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School program ends in prayer

As principal of Demopolis Middle School, Clarence Jackson Jr. witnesses first-hand the sort of pressures and influences today’s students must contend with.

“Without a doubt most of these kids today are influenced primarily by what they see on TV,” says Jackson.

And that, he adds, should be cause for concern for everybody — especially adults.

Jackson points out that programs such as MTV, VH1, HBO and soap operas are often rife with violence and sexual innuendo. “In trying to serve as a role model you have to realize you’re competing with that,” he says. “When you have something to counter that … it’s needed, it’s needed.”

Last Thursday, Jackson believes he had the perfect something to counter that sort of influence. He didn’t hesitate to offer it to his students.

Jackson has been principal at Demopolis Middle School since it was formed in 1993. For at least eight or nine of those years the school has hosted an annual assembly program put on by Linden Baptist Church. This year the church offered a preview of its Frontline 2004 program, a youth emphasis program held Saturday at the church.

The assembly included several musical numbers and a speech by Mac Maston, whom Jackson describes as a “motivational” speaker. Maston was arrested for dealing drugs on more than 30 occasions as a young man and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment before straightening his life out and being given a second chance.

“He’s a guy who basically grew up on the rough side of town,” Jackson says. “The program dealt with choices. He shared with students some of the things he was exposed to as a child, which are the same things many of these kids are dealing with. Then he told them about some of the choices he had made and how those choices had affected his life, and he shared his faith.”

It is that last part that has raised eyebrows among some of the adults present at the assembly Thursday and others who heard about it afterward.

As described by Jackson, Maston’s speech “connected” with his middle school audience.

“He pretty much laid it on the line,” Jackson says. “He asked if anyone there thought it would be cool to be a drug dealer. Then he told them about what it was like when he dealt drugs. He told them, ‘Yeah, I made a lot of money. But I used people to do it. I had them sell the drugs and give me the money, and I didn’t care what happened to them.’

“Then he pointed out that the students were just about the right age for someone to start using them the same way. By the time he was finished you could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium.”

According to Jackson, Maston went on to share that it was his Christian faith that enabled him to overcome those early influences in his life and to endure the shock of being given a sentence of life imprisonment “plus 20 years.”

Jackson says Maston then asked if anyone wished to “volunteer” to come forward for prayer.

“I’m pretty well versed in school law,” Jackson says. “If he had condemned anybody for their belief or used any kind of coercion, I would have had a problem with that. But that didn’t happen.”

What did happen is that an estimated 150 Demopolis Middle School students accepted Maston’s invitation to come forward. Jackson admits he was surprised by the extent of the reaction.

He explains, “At this age group, kids can often be very cruel. When the first two girls got up to go forward I was afraid they might be ridiculed. But there wasn’t any yeah-yeahing, there wasn’t any booing. In fact, the other students clapped. That’s a first since I’ve been here.”

Even more surprising for Jackson, some of those going forward were students he knew to be “problem” students. He adds that a teacher came up to him afterward and shared that one of her most consistently troublesome students from the previous year came up to her after the assembly and apologized for the problems she had caused.

“There’s a lot of things that make the paper about what goes on in schools today,” Jackson says. “You hear about the shootings and the drugs — and drugs are present in Demopolis. We’re not immune.

“That’s why it’s good to hear a little good news sometimes.”

Jackson insists he is not troubled by possible concerns that the assembly might have gone too far in promoting one particular faith over another.

“Look,” he says, “you could probably bring somebody like 50 Cent or some other rapper in here and nobody would have a problem with that. But that’s not what these kids need. They need to hear about somebody who overcame adversity. They need to hear about the importance of making good choices. We need to hear more of that.”

Jackson says he was so impressed, in fact, that he invited Maston to speak to the youth at his church Sunday.

“I’m principal here but I also wear the hat of what a reasonable father would do,” Jackson says. “To see some of those kids go down on that floor for prayer was a very moving experience for me personally, because you hate to lose even one. It hurts.

“Of all the things I could get fired for, if I go down for this you won’t hear me complain. If I had to do it all again I would.”