Standing tall and proud,  four students at Ardmore Middle School began reciting the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The four students, along with other students in Mary Johnson’s FLEX class at the middle school, will recite various poems and pieces of King’s speech during the African-American Cultural Enhancement Committee’s Celebration of Black History at 3 p.m. on Sunday in the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Emisha Pickens-Young, who grew up in Ardmore and now resides in Tulsa, will be the key note speaker and understands the preparation, time and effort the students have put into learning their speaking pieces.
Pickens-Young gave her first speech at the Black History Celebration 25 years ago while she was a seventh grade student at Ardmore Middle School. She had worked with Johnson, just like the students who will recite the speech on Sunday, and was a nervous, timid seventh grader when asked to speak in front of a large crowd of people. Now, years after she anxiously gave her first speech, she is the primary speaker at the event where it all began.
“The confidence and the preparation worked hand in hand,” she said, noting speaking properly, confidently and with expression were things she was asked to focus on while learning her speech. “Individuals and teachers took the time to develop my character. And the community encouraged me all along the way.”
Pickens-Young wasted no time utilizing the skills she picked up. After graduating in 2003 from Langston University, she began working as a Head Start teacher and other work in childhood education. Currently, she is a project director for the OU-Tulsa Early Childhood Education Institute and is pursuing her Ph.D. in early childhood education. In another milestone, she recently received a highly competitive federal research grant, the Head Start Graduate Student Research Grant, for early childhood education.
The grant, which is an award of an estimated $25,000, is only awarded to six graduate students in the country and Pickens-Young is the first recipient ever in Oklahoma. Pickens-Young was a Head Start student in school and plans to use the grant toward her dissertation studying the effectiveness of the Head Start teams and how they impact classroom quality.
“It’s great to be able to investigate something that is so close to my heart,” she said.
Being proud of her background and her history is something Pickens-Young said Johnson focused on when she was in middle school and that focus has continued into the current middle school class.
“It’s important for us to be together,” DeMarcus Smith, Ardmore Middle School seventh grader, said shortly after saying his section of King’s speech. “I’m proud of my background.”
The FLEX class began working on the speech and poems in October, with Johnson guiding their every articulation and word. Johnson, standing before her students with the words “I have a dream” written in black marker on the board behind her, asked her students the impact of learning the speech and what they’ve learned through the process. Confidence. Expression. History. Students gave various different answers to her question, but for Johnson the answer is rooted much deeper.
“You don’t know what other people may see in your child,” Johnson said of the students, explaining many times she will see untapped potential in the students that walk the halls. “I show them how to stand tall and speak with confidence and feeling and expression.
“No matter where you go you will not be afraid to speak. I’m prepping them for life.”
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” one student said while narrating the famous words that have echoed through American history. The words were famously given by King in 1963 and have been revisited countless times. Twenty-five years ago, Pickens-Young had the opportunity to give her first speech before a crowd of people. Now, she is coming home to watch the next generation of students give their first speeches.
“I’ve always benefited from the community support,” she said. “I’m so excited because, one to be able to come home anytime is a blessing, and to be coming back to where 25 years ago I was doing my first speech and now I’m giving the (primary) speech.
“I’m really honored and humbled.”