12-year-old Javion Finney loves playing sports, especially football.
The on-field friendship amongst teammates has quickly become a brotherhood providing young Javion a positive outlet and outlook on life while growing up in the city of St. Louis.
“I like playing as a team, helping each other,” says Javion.
Like many his age, Javion is already dreaming of his first touchdown in the NFL. And until a few months ago, Javion’s mind was set on working hard to become a professional athlete. Visions of adorning a team jersey with his name on the back have now expanded to include another passion. The charismatic young man scored the goal of a lifetime when he discovered a new love…poetry.
Javion attends Lucas Crossing Complex, his school is part of America SCORES; a national nonprofit serving 10,000 students at more than 175 public and charter schools in 14 major cities. The organization's mission is to inspire urban youth (particularly athletes) to lead healthy lives, be engaged students and have the confidence and character to make a positive difference in the world.
Earlier this year, Javion received a school assignment to write a poem on a topic of his choice. He was told he could possibility be chosen to represent his hometown at a National Poetry Slam in New York City. Without much thought about the big prize, Javion dug deep, completed the assignment and turned it in to his teacher. A few days later, Javion’s mother received a call from Lucas Crossing.
“I got the call and I’m like, what? Javion won a trip? To NEW YORK?” Christy Taylor excitedly recalled. “It was the first time either of us left the state of Missouri.”
Despite his young age, Javion has already experienced loss on a greater level than most. In 2010, his father lost his life to gun violence. Over the next several years, more loved ones passed away. He took the painful emotions of his life experiences and channeled them into his poem "Feelings."
Thousands of students from around Missouri submitted poems, Javion was one of fourteen children chosen to perform. The St. Louis Spotlight sat down at Better Family Life with poet-athlete Javion Finney and his mother Christy Taylor to share his heart-touching and inspiring story.
Javion Finney: Lots of people from our schools auditioned to see who had the better poem. I wrote against a lot of people. I wrote about my family and I talked about today, yesterday and tomorrow. Today stands for the present. Yesterday is the past and tomorrow is the future. I was talking about how I felt in the present. I feel good. But in the past, I felt sad because my father and grandma passed away. I see myself being happy in the future.
LeShea Agnew: You wrote an incredibly creative, deep and honest poem...especially for your age. You've got a real talent for writing young man. You didn’t rush through it and write roses are red, violets are blue. You really put your emotions out there. Did writing this poem help you deal with your feelings?
JF: Yeah, usually I don’t put my life out there. People were telling me I was a very, brave young man for writing it. I even got some autographs while I was there.
LA: How did it feel when you won?
JF: I didn't know I won until I heard my teacher on the phone with my mom. She was asking my mom, “Can he stay after school? He won this thing to go to New York.” I was like, “Ohhhh!!! I’m going to New York!!”
LA: I lived in New York before moving here, what did you think about it? Big huh?
JF: Big! Busy. Loud. A lot of cars. We ate a lot of good food...pizza and hot dogs.
LA: For people who have never been, tell them what it’s like to leave St. Louis and go to a new state.
JF: It may change your life because it changed mine. Try something new. I usually wouldn’t talk like this in front of people. You know, like tell them about my feelings and stuff. I’m a quiet person. People were crying as I was saying my poem, I was too at the end when I said the last line. I was real nervous at first but I got to meet people from different cities and stuff like D.C., Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Christy Taylor: It was a self-empowering trip for him, an ultimate reward in itself. It was incredible and encouraging, especially for where we live.
JF: It feels really good to be African-American, young and known for something positive. I just wanna smile. It made me feel good for myself and my family. I know other African-American people can do better if I can.
LA: It took something very brave inside to tell your story. Keep telling your story. If you become a football player, be the best. But don’t stop writing. Never stop writing. Keep feeding your new passion. What’s your message to people your age about life and making good decisions?
JF: Try your hardest. Even if you don’t think you’ll win or go anywhere. Even if you don’t win anything, do your best. Try harder. You may do what I did and go to New York. For older kids, like big brothers and big sisters. Remember your little brother or sister looks up to you and wanna follow what you do. Like, if they smoke or do drugs or anything bad, your little sister or brother may follow and do what you do. Gotta make good decisions for you and your family.
