By Donna Lewis Johnson
Special to the AFRO

At 3:30 p.m. on the Monday after Groundhog Day, Prince George’s County support teacher Kevin Shepperson sat at a conference table in Benjamin Stoddert Middle School daubing his eyes as he recalled his traumatic childhood that seems to repeat itself again and again in the lives of many of his students.  

“I used to act out [in school] because I wanted help, and I wanted someone to help my mother,” Shepperson said.  

Shepperson, 36, grew up in Benning Terrace, a once-notoriously violent, gang-ravaged, drug-infested public housing complex in Southeast, D.C. known since the late 1990s as “Simple City.”

Beginning at age four, Shepperson felt the impact of hardship when his father, the family breadwinner, walked out on Shepperson, his two siblings and his mother, triggering a rapid descent into the fetid bowels of neglect, physical abuse and domestic violence.

Soon after his father abandoned the family, Shepperson’s mother started drinking heavily and using crack cocaine.

“My mom was so addicted to it [crack] that the money