Shelter from the Storm
Allen Watson makes the most of his second chance in life
by Mara Soloway
First published Oct. 2015 in Lifestyles & Homes Magazine
Some of the tens of thou-sands of evacuees from New Orleans who settled in the Houston area post-Hurricane Katrina feel that Houston doesn’t have the neighborhood sensibilities or the cultural energy that are intrinsic to New Orleans. But some who came here from NOLA’s poor neighborhoods found unambiguous reasons to stay: an improved environment for their families with better schools and a sense of overall safety superior to the old neighborhood. A decade later, some even say that the hurricane forcing them to leave their home was a blessing in disguise that offered a second chance.
One of those people is Allen Watson, now a 17-year-old senior at Elkins High School. He had just started second grade in the NOLA neighborhood of Carrolton the night the hurricane struck.
“I remember it was raining. Me and my three younger brothers and sisters were all sitting in the same room confused,” he said. “We left at first, then we came back because we didn’t think anything was wrong.” In the middle of the night, he and his immediate family and aunt and grandmother were on the road, with some in one car on the way to Mississippi and some headed to Houston, where they eventually all gath-ered and stayed, beginning the process of starting new lives.
“My mom brought us together in Houston to be with my grandma and aunt.” Everybody but his immediate family has moved back. His mom and stepdad agreed that opportunities were better here for the children.
However, for Allen, life here had a rough start: his family and aunt and grandmother lived in one hotel room for months, the adults looking for jobs. Fortunately, he was interested in school and he had enough clothing so he didn’t have to wear uniforms given out by the school. He didn’t want anyone’s pity.
That concern is no longer warranted. Through the efforts Allen has put into his education, this soft-spoken, bright teen now has earned the respect of educators nationwide and that of his peers. Last year as a junior, he earned the honor of speaking at the national Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) Summer Institute in San Antonio this July. His first-place essay was chosen from 180 essays from around the U.S.
He says trip to San Antonio was the best day of his life. “I felt like a celebrity. They liked what I had to say. My relatives at home in New Orleans said I was giving them some hope. They called me king.”
He told his story to thousands of educators, of how Hurricane Katrina gave him a second chance. It was in the classroom back home “that no one cared. My teachers would often get frustrated from the behavior and leave, not only their job, but the uneducated. Therefore, I cared even less about school,” he told the AVID audience. The hurricane and subsequent relocation were “really a wake-up call for me. I had a second chance at life... After waiting months to go back to school, I did something I had never done before: I made an A. And not just one: straight A’s.”
Allen entered Elkins by getting accepted into its elite Engineering Academy, which he says helped keep him focused on doing well.
“Over the years, I grew to be some-thing my people from home had never heard of or seen before: I became a successful young black male,” he said in San Antonio. He was in Pre-AP classes, played football and ran track, made the honor roll and belonged to two clubs. “I was definitely thinking about college, I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
Enter Allen’s freshman English teacher, Lindsey Tucker, who first introduced him to AVID after she was inspired by a presentation he gave at the end of his freshman year about the metaphor of the stop sign.
“It symbolizes good and bad in my life. The stop sign is located on the corner where drug deals take place, where people get killed. The stop was always there – I was even raised by one. But every time I thought about doing bad, it stopped me from doing bad,” he explained. “It symbolizes the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to get where you want to go in life.”
Tucker talked to him about AVID. “She told me she could help me get into college and go on college trips. I didn’t take it seriously at first.” He procrastinated getting the AVID form signed by his mother. Once she had signed it, he still didn’t turn it in. Teacher Alexia Alexopoulos finalized the administrative details, and Allen became part of AVID in his sophomore year.
Alexopoulos is the English department head and AVID coordinator at Elkins, where she has worked for 16 years. She currently teaches English II Pre-AP and AVID IV.
“Allen is driven the most when some-one doubts him – it is then that he proves that person wrong. He was always been committed to his education and success, but AVID gave him a roadmap to that success. It was through this program that he realized how to achieve the goal he had set,” she said.
“I truly see a very bright future for Allen. He has so much potential, and he has now realized how to truly reach that potential, which will take him very far.”
Another mentor is Tony Slate, who had Allen in AVID II and now teaches at Fort Bend Christian Academy. “I’ve never met a student like Allen. I’m so blessed to know him. He is one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever known. He’s overcome so much in his life and has handled each hurdle with grace,” he said. “Allen’s going to do some big things in life, influencing every per-son he touches.”
Allen finds that AVID — a college readiness system — helps with organization, scheduling and homework for the AP classes required to be part of AVID. “College students come in and help you with the classes, and they tell you what they learn. Guest speakers motivate us, tell us the right path to go on.” AVID also offers help with college financial aid, SAT practice tests and one college trip per year.
“After waiting months to go back to school, I did something I had never done before: I made an A. And not just one: straight A’s.”
Allen hopes to attend the University of Georgia in Athens. The atmosphere just feels like home. “I want to go somewhere I haven’t been. I’ve already experienced Texas, I’ve experienced Louisiana. I want go somewhere different so I can learn how to be on my own and become myself without anyone’s help,” he said. “I think I’m ready for college. I’m not a kid any more.”
He will be the first in his family to go beyond high school.
Allen often thinks about where he would be if he hadn’t left New Orleans. “Had the storm not come, I still would have been in school but I wouldn’t have taken it seriously. The people that were kids when we were coming up before we moved, they all took the wrong path. I would have felt peer pres-sure to have to have gone along with that.”
Allen is grateful to everyone who helped him get to where he is today. His message to his three younger siblings about finding it within themselves to pursue college and a career is, “Be yourself, don’t forget your roots. Think about what it takes to get where you want. Think about how bad you want and how good it will feel to have it.”
Although the stop sign has meaning to Allen, he’s clearly put himself on the road to success — on a wide-open path full of green lights.