A Simple Twist of Fate: Mentorship Connects Two Facing History Alums

“Listen to a person younger than you.”

That was the plea student Jonathan Lykes made to friends and family gathered at the first annual Facing History andOurselves benefit dinner in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2006. Lykes, then a junior at Shaw High School, recited an original spoken word poem to those in attendance. Called “Perception,” the poem was all about the power of prejudice and listening to the other.

“Perception,” Lykes read aloud to the crowd. “For one second make an exception and listen to a person younger than you, not really wiser than you. Give me a minute I just might surprise you.”

Six years later, Lykes found himself on the other side of the microphone at the 2012 Facing History benefit dinner in Chicago, Illinois. Rather than asking others to listen to a Facing History student, this time around Lykes was the one doing the listening.

After graduating from Shaw, Lykes went to the University of Chicago where he studied political science. He became the first person in his family to graduate from college when he accepted his diploma in June 2012. While still completing his undergraduate degree, Lykes enrolled in the school’s master’s program in social service administration. During the 2011/2012 school year, Lykes worked as an intern at a Chicago non-profit organization that provides housing and social services to low-income families. One of the students he worked with regularly was an 8th grader named Jacques. One afternoon, Jacques, a student at Stockton School on Chicago’s Northwest side, came in with a question.

“One random day, Jacques came in and said, ‘Can you help me with this speech?’” says Lykes. “I was like, ‘Oh sure, I can help you.’ He began reading his speech and it hit me. I was like, ‘What is this for?’ Jacques said, ‘It’s for this thing, Facing History, that I do. I am speaking at their annual benefit dinner.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to be there!’ I chuckled and realized what a coincidence, really what a twist of fate, it was.”

The two got down to work. The speech Jacques delivered touched on his own immigration story – he moved to America from Togo, Africa, at age nine without knowing any English – and the work he led within his school to raise awareness about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community.

“My Facing History teacher, Ms. Zajac, has a quote in her room,” Jacques told the crowd – which included his mentor, Lykes. “’Your mind is like a parachute. It works best when it’s open.’ I hope we have helped open minds.”

Facing History recently caught up with Jacques, who is getting ready to start his freshman year at Chicago Academy for the Arts where he will study visual arts, and Lykes, who was about to head to South Africa for a summer internship, about what being a Facing History student means to them.

Facing History: Do you remember the first time you heard about Facing History?

Jacques: I first heard about Facing History in 6th grade. We read Warriors Don’t Cry in my English class and my teacher put a photo of the Little Rock Nine up on the board for us to analyze.

Lykes: My first experience was when [Cleveland Office Director] Mark Swaim-Fox brought a Holocaust survivor to visit my classroom. It was the 9th or 10th grade. It was really both challenging and provocative. How could these evil things have happened? Then I took Facing History sophomore, junior, and senior years.

Jacques: When I first started Facing History, we focused on [the Facing History resource] Choices in Little Rock. Before that, I had never heard about those events or the problems those students faced. This class, it taught me about that, but it also taught me to be an upstander. It taught me that I had a voice. This was the class that involved me the most. The [Choices in Little Rock] book would ask us what we thought of a problem. How would we approach the situation differently? I was allowed to speak my mind in a way that  I never had in a classroom before.

Lykes: Facing History built that bridge between students and the world around them. The questions probed and pushed our ideas about difference and encouraged us to build community. For me personally, this class helped me to arrive at the place in which I wanted to, and was ready to take part in the world around me. That kind of stuff just wasn't happening my other classes.

Facing History: What was your Facing History teacher like?

Jacques: Ms. Zajac. She’s a teacher we could go to for everything. I describe her as my second mom. She’s very welcoming and has a warm heart.

Lykes: We had one teacher who was heavily involved with Facing History – Lori Eiler. She was my social studies teacher from 9th through 11th grade. She definitely had a similar impact on me. I wouldn’t be at this school where I am now if it wasn’t for this one teacher.

Facing History: What was it like to speak at a Facing History benefit dinner? What did you talk about?

Jacques: I was surprised when I was asked to speak! As an 8th grader about to go to high school, having the opportunity to talk in front of a big crowd was actually amazing. It was kind of like performing. It was a life experience I enjoyed very much. I talked about a project we did in our school about the problems those in the LQBTQ community face and the everyday things we can do to try and stop and end hate. We made suggestions like if someone sees someone else being harassed because of their sexual orientation, then they reach out and try to talk to that person, or go to an adult to tell them.

Lykes: I talked about perceptions – about breaking stereotypes and judgments, and not having preconceived notions. I read a poem and talked about my Facing History class and how it challenged my notion of my own universe of obligation.

Facing History: You're both about to start exciting, new chapters in your lives. Are there any Facing History lessons or experiences that you will carry along on your journeys?

Jacques: Yes – to be myself and do what I love. Facing History has helped me in so many ways to do what I love, to stand up for people that don’t have a voice or who have a voice, but can’t get their ideas across. I’m going to take what Facing History has taught me and what I have learned from my Facing History teachers with me to high school and apply it to my academic and personal life.

Lykes: I bring some of Facing History with me into whatever new area I go. Identity – thinking about who I am and how I identify. How that continues to grow and change. I think of building community – building connected action and bridges between people. And I bring with me “choosing to participate” – wanting to be a part of society and participate in ways big and small.

Facing History: And will you keep in touch?

Jacques: I have his email address right here [in front of me].

Lykes: We will. We have to. We absolutely have to.

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