For fun, 17-year-old Derrick Parker Jr. waits until his mom’s not home so he can walk through the house reciting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, booming bass voice, hand gestures and all.
It may not be the way the average high school senior, athlete (pitcher and quarterback), musician (trombone) and debater might choose to spend his free time, but then Parker is far from average and, he admits, “a little odd,” then smiles because he’s OK with that.
In fact, the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy senior class president says, it might be his individuality, and certainly his drive and determination, that helped him win three of the country’s most prestigious college scholarships.
As thousands of high school seniors across the area are learning what kind of scholarships they’ve won, know that Parker has set the bar high:
He is one of the 150 selected from 100,000 applicants to win a $20,000 Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship. He won a $5,000 ING Spirit of Anne Frank scholarship. And he won a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which pays the total cost of attending the college of his choice through graduate school.
Parker is set to study political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, MLK’s alma mater, with a nearly $40,000-a-year price tag.
“My dream was to go to college and have my parents not pay a dime for my education,” said Parker, who grew up in a neighborhood near 32nd Street and Wayne Avenue, where he lives with his mother. He has two grown sisters and a younger brother, who lives with their dad in Raytown. His mom’s a machinist, and his dad is a barber.
“I’m lucky. I’ve always had a lot of support from my family, my parents and my grandparents,” Parker said. “A lot of kids don’t have that.”
He knows boys he grew up with who are in jail now. One of his friends, he said, was shot and killed during a robbery.
“I would always have those talks with Derrick about the choices you make and the consequences that come with them,” said his father, Derrick Parker Sr.
“But I didn’t worry too much about Derrick.”
When the younger Parker went out with friends, he was always home long before curfew, saying he had studying to do. Many times he passed on going out to stay home and study great speakers: “Churchill, Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy and Lincoln. I like listening to great speeches and practicing them, memorizing them.”
His father admired his perseverance.
“He always worked hard and no matter what he was doing, he wanted to be at the top with it. If he was going to play baseball, he wanted to be team captain; if he was going to play football, he was going to be quarterback.”
When he decided to go for scholarships, Parker dedicated his entire summer last year and much of his senior year to writing college essays and applying for as many scholarships as possible. When his family gathered at Thanksgiving and was playing card games and listening to music, Parker bowed out to work on scholarship essays. He had to write eight essays, 4,000 words apiece, for the Gates Millennium Scholarship alone.
“It’s paid off, though,” Parker said. He estimates he’s won about $300,000 in scholarship awards.
But it’s not just the money that Parker is proud of: “People saw good in me, this African-American male that some in our society have given up on already.”
He was moved emotionally, he said, that scholarship judges connected him and his dreams with the spirit of Anne Frank.
For that award, Parker wrote about how he and his former principal, Derald Davis, now director of school leadership for Kansas City Public Schools, had started a mentoring and tutoring program called Each One Teach One.
They had noticed that Crispus Attucks Elementary School was the only elementary school in the district that had no male students advancing to the selective Lincoln Prep.
As juniors, 10 Lincoln Prep boys, including Parker, began tutoring 10 fourth-grade boys at Attucks with the hope that by the time the older students graduated, the boys they’d tutored would be ready to follow in their footsteps.
“We wanted to show these kids that education is important, especially in this community where kids don’t always get one-on-one at home because of drugs, gangs and illegal activity,” Parker said. “I feel like everyone needs a support system. I wanted to be that for them.”
Davis said knowing and working with Parker has been an honor.
“He just needed someone to see in him the potential he always had,” Davis said. He said Kansas City has “a lot of Derricks just sitting in classrooms, just waiting” for someone to recognize their potential.
Parker wrote that for him, Each One Teach One was a ripple in the norm that could change life’s outcomes for young men in his city.
“That’s what optimism is; believing that things can always get better,” Parker said. “Anne Frank, a brave 14-year-old Jewish girl hiding in the attic during the Holocaust, she had the courage to be optimistic. Even through the bad times, she saw the good.”
Parker, who is often tapped to speak at community events, said he has big dreams and a whole community counting on him.
“I plan to go to law school, come back to Kansas City and become a politician to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves,” he said.
“You know, Martin Luther King Jr. ismy personal hero,” Parker said, smiling as if he were sharing a secret. “I want to show young people here that we are not bound to the community we come from, that where you come from is no barrier to success.”