As Jack Yates High School senior Ernest Russell sat on the school’s football field for the citywide senior celebration recently, it was far more than an event honoring his graduation from the historic school.
The celebration — marked by colorful Yates High School masks and chairs spaced at a proper social distance — represented the culmination of a trying journey that was marked by the loss of his father and homelessness.
“I don’t really have a word to describe it. But, if I had to come up with one, I’d say it was challenging,” Russell said.
After Russell’s father passed away in a car accident in September 2018, he became homeless, moving around between friends’ houses before settling in at his cousin’s house. Unfortunately, it took him three hours each morning to get to school from his new home. It wasn’t long before the tardy infractions piled up. His guidance counselor took note and found Russell a new place to live that provided transportation to and from school.
Through it all, Russell never once doubted that he would finish his academic journey.
“Graduating was what my father wanted me to do. He wanted me to leave a legacy,” Russell said. “The thought of me not accomplishing what my father always wanted me to accomplish made me feel like I was abandoning him. That’s what kept me going all this time.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the seniors from a formal graduation ceremony, Principal Tiffany Guillory said it was important to celebrate Russell and his classmates for their perseverance. She said more than 76 percent of Yates students have been accepted into either two- or four-year colleges and have received over $1.75 million in scholarships.
“This year our seniors, along with seniors across the world, have been robbed of so many things such as prom, senior trip, senior week, and all other senior activities,” Guillory said. “This is the day that we celebrate them finishing the year strong, even under grim circumstances.”
As the Yates seniors joined together one last time at their school, cheered on by friends and family just outside the fence bordering the field, Russell thought about the past school year and the lessons he’ll carry moving forward as he plans to study music and work on a career in real estate.
“It’s going to keep me going,” he said. “It’ll make me a better person.”