Magic Johnson @ CHEC - Columbia Heights Educational Campus

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The Power of Magic (Johnson)

Magic Johnson talks with D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee before addressing
students at Bell Multicultural High School. (Gerald Martineau/Post)

I have long questioned the value of motivational speakers who tell young people to stay in school and stay out of jail. Kids often slump in their chairs and use the time to catch up on their sleep.

But then this morning I watched about 850 students--all minorities--at a high school about a mile from the White House sit at rapt attention for more than an hour as Magic Johnson talked about dreams, sex, the importance of education, responsibility and perseverance.

The basketball great and successful entrepreneur did what the best teachers do every day: Connect to students in the hope that they take away the essence of the message.

He did it by telling the kids at Bell Multicultural High School about growing up poor in a large family. They learned that Johnson, now a part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, struggled with reading--but took summer school classes to catch up.

He recalled that a school security guard told him when he was young that he would “never amount to anything”--and how much fun it was to go back and tell him he had been drafted by the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.
And he told them how he cried when the Lakers first gave him his jersey with #32 on it, because he realized he could give something back to his parents, who had raised 10 children.

These were more than great stories. Johnson used his history to talk to the kids , in a non-judgmental manner, without talking down to them.

The connection between Johnson and his audience became clear during a long question and answer period. First students asked him basic questions such as how tall he is, (6’9”), and whether he could bring current Laker Kobe Bryant to the school (“Since I sign his paychecks, I better be able to,” he said, promising to ask Bryant to visit when the Lakers come to the city.)

But soon the questions became more personal. They asked him for advice on relationships and sex. He told them the potential consequences of having sex--he has lived with HIV for many years--but did so without preaching:  “Ladies, we don’t want babies having babies...There is no young man in here ready to be a father, and I don’t think you are ready to be mothers.”

He talked about the importance of giving back--to parents and the community--and explained why he invests in urban areas, offers scholarships to students and visits schools around the country.
How much impact can one person have in an hour?

Bell Principal Maria Tukeva, who brought Johnson to the school, said the answer is more than you might think.

“Students listen to many adults in their lives, parents and teachers,” she said. “They need to see examples of people who have succeeded in different fields.... And he is so authentic that they really listen. Students can tell when somebody is being honest.”

I asked a number of students afterward what they would carry away and why. All of them said Johnson’s words about staying in school would stick with them.

“He has been through the same struggles as I am going through,” said Guillermo Gasca, a 14-year-old freshman. “That makes a difference.”

By Washington Post editors | September 25, 2009; 1:27 PM ET

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