Littlest orator moves people on both sides of CPS debate
Just 4 feet tall, the tiniest student protester stands on a chair to reach the lectern. The microphone is adjusted so he can speak to the crowds of people, who are sometimes stunned for a second — who is this kid? — and then electrified.
People scream and clap for the 9-year-old boy in size 4 shoes who, amid the battle over the plan to close more than 50 Chicago schools, emerged as an undeniably strong voice. And when his school became one of four taken off the chopping block last week, many were giving at least partial credit to the third-grader who had stepped into the spotlight to fight for his school.
Some called for the boy to run for mayor. Others reached further, suggesting he could run for president. (Because of his age, he wouldn’t be eligible until 2039.) As for Asean Johnson, he said he might consider a run, but honestly, he’d rather be a professional football player.
“President would be my second choice,” he said on a recent day, taking a break from the playground at his Far South Side school, Garvey Elementary. “And I might want to be a scientist or a lawyer. Those are going to be my two backup plans.”
The reed-thin boy with big ears and gap teeth shot to celebrity last week when a video of him speaking passionately on behalf of his school went viral on YouTube. As of Friday night, the three-minute clip had been viewed 153,000 times, by people as far away as China and Australia.
Interviewed outside his school while standing next to his mom, Asean was charming and modest and said he wasn’t letting fame go to his head. Dressed in a red baseball cap that was slightly too big, and a large black backpack slung over his narrow shoulders, he acknowledged his role in fighting for the school but was quick to give credit to others.
“I think I helped because we’ve been going to all the meetings, but I don’t think it was just me. I think it was my fellow students and their parents because we all came out. It was a team effort,” he said, as his mother, who has been acting as a press secretary of late, nodded in agreement.
He recounted his path to fame, saying he was a new student at Garvey in September, having transferred from a small parochial school. When Garvey ended up on a list of schools that were scheduled to be shut down, he was stunned.
“This is my first year at the school, and I wasn’t going to let it close,” he said. “I already transferred to a school, and then I’m going to lose all my friends that I already knew, and I didn’t want that to happen.”
He had already gained some renown when, on a whim, he made a bid for class president in November. Running on a platform of class unity, he delivered a rousing speech that stunned his teacher and impressed his 17 classmates. He won the election handily.
When Garvey was slated for closing, school officials asked Asean if he would be willing to speak. With the help of his teacher, he came up with a short speech. He said he told the teacher what he wanted to say and she typed it for him, giving him a little help with the grammar and structure. “The words were all his,” said the teacher, Lori Harris.
At home, he practiced his delivery about five times, and his mother timed him on a stopwatch to make sure he stayed within the two-minute limit. He was one of about 10 children in his class who prepared speeches. But it was his delivery that made him stand apart.
Over the course of several months, he spoke at a half-dozen rallies and public meetings.
He quickly caught the attention of many on both sides of the debate. At a meeting in April, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett smiled broadly and wiped away a tear as Asean made his passionate plea. Later, she said Asean was “an articulate, learned young man, and that is exactly what we want for all of our students.”
“I was so amazed because he was so well composed,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said, recalling how she too got choked up when she first heard Asean speak. “He just totally blew me away. He had on this suit, and he was so kind and so well mannered and articulate and sweet and adorable. I thought, ‘This kid has it.'”
For some events, Asean prepared speeches, which he would try to memorize and deliver without looking at his notes. But it was an event Monday, when he spoke off the cuff, that was videotaped, uploaded to the Internet and soon made him a sensation.
In the video, Asean climbs on a metal folding chair so he can see over the lectern. After greeting the crowd and introducing himself, his tone turns serious as he accuses Mayor Rahm Emanuel of “not caring about our schools.” He is poised. His voice rises in anger as he says, “You should be supporting these schools, not closing them.”
Noting that the action will affect mostly African-American children, he calls the closings racist. But he quickly strikes a chord of inclusion, saying: “We are black, and we are proud! We are white and we are proud! No matter what the color is, no matter if you’re Asian or Chinese, it doesn’t matter. You should not be closing these schools!” The crowd roars in approval. The boy pumps his fist in the air and leads a chant: “Education is a right; that is why we have to fight!”
His father, Antonio Johnson, who works the overnight shift in a plastics factory, said he got teary when he first saw the clip. “It reached my heart,” he said. “For me, it’s amazing to see your child that you’ve known since he was a baby, to see how he’s growing up into such a fine young man. People still can’t believe Asean, the way he speaks, how special he is.”
His mother, Shoneice Reynolds, a substitute office worker for CPS, said her son has always been comfortable in the spotlight, though she didn’t realize how comfortable until the spring rallies. “I was a little surprised that he wasn’t nervous,” she said. “But he’s always been an outgoing kid.”
Jimmy Thomas, 35, who coaches Asean’s peewee football team, said he was “surprised, but not really surprised,” when he saw the video clip. He said the boy is the team captain and often delivers pep talks to his teammates. “We call him hot pepper. He’s one of our shortest players, but he has the biggest heart.”
Now, with the school-closing battle behind him, things have returned to normal for Asean. On a recent evening, he had finished his math homework and was begging his mother to take him to a basketball court.
Did he learn anything from the schools debate?
“I have learned that you should fight for what you love and for what you believe in,” he said. Going forward, he said he would “continue focusing on my work and trying to get good grades.”
He was happy his school was staying open because, he said, “It would give us a chance to work more on our lessons, and (next year) we get to go to fourth grade.”