34-yr-old fmr. gang-banger named teacher of the year after incredibly turning life around

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A 34-year old man who’s been named Missouri’s “Teacher of the Year” started from far humbler and tragic beginnings.

A native of St. Louis, Darrion Cockrell in fact grew up in a veritable hellscape.

“I was born to a drug-addicted mother who had two of her six kids by the age of 16. My father was murdered when I was four, and I began my journey in and out of the foster care system not long after my 6th birthday,” Cockrell said while delivering an acceptance speech in October.

“During these tumultuous times, I truly felt like I was born just to fail. Where am I sleeping? What am I eating? Where’s my mama? Walking to the bus stop in the morning, look at those drug addicts. POW POW! Did you hear those gunshots? Wow, another dead body,” he continued.

He added, “Six-deuce-87 Kitchen Crip gangster. Yup, your 2021 Teacher of the Year used to be in a gang.”

And now, decades later, he’s an inspiration and role model for countless kids who are experiencing the same turmoils that had haunted his youth.

Listen to his speech below:

The speech seen above was so inspirational and motivating that his school district later published a video where Cockrell was given the opportunity to tell the rest of his story, i.e., those extra details he hadn’t had the time to talk about before.

In this video, “Mr. DC,” as he’s known to his students and fellow teachers, explained how the beginning of the end of his hellish youth began in middle school, when the state government took him away from his family and put him in a boarding school.

“In middle school, when the state took me away from my family, they found this boys home that was up the street from my middle school, and this is where they decided to send me, so I lived here for about a year,” he said.

“I had a lot of different supervisors and people who watched us in and out, but the guy that stood out the most for me, his name was Ken. I don’t remember his last name,” Cockrell added.

What he remembers is how Ken taught him “the importance of having discipline,” “made sure that I did my chores” and instilled in him “that it’s OK to be tough, but at the same time, it’s still OK to have compassion and empathy for people.”

“He taught me a lot. He was like my father figure here because I didn’t have a father growing up. He was the first true black male role model that I had that helped me get through what I thought was the worst time in my life, but now looking back, if it were not for this place, I would not be where I am today, because I learned so much here and I was able to shed all of that stuff that I thought was important,” Cockrell said.

Listen:

The next step in his rebirth came when he was adopted in 7th grade by his football coach’s family. From there, Cockrell rose like a phoenix and went on to graduate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and become the state’s “Teacher of the Year.”

I started from the bottom, and now I’m here,” he pithily said during his acceptance speech in October.

And now, more importantly, he’s “here” to make a difference in the lives of kids who’re growing up in the same circumstances and are desperate for their own “Ken,” their own family, their own support system.

“I was fortunate enough to be adopted out of the boys’ home by my football coach, Dennis Kaeser and his wife, Sherry Kaeser, into a situation I could have never dreamed of. My new family, who also happened to be white, provided me with opportunities to help shape me into the man that I am today,” Cockrell said.

“Through all of the craziness I’ve experienced in my life, there are multiple events and people that had huge impacts on me,” he said. “My message for teachers is understanding the power that we have to make positive or negative impacts in the lives of others. When they tell their story, which side do you want to be on?

In the other video, he added that all the people who had intervened helped “shape the man you see today” — “a husband, a father, a friend an educator.”

“All of us have the power to change the trajectory of someone’s life. To make a positive impact on our students. It’s what I try to do every day. All it takes is one person, one interaction, one kind word to make the world a better place,” Cockrell said.

Indeed, although he admitted in his acceptance speech that obtaining a better life required something from him too — a change in attitude.

“Although still challenging because of my many learning disabilities, my teachers truly cared. They pushed me and my family. They supported us immensely. Those experiences and connections changed my perspective on both people and school,” he explained.

It truly helped me understand that when I changed the way that I looked at things, the things that I looked at changed,” he said. “I don’t think you guys heard me. I said when I changed the way that I looked at things the things that I looked at changed.”

Vivek Saxena

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