BROOKSVILLE — School assessors got it wrong many years ago. After young ReShawn Smith struggled through first grade at Brooksville Elementary, officials said he could never learn.
Smith's grandmother, Catherine Taylor, an educator at West Shore Elementary in Hillsborough County, strongly disagreed. So did his godmother, the Rev. Bridget Taylor, with whom he has lived since he was 3 weeks old.
The Rev. Taylor, who is also a teacher in Dade City, enrolled him in Pasco County schools.
This year, Smith graduated from Pasco High School and was chosen to be one of the baccalaureate speakers. The 19-year-old has earned local, state and regional oratorical laurels along the way. He's now college-bound.
But first, he's bound this weekend for a national speaking competition in Detroit, conducted by the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World. At stake is a $7,500 college scholarship.
Smith already has received $2,500 in scholarship funds, the result of speaking honors gained not just in Florida but at a four-state regional Elks contest.
This year, he also garnered the top spot for oratory at the Career Clubs of Florida State Leadership Conference. The honor propelled him to a national gathering in Las Vegas of the Future Business Leaders of America.
Although he delivered the same speech that had been a winner for him before, on the theme of taking responsibility for your own actions, judges gave higher marks to another speaker. "They told me it was a little too religious, not enough (about) business," Smith said.
The teen recently recalled his first public speaking appearance, at age 5. He spoke at the retirement ceremony of grandmother Taylor after her 30 years in Hillsborough schools. The Rev. Taylor, the godmother, coached Smith, drawing from her experience in preaching.
Smith's life hasn't been all luster. In his early teen years, he suffered one of life's hiccups.
Said Brooksville Vice Mayor Frankie Burnett, a member of the South Brooksville Elks Lodge that has sponsored Smith's forays onto the stage, "He had a bad slide into trouble and (the Rev. Taylor) got him on the straight and narrow."
Smith said he slipped into depression when his grandmother, his longtime supporter, died. "I stopped caring about stuff,'' he said. "I didn't care about anything (but) hanging out in the streets.
"All of a sudden, I knew I had to change," he continued.
Helping him to turn the bend was a 2006 trip to a conference in Atlanta, with the Rev. Taylor, at which he heard the acclaimed evangelist Eddie Long.
Although Smith had tuned out to most of his lessons in that down period, he hastened to add, "I was never on drugs or arrested."
One of his teachers for three years at Pasco High, Mignon Edwards, said of Smith, "He is vivacious. He has high integrity. He sticks with it. With so much going on, he always comes through."
In information technology classes, Edwards said, Smith used computers to improve his public speaking projects. He also excelled in computer digital design, creating print projects for the school.
Smith has also worked part time as a model. He's 5 feet 8, 147 pounds. And he found time to play alto saxophone in the school marching band.
He is contemplating enrollment at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville or Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. He wants to study sports management and sports medicine.
Whatever his next steps, he has a growing legion of fans, including parents Shawn Pope and Howard Holland and a big cheering section from Frederick Kelly Elks Lodge 1270 and its women's affiliate, Lodge 1004. The lodges are paying for his trip to Detroit, just as they have paid his transportation, motel stays and meals throughout his oratory ventures.
On hand to support him in Detroit will be the local Elks exalted ruler, five other Elks officers and, of course, the Rev. Taylor.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]