The odds were stacked against me as a child. I grew up in a low-income, single-parent home in a Tampa neighborhood where drugs were common. But a series of great teachers and mentors and my own motivation ultimately led me to success.
My mother constantly struggled to raise her four children alone, working low-paying jobs. I stayed clear of the streets and their negative environment as best as I could.
My oldest brother, Eugene McCaslin, worked tirelessly playing football at Chamberlain and Jesuit high schools and then at the University of Florida, motivated to give our family a better life. Visiting the University of Florida to watch him play were some of the most inspiring moments of my childhood and sparked my interest in college.
After he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, our lives began to improve dramatically. He moved us from Tampa to Gainesville for a few years, and I started performing well in classes and participating in student government.
My family returned to Tampa during my sophomore year in high school. Before I left Gainesville, my English teacher told me, "When you get to Tampa, tell them you are a smart young man and you deserve to be in honors classes."
Those words stuck with me. So when I arrived at Armwood High School, I begged my guidance counselor to let me into English honors. Once she agreed, I had to exceed people's expectations. I had to prove that I belonged in that class.
I knew that education would lead me to a better and happier life. But I could not have succeeded had teachers not told me I was a bright young man. I wouldn't have even applied to Georgetown had my guidance counselor not urged me to "dream big." Teachers, counselors, mentors and our entire community must remain relentless in inspiring our youths.
I've experienced this in my own life with my younger sister. She has struggled to get through her sophomore year in high school because she recently had a baby. But I refuse to allow her to let that be an excuse to fail.
A week ago Friday, we had a great trip to the Pinellas County Job Corps Center. We were both very excited and inspired as we toured the excellent facilities. This center trains students for decent-paying jobs in the health care and construction industries. My sister wants to complete her high school degree while becoming a certified nursing assistant and eventually a registered nurse. It is my job as her older brother to ensure that this becomes a reality and to inspire her.
I believe the Pinellas County Job Corps Center could be a very positive program for keeping our young people off the streets and giving them opportunity. Think of the success of such other groups as Homeboy Industries, a great nonprofit in Los Angeles that goes by the motto, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job."
In fact, one of the Job Corps administrators and I had a conversation about the shooting. She mentioned that they are going to have a community forum at the center to discuss the recent violent events. I hope that this forum can be the beginning of a great discussion in our community. We can stop bullets by encouraging our youths in the classrooms, and ensuring that they are equipped to be productive members of our society.
Canaan McCaslin, 24, is a Tampa native who graduated from Armwood High School in 2005. He earned a bachelor's degree in foreign service from Georgetown University in 2009, and will complete a master's in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon's Heinz College in May. A 2005 Barnes scholar, he works as a staff assistant for U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor in Washington, D.C.