepted into the fifth grade. You see all, charter schools accept students by lottery. Therefore, enrollment is basically the luck of the draw.

I got accepted too, but if you come to TEAM after fifth grade, there is a test to see if you're ready for the next grade or if you need to repeat. Unfortunately, I found out I wasn't ready.

I decided to repeat the sixth grade so I could be closer to my brother and just have a place where I belonged.

Not long after, I began to regret that choice. Mr. Reagans told my mother I had to go to school from 7:25 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. -- and in August and also on Saturdays! That's when I made a different decision: "I'm not going, and that's final!"

But my mother thought otherwise. Her explanation for every situation is "It's my roof, I pay the bills and if you don't like it, there's the door!" Well... As you can see, she won THAT argument... Love you, Mom!

As a new student at TEAM, I was overjoyed and overwhelmed with the teaching methods -- methods like the chants we practiced proved to be very helpful. I still use some to this day to help me remember things, for example...


... and so on, but I digress.

I have attended public school, private school and even a school in Ghana, but at TEAM, I actually started to feel like I was a genius.

There was really a moment during homework when I paused one day and realized, "Yo... I'm really smart!!!"

I learned to start reading independently. I still remember Crash, Holes, Walk Two Moons and many of those books to this day. I'd had bad grades since I was a little kid. I didn't remember the last time I had good grades. All of a sudden, at TEAM, I made it onto the high honor role. HIGH HONOR ROLE!

I was also introduced to new opportunities, like learning different martial arts on Saturdays, camping out in Utah and even horseback riding in Puerto Rico. For all these things, I thank my TEAM and family.

My family plays a big part in my life. My family is made up of blood relatives, classmates, teachers, and overall, the people that I love and care about. Today, whenever I'm around my family, I always feel the sense of pride they have in me. That feeling is great now, but it wasn't always this way.

My transition from TEAM middle school into our high school, Newark Collegiate Academy, proved to be much more difficult than I expected. The high school provided more freedom, and I wasn't ready. Even though I had progressed academically at TEAM, my maturity level was low. In ninth grade, my grades were horrible and so was my behavior.

At Newark Collegiate, we have performance reviews so that our parents can see our progress as scholars and maturing young adults. It's like one you would have in a professional environment. But during freshman year, my first performance review was more like a trial in front of a tribunal of angry parents and guardians. My mom, dad, two uncles and my advisor were in front of me.

They were ALL disappointed in me. My uncle Ali was the one that stood out the most. The disappointed look on his face haunts me to this day.

I never want to see that look on his face ever again. My uncle Ali is like a second father to me. He told me, "It takes a lot of time and hard work to build a structure with a strong foundation... But destroying it can be done easily, and in little to no time."

He wanted me to realize that to reach my goals in life, I needed to work hard, always strive for success and avoid sabotaging myself. Those words led to my own ground-breaking.

Ever since then I've been building my own legacy, and even though there can be a few minor set-backs along the way, I know I have one of the best blueprints because my TEAM and family are the base of this project.

And so I stand here tonight with this message for the younger members of my TEAM and family -- the 1,500 younger students throughout TEAM Schools:

First, you must want success as much as you want air. Unless you believe that you need success to survive, you will be far less than what you have the potential to be.

Second, never lose who you are. Be yourself, but strive to be the best possible version of yourself.

To the older portion off my TEAM and family, thank you for everything you have done for us. Whether it is through teaching us, donating or being a caring parent, you all help us grow into maturing young adults destined for success.

Thinking back seven years ago when I made my first step through the doors of TEAM Academy, I realize that I came in as a feeble-minded boy who knew nothing of the opportunities that awaited him.

Today, I'm a mentor to a number of freshmen and vice-president of the student body. I am graduating as a member of the National Honors Society and I've been accepted to over 10 colleges and universities across the nation.

I've been making the changes that I want to see in my life so that I can soon become the change that I want to see in the world. The day after graduation, I'll begin my new journey as a member of Seton Hall University's pre-med program and the class of 2016.

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