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The New York Times, October 22, 2007. Copyright 2007; Written by Will Okun

Will Okun is a Chicago school teacher who traveled with Nick Kristof in June to central Africa, on the win-a-trip contest. He blogged and vlogged as he went, and you can see his reports at www.nytimes.com/twofortheroad. He teaches English and photography in a Chicago school with many students from low-income and minority homes.

After the first few weeks of school, I try to call all the students’ parents to introduce myself and to offer a status update on their child’s progress in English class.

“Hey, Nick, it’s Mr. Okun. Let me speak to a parent.”

“You can speak to me,” Nicholas Bounds replied. “I am in charge of myself.”

This is a common response from our school’s students, who either like to think of themselves as grown or do not want teachers to share bad news with their parents.

“C’mon, Nick, it’s nothing bad. I just want to tell your parent what a great job you are doing thus far,” I confided.

“Well, you are going to have to tell me,” Nick asserted. “There is no one here but me. I am my own parent.”

Nicholas Bounds is one of the top students in my Senior English class. He attends school every day, and often arrives to our first period class early. He works dutifully in class and faithfully completes his homework every night. He writes with honesty, intelligence and intensity. He scored a 23 in Math on the ACT. Nicholas is a shining star in the otherwise stormy night of black male education in the West Side of Chicago.

Nicholas Bounds also lives in a homeless shelter for teenagers. Every day, he leaves the shelter at 7 a.m. for school and arrives back at 11 p.m. after his part-time job at U.P.S. He was telling me the truth; he has been his own parent since he was 15 and in the eighth grade.

Nicholas’ mother was a drug-addict and his father was neither stable nor involved. Despite his family upbringing, Nicholas is proud that he has always succeeded in school.

“Since we started getting grades in elementary school, my report cards were A’s and B’s. I have natural intelligence but I always worked hard. I had to push myself,” Nicholas remembers. “I’ve been lucky to have good teachers who believed in me and had a big impact on me. I also benefited from all the clubs I was in like the Boys and Girls Club, where I would go after school to play and receive help with my homework.”

But at “home,” Nicholas was virtually on his own.

“My big sister has always been there for me and tried to help me however she could, but no one was giving me advice or showing me how to grow up. It was my decision to do well in school, I had to set my own goals and do the work to get to those goals,” Nicholas recalls. “I took advantage of school because I knew education could get me out of here. Even when I was young, I knew there was nothing out here for me. Just look around; there has to be something else.”

Nicholas finally made the painful decision to break from his mother when her frequent moves to Mississippi and Minnesota started to negatively impact his education. He failed the eighth grade because he was unable to attend the minimum number of school days in one district because of his family’s constant moving.

He decided to move in with other family members in Chicago, but he never felt welcome. “I don’t think they wanted me there — it was like I was in the way. There was a lot of hate in the household,” says Nicholas. “But all of this only helped to make me stronger. I wanted to show them that I can succeed despite what I had been through or what they thought of me.”

At this point, Nicholas was bouncing from house to house, but still attending eighth grade every day. Nicholas frequently relied on former teachers for emotional and academic support. When he needed help enrolling in a high school, Nicholas reconnected with Teri Marx, a woman he now refers to as his “mentor” and his “greatest supporter.”

Teri first met Nicholas through the Junior/Seniors Scholars Program, in which North Central College (in Naperville, Ill.) education students work with children from James Johnson Elementary School until they have progressed all the way to, hopefully, college acceptance.

“When I first met Nick, he was only 6 and he was by far my greatest challenge. He was hardheaded, disrespectful and stubborn. I was only a junior in college so I didn’t really know what to do. But after a while, he realized that I was there to help him and we started to develop a repartee,” recollects Teri. “When his family moved to Mississippi, I think we were both sad. He had become my favorite kid and I didn’t think I would see him again.”

After reuniting, Teri helped Nicholas enroll in high school and establish secure housing in the teen shelter. More important, Nicholas says that Teri “is always there for me. It doesn’t matter whether things are good or bad, I know I can count on Teri to support me.”

Nicholas believes that many black males in Chicago are failing in high school because they do not receive the positive support offered by a mentor like Teri.

“These kids are followers and there is no one to lead them in the right direction,” offers Nicholas. “The people who already failed and are not doing good are jealous and don’t want to see other people do good. That’s why they call the kids with book bags ‘lames’ or ‘trying to be white.’”

“If these kids could just have someone believe in them, that would make a big difference. How can anyone succeed when everyone is expecting and wanting you to fail?” wonders Nicholas. “If students had people supporting them in school and showing them what a high school education can do for them, they would do better.”

Nicholas also argues that high schools need to do a better job of engaging the students through “more relevant” classes and a wider availability of in-school activities and after-school programs.

As for now, Nicholas is on track to join the minority of black male students who graduate from our nation’s high schools. He hopes to attend college with the career goal of becoming a math teacher.

“Nick is the most motivated kid I have ever worked with. He knows that he wants to have a better life than his family and he is willing to do whatever he has to in order to become a better example for his brothers and sisters,” beams Teri. “Nick will be successful!”

I couldn’t agree more.