Washington, D.C., is known as the capital of the free world. Some come to experience the museums and monuments, some come to seize power on Capitol hill. My hometown is a beautiful place but many people don’t know about the other side of the river; Southeast, Washington, D.C.
Southeast (Ward 8) is the poorest and most crime-ridden sections of the city. Southeast is four miles from the White House yet unemployment hovers around 20 percent (compared to a city percentage of 8.1%). The average family income is about $28,000 per year. That number is significantly low compared to a city wide average of $86,680. The majority of the population is Black and is filled with mostly low-income public housing.
My name is Darrion Montay Willis and this is my story.
I grew up in Washington Highland Dwellings. Public housing was where I spent 19 years in exile from the rest of the world. I was raised in a family household of six (Mom, Step-dad, two sisters and an Uncle). I want to make it clear that even though my neighborhood was surrounded by crime and poverty, I was raised in a ridiculously strong family household.
I don’t believe we've struggled; we lived in a struggling community with no sense of unity.
The exile came from the lack of male role models I saw in my community. No sense of hope that I could believe in making it out of here. “Street ballers” (basketball), “aspiring rappers”, gamblers and drug dealers divided our community but were the only male figures I saw.
Living in my area was hard because of the on-going crime that shattered our community to pieces. My mom is a warrior because she didn't allow my sisters and I to play outside nor associate ourselves with many people in the community. She was passionate about us all to receive the best education and to pursue a life free from what we've experienced in our community daily.
So step 1 in me making it out of the ‘hood was effective parenting (or “Sheltering” in this case).
I started to see a bit of hope in making it out when my mom enrolled me into Thurgood Marshall Academy Charter High School (TMA); a law-themed based school who’s now known today for enrolling 100% of students in college. The newly established charter school opened in 2001 and I started my first year in 2004. The school was totally different from previous schools I’ve attended. There were shiny hardwood floors, advanced technology in all the classrooms, and an exterior that reminded me of The United States Supreme Court building. I was fascinated by the design of the school because the schools I've attended weren't as prestige and technologically advanced as this one.
My first thought about this school was that this could be my chance to make it out out of DC. But I did’t know how. What inspired me most about the high school is the diversity in the teachers and staff. Every teacher there worked countless hours for us to ensure that we will graduate with the next step being college. Friendly, loving, caring and most of all I felt safe. It was like I was on two different planets when I was here at school and when I traveled back home. The crazy part about it is that the school is not in a wealthy area of the district, It’s here in the ‘hood!
I was also inspired by all of the college pennants that hung outside of the teacher’s classrooms. That alone helped me say to myself “I will do everything I can to get accepted into college.” The law theme here at TMA was a very interesting element in our school. Our days were filled with mock-trail & debating, as well visiting law firms weekly to be tutored by attorneys. The one thing that help me cope with the lack of male role models in my neighborhood was the monthly mentor day. I met James Gale who was an attorney that took me under his wing during my high school years. We could talk about anything and he gave me genuine advice on how I should tackle life and kick ass in it. We still keep in touch today I am thankful for his presence in my life and for my school allowing me to be a part of the mentoring program.
By no means high school was as easy as it may sounds. I was bullied (by kids who lived by the school who weren't students), my grandmother died in 2005, and I was on the verge of quitting. I wanted to quit because people didn't see me for who I am. I wasn't your typical black boy. I spoke significantly different from the rest of my peers, I dress differently back home, and my interests weren't the same as many people my age.
My biggest criticism growing up was me “Acting/Being White”. Why? Because my rhetoric was significantly different from the people around me.
So how did I escaped this all and from quitting? One place: The National Gallery of Art.
That museum saved my ass so many times from getting beat up that I lost count (haha). This was my place of refuge, the place I came everyday to do homework and take in the amazing works of art that surrounded me. This place was filled with the innovation and energy I needed to get back on track. I would come here everyday by train (instead of taking the bus knowing I would get beat up) just to capture and experience the peace and serenity here. Most of the people here were white tourist with expensive cameras and large baby strollers. I found my spot in one of the gardens that had seating (where I could do homework). I always told my mom I was still at school. I didn't want her to worried about me being bullied outside of school. I knew by being here, bullies would never find me. It’s not cool to go to museums so you would never find them there (haha).
So step 2 in mapping out my dream was to get lost and inspired in this big ole building we know as The National Gallery of Art. Even during (and sometimes after) college I would come back to the same spot and it hasn't changed since.
The day I met Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer changed my life.
SCJ Stephen Breyer came to my school to speak on a panel about the importance of having a college degree. Long story short, his presence and me meeting him ensured me that I was going to get into college and succeed.
