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With each success, he makes our lives richer

By MARY JO MELONE
Published May 4, 2003

I met Leroy Terrelonge about eight years ago. He was a little boy then. His parents were trying to teach him, I guess, about the peculiarities of the wider world. So they took him along to a packed public hearing that I was writing about, on the perennial subject of cuts being made to the public schools budget in Tampa.

Leroy, then 9 years old, wasn't all that interested. He had other things on his mind - namely, the novel in his hands.

Leroy had another book with him when I saw him again last week. It was The Importance of Being Earnest, the play by Oscar Wilde. It was the teenager's college-level English homework, to be read during breaks at his part-time job behind the pharmacy counter at a Walgreens in Palm River, east of Tampa.

A lot happens in eight years.

A boy grows. He turns 17, gets ready to graduate from high school. He applies for college.

And in Leroy Terrelonge's case, he prepares to go to Harvard.

Around Tampa Bay Tech, his friends tease him by calling him Mr. Harvard. His teachers dream of him being cloned.

He really is one in a million, so bright that it never occurs to him to think of what a gift he possesses. "I don't feel like I'm smarter or anything," he says. "I just do my work."

He carries so many books around with him that he recently wore out his book bag. The one he had when we met was hooked up to a luggage carrier, so he could pull it like a suitcase.

As I write this, Leroy is waiting to hear if he'll win a big scholarship to help pay for Harvard. He has plans already for what happens after he finishes there. He wants to speak several languages, to work in government, maybe the United Nations.

After learning Spanish in school, he taught himself French. Now, in that pull-along book bag, he has a CD player and discs for learning Russian.

It wasn't always this way. Leroy went to Tampa Bay Tech because he thought he wanted to be a doctor, and the school offers special programs in health sciences. But medicine was more his parents' wish for him than his own. "I wanted," he says in his quiet voice, "to be happy."

So he has begun to pursue this other dream, of communicating with the world.

Leroy Terrelonge will graduate at month's end. Because he is class valedictorian, he has to give a speech. He has chosen to talk about success, about how you're the only person that stands between you and your dreams. "People tell me no," he says, "but I won't take no for an answer."

Some people have made a particular note, in this context, of his color. "They say, "I feel so proud of you because you're a young black man making so much of yourself.' It really makes me uncomfortable, like I'm supposed to wear my race on my back, which I'm not going to do."

No, Leroy Terrelonge will make his own mark on the world, on his own terms. He will be able to say it started in Tampa, with parents who loved him, body and soul, teachers who nurtured his mind and ambition, and a God he believed in. "I think God had a lot to do with it. I don't want to take credit."

These are not good days for the schools. You hear only the bad news, about how the schools are broke, how they produce kids who can't count or read. You hear so much you could just turn the page.

Then along comes the singular tale of Leroy Terrelonge.

He's slender and has large brown eyes. Almost every day, or at least on the days he works at Walgreens, he comes to school dressed improbably in a shirt and tie.

Telling you about him is a particular pleasure. Leroy's story reminds us that one person, using his peculiar gifts, can craft his own future, and the future can be a wonderful thing.

[Last modified May 4, 2003, 01:46:30]


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