FLINT, Michigan — This story starts at Randels Elementary School. Although it could start at one of DeEsmond Lewis Jr.’s foster care houses or at his valedictorian speech or on the campus of Stanford University this fall.
We’re starting here though, in the third grade at Randels Elementary where DeEsmond is already excelling academically. DeEsmond is usually the quiet kid, sitting in the back of the classroom — but this day is different. Today is the day young DeEsmond showed everyone just how exceptional he was and is.
Young DeEsmond challenged his teacher to a duel: A head-to-head multiplication test. The computer timed them. Thirty-six questions. A race to the finish.
DeEsmond came in under 35 seconds. He beat his teacher by 1 full second. (And scored a premium prize — McDonald’s for lunch.) After that, teachers and classmates started calling DeEsmond the “Math Prodigy.” Nine years later, DeEsmond sheepishly recalls the story with legs crossed, fidgeting.
Meeting him, it is immediately clear there is nothing average about DeEsmond Lewis Jr. At 6 foot 3, you naturally look up to him. The 18-year-old talks on breaks between his two jobs. His demeanor is more than smart; it is wise.
DeEsmond graduated top of his class from Carman-Ainsworth Baker Career Academy. He is one of 300 students nationwide to win a full-ride Gates Scholarship, one of the most prestigious prizes in the country.
This fall, he will attend Stanford University — where only about 4 percent of the best of the best who even bother to apply are accepted.
He arrived here not through luck, happenstance, or privilege. He arrived here through work, perseverance, and determination.
"You're growing up in Flint and then you have all of these … negative influences out here, and you know a lot of people actually succumb to those influences. They just let society define them as low-down, like stupid, uneducated, men, women all of that,” DeEsmond says. “So I think I had something to prove.”
DeEsmond was born April 29, 2001, in Flint, Michigan. The second of four children, his first few years of life were stable, from what he’s been told. He doesn’t remember much of those years or the more turbulent ones that followed.
DeEsmond’s infant brother, Devon, died in August 2003 and the three remaining children became wards of the state. DeEsmond often floated between foster homes and relatives on his father’s side, separated from his sisters. He remembers not understanding the concept of home.
As time went on, school became his refuge. A place of stability. A place of support. A place he could make friends, work hard, and excel.
“I've never had a student with DeEsmond's work ethic and that right there is what sets him apart,” said Gabriella Bryant, DeEsmond’s high school English teacher.
When he was 8 years old, DeEsmond’s father regained custody of him and his younger sister. They grew up on Flint’s northside with DeEsmond Lewis Sr. working as a cook and his stepmother a hostess at Hurley Hospital. Just recently, DeEsmond also reconnected with his older sister.
“He’s always in a book. He’s always reading. He’s always finding out new information,” his father DeEsmond Lewis says proudly. “I wish I could grow up and be just like him.”
On June 5, DeEsmond graduated as one of 12 seniors at Carman-Baker Career Academy with a 3.95 grade point average and having already completed 54 college credits and two internships.
“Just because I come from a low socioeconomic background and I have had many obstacles in my life — I didn't let those things define who I am, because I was determined to become successful,” DeEsmond says.
DeEsmond also works as a social media manager for Keep Genesee County Beautiful and for the third summers will also work at Flint Public Library.
Jenny Jones, program and events administrative assistant for the Flint Public Library, describes DeEsmond as someone people are naturally drawn to.
"The kids just love him because he'll just dance with them and he'll act silly with them,” Jones says. ”He'll sit there and he'll help our elderly patrons that come and help with them with the computers. He's just always willing to help. He's just got this aura.”
In his graduation speech, DeEsmond challenged his classmates to make the most of their lives. To make the most of their opportunities. No matter their past.
“Our stories were written for 17 years. We were just the main characters within the story,” DeEsmond said in his graduation speech. “Now, we are the storytellers. We are writing a more dynamic chapter in which we can establish our own voices, share our experiences, inspire others, and have more opportunities to leave our mark on the city, the nation, the world.”
DeEsmond plans to study the sciences at Stanford. He’s keenly interested in the brain and how it functions. He thinks perhaps he would like to become a family physician, one day returning to Flint to care for his hometown.
But, that is for the next chapter.