OAKLAND (CBS SF) — William Varner graduated Valedictorian of his academy at Fremont High in Oakland and got to speak at commencement.
“How you’all doing?” he started out, to much applause. Varner is a big man on campus. But his speech showed a sweet side, some might not always see in the hallways at school.
After thanking his mother and brothers, he gave a special thank you to his father, who died of a heart attack when Varner was 10 years old.
“He couldn’t be here today, he’s watching over me,” he said. Then with a look above, he told his dad, “I wish you could have been here.”
After his father died, Varner’s mom was left to raise three boys on her own. One is autistic and thus, requires extra care on his mother’s part.
“He’s good at technology and working with computers,” says Varner. “That’s something that I wish people could have a better understanding about before they make assumptions about something they don’t know.”
You can see the empathy in Varner’s eyes. “It feels bad knowing that he can’t function the right way…” Varner says, “he didn’t choose to be that way. It’s hard.”
Losing his father was a traumatic loss for Varner. “When I lost him, it was like losing your best friend. ..Not a day goes by that I try to stop shedding tears thinking about him, because he meant that much to me and everybody around him.”
His mom helped put Varner’s heart back together. His face brightens as he talks about her. “She means everything to me. She’s my world. She keeps me grounded just telling me, oh you know, education is the key.”
The key to a better life, is what she means. His mom is unemployed now. Money is short. Varner has watched his mother struggle to save money. “I kind of have seen her go without food and there’s been days when I didn’t have food,” he said. “It’s hard.”
But it’s the constant violence around him that is more threatening. The majority of the murders in Oakland are in East Oakland — 59 murders last year. It affects the way Varner sees his possibilities in life. “I never expected to make 18. I always felt like something might happen,” he says.
Varner is an honor student, but says it is discouraging watching classmates drop out. In fact, half of all African-American males in Oakland drop out of high school. “It’s kind of a negative, bad kind of feel to it,” he says. “That person was sitting right next to you — oh! They dropped out. You kind of have a bad feeling tht there’s not that many people that’s going to graduate with you.” It made him wonder sometimes, if it might happen to him.
But five years ago, Varner found a secret weapon, that helped him rise above. Every day, he goes the Maesh Academy in San Leandro. He practices a Thai martial art called Moy Thai — a demanding sport that involves both kicking and boxing. Varner says, “When I’m here training, it’s like really the only time I feel sane in a sense.”
Varner’s coach, Ivan Ramos, can see how the academy would be a safe haven away from the dangers of the streets and the worries at home. “The pressures, it’s just suffocating him so much that he feels trapped,” says Ramos. “This is his outlet not just to hit on objects. Where he doesn’t have to worry about outside pressures.”
Ramos remembers how timid Varner was when he started five years ago. “I didn’t think he would last.” Instead, Ramos says, “he’d stay until 8 or 9 every day.”
The discipline he learns through martial arts works for him at school. When a class is rowdy his teacher, Agnes Zapata, says Varner can calm them down. He sits in the middle of the room and sets the example by quietly beginning to study. Zapata says, “students totally respond to him… He never does it in a way that’s in your face, shut up kind of thing that most other kids do, no intimidation, nothing. It’s like really kind of calming but still very influential.”
For that reason, Zapata says all the teachers love having Varner in their classroom. “Its great to have him in class, that kind of person as opposed to another kind of person saying shut up! And I think that partially comes from Maui Tai. Why would you start screaming when you’re doing this kind of ancient fighting thing?”
Varner says he found something else through martial arts, “my coach has been like a real kind of father figure in a sense that I’ve been here for five years and I’ve known my coach has really been kind of watching out for me.”
Ramos agrees saying, “I do look out for him. There are times where I see that something is bothering him. I’d ask him what’s going on. I think just the fact that someone is asking him are you okay, makes a huge difference.”
Varner will be the first in his family to go to college at U.C. Merced.