Nearly two decades ago, two words shouted from behind the bars of a New Orleans jail cell stopped Wayne Lewis in his tracks.
It was a familiar voice. One that reminded him of hot days and bike rides, of what it meant to be a little kid roaming neighborhood streets with his best friend.
For Lewis, then a college student working the jail’s graveyard shift, the voice was also an acute reminder of where he was headed in life — and where he could have ended up.
“That was a real moment for me,” Lewis said, recalling the moment in recent conversation with a group of local youth in downtown Louisville.
“Kids who grew up in my neighborhood aren’t supposed to grow up and become the education commissioner of the state,” Lewis said. “They’re not supposed to grow up and earn their Ph.D. or become a professor at the University of Kentucky.
“Yet here I am.”
Eleven boys and girls from Louisville and Southern Indiana listened intently to Lewis on a recent Saturday as he described his childhood friendship. There was no difference between him and his friend, Lewis said.
It could have been either of them behind those bars.
But as Lewis, recently named Kentucky’s first African-American education chief, delved deeper into his upbringing, it seemed he knew clearly what set their lives on different paths: family and education.
“If it weren’t for those two factors — parents and grandparents who loved me and did everything they could to make sure that the streets weren’t going to take me, and an amazing education — there’s absolutely no way that I’d be sitting here talking to you guys,” he said. “No way.”
Lewis’ conversation with the youths offered an uncharacteristically personal glimpse at a man who has emerged as a controversial state figure since joining the Kentucky Department of Education in April. At times bombastic in defense of his policy decisions, Lewis maintained an easy back-and-forth with the kids gathered at the Chestnut Street YMCA this month.
The youths are part of a group called “Balling for a Cause,” an endeavor sponsored by fellow New Orleanian Percy Miller, better known as Master P.
The group began this year and is supported by Miller’s Let the Kids Grow foundation. The rap mogul began the foundation in 2011 as a way, Miller said, to thank the city for taking in members of his family after Hurricane Katrina ravaged their home.
The Balling for a Cause youngsters, ranging from the fourth to the 11th grades, share a passion for basketball. But in exchange for gym time at Spalding University, they must commit to growing themselves as leaders and giving back to the community.
Louisville activist Christopher 2X organizes the youth group’s efforts. At Miller’s urging, its mission is to communicate the importance of early-childhood education to inner-city families — a lesson Miller said both he and Lewis exemplify.
“My grandfather used his Social Security check to send me to preschool,” Miller said. “I had all the necessities, so once I got to kindergarten it was easier for me.
“That made me go into a school environment happy and excited because I loved learning.”
Dressed comfortably in a University of Kentucky windbreaker and matching blue sneakers, Lewis joined the kids in placing informational flyers about preschool and parent involvement around a downtown apartment complex.
Bryan Smithers, a 14-year-old from Jeffersonville, Indiana, said he was struck by the story Lewis shared.
“I know he felt pain,” Smithers said. “If it was one of my close friends from growing up, I would have felt pain too. I was feeling that.”
Speaking to the Courier Journal from his home in Los Angeles, Miller said he hopes the Balling for a Cause group will show kids what’s possible. That requires “people that look like us, talk like us, act like us.”
To be sure, Lewis is well-aware of his influence.
“When I see them, I see me,” he said.
“It’s always been really important to me, even from the time I was a classroom teacher, to make sure kids understand that I’m just like them,” Lewis said. “… For them to realize, ‘He can do it, I can do it too.’ “
After leaving flyers on doorsteps and car windshields, Lewis and the rest of the group huddled in the yard of the apartment complex.
Out of Lewis’ eyesight, five tiny neighborhood kids walked up and took their place at the back of the circle. Their wide eyes peered up at the teens and the man in the blue coat — each looking just like them.