For every young person, a great education can be, at its baseline, the difference between excellence and mediocrity and at its most impactful, the difference between life or death. It is the bar raiser and the playing field-leveler. No matter what socio-economic background or structural disadvantage, the access to an education that demands excellence can be life-changing. However, this kind of academic training is rare, especially in communities of color. Not all young people are fortunate enough to have the resources, mentorship, and quality extra-curricular activities that a well-rounded education calls for. I was lucky. My name is Daniel Williams. I graduated from Holy Cross School in 2015. I am now a student at Loyola University New Orleans in my fourth year, earning my degree in the bustling Music Industry Studies Program.
I think quite fondly of my high school experience. It is my go-to reference point when potential employers, professors, or my peers ask me about moments in my life that shaped who I am today. During my time at Holy Cross, I learned so much about myself and what it meant to be a young man striving for success. Ironically though, what I consider the most important part of my education, the skills and abilities that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, were gained outside of the classroom.
My true education was garnered on the road in a crowded van with other students, in the hallways of schools around the nation, and on some of the largest stages that a high school student could possibly command. My diploma was from Holy Cross but speech and debate and the mentorship of Byron Arthur gave me the education of a lifetime.
Before speech and debate, I never knew there was a world that existed where kids my age could hold tough conversations about complex issues facing our country with such decorum and a willingness to understand. I was fascinated how a sophomore from Pennsylvania, whom I'd never met, could make a sixty-year-old speech sound like a letter from a dear friend. The power of speech and debate lies in both the skills the student gains by studying the craft and the sheer exposure to myriad points of view, cultures, lifestyles, and philosophies. It's an experience like none other.
Now, to be fair, not all who find themselves in a school cafeteria for hours on end waiting to argue some topic about domestic policy will share my enthusiasm. However, they weren't fortunate enough to have Byron Arthur as their mentor and program director.
I came into the program with a haphazard mindset. Thinking speech would be fun because I enjoy getting into heated discussions with friends. I never knew the level of discipline, research, and patience I would need to succeed in this activity. Coach Arthur helped me every step of the way.
From the first third place trophy I ever won in D.I., I believe the wheels began to turn behind those glasses of his. He had a vision. I learned very quickly this would not just be an after-school club I’d participate in. I was joining a team. We competed to win. Coach doesn't get into anything unless he wants to make it as best as it can be and at the highest level possible. In the world of speech, that’s the annual National Speech and Debate Association tournament.
I'll never forget the conversation Coach and I had after the final round of nationals my junior year. I was downtrodden because I was knocked out of the competition after reaching the top 60 competitors. We went into the grand ballroom of the convention center in Kansas City to watch the D.I. finals. That night I got to see what highest standard was, the most technically proficient, emotionally intelligent, the most electrifying performers of the craft in the country. After that round, Coach and I walked into the lobby and sat down. He gave me the pep talk that would shape the next year of my life. He asked me if it was something I wanted, to be a champion. He made it clear that it would be the hardest thing I'd ever attempt to do but instilled in me that with practice, hard work, and creativity that we could reach the highest level.
The next year was the most grueling experiences I'd have in high school. ACTs and Exam week were nothing compared to this. Practices were demanding we'd run the piece five or six times over the course of four hours. Weekends were not out of the question. We'd spend lunch breaks talking about details, if the turn of the wrist should go before or after a certain line. The finest nuances and points were scrutinized over. It had to be just right.
After we got enough down to take the show on the road, we'd go out to tournaments around the nation: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale. Along the way, we'd get opinions from other distinguished coaches and continue to fine tune the performance until it was just right.
It was not easy. And there were various times when I nearly gave up on it all. But the passion and love that Coach held for me and the work we were doing got me through it every time. Throughout this process, I learned a lot about myself but also a lot about him.
Byron Arthur is the kind of person who seeks excellence at every corner. He is not satisfied with the banal, or unpolished. There is always room for improvement, no matter how many trophies are collected during the process. His attention to detail is unmatched. Often times in practicing he'd find nuances in the script or my delivery that I wouldn't even notice.
I also learned that he is a person who is willing to "call in the troops" to get the job done. A true visionary knows mountains aren't moved by the hand of one man. Alongside himself and our other coach on staff Warren Johnson, over ten different coaches from around the country critiqued and added to my performance. Because it's not about the glory of one person, he especially made sure I knew that. The focus was the message and anyone who was willing to help was brought on board to make something great and we did.
Throughout this year I made friends at schools from around the country, many I still keep in contact with to this day. Speech gave me much more holistic view of the world. I met people who I never otherwise would have interacted with and found commonalities. My fiercest competition were my best friends. At that level, we all want to see each other succeed.
In 2015, Holy Cross School, a name never uttered on the national stage previously, had taken home the Lanny D. and B.J. Neiglan Dramatic Interpretation Championship trophy. Out of 100’s of students from around the nation, we had won.
I tell this story to say, it incredibly difficult to find anyone as dedicated to the holistic education of young men as Byron Arthur is. And if you were able to, it is twice as difficult to find someone who is as dedicated and has the creativity and the bravery to dream big. I would have never thought a victory of that magnitude that touched so many people was possible. And should you be so fortunate as to find someone with both of those qualities, I can assure you will find no one with the dedication, creativity, and love that Byron Arthur has for what he does. He is unmatched in so many ways but the love he holds for his students...well there aren't words to describe that. That's what his proposal is built on. His mother an educator, who I had the privilege of meeting, instilled that in him. And he pours that love into all that he does. It is foolish to withhold young men in New Orleans from that kind of life-changing mentor for much longer.
I hope this has been able to shed some light on the kid of educator Coach is. By his hand, I have no doubt The Arthur School will have an impact on this city for the better. Boys at this school will walk away with not only the knowledge of the great writers of history, the abilities to calculate and solve complex problems, and the working ability to think critically, but they will also learn how to conduct themselves as men, respect for women in their lives and how to advocate for social justice whatever path they choose.