LA: Great message, Javion. You have a little sister and you’re already thinking smart. Jump in here mom. Tell us about the moment you found out he won not only a contest but a trip out of state.
CT: He came home from school one day and said, “Mom, I wrote a poem. And I might go to New York.” You know excited kids can get so I was like, “Ok, babe.” Not really thinking he would actually go to New York. And then…I got a call. His poem was picked and I was sooo excited and happy for him! I’ve never been out of Missouri in my life. I was anxious and nervous. Happy. I was walking around with my mouth open, looking at everything. I took so many pictures I filled up my phone and my other son’s phone. I was free there. It was exciting, fun, different, fast-paced. Even the weather was perfect. I wrote a thank you note to the president of America SCORES explaining how we grew up in the inner city and how positive things normally don’t happen to us. It’s always something negative. We’ve suffered a lot of losses, male figures in particular. He doesn’t have a role model in his life and that can weigh heavy on a young man. They may not tell you though. Boys are like, "You’re my momma, you don’t understand."
His father was killed at a funeral in 2010. It made nationwide news. He bottled up so many of his feelings. I’ve always told him it’s ok to talk about his feelings. He got close to his father’s mother and then, she passed. After that…more loss. I was feeling so much heartbreak for him. It was putting a damper on his spirit. Every time he gets close to someone, they die. He asked me, “Am I gonna die like this, too?” I had to let him know, there are choices out here. When he won, he was like I finally did something positive and I’m finally seeing the rewards of it. It really boosted his self-esteem. The whole time we were there, he really came out of his shell. Dancing and smiling cheek to cheek. I cried several times. My child is experiencing happiness, finally! It feels amazing. It really does.
LA: As a parent, how do you help your child deal with the death side of life?
JF: You have to speak to them like death is natural. Everyone is gonna die. Tell them about choices and decisions and peer pressure. You are who you hang around. There is so much explaining to do as a parent, especially as a single parent and mother of boys. I don’t know how to raise a man but I can try my hardest. He may crave a male’s attention or love but how does that sound to most people in society? So, young men don’t go around saying stuff like that. Don’t sugarcoat with your kids. Speak real to them. Javion is the middle of three sons and I don’t shy away from sharing news or real life with them. I explain to them, “See how this happened to this person? When you make decisions like that, these things can happen.” I want them to make the right decisions. Things that happen is real life, I let them know how he will end up if he doesn’t make the right decisions. He’s seen it. He sees it every day.
LA: Sounds like his experience in New York was a healing one, therapeutic.
CT: This is a positive route he can go. It even let him get a taste of fame. People took pictures with him and got his autograph. If he gets on the field, does good in school and do what you gotta do, this will be your life.
LA: Talk to the parents of our city. Any words for them?
CT: The key is, don’t ever give up trying to find a new outlet for them. If one thing doesn’t work, try something new. You never know what our kids are thinking about that day, what they could be holding on to. Nobody wants to feel like they’re on earth by themselves, especially a child. With boys, get in their business. There’s no such thing as respecting privacy when they’re young. Find an outlet for them. It took a while to find out what he was interested in. He used to be a homebody, playing video games. Then it was football. Then he found writing and poetry. It was a process. It doesn’t matter if they have one line in the school play or play for a sports team that may not be that good. Support them. Keep them motivated. It makes a big difference and it makes their experience amazing. Family is the way of bonding. If they feel like their family believes in them, they’ll try harder. You never know what could've happened if you give up too early. I never gave up trying to find his niche.
Today my name is smile. I feel silly, and I want to laugh. I pretend that everything is fun all around. I even make fun all around. I even make shadows turn into light and shine.
Yesterday my name was hate. I cried ever since my father died. What made it worse was my mother sobbed when my grandmother died and couldn’t make it. I was ashamed that I cried in front of my classmates. My pain is worse.
Tomorrow my name will be forgotten. I will forget everything and everyone will forget me. I will remember nothing and I will be forgotten.
Javion and his mother Christy want to send their heartfelt thanks to America SCORES, Lucas Crossing Complex and Better Family Life for giving them an experience they won’t soon forget. Javion also sends his love to his siblings: 14-year-old Christyen Taylor, 11-year-old Niguel Herndon and 3-year-old Zaniya Herndon.