Will triumphs over all
Getting an education is something students often take for granted, but nearly 700 Kubasaki High School students may be singing a new tune after a heartfelt, gut-wrenching testimonial by life development coach Johnnetta McSwain, a survivor of childhood abuse and neglect, on October 26 in the Kubasaki auditorium.
“You think you’re being cute? I’ll tell you what’s cute! Getting an education is cute!” said McSwain, describing the importance of an education in breaking the cycle of abuse. Her shocking personal experiences and amazing victory over her circumstances both horrified and amazed the audience.
Many students who attended the event were personally and emotionally affected by McSwain’s powerful testimony.
Lianna Bourdony, a sophomore at Kubasaki, said, “Even though you have everything she didn’t have, you still get inspired and can relate in some way.”
“It definitely touched me. I was emotional,” said junior Estuardo Caceres.
In a room filled with attentive students, faculty, and staff, several people in the audience appeared to be personally affected by McSwain’s testimony.
Throughout the room, comments like “that’s unbelievable” and “somebody should do something about this” rippled through the crowd.
McSwain was raised in a family where emotional and physical abuse and neglect were the norm for generations. She talked about being tied to a chair, being sexually abused over and over again by her mother’s boyfriends and her uncles, and how her older sister Sonya, now in a hospital recovering from years of addiction and depression, would beg them to take her instead.
“I’m going to protect you from those monsters,” Sonya said night after night, as they clung to each other in the bed that they shared, waiting for the dreaded doorknob to turn.
The last time McSwain saw her sister, Sonya was in a straightjacket. McSwain swore to Sonya that she would “be her voice” and would tell the world their story.
McSwain is now the Founder and CEO of Breaking the Cycle, Beating the Odds, an organization that counsels women into leaving the self-destructive cycle of abuse and neglect behind.
Looking at the classy and professional McSwain makes it hard to imagine that she spent years of her life covered in bruises and scars, neglected and unloved. Her confidence and sass on the stage masked the years she spent being silent about her horrific childhood. Her body language and powerful voice almost hid the scars on her arms.
Kubasaki students first met McSwain last year when she was invited to speak to students by Lisa Levin, an adolescent substance abuse counselor at the time. McSwain spoke to students via Skype in a speech that culminated the school’s Red Ribbon Week, a week in which students promoted the importance of living a drug-free lifestyle.
Former KBHS teacher Victoria Holland took the core of McSwain’s message of getting an education, helping others, and staying drug-free, to her own classroom.
“My students were doing a unit on why we should reach out to others,” Holland said. “It was a good opportunity to write letters and respond to how she reached out to them…I really admire her courage, her strength, and her sincerity.”
Towards the end of her personal appearance before Kubasaki students this year, the previously upbeat and dynamic McSwain became emotional, practically in tears. This was the moment she’d been waiting for all afternoon. Columbus Wilson, a graduate of Kubasaki who wrote McSwain last year in class, mounted the stage to receive a personalized copy of her book, “Rising Above the Scars,” and a tearful hug. Many students in the crowd were touched beyond words. As Wilson exited the stage, book in hand, they applauded wordlessly, many with tears streaming down their faces.
Hearing about McSwain dropping out of high school and working minimum wage jobs in restaurants and diners astounded the audience when she said that she is only one year away from her PhD, further cementing her focus on the value of an education.
McSwain’s motivation to pick up the pieces of her life was her two sons. She was 30 years old when she made the decision to move from Birmingham, Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia.
“I looked at my baby boys, and I thought: is my boy going to be a [molester]? Is he going to go to jail? Is he going to sell drugs on the street corner?” She knew that she had to break the cycle of abuse and neglect, the cycle of a stalled or abandoned education, of jail time and unpunished crime, for the sake of her children.
“Failure was not an option!” she stated repeatedly, often emphasizing her words with a stomped foot and a shaking fist, many students echoing her words and applauding as she made her point time and again. She posted the phrase everywhere in her house as a constant reminder to never give up. Her goal was to get an education so that her boys would be proud of their mother. “I didn’t want them to be ashamed of me.”
McSwain is a hard person to imagine having ever been abused. While she was up on stage, she was beautiful and confident, someone who deserved love and who gave love freely. On and off the stage, her mere presence calls for affirmative action, and motivates people across the globe to be aware, and in control, of their own destinies, a lesson which the Kubasaki students and staff will proudly put into practice.