A braid of hair sticks out the helmet and flings back and forth, as the only girl on the football field runs, further than she’s ever gone, and fights to not let her teammates down. It’s the last game of the season, and the Calhoun Cougars have the odds stacked against them. The Denton Middle School’s B-team hasn’t won a game this season.
She dodges a defender, sidesteps another, and then, like wooden blocks striking together, a loud “clock!” pierces the crisp autumn air.
A hush falls upon the crowd. All eyes are on Maleyciah Tillman-David. Her teammates and coaches looked out with hope, to see if she would get up, to see if she would overcome again.
Minutes pass as concern fills the stadium, and parents question if a girl should be playing football, or why Calhoun’s other players couldn’t pass their classes and finish the season. Then she wouldn’t have to carry the team. Maleyciah, the straight-A student, embraced by Calhoun’s all-boys football team for the last two years, wouldn’t have to take such a fall.
It was Maleyciah’s first time playing in the first-string lineup. She usually cheered from the sidelines, in the second-string of orange and white jerseys. Her coaches saw how she motivated the boys during practice, telling them to “Keep hustling!” with a slap on the helmet, and how she simply didn’t give up, win or lose, day-in and day-out.
After the hard hit, she limped to the sidelines, helped by her coaches. She endured a mild concussion, she would later learn, from a collision with her own teammate.
“I was upset, not because of the pain, but because I wanted to help my team win,” she said.
The Cougars lost, again, but that didn’t matter as much the next day. Winning didn’t matter as much at Calhoun Middle School, where strength is found in the struggle, in getting up and not surrendering, even with the odds against you.
The bell rings over the intercom and eighth-graders shuffle toward their first-period class. Maleyciah walks up the stairway and past a painted mural of a cougar, standing powerfully on a mountain, past stenciled quotes, one anonymous: “People who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
Her English class lines up beside a row of grey lockers, each displaying a photo and personal essay of the owner. Just below the ceiling, a banner with Spanish and English words stretches down the hall: “Solidarios…Caring…Pensadores…Thinkers…”
A student in the back of the line stretches her arm out. “Shhh! Straight line, straight line!” she says with a giggle, turning her hand inward as if to align the group.
The teacher, Christopher Lawn, raises his hand, saying, “We need a noise level of zero,” forming the shape with his fingers, and the response is swift.
They respect his instructions. “We’re going to walk quietly to the computer lab and work on our research projects. Is everyone clear on that?”
“Yes sir!” they reply, loud and synchronized. Before taking their seats, Lawn stands at the door and shakes the hand of each student, checking for I.D. badges. “Welcome back. Welcome back. Welcome back,” he repeats.
They made it back. They came to school. They made it through yesterday, and through whatever obstacles they confronted at home, or the forces beyond their control. They are here, and that’s what matters most, because here is where they can take control of life, and come back tomorrow to make a difference for their future.
“He pushed me first,” says a student, and Paul Martinez looks into his eyes, the principal’s eyebrows pressed down with an acknowledging concern.
Martinez hopes to provide a different kind of push, one of help.
“I will hear both sides of the story and give both of you an opportunity to share what happened after school,” he says, the hall filling with students changing classes, a crescendo of voices speaking Spanish and English.
The student looks down at his feet, turns, and disappears into the hall. “Horseplay that went to far,” says Martinez. “I think we need to give our kids that voice, give them that option, and don’t just shut them down.”
It’s only his 11th week on the job, but Martinez understands the world his students come from. He used to be one of these kids.
“I wasn’t worried about learning. I was worried about food,” Martinez would tell the students at a pep rally in the beginning of the year.
Seventy percent of Calhoun’s 650 students are from families with low socioeconomic status, and many parents are unemployed or haven’t gone to college.
“They know he’s pulling for them,” says James Hall, who started teaching science at Calhoun 25 years ago. “He’ll tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from. It matters where you want to go.’”
In his senior year at El Paso High School, Martinez realized the detrimental effects poor academics could have on his future. He decided to change course and focused on a career in education, in order to help others do the same. His participation in a work-study program at an afterschool daycare center revealed a passion to help kids overcome their circumstances and achieve success in school.
Now, in his 15th year in Denton ISD, Martinez at 38 is its second youngest principal, living what feels like “a dream come true.”
“I’d like to work here for 25 years,” he says with a chuckle.
Martinez’s journey to Calhoun began a walk’s distance down the street, from the University of North Texas where he graduated, until his exit at neighboring Denton High School, where he was assistant principal for two years.
“I started hearing the rumblings,” he says, referring to the claims made on Calhoun as “the inner-city school,” as if to write them off. “I’d rather call us a neighborhood school.”
With a minority-majority, half of the student population at Calhoun is Hispanic, and 35 percent are white.
Yet it’s that same diversity and economic struggle, say some faculty, that create a strong family bond and resolve at the school.
Gary Wood, a counselor at the school for 21 years, adds that Calhoun has not always enjoyed a diverse student population. “Denton has changed a lot over the years,” he says, and yearbooks from the 1970’s stacked in the shelf outside his office record a mostly white demographic. “Today, we are 80 percent free or reduced lunch.”
Librarian Sandy Noles admits, “The perception around town is, ‘Wow that’s a tough, tough school, and you’ve got the most difficult kids to work with,’ and I say, ‘We have great kids… These kids appreciate the stuff you do for them.” She adds that students at Calhoun possess a level of self-determination and independence that is unique to schools where parents can micromanage.
The school maintains state-average scores for standardized testing – 70 percent passing – and boasts a rigorous International Baccalaureate program, as students enter high school with their first year of French or Spanish completed.
“The feeling is that [teachers] have gotten closer because they have to step up to the plate and work extra hard with these kids,” she says.
