Youth's passion for learning beats the odds

Atlantan succeeds while he overcomes family tragedy, other obstacles.

The trophies are impossible to ignore. At least 37 fill the living room of the south Atlanta apartment Deonte Bridges shares with his mother. Thirty-six extol the teenager’s academic achievements at Booker T. Washington High School.

The 37th trophy? Bridges, 18, smiled. “Basketball,” he said. Turns out he played the sport in ninth grade but gave it up. The game got in the way of more important things.

Such is the focus of Deonte Kivon Bridges, a kid who still marvels at what he’s accomplished at such long odds.

Bridges is Washington High’s first black male valedictorian in more than a decade, a rising freshman at UGA, the winner of scholarships totaling more than $1 million.

And this: A YouTube posting of his graduation speech, nearly five minutes long, has been viewed more than 80,000 times. He has nearly 1,600 Facebook friends who live all over the world.

Bridges reset the academic bar at Washington, despite his mother’s cancer, his brother’s death, an armed hold-up and peer pressure to put down his books and embrace the street life.

With a 3.9 grade point average, he’s the recipient of 26 scholarship offers. Emory University tossed a $201,000 scholarship at his feet, which he declined in favor of an all-expenses-paid education at the University of Georgia, courtesy of the $360,000 Gates Millennium Scholars Program. The award, given by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, will pay for his undergraduate and graduate education.

Ask him why he’s done so much, so well, and Bridges cannot say. Education has always been important to him. His mom and dad urged him on. He sought the company of other students who felt the same.

He’s more than a bookworm. Bridges wrote a rap song decrying racism and bigotry and performed it at a 2009 Anti-Defamation League dinner. Bridges successfully completed a four-year writing program that matched students with mentors. He routinely took time to speak at a local YMCA, where the kids called him “The Valedictorian.” Once, his dad had to bring a box to a ceremony to cart home all his son’s awards.

Blazing so brightly, Bridges has dazzled people twice his age.

Listen to his writing mentor: “He’s an amazing young man.”

Check with his academic adviser: “Deonte’s an incredible person.”

Or ask Bridges: “I know what’s important.”

A look, a challenge

Bridges is as Atlanta as Coca-Cola, born at the Atlanta Medical Center in 1991. His mother is Paris Hardaway, who was a cook at a day care center until she contracted leukemia. These days, she stays at home. His dad, Ernest Bridges, is a detention officer at the Atlanta City Jail.

Bridges, who’s always lived in south Atlanta, is not done growing. He’s 6 feet 1 inch, 160 pounds, has size 12 feet that threaten to become 13s. Bridges has a young man’s beard. It’s as thin as he is, a shadow embracing a strong jaw. He’s handsome.

He’s neat, too. On a recent morning, he wore a spotless Atlanta Braves cap. “Ought to have a Georgia cap on his head,” said his mother.

He’s a product of Atlanta Public Schools, attending elementary and middle schools in the Pittsburgh and West End communities. In 2006, though Bridges lived in the Therrell High School district, he enrolled as a magnet student at Booker T. Washington, a stately old brick edifice in the heart of West End. There, good things happened.

Bridges and some other magnet kids visited a guidance counselor, who reviewed their grades. She told Bridges he trailed another kid as the leader in grade-point average, or GPA, then gave him a pointed look.

“I knew what that look meant,” said Bridges.

In the next quarter, Bridges maneuvered his way to the top and stayed there. He finished at Washington with a GPA just a fraction better than that of the salutatorian, Shaeroya Earls. Like Bridges, she’s attending UGA on the Gates scholarship.

They are friends. Academic competitors, too?

Earls, 18, laughed.

“I guess we wanted to be better and different,” she said. “We would joke about [competition] at times, but it wasn’t really serious.”

Charles Allen, a Washington academic adviser, believes Bridges got serious about his studies not long after he entered Washington High. He was in the ninth grade when an Atlanta TV station interviewed him as part of a profile on Freedom Writers. The program, established four years ago by Kilpatrick Stockton LLP, links writing students with mentors who are employees of the Atlanta law firm.

“Deonte had to get himself together rather quickly for that,” said Allen. He recalls a slender boy showing up in a white shirt, black pants and tie, a mixture of tension and budding poise.

Bridges participated in Freedom Writers during his four years at Washington. As he matured, so did his writing skills, said Jennifer Schumacher, a partner at Kilpatrick Stockton and one of Bridges’ mentors.

Some students grumbled at their assignments, said Schumacher. Not Bridges.

“He was like a sponge,” she said. “He wants to soak up all he can.”

For Bridges, opening a book was the same as entering a new world. The confines of south Atlanta fell away as the young man read of wars and nations, of fractions and equations.

Death, robbery

Maurice. He remembers the 20-year-old with a child’s clarity, because Bridges wasn’t quite 5 when his big brother died. Maurice Hardaway met friends on an August afternoon to play basketball and ended up collapsed on the court. Physicians said it was an enlarged heart.

Even now, Bridges thinks about his brother, dead 13 years. “It sounds cliche, but he was my best friend,” said Bridges.

He also remembers the slammed car door, the stranger, the handgun. Bridges was walking back to his apartment complex in May 2008 when a passing car stopped. A rider got out and walked toward him. In a twinkling, the man held a weapon — it was a 9 mm, ugly and efficient — and shoved it in the boy’s ribs.

The gunman got away with about $40, said Bridges. He also stole the teen’s sense of security.

“I was afraid to go out of the house,” he said.

He sought the safety of homework, working even harder than before. English, math, history: His mother would wake at 1 a.m. and see light shining under the bottom of her bedroom door. “Deonte?”

“I’m studying,” came the reply.

The studying paid off, said Kevin Ladd, vice president of operations for The website, founded 12 years ago, specializes in matching students’ needs and aptitudes with scholarships.

“He has a great background and has overcome a lot,” Ladd said. “People like to help people like that.”

Melanie Corrigan of the American Council on Education was just as impressed. She’d heard of the YouTube video.

“It speaks a lot to his tenacity,” she said. “He comes from fairly humble beginnings.”

Bridges remains humble, too. “I’d like to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “But I want to stay involved in the community.”

Perhaps he’ll major in business, or marketing, but isn’t sure just yet. That’s OK; he doesn’t have to be. For now, Bridges is eyeing Aug. 12, when he joins a new community, UGA’s class of 2014.


‘We rise’

Following are excerpts from Deonte Bridges’ 2010 valedictorian speech, including echoes of Maya Angelou’s work, at Booker T. Washington High School. The YouTube video can be seen at .

I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise.

My faith in God and my ability to overcome adversity and make rational decisions have resulted in my academic success. I am committed to education, and I choose to do what is necessary, not what is popular.

Had I given in, I would not stand before you today, honored and humbled, to be the first African-American male valedictorian in Booker T. Washington High School in more than a decade.

Bringing the gifts that our ancestors gave, we are the hope, we are the dream. We rise. We rise. We rise.