Day in and day out I kept “pounding that pavement” (working tirelessly) to make sure I would achieve my goal of enrolling in college. I studied hard, stayed in the museum and library, surfed the web and read a lot. My belief was that I could go to college and “make it out” of the ‘hood and that was a goal I wanted to achieve badly, and I did. I was accepted by a number of schools (Univ. of Maryland, Robert Morris Univ. Cleveland State Univ.). I chose to attend The University of Vermont with $170k academic scholarship. I graduated with a major in Political Science and minor in English.
So I did it! What kept me through it all? Number 1, my consistent effort of not quitting and believing in myself. Number 2, my amazing mom who kept me mentally grounded in the process. My strength comes from her. Also my teachers, mentors and church (Grace Covenant Church) that provided the support and foundation I needed to succeed.
I wasn't weird. I just stayed silent on revealing my dream back home and was interested and open-mined about a lot of things. I told my family of course and they've supported me.
I was the first on my side of the family to graduate from college. I had one hell of a block party when I arrived back home from college. It’s funny how life works because those bullies ended up coming to my party and showed me respect. I welcomed them with open arms and I now have the entire support of my neighborhood to go chase and capture my dreams.
The initial plan was to attend Harvard Law School and become the next Thurgood Marshall. Well that plan is dead. I am a 2nd grade teacher in….RAYONG, THAILAND! Who? What? Where? When? How? AND WHY????
One college paper had changed the game in my master plan. I wrote a paper on political leadership and talked about the life and success of Michelle Rhee; former Chancellor of DC Public Schools. In my eyes she was a hero for education reform for Washington, D.C. I was inspired by her story that I decided that if this Korean-American woman can come to a city and make big lasting changes like she did from 2007–2010, then I’m dedicating my life to serving the youth and to reform education.
But there’s one thing: I hated being in DC.
I was stuck at how I was gonna get involved in education with my academic background being in politics. After graduation, I worked a short stint at a restaurant in Virginia, Mussel Bar & Grill. A very expensive restaurant I wouldn't dare come dine at if my life depended on it. I was a busboy and worked the bar at times. Now I know what you’re thinking: Why is a college graduate working at a freaking bar? Well that’s how America works. No one is hiring (or you’re overqualified) and it doesn't matter what you know; it about who you know.
I found my way to Thailand because of one person; Matthew Wilkerson. We worked the bar together and we had frequent conversations about succeeding as Black men in America. So one day we had a conversation in McDonald's, and I told him about me pursuing a career in education and not being here in DC. He asked if I considered looking outside the U.S…I said not really.
“Dude if your dream is outside of America get the fuck outta here man. Get on that phone and Google it. My girl is calling me but when I’m done, I wanna know what you've found”
And that’s exactly what I did. I googled “Travel and Education”, “Education outside the USA.” And what Google gave me was my dream; Teach abroad. At first I was like “How am I gonna be a teacher?” “I don’t have a license.” The Overseas Education Group (OEG) allows prospective applicants to apply to teach in Thailand as long as you have a college degree.
So just like that I applied and got accepted into the program a couple weeks later. In the process I got fired from the restaurant job (because clearly I checked out already knowing I’m going to THAILAND!). Two days later, I met and was hired to work for Muriel Bower (former Ward 4 Council member) on her successful mayoral campaign run. I saved all of the money from campaigning to get my passport, visa, and a one way ticket to freedom.
May 6, 2014 I departed to the Land of Smiles, Thailand. And I haven’t looked back since. No more pain, no more stress, and I am living out my dream to educate and inspire children all over the world. There is more to the dream but I like how my life is being played out so far. I am wining and dining in luxurious places, dating and chatting with some of the most beautiful women from around the world and most of all, I feel accepted and safe in a place that barely speaks English.
I am currently pursuing my Masters in Education online at Walden University (another first for the Willis family).
It’s May 23, 2015 and I am writing to say that I am a changed man, I am living life and living through the word of God to guide me throughout the entire process. There are so many people to thank but most of all, I thank my mom for the initial and continuous support she has given me and my sisters to strive for anything we want in life; which is why I am telling you now to Strive for Greatness. Forget the doubters, ignore the critics. Believe in yourself like I did. I almost gave up and God saw the last bit of strength in myself to get back on track. I started from the bottom NOW I’M HERE!
GO OUT AND DO YOU!
Set a plan, believe in yourself and MAKE IT HAPPEN.
This is only the beginning. More stories to come!
Darrion (“Teacher Dee”)
Update (April 18, 2016):
I decided to take my teaching talents to Thanh Hoa, Vietnam. I have been promoted and now the Head English teacher at the school. I have learned many lessons since departing America. And I hope to continue to evolve and do whatever I can for children around the world.
Update 2 (May 20, 2019):
Vietnam was an amazing experience over the last three years. I’m currently on vacation in Medellin, Colombia. I return home this week to Washington, D.C. to begin the certification process to become a licensed public school teacher. It’s a full circle moment and it all comes back to where it started; HOME. The road to public service starts now!