Martinez recalls a parent deciding to keep her child in advanced classes, even though she struggled.
“That’s going to make you better in the end,” he says. “They know their kids are going to struggle, but they know it’s going to be for good when it’s all said and done.”
Martinez, a first-generation college student, credits his teachers as difference-makers.
“They become the consistency in the student’s life,” he says.
“Hopefully they are the ones that gets them to value education, and break a cycle of poverty, and push them through it.”
The library is not quiet after two students disturb a class next door, prompting the teacher to emerge.
The back of her yellow T-shirt reads, “Calhouligans,” and displays a spider web for a Halloween theme.
“But Ms. Petite,” says one, and she gives them wide-eyes that cause a chuckle. She escorts them out of the library. Silence returns.
Darlene Petit teaches English, but she also teaches relationships – the key to resilience, she says.
She shares her life with the students in hopes that they will value her as a person and not simply a teacher; one who will listen. Her classes are full of confessions and testimonies, of students sharing their struggles, though “nothing leaves the four walls,” she says.
“They trust me not to tell anyone, and that’s all they want, someone to talk to,” she says. “They are learning to value their lives, and that’s the most important thing I can teach them.”
After losing her home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Petite came to Denton to live with family, and was offered the job at Calhoun three years ago.
She recalled one student who confided in her about wanting to play football, though she was a girl and didn’t think it was possible.
“I just told Maleyciah, ‘Go for it,’ and she really did,” she says, adding that other students were inspired by their classmate’s decision.
Maleyciah considers Petit her favorite teacher, and the helper she needed to pursue football. Her long-term goal is to play in a UNT uniform.
“I thought about it in elementary just as a gag,” says Maleyciah. “Me and my friends, we would be like, ‘Oh we’re going to play football when we grow up,’ and of course we were all girls and we didn’t think it was going to happen.”
When things were rough, Petit was there to help her believe.
“I got so angry at myself at being bad (at football), that I considered quitting,” says Maleyciah. “I realized I need to keep going, and I can’t give up on something that I love so much.”
“That encouragement from the teachers makes it a lot easier for me to do what I’ve been doing.”
Petit also recognized Maleyciah’s deeper desire to become a minister and help the helpless.
“Maleyciah became their surrogate bodyguard,” recalls Petite. “She was my little helper.”
Maleyciah, who turned 14 in November, says that while football revealed her strength, Calhoun helped reveal her desire to become a minister.
“I mainly focus on befriending outcasts, because they are the ones that need the extra friend, that shoulder to lean against,” she says.
“I aim for becoming their best friends, because you can’t ever have too many best friends.”
Maleyciah’s dad, Freddie David, counts and folds underneath his large and wrinkled thumbs, a wad of dollar bills that are no longer his.
He places the money in an envelope and licks it shut.
“This month’s tithe,” he says, staring out through the windows of the Gateway Center at UNT, where The Bridge Church meets every Sunday.
“It’s hard sometimes,” he says, and another month at the car wash isn’t the easiest for a family of six. But he has his family, and that’s what matters most.
Maleyciah chases her friends into the service, and to the front of the stage, as worship begins, and she jumps and shouts, despite chronic headaches the night before from the concussion.
Guest speaker Roy Todd takes the stage, amplifying his Irish accent when he says “Moses! Moses!” quoting the book of Exodus.
“The end of an era is not the completion of a destiny,” he says, and Maleyciah’s mom, Maride, gives out a loud “Amen!” She’s been unemployed for months, although she left her job as a corrections officer willingly, in trust that “God has better things in store.”
“The old man thinks he’s finished,” Todd continues. Moses had just wandered to the far side of the desert, until he saw something that caught his attention. A burning bush that didn’t burn up, and God spoke from within and called him to deliver the people out of Egypt.
“Consistency catches people’s attention,” he says, recalling his own history of tithing that came to an abrupt halt, until a friend unexpectedly handed him an envelope with a check of the equivalent of six month’s salary.
“It was God saying, ‘Keep doing the right thing. Don’t give up on me. I haven’t given up on you.’”
Freddie looks on with a smile. For him, the right thing was returning to his family eleven months ago, and remaining after years of absence, from jail time and running back and forth from the responsibility of caring for them.
“I was addicted to crack cocaine for 21 years,” he says. “Then I gave my life to God, and I was delivered.”
Throughout the years, Maleyciah’s older brother Zechariah watched as his little sister battled the urge to give up.
“No matter how many odds are coming against her, she finds a way to push forward and exceeds all our expectations,” he says, streamers hanging in the TRiO office in Sage Hall at UNT, where he attends work-study for the federal assistance program.
Joining the football team at Calhoun helped his sister discover confidence in herself she never had, he says, adding she was “always the shy one.”
“She used to feel like she couldn’t speak up,” he says. “Now she’s helping others come out of their shell and believe in themselves.”
In their home in southeast Denton, Maleyciah helps her younger sister Adassa finish homework for school with her mom on the couch, where she sleeps by a small heater. “We’re hoping for a mattress soon,” mom says.
A portrait of Martin Luther King hangs on the wall beside a cross and rows of family pictures, one with Freddie at a portrait studio with family, just below one without him.
Maleyciah leans over to show her dad the game she’s playing, and he chuckles as chickens explode on the tablet computer used for school.
“I learned how strong I really was,” she says of her time at Calhoun playing football.
Maleyciah was inspired to play football after watching her two older brothers compete at Ryan High School. The oldest, Jeremiah, is planning to attend UNT next semester.
She’s followed in their footsteps since she could walk. Now, says Zechariah, it’s Maleyciah who is running ahead, and thanks to Calhoun, further than she’s ever gone.
“She thinks that she’s trying to keep up with us, but really, we’re all trying to keep up with her.”