Written by Denzel Okinedo ’12 and shared with Randolph School faculty prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year. You can read or watch his speech below:
What is the value of a Randolph education? Is the value strictly confined to tuition?
Do you assess it by a student’s grades? If they are able to show a true understanding of the material through tests, quizzes or other sorts of assessments?
Or should you calculate it through a practical application, where you would take a prospective glance to observe thy everyday skills that developed over time, skills that would lead for one write a book, start a business, to serve clients/patients, to inspire change?
I first came to Randolph in the Fall of 2007, which was my 8th grade year. When I started out, I did not know that many people. I was shy, but my incessant need to talk wouldn’t have clued many in on that. Fortunately, in my time at Randolph, I was able to find community and a group of friends who accepted me and let me in. However, I always knew I was different. I was one of the few black kids in my class and quite frankly the entire school. There were some days when I felt that I needed to over-compensate socially for what I lacked or who I couldn’t be because of my skin color. But there was no need for that.
This is my skin. It always has been my skin and it always will be my skin. At the time, this concept of identity was not clear to me, and I did not yet realize the value of difference in education.
From my early days at Drake through my final times at Garth - you, the faculty, always made clear the three core tenets of the Randolph School mission: Seeking truth. Building character. Nurturing all. Whether intentional or not, these core values serve as my looking glass in understanding of the world and its everyday interactions. Similarly, they have helped shape a clearer understanding of myself.
Whether we appreciate it or not, we all have a sphere of influence – so much so that I offer you these three questions based in the Randolph mission: (1) Does our pursuit of the truth encompass experiences and realties that may not affect us on an everyday basis? (2) Do the foundational stones of our character allow room for understanding, change and personal growth? and (3) Like gardeners tending to a nursery, are we intentional about nurturing others . . . regardless of any barriers or hindrances and being fully aware that some may respond or grow quicker than others?
I found intrinsic truth when educators like Ms. Clayton, Ms. Van Bebber, and Ms. McMitchens taught me that true knowledge is more than a letter grade. When Mr. Townsend consoled me for days after the death of a close friend. When Mr. Green and Ms. Stewart introduced me to a world of literary pieces and prolific writers whose voices and themes spoke to my core.
I was offered life lessons in character when Coach Twig would push me to run extra laps in a track practice where I had given a half-hearted effort. When Señora Almodóvar would hold me late after advisory meetings to discuss why my grades were dropping, or why I had gotten a demerit.
I was accepted when Coach McGuffey took a chance and allowed a scrawny track kid with zero fielding experience, to play on the baseball team and be a vocal leader. I was nurtured when Ms. Rossuck would continue to offer constructive criticism of my writing and challenge me to be better.
I was given the opportunity to flourish when a beautiful soul, the late Cecelia Duncan, convinced me to run for SGA my senior year – something I never even dreamed of doing. By pouring her time and efforts in mentoring me, Mrs. Duncan inspired a passion that forever changed my life.
So, what is the value of a Randolph education? Quite frankly (and to give a very-lawyer like response) there may be no perfect answer to that. Likewise, given the incredible achievements and accolades of the Randolph faculty, I would be the first to admit that I am in no way qualified to tell you how to do your job.
But what I can do is offer my perspective, my voice, and share my experiences. And what I have come to realize is that for me, the worth of my Randolph education is valued though an understanding of myself and my role in the world. Who we are and who seek to be. A never-ending pursuit of leading other to live lives of significance. There is no price tag on something like this – it is of immeasurable worth.
This calendar year has been difficult for many – nobody could have reasonable predicted 2020 and its lasting impact on the way we go about our daily lives. Words such as “distancing,” “tension,” “divide,” and “lockdown” have become the normal everyday language we use to communicate, where they once resided on the edges of our vocabulary.
Likewise, though it may be uncomfortable to talk about, we as a nation have become more cognizant of the racial rifts that for far too long went swept under the rug. However, as facilitators of the classroom, I encourage you to continue to open students’ eyes to new ways of looking at life and recognizing the beauty of difference, both on the inside and the outside.
Looking back at my time at Randolph, there were many ups and many downs. Yet, when thinking about the Randolph faculty, I am reminded of a quote by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall:
“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up
by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody -
a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns -
bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
In conclusion, I am forever thankful for the opportunity to attend one of the best schools in the country, where my greatest gift was the realization that I was an empowered individual regardless of my differences. The influence that educators yield can positively impact a student for an entire lifetime, as you did for me.
Denzel Okinedo ’12 is a litigation attorney at Burr Forman LLP in Birmingham, Alabama where he primarily practices in finance litigation along with defending and advising major corporations, small businesses, governmental entities and municipalities. In June 2020 he was awarded the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division Scholarship Award.
After attending Randolph, Denzel earned his undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College where he majored in political science with minors in religious studies and human rights & conflict studies. At Birmingham-Southern, Denzel served as President of the Student Government Association, was a Ronald & Donne C. Hess Fellow, and was the recipient of the David J. Vann Award in Political Science. Throughout his time as an undergraduate, Denzel was a weekly volunteer at a local Birmingham after-school program where he would assist students from low-income households with homework assignments and help them prepare for college entrance exams.
Denzel received his Juris Doctor from Cumberland School of Law, Samford University. At Cumberland, Denzel was elected as President of the law school student body and also served as a Legal Extern for the Honorable Abdul K. Kallon. Additionally, Denzel was a member of Cumberland’s top ranked National Trial Team and the winner of the Judge James O. Haley Federal Trial Competition. Throughout his time in law school, Denzel was listed on the Dean’s List, was selected to serve as a Judge Abraham Caruthers Teaching Fellow, and was the recipient of both the Russomanno Leadership Award and the Magic City Bar Association’s Outstanding Legal Scholarship Award.
Denzel was raised in Huntsville, where his parents still live and work. Both his younger sisters, Michelle ’17 and Isabel ’18 also attended Randolph. Michelle is a rising senior at Pepperdine University who was recently accepted into Pepperdine’s MBA Business School Program and Isabel is a rising junior pre-med student at Vanderbilt University.