WSJ grad returns home with challenge for students

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 3, 1999

By MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / March 3, 1999

EDGARD – Are you free? That was the challenge Eileen Johnson offered students at West St. JohnHigh School as the guest speaker of the school’s Black History Month celebration Friday morning.

Johnson was once in those students’ shoes, having graduated from West St.John in 1981 as the school’s salutatorian. She went on to get a bachelor ofarts from Loyola University in New Orleans and has served as the director of public relations for the Audubon Zoo and as the public relations manager for the Aquarium of the Americas. She is currently the secondvice president for Pan American Life Insurance.

Johnson said she faced the same obstacles and pressures that students are now facing but said there were things she wanted to do in her life and she never lost sight of those things. She challenged the students to do thesame.

She recalled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words – “Free at last, freeat last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” – and told the students thatevery year during Black History Month they should reflect on those words and ask themselves if they are truly free.

“I feel Black History Month and all the other programs are turning into just that – programs, not practices,” Johnson said. “We are still slaves. Ichallenge you to ask yourself if you are free or not. Freedom is more thana physical state. Freedom is a state of mind. Ask yourself am I enslavingmyself by something I am doing and keeping myself in bondage.”Johnson talked about drugs and other behaviors that can enslave a person.

She advised students to abstain from sex, asking them if they can afford to take care of a baby. Johnson asked the students to ask themselves ifthey can afford the medical bills and all the other costs that come with raising a child and if there was going to be someone there to take care of a baby while they were in school. She told them to be free by not havingsex and to think about their futures.

“That is what it is all about, your futures,” Johnson said. “That is whatBlack History Month and civil rights is all about, your futures. You have tohave a taste for the future.”But she said freedom does not come without a price.

“Are you willing to pay the price?” Johnson said. “There are sacrificesyou have to make, risks you have to take. That is what civil rights isabout. You have to deny some things. You have to embrace some things inorder to be free.”Johnson told the students to embrace advice from their parents and teachers, to watch the news and read newspapers and the Bible, to learn about computers and the internet and those things that they will need to learn about the future.

“Embrace a positive attitude, a positive outlook on life,” Johnson said.

“You have to embrace your purpose. God has a plan of success just for you.You are as free as you want to be. I challenge you to let freedom ring inyour life.”Johnson concluded her talk by leading the students in a chant of “I’m free.”The school’s choir performed during the ceremony, singing songs such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Stir Up the Gift.” Danielle Louis led thewelcome with Tamara Pierce stating the purpose of the program and Crystal Stipe reciting a poem.

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