Guest Speaker Floored by the Message of Tenacity Challenge

May 1, 2024
Willie Spears joined a couple of high school kids in spontaneous line dancing before his talk at Saturday’s Tenacity Challenge. Photo by Mike Rosenberg

Willie Spears apparently was impressed with Saturday’s 13th annual Tenacity Challenge at Bedford High School, the academic scholarship competition for teams of African-American and Latino and Latina students. 

“I’ve never seen an event like this for people who look like me that celebrates our brains,” the author, educator, and motivational speaker told more than 150 students from nine school districts. “You are talented, gifted, smart, and more than able to accomplish all of your dreams. Your dreams should be so big that when you tell people about them, they laugh at you.”

Spears was the keynote speaker that culminated the day-long event featuring a range of competitive formats covering art, history, literature, and mathematics.

“There’s an old adage in the African-American community: We have to be two times better,” Spears said. “What can we do about it? We can cry about it or we are going to do what I saw today: have solutions.” He said, “What I have seen today was a celebration of us.”

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The Tenacity Challenge was conceived by former Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills when he was BHS principal more than a dozen years ago. Sills, as he does every year, was back at the high school for Saturday’s event, along with several event alumni.

A former track coach, Spears used the relay race as a metaphor. 

“The worst thing that can happen is to drop the baton,” he said. “You’re carrying the baton for so many who came before you. Don’t drop the baton. Do you have friends going in the wrong direction? Have the courage to say, ‘I’m going to make something of my life.’”

He added. “Don’t try to be someone else. Be you. Be your authentic self.” 

Still, he acknowledged, “In order to make it in the world, we have to learn a little bit of code. In life, we have got to learn the culture in order to infiltrate and change the culture. 

“A lot of our white brothers and sisters can’t see what we see because they aren’t in our shoes. They are looking at it from a totally different perspective,” Spears said. “The number one vision in our country should be to value each other’s lives. We should respect each other’s differences.”

“You are the generation to effect change. You don’t judge like us – your generation is the answer to all the issues we have in this country,” he said, noting that as recently as 2006, there was a segregated prom at a high school in Georgia.

“This is what I learned about white people: they just don’t know what they don’t know,” Spears said. To illustrate, he asked left-handed students to relate everyday challenges that their right-handed counterparts don’t experience, everything from can openers and scissors to desk construction.

“What we do in our society is we make rules for the biggest group and neglect the smaller group,” he continued. “Society is not set up for us. People who don’t understand that are the people who have the luxury of not having to worry about it.

Willie Spears was the keynote speaker at Saturday’s Tenacity Challenge at Bedford High School. Photo by Mike Rosenberg

“I was the first in my family to go to college,” Spears said. “I became the first Black head coach at four different high schools. I had to work harder than my white counterparts.” 

He added, “We live in a country where people judge you by the color of your skin. And unfortunately, sometimes they think less of you.

“Tenacity is the same thing as determination,” Spears said. “It’s going to be hard. You’re going to want to quit. You have to have the courage to say, ‘Yes,’ the courage to say, ‘No,’ and the courage to fail more.” 

Spears, who grew up and still resides on the Florida panhandle, noted that he failed the teacher certification exam 12 times. But when he passed, “My certificate does not say, ‘This dummy took the test 12 times.’”

Spears is in demand nationally. He told the students he speaks 30 times a month. 

“I spoke in a prison two days ago. Not one inmate thought he was going to be there. How did that happen?” 

Observing the Tenacity Challenge, he said, “What I saw today was the answer to our problems: people passionate about education, passionate about a cause, and passionate about doing something about it.”

He joined a couple of high school kids in spontaneous line dancing before his talk. There’s nothing wrong with having fun,” he said. “But I want you to know, for the rest of your life: You’re smart … Being here makes your parents proud. I want you to keep making your parents proud.”

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