Achievement isn’t always measured in academic prowess, when talking of teenagers navigating the under-resourced schools, fractured families, poverty and violence of Chicago’s inner city.
It can be measured by character, resilience, determination.
All are adjectives used to describe Hakeem Day, a 19-year-old who graduated last week from Simeon Career Academy and will be honored as a “Rising Star” by the DuSable Museum of African American History on Saturday.
“I just don’t let negative things and bad stuff that happens get to me. I just don’t dwell on them too long,” says Day, raised by his father and grandmother in the hard-knock Roseland community. “I was happy when I heard I was getting this.”
A member of Simeon’s football and wrestling teams for three years before he was sidelined by a knee injury, Day will receive the coveted award honoring amazing Chicago Public Schools students already making their mark, at the 21st Annual “Night of 100 Stars” gala at the South Side museum.
DuSable’s don’t-miss event among the city’s black elite annually recognizes Chicagoans or people with Chicago connections who have made outstanding contributions through careers and civic engagement.
This year’s History Makers Award recipients include noted civil rights attorney James D. Montgomery; Columbia University Professor Emeritus Charles V. Hamilton; and ABC-7 News Anchor Cheryl Burton. And for the first time, the teen award honors more than one high-school senior. Others are Jasabella Clark, of Michelle Clark Academic Prep; and Jada Stroud of Lincoln Park High.
Born on the West Side, Day grew up with both parents and five siblings in Washington Heights, then moved to Roseland with his truck driver father when his parents split.
“He’s been a student of mine for three years. He has a lot of tenacity. He’s a hard worker, and he’s very humble,” says Isaiah Rowsey, a carpentry instructor at Simeon, where the teen was enrolled in a Career & Technical Education carpentry program.
“He listens. He’s humble enough to ask when he needs help, which is very rare. He’s learned how to frame and insulate walls, install windows and drywall, paint, and cut and install tile, and has become very skilled,” Rowsey says.
Day was introduced to construction work at age 9 by an uncle.
“My uncle used to buy houses and fix them up and sell them, and my brothers and I would come help him clean them out and stuff, and he’d pay us. I did that till I was about 13,” he says. “I’ve been interested in carpentry since I was little. I just like fixing and building things.”
When Day suffered the knee injury forcing him to give up athletics the summer after junior year, he didn’t let it get him down. “At first I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself when I couldn’t play sports anymore. Then I just figured, ‘Well, I’ve always been interested in carpentry, so I’ll just focus on that’,” he says.
This spring, he and his carpentry class participated in the Youth In Trades program run by a nonprofit group called God Restoring Order, rehabbing abandoned Roseland properties to return them to use.
“I made him a foreman on that project, helping other students. He wants to eventually run his own construction company. He’s currently looking to obtain a carpenter’s apprenticeship. But he needs a contractor to sponsor him, and we’re trying to help him find one,” says Rowsey.
In the meantime, achievement can be measured by just navigating life in the inner city.
“I’m just lucky that it’s not as bad around my grandmother’s. I try to stay away from the really bad areas. I’ve been approached by the gangs once, walking home by myself after football practice. They tried to attack me. I ran,” says Day. “I really try not to think about that stuff. I would tell others just stay away from the stuff that can get you in that situation.”