Varnado High students hear from inspirational speaker

Published 8:18 am Wednesday, February 4, 2015

At approximately 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, DJ Batiste is quite an imposing figure.

Yet there he was at Varnado High School on Monday morning spilling his insides out to junior high and high school students during an assembly about how one petite high school teacher saved him from gang life.

Batiste is a native of Lacombe. He was living with his grandmother four years ago in Picayune, Miss., when he walked into Donna Porter’s classroom at Picayune Memorial High School on the first day and made a sexual suggestion to her.

“I sexually harassed her on the first day of school,” Batiste said. “She said, ‘There are appropriate and inappropriate comments. What you just said is an inappropriate comment. There is a lot you have to learn and I can’t wait to teach you.’”

That comment caught Batiste’s attention.

“For the first time, I lost to a teacher,” Batiste said.

Porter saw Batiste’s take-charge attitude and made him the official class greeter. To be put in charge of something positive was something new for the young man.

Batiste walked the gymnasium floor Monday telling students to believe in themselves, even when others don’t.

“When we came here on Thursday, I was asked what I thought about Varnado High School,” Batiste said. “The first thing that came to mind was keeping it real. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. Varnado is an underdog. I was an underdog my whole life. Like me, life had closed the book on Varnado. I struggled academically. I thought if you raised your hand to ask a question you looked stupid. In the fifth grade, I started my own gang, and within two weeks I had 75 people following me. I see Varnado is full of leaders. At an early age, I was told I would not live past 21.”

Batiste is 23 and graduated from Picayune Memorial High School in 2010. He graduated from Pearl River Community College two years later.

In 2012, Batiste nominated Porter for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Teaching Award, an honor given to 10 teachers annually or their ability to inspire students.

“Choices we make not only affect us, but the people around us,” Batiste told students. “When I was young, people began to write my story.”

Batiste was a gang leader on release from reform school when he entered Porter’s class.

“I was fearful of him when he walked into my classroom,” Porter told students. “People need to focus on your gifts. Sometimes misbehavior is a call for help. If I had written DJ up, he would have been expelled. People said he would be dead at 21. The sad news with that was DJ was OK with that. Because of the 90 seconds I had with him, he was able to turn his life around. A teacher looked past his deficiencies and saw his strengths.”

Batiste told students to be themselves. He was dressed in a T-shirt, baggy jeans, sneakers and a stocking cap. By the time his enthusiastic talk with students was over, he was fairly worked up.

“This is me. What you see is what you get,” Batiste said. “I want you to know I see a lot of underdogs out there. I’ve got the one thing nobody can take from me, and that’s my education. Everybody has got a story. This is the beginning of the Varnado story. We believe. The question for every Wildcat in here is ‘do you believe?’ I’ve never connected with a school like Varnado. Remember it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that matters.”