Turn to the person next to you and tell me what they’re like, Regina Agrusa instructed a group of sixth-graders from various schools who will enter Sewanhaka high schools in September.
“What is that person’s favorite sport?” Agrusa, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services at Sewanhaka Central High School District, added. “What is that person’s favorite color? What kind of music do they like? What is that person’s favorite subject in school? Do you think that person’s smart?”
While a few students said they knew the answers because they were seated next to friends and fellow classmates, the others said they had to guess.
Agrusa told the students that when they make decisions based on appearances, they won’t always have the right answer.
“When we do that we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to learn and make our own decisions,” Agrusa said. “When we talk about how you’re going to become extraordinary leaders it becomes really important that you take the time to get to know and understand and communicate with people.”
Agrusa was one of several speakers during Saturday’s Leadership Academy, including state Sen. Elaine Phillips and Steve Bello, executive director of Northwell Health LIJ Valley Stream, where the event took place, who shared their definition of what it means to be a leader.
The sixth-graders in attendance were chosen by their teachers and principals for showing signs of leadership in their classes, schools and communities. Saturday’s seminar was centered on giving the students strategies to combat bullying they may come across when they enter middle school and high school in September.
Phillips, who practices and teaches martial arts, said she cannot guarantee she will get every student to be a black belt. What she said she can do is give her students tools to protect themselves.
“And that’s exactly what today is all about,” Phillips said. “Today is to give you some tools to help you help others and to help you help yourself.”
Phillips said leadership, like martial arts, is all about humility.
In order to be a leader, Phillips said, it is important to confident. But self-confidence is not saying “I’ve got a fourth-degree black belt and you only have a first degree,” Phillips said. Self-confidence, she said, is “looking at people and finding the good.”
Agrusa echoed that message, telling the students that in order to be leaders they must be their best selves – and being happy gives them the opportunity to do so. Whether it is school, sports, music or other activities, Agrusa said everyone has hobbies that define them and contribute to their happiness.
Agrusa said it is important that the students hold onto the activities that make them happy as they enter high school. During a panel with Agrusa, Phillips, Nassau County Detective Pamela Starks, current Sewanhaka students and alumni of Sewanhaka schools, the sixth-graders heard an array of stories about sticking to passion in the face of adversity.
Demetrius Taylor, a Sewanhaka alumnus, said he was told his whole life he would never play basketball.
“That’s a form of bullying,” Taylor said. “But i just turned it into fuel, I turned it into inspiration to improve.”
Taylor went on to play professionally for Team USA in China.
Taylor said he tried out for the basketball team every year of high school and was cut every time. He didn’t let that stop him.
Taylor said he continued to practice on his own while the team would practice. Eventually, he said the coach let him play in a game one day during his senior year – and he scored.
“I finally had that fulfillment of what I wanted,” Taylor said. “And after that it just took off off for me. My attitude changed, I was more confident.”
Whether students choose to do sports, art, theater or any other field, Taylor told them there will be a time in their lives when they “get cut from a team,” but said they just have to push through.
“You’re able to do whatever dreams” you have, Taylor said. “If you use those tools, anything is possible. I promise you.”