- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

It was no ordinary occurrence for no ordinary students at no ordinary school.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas - accustomed to commanding audiences of thousands at major universities - instead delivered a commencement address last night for 18 graduating middle-school boys at the highly regarded Washington Jesuit Academy in Northeast.

Washington Jesuit is a tuition-free private boarding school for underprivileged but academically promising youths run by the Jesuits - an influential order of Catholic priests legendary for centuries of educational excellence. Inspired academic instruction is but one feature of a boy’s life at the school.

Within Washington Jesuit’s walls, at least, character counts, and it showed in the eighth-graders’ polite demeanor last night.

“It is truly up to each of you to decide what type of building block you will become with your actions,” Justice Thomas told the class of primarily black students during his speech.

Like his audience, Justice Thomas came up the hard way - raised in impoverished Pin Point, Ga., and abandoned by his father - but he benefited mightily from a Jesuit education at Holy Cross College. The former seminarian was nominated to the court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

He was sworn in after perhaps the most bitter Supreme Court confirmation fight in memory. A former head of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he is the only black on the court.

“Remember that life is not easy for any of us, it probably won’t be fair and it certainly isn’t all about you,” he said. “The gray hair and wrinkles you see on older people have been earned the hard way.”

The students wore navy sport coats, white and green barber-striped ties and khakis. They gave firm handshakes and made eye contact as they spoke with Justice Thomas about their plans for high school, college and life.

The justice returned the gestures and encouraged each boy with firm pats and a few words such as “congratulations” and “don’t stop now.”

“It’s an honor [to meet the justice]. It’s very inspiring that he got past segregation,” said valedictorian Airton Kamdem, 14, of Silver Spring. Airton will attend Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda for high school.

“It’s a pleasure,” said Demitrius McNeil, 14, of Fairfax. “I grew up in a bad neighborhood so I can relate [to Justice Thomas]. It’s about making something out of your life.” Demitrius will go to Gonzaga College High School in Northwest this fall.

Justice Thomas praised the school for helping prepare academically promising but underprivileged students for the time when they will enter a more competitive collegiate environment, up against students born with more advantages.

“When I was coming up, there was a problem with throwing young people into the fire on the collegiate level without preparing them … they can’t win,” he said. “In this situation, they now can win.”

The school, which is near Catholic University, was founded in 2002 and helps the boys succeed with small class sizes, 12-hour school days and an 11-month school year.

The academy says only about 11 percent of its students enter the school reading at their grade level, but 95 percent of them graduate doing so. The school also boasts double-digit improvements in students’ standardized tests scores after two years.

There are only 38 alumni, but all are in high school and nearly all are in college preparatory programs.

School President William B. Whitaker said the speech was important to the students because Justice Thomas’ life shows that anyone can achieve greatness.

“A lot the boys think they can’t, they won’t,” Mr. Whitaker said. “But we try to encourage them and say ‘you can, you will and you should.’ ”

The school is funded by the other Jesuit schools in the area - Gonzaga High School, Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University - as well as the Maryland Province of Jesuits.

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