John Chatman has a story to tell — several, actually
The 18-year-old has attended six Memphis schools in six years. He’s been expelled from one. By his memory, he racked up nearly 50 suspensions throughout elementary school. He has lost close friends to gun violence.
Those experiences place Chatman amid a number of trends in Memphis, including experiencing gun violence and an increasing number of expulsions from local schools. He told Chalkbeat that after he was kicked out of school, his life got “dark for a bit.” Research shows that students who are expelled are more likely to have lower test scores, drop out of school, or become involved in crime than other students.
But when Chatman takes the stage this weekend at a storytelling night sponsored by Chalkbeat and others, the story he most wants to tell is about resilience.
“If you’d asked me what I wanted to do with my life even a couple of years ago, I couldn’t have told you,” Chatman said. “I just lived for the moment, I lived for what I knew on the streets. Now, now I have plans.”
Despite what Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year. He knows what he’s going to do next, and after that. And he said caring adults helped to get him there.
Chatman is working toward a welding certificate through a program at Carver. He’s interested in welding, but he also wants to pursue entrepreneurship, business, and real estate. He says he doesn’t see himself having just one job or career path, and that the options are exciting.
“Back then, I was clueless,” Chatman said. “And now I’ve mapped myself out. I refuse to not elevate to where I want to be. I’m working on a seven-year plan.”
In particular, mentors at Project STAND – a program at Carver Academy for students have been involved in the juvenile court system – have made a huge difference in Chatman’s life. He said people with Project STAND “see me as more than just a ‘trouble child.’”
“That ‘trouble child’ theory follows you for a long time, a very long time,” Chatman added. “Once you get that label on you, it’s nearly impossible to get it off of you.”
And now, Chatman is spending a ton of his free time advocating for other students who may carry that label. He is part of a team called Brothers and Sisters Speaking Out for Change, a group of student leaders who have been in juvenile detention and trained as advocates by BRIDGES, a student youth advocacy organization in Memphis.
Chatman said he wants all Memphis schools to suspend and expel fewer students. He said if he had mentors in his life earlier, or if he had been better taught in school how to process his emotions healthily, he would have gotten on track sooner.
“One voice can change a thousand lives,” Chatman said. “I’ve been so changed by the people in my life now. I really believe I can do the same to others.”
Chatman is one of six people who will tell stories at a storytelling night sponsored by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and the Knowledge Tree. The event will be held at 902 Cooper Street in Memphis on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door.
Other storytellers include:
- Daniel Warner, East High School teacher
- Amani Thomas, STAND for Children community engagement manager
- Britney Thornton, STARS Academy Charter School educator and founder of JUICE Orange Mound
- Tim Green, Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School teacher and founder of The Dividend
- Marquita Henderson, Shelby County Schools student
- Sherwanda Chism, Winridge Elementary School teacher