MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Senior year presented a crossroads for William Cain, the man of the house with an absentee father at 19 years old: Drop out of high school after his mother was assaulted and his house burned down, or keep working toward his diploma in a community burdened with high crime, intense poverty and broken families.
His decision to stick it out is being validated Monday, when President Barack Obama delivers the commencement speech to 150 seniors graduating from Booker T. Washington High School.
The visit may also uplift spirits in Memphis, where residents are still dealing with swamped homes and businesses from the city's second-worst flood in history.
Cain, a football player, said the devil was tempting him to "do your own thing" when he thought of dropping out and credits teachers, coaches, administrators and classmates for their advice to stay.
"I felt like giving up," Cain said. "But my teachers and my principal, they kept me inspired. They told me, 'Don't do this, do the right thing. You're going to make it out of here. If I have to kill you, you're going to make it out of here.'"
Booker T. Washington was selected last week as the only high school in the country that will receive a commencement speech from the president. When principal Alisha Kiner got the victory call in her office from Vice President Joe Biden, she realized that the school had completed its transformation into a vibrant and cohesive learning environment.
"One of the things I definitely want to tell the president is 'Thank you,'" Kiner said during a recent interview as tears welled up in her eyes. "Thank you for validating the work that the kids have done."
Established in 1873 as the Clay Street School and the city's first to educate blacks, Booker T. Washington owns a rich tradition of educating African-Americans in Memphis. Graduates include former NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, evangelist and songwriter Lucie Campbell, and Willie Herenton, the first elected black mayor of Memphis.
Alumni still know the school song and motto: "We lead, and others follow." The mantra is painted in green on the wall near the school's cafeteria and is repeated constantly by seniors.
The school struggled in the 1980s and 1990s, as the surrounding community fell on hard times because of crime, gang activity and drugs. The school is in a gritty Memphis community where the median annual income is less than $11,000 and the crime rate is the 14th-highest in the nation.
By 2005 — the year Kiner became principal — disciplinary suspensions were high and the graduation rate had fallen to 53 percent.
One of Kiner's first moves as principal was to hire teachers, coaches and administrators she knew and trusted from growing up in Memphis. She also built relationships with feeder schools in the area to gain insight into students moving on to Booker T. Washington.
Slowly, Kiner began building a family atmosphere. She established a ninth grade "academy" where core classes were split by gender, with boys taught by men and girls getting instruction from women, to reduce classroom distractions.
Administrators began keeping close track of students, making sure they had their correct addresses and phone numbers. The principal meets with a graduation team to discuss each student and what troubles or obstacles they may face outside of school.
The close-knit school was presented with a challenge last year, when 20 percent of the students lost their homes after their public housing project was closed and demolished. But rather than transferring to schools closer to their new homes, most displaced students decided to stick with Kiner.
The curriculum was expanded to offer students more coping tools. Even the football players now learn to sew and cook, and more practical subjects emerged, such as business education and computer technology. By 2010, the school graduated 82 percent of its students. And the school became a sanctuary where students left the worst parts of life at the front door.
"The students have needs, and if they aren't able to get them at home, with the family makeup that we provide here, we are willing to provide for the kids," said English teacher Tara Harris-Davis. "You cannot teach these kids unless you know where they're coming from. No one here is just a teacher."
The family atmosphere is apparent during graduation rehearsal. Acting more like a big sister than a taskmaster, Kiner tells jokes while instructing the seniors on when to sit and stand during graduation.
Without a class roster in her hand, she recited the names of seniors by memory and gave them fist bumps as they practiced coming up to the stage.
"I'm not going to be wearing makeup, because if I do cry ..." Kiner said before being interrupted by her laughing students.
Students and faculty share a strong grasp of the history behind the visit by the country's first black president to Memphis, where people still remember segregation and the agony they felt when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in their city in 1968.
"Dr. King came here for a reason and a purpose, and it's the same thing with President Obama," Harris-Davis said. "He's coming to inspire these kids, our kids."Comment on this story
When he arrives, streets and homes in several neighborhoods will still be flooded and residents will still have been unable to get to their homes because of the high water. Obama is expected to meet with Memphis-area families affected by the flooding
Booker T. Washington's students are proud, but they also understand what Obama's speech will mean to their elders.
"When my grandmother found out that Obama was president, she cried a little bit," said senior Dorcheryl Tate, 19. "She's real excited by this. She's going to see him. If I only had one ticket, she would go."