‘Sometimes young people are underestimated’

By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T

If anyone challenges Stefan Johnson to a game of “Show and Tell,” there is an overwhelming chance that he will emerge victorious.

Among his most prized possessions is a framed hand-written letter from President Barack Obama that rests proudly on the mantle piece of his South Philadelphia living room.

“Thanks for the letter,” it says. “We are very proud of you, so keep it up.”

Johnson, who in June graduated from Roman Catholic High School after serving as the 120-year-old school’s student council president, received the letter from Obama in May. {{more}}

Three months earlier, Johnson had sent a letter to the president. Along with some personal sentiments, Johnson described what was happening at his high school.

“I never thought I would get a reply,” said Johnson, 18. “Then this big manila envelope comes in the mail. I had no idea of what was in it.”

In addition to the letter from Obama, Johnson was invited to Washington. So this past Saturday, Johnson joined his mother, Monica Johnson; his grandmother, Reba Edwards; a friend and recent valedictorian from Roman Catholic, Yunqing Jiang; and former Roman Catholic High School president Father Joseph Bongard on a train ride to Washington and a subsequent personal tour of the White House.

Although Johnson did not meet the president in person, he might get to do so this coming fall because he was invited to return to the White House for an educational seminar with select students from around the country.

Should he actually speak to Obama, Johnson would like to reiterate how amazing it was to be involved with a high school student council that many Roman Catholic students affectionately dubbed “the United Nations” because the results of the school-wide election represented the entire student body.

The “cabinet” consisted of Johnson, an African-American heading to La Salle University; Alex Arroyo, a Latino who will attend Villanova; Steve Johnston, a Caucasian who will join Johnson at La Salle; and Jacky Lee, an Asian-American bound for Stanford.

It was Roman Catholic’s spanersity that prompted Johnson to write Obama, and he views the president’s positive response as an affirmation of what is happening there.

“There is a place for everyone at Roman,” said the affable Johnson, a product of St. Monica School in South Philadelphia. “It’s a special place. Being chosen as president of the school … means a lot to me.

“It was a tremendous honor to work with the rest of the student council. We had our disagreements, but we all worked on behalf of the student body, and there was a great deal of trust.”

Father Bongard, a 1977 Roman Catholic graduate and president of his alma mater for four years before his assignment in June as vice rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, said he was elated after the votes for student council were tallied in May 2009.

“To have everyone represented on a student council was really spectacular,” said Father Bongard. “It makes quite a statement about the kind of place Roman Catholic is.

“I asked some students about why they voted for these four. And the common response was, ‘They’re good guys.’ And I absolutely agree. They’re a wonderful group of guys.”

Roman Catholic’s student population exceeds 1,100. Of the 270 freshmen enrolled at Roman, there are 104 different elementary schools represented.

“Kids come as strangers,” said Father Bongard, “but the bonding is just remarkable.”

While acknowledging that global issues are affecting youths in potentially devastating fashion, Father Bongard views things in a positive manner.

“I know the world is giving these kids a mess, but I’m eternally optimistic about our young people,” he said. “I really am. I think we’ll be in good shape with these kids. There is so much good in them. I really think we’ll be okay.”

Johnson, who plans to major in communications and political science at La Salle, agrees.

“Sometimes young people are underestimated,” said Johnson. “There may be some false perceptions, some passing judgments.

“But I have seen how students were kind of immature and weren’t quite sure what to do as freshmen, but then they were challenged and ended up doing great things by the time they were seniors.”

Takes one to know one.