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King's dream inspires teens' winning essays

Seattle Times staff reporter

Christopher Russell is, in his owns words, a boy who wants to become a man.

Fourteen years old. Black. A serious basketball player anticipating a career in either professional sports or technology.

He speaks from his home in Skyway, with its Christmas cards and dancing James Brown doll and a basement bedroom crammed with shiny basketball trophies, wrinkled T-shirts and hip-hop CDs.

He is well aware of those grim statistics that put him squarely in the bleakest of futures: those stats cruelly shadowing young black men throughout the U.S.

Chris, though, equal parts sanguine and practical, pays little heed to those figures.

"I'm not focused on that stuff. How come they never say how many black lawyers, how many black doctors, how many black men are making money?" he asks. "It's always about prison and drugs."

An eighth-grader at Dimmitt Middle School, the middle child of a firefighter and a mental-health counselor, Chris doesn't readily rattle off a list of role models, except for his mom.

My mother says to stay away from the police and I just might make it. I want and am trying to reach for the mountaintop but realized that this place is not the same for everyone.

He sets his own goals. He expects a lot from himself as well as other young people, especially other African Americans.

"When I'm with my friends, it's cool to act out and make jokes. But people always judge you by your cover," he says. "Once the man sees you acting rowdy and loud, they'll automatically always see you like that. They'll see you 'as a joke.' But they don't know the other half."

So he counsels his 8-year-old brother about when it is and when it's not appropriate to let loose.

My mountaintop changes each year. Every year I strive to get good grades, get better skills in basketball and try to fit in.

Today, it's tough being a nice person. My friends want me to be a leader but I'm not allowed to fight so they "play" me. I have love for people but it isn't "cool" to show it.

I'm being raised in what society calls middle class but some of the boys I play ball with in the inner city call me names. Don't they know we live week to week just like everyone else.

I have a right to like nice things. I have a right to speak well. I have the right to wear what I want to wear. This is what King gave his life for isn't it? All I can do is hang on and envision what my mountaintop will look like.

Being black isn't something he's always thinking about, but there are times when he can't help but zero in on his skin color, like the time he and his friend Brian got on the bus with expired bus transfers. Brian, who is white, flashed his and got on with no problem. Chris flashed his and was hassled.

My mountaintop will have people on it that smile at me, hug me and want to help me to do whatever I choose to do. My mama's macaroni and cheese will be there and so will my NBA contract and if I'm lucky, maybe even my degree.

Chris, Alice Hu, Megan Parker and Tracy Ma sat in Seattle's opulent Paramount theater last week, saluted as part of the annual King County MLK celebration.

With their perfect smiles and their combed hair, they took the stage, selected as winners from among 30 other students attending schools in the county, and were applauded by hundreds.

From the podium, the adult that introduced them remarked: We know how hard it is to be a teenager these days.

"That's an understatement," Alice said afterward, huddled in the Paramount's chilly foyer with schoolmates Megan and Tracy. The three girls attend Redmond Junior High. Chris opted to return to school and had left the ceremony early.

"People either expect a lot from us or they expect nothing. They think we're on drugs or that we're gifted and perfect. There's never any place in between," said Alice.

"They think we're mallrats," added Tracy.

"People definitely stereotype you. Sometimes you just want to be yourself," chimed in Megan.

"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." This was once said by the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Has his dream come true? Do we really live in a society that is completely rid of racial prejudice? Our society today still has people who judge by the color of a person's skin not by what really matters, what is inside.

Megan is the shyest of the three. She is white. Being judged by what you look like comes up every day, she says. Like at school full of different groups of students who align themselves by hobby, by ethnicity or by some perceived score on the fickle popularity scale.

"We're in a class for the gifted," she says. "Even that singles us out and separates us."

Alice speaks volumes: about the "caste" system at school; about mixed-race kids and how they're redefining the dialogue about race. Her mother is white; her father, Chinese.

I'm not going to pretend I'm a righteous pillar of racial objectivity. Just as Dr. King, I try as hard as I can to judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, but trying isn't enough; it just doesn't cut it. When it comes to a matter that men and women have died for, a feeble attempt labeled Integration doesn't make it all go away. I wish it did.

"I look at people and say, 'Oh, you're white,' " Alice says. "You notice it (race). I wish I didn't do that. It shouldn't be that way."

Today's society is more like a salad than a melting pot, says Tracy. "The carrots aren't always going to like the onions.

"I think about it (race) when I get up in the morning," she says. "I'm full Chinese. I don't fit in when I'm in China and I don't always fit in here so much."

As I grow older, my mountains take different forms. I have greater mountains to climb; but whenever I step on a sharp stone, my thoughts will go to Martin Luther King Jr., and his determination to attain equality among the people in the United States. I am positive that I am not alone when I think of King's many accomplishments, his greatest being the arrival at the land of equality.

Florangela Davila can be reached at 206-464-2916 or

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