Anyone can achieve with hard work and discipline

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The LABI Report – Dan Juneau

I want you to meet my friend, Mel. Mel isn’t some middle-aged fishing or golfing buddy. Mel’s real name is Melanie, but she prefers Mel. She is a young teen who will soon be graduating from the eighth grade in a middle school here in southeast Louisiana.

For many reasons, in my eyes Mel is quite remarkable. She is a very talented basketball player, and she loves the sport. I take her to see her idols play on the LSU Lady Tigers team. As she watches the unbelievable talent of players like Temeka Johnson and Seimone Augustus, I see her eyes light up, and I can read the message in her smile. She sees herself one day in a college uniform achieving great things on the court. While the odds may be against that, the odds have often sold my friend Mel short only to be surprised by her.

Mel is very quiet most of the time. Her looks and expressions tend to be her language. She can say paragraphs just by shifting the look on her face or shrugging her shoulders a bit.

But Mel’s lack of verbal expression should not be mistaken for a lack of mastery of our language. She is a prodigious writer who chronicles everything about every day she lives – every joy, every hurt, every worry, every achievement.

She is always finding time and a quiet place to record, in the ink of the soul, the things that have an impact on her life – for good or for bad.

Mel has a lot of challenges to write about. She lives in humble circumstances and doesn’t enjoy many of the luxuries and technological diversions that consume the time and interest of many her age. Her mother and father work long hours to provide the necessities for themselves and their children, and there isn’t much left over to spend once the necessities are covered.

Last week, the scores for the LEAP test were released around Louisiana. This is the high-stakes test that kids in the 4th and 8th grades must pass to advance to the next grade.

My pride in Mel reached new heights when I learned that she scored at the highest level – Advanced – on the language arts section of the test. That means she is in the top one percent of 8th graders in Louisiana when it comes to writing proficiency and mastery of English – another instance of Mel turning the tables on the odds that are supposed to be against her. Put another way, she is one of only 300 out of 53,768 students who achieved that level of excellence.

Critics of high stakes testing say it places an overbearing hardship on poor kids and minorities in their attempts to move on to the next grade level. My friend Mel is African-American and very proud of her heritage. I hope she never reads some of the comments indicating that, because someone is poor and a minority, they aren’t really expected to perform at the level of others. In spite of the hardships she faces, Mel has proven for all to see that she is well above average when compared to others her age, regardless of race, income or geography.

I look forward to having Mel with my family again soon at our fishing camp. And as she giggles while baiting a hook and pulling up perch, I will smile when thinking about her in the future, telling the odds they are wrong again as she graduates from college and moves into a good profession. Mel is living proof that hard work and self-discipline can allow anyone to beat the odds.

DAN JUNEAU is president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.