The pride that I have in my high school alma mater is deep and authentic. Not only was Academy fundamental in my growth as a student of life and academia, it was and always will be home to me. A home built on education as its foundation, erected with pillars of respect, integrity, courage, and class, and held together by a rooftop of inclusiveness under which unconscious biases are challenged, diversity of background, thought, and opinion are promoted, and family members are protected. And yes, that word family… it was used intentionally; because that is what Academy is to me.
When reflecting on my fondest memories at 2331 Collier Parkway, naturally, my mind reproduces visuals of the pandemonium induced by our victory in the State Championship game, when our football team defeated Haven Christian 39-36 on their home field. At that time, in 2006, enrollment in Upper Division was under 80 students total. Nevertheless, Academy banded together a dozen or so fun-loving, thrill-seeking, strong-willed young men. It didn’t matter how physically gifted you were or how much knowledge you had of the game; there were only two requirements for being on the team: show up early and give 110%.
Back then, I can tell you that my teammates and I viewed those rules as requirements for inclusion; said differently, table stakes for participation. However, now I look at those rules and understand that, in reality, they are the table stakes for a successful life.
I’ve learned that one of the few things that each of us can control is our effort. Showing up, being present (both physically and mentally), being punctual, doing our personal best, giving 110% percent; these are direct reflections of both the respect and gratitude we have for a moment of opportunity and how much we value and prioritize the people we share that moment with. It was Academy’s intentionality in instilling those values of respect and commitment that created a culture conducive to winning; not just on the field, but in the classroom, and eventually on college campuses and in our professional lives.
Another one of my favorite parts of being a Wildcat was the opportunity to influence the students in Middle and Lower Divisions that would, in time, matriculate and take our place. Whether it was the Upper Division’s participation in reading days with Lower Division or House Days which encompassed the entire campus, faculty included, or school-wide musical theatre productions and choral performances; all of these activities gave me the opportunity to lead by example.
I embraced my position as a student in Upper Division with a great deal of pride. I felt that it was my responsibility and obligation to take the bar that was set by the classes in front of us and lift it higher, in hopes that the classes coming after us would do the same. Academy setting the table for the engagement between younger and older students was pivotal in my growth as a leader, because it made me realize that the person obligated to hold me accountable for my attitude and my actions shouldn’t be a coach, or a professor, or a boss, or an officer, or even a family member. The person that should hold me accountable is the person I see in the mirror, because whether I choose to acknowledge it or not, people are impacted by my character and how I conduct myself, and the impressions I make can manifest into remarkable chains of positivity as easily as they can manifest into domino effects of discourtesy.
Honestly, I could write a memoir as long as Paul Hagenau’s college recommendations reflecting on all of the joys, memories, laughs, and lessons I’ve taken from Academy. But I’ll leave you with this story:
It was February of 2010 – my senior year in Upper Division. I had applied to several universities early decision, and to God’s glory, I had gotten accepted into my school of choice. However, there was one other university on my radar that piqued my interest because upon acceptance they recommended that I apply for one of their scholarships.
As I bounced on an exercise ball in my aunt’s living room one evening, our house phone rang (remember those?). After answering, my aunt told me that the phone call was for me – it was a lady by the name of Rose Torres. I extended my hand to grab the silver VTech cordless phone sitting on its charging base on the mantle. I took a deep breath and pressed the green talk button. “Good evening, this is Beionny,” I said with all the confidence I could conjure.
“Hi Beionny! This is Rose from SMU! I just wanted to congratulate you on being a finalist for the Hunt Leadership Scholarship! We’re holding interviews on campus in two weeks and are hoping that you can make the trip to Dallas!”
After thanking her for the opportunity and assuring her that I would reach back out to confirm my absence or attendance, I clicked the red end button on the phone. Though most people in my position would be overcome with excitement, it seemed my emotions had confounded me. Though I was honored by their decision to select me as a finalist, I was more so morose.
“How could I ask my aunt to pay for a roundtrip flight to Dallas, a hotel room close to SMU’s campus, food, and transportation to and from the airport,” I thought. “And what if I actually get the scholarship? I’ve wanted to be a Florida Gator ever since I could remember! I can’t just turn down the opportunity that I’ve always dreamed of, up and leave my family, and go to school in an entirely different part of the country.”
So at that moment, I decided that I wasn’t going to attend the interview and that I was going to Florida. That was the easy decision, that was the safe decision, that was the comfortable decision.
A couple of days later I walked into school, grabbed a book from my locker, and headed over to class when a familiar voice beckoned me over to his office. It was the Upper Division Dean, Mr. Bob Sullivan.
“It’s way too early for me to be accosted for a wrongdoing at this hour,” I thought, so with puzzlement, I stepped into his lair and he closed the door behind us. We sat down on opposite ends of his desk, he looked down at his laptop through his glasses and said, “Window or aisle?”
“I beg your pardon sir,” I retorted, even more confused than I was when I walked in.
Redirecting his gaze from the computer screen to my befuddled face, he repeated himself, this time with emphasis on each syllable of the first three words as if speaking to someone who identifies English as their second language, “Do. You. Pre. Fer… a windowseat, or an aisle?”
After a few seconds I timidly relinquished the withholding of my reply. Still fearing that this would somehow be used to set me up I muttered, “Window, I guess?”
“Excellent,” Mr. Sullivan said softly, as if speaking to himself. Simultaneously, he turned his attention back to his laptop and proceeded to left click his mouse pad.
Now that it had become clear to me that he was booking travel on my behalf, I stated to him with a masculine tone of matter-of-factness that if the impromptu meeting had anything to do with making plans to go to Dallas for the scholarship interview, his generosity was appreciated but unnecessary because I had already decided that I would not be taking the trip.
Unfazed, Mr. Sullivan continued clicking.
After his task was completed, he stopped, removed his glasses, set them on the table and looked at me. As I proceeded to blurt out all of the factors that were carefully and pedantically considered in my decision and how serious I was about it, he just sat there looking at me; with a smile so slight that someone unfamiliar might mistake it for his natural expression. At the close of what I believed to be a most passionate soliloquy, he said something to the likes of this:
“Congratulations on being a finalist for the Hunt Scholarship Beionny. You and I are going to Dallas. I have spoken with your Aunt Gwen and she has agreed to allow you to stay at my house the night before our flight. We depart for Dallas at 5:45 AM the day of your interviews and we will return the following day. As for the evening that you’ll be staying with Mrs. Sullivan and I, is there a particular restaurant in the Old Hyde Park are that you would like to try?”
Honestly, to this day, I still don’t know if he actually heard a single word I said.
Encapsulated in that story is the most important reason why Academy means a great deal to me. Simply worded, Academy went to any length, even if it meant going against my will, to ensure that I took advantage of every opportunity that could possibly lead me to a more prosperous future. They didn’t care about what I was comfortable with; they cared about helping me grow to my full potential.
From Mr. Hagenau staying late nights to hold my hand through college applications, to Mr. Vo waiting until after football practice to help me with my Algebra II homework, to Coach Haslam driving me all the way to Temple Terrace after games and practices so that I could play basketball my senior year, to Mr. Sullivan personally accompanying me on a trip to the university that would become my undergraduate Alma Mater so that I could experience the campus, earn scholarship money to ease the burden on my family, and make an informed decision as to where I would spend the next four years; it’s that kind of spirit, it’s that kind of commitment that creates the culture and community at Academy. It isn’t just a school – it’s a home with many rooms. And the people in that home… they’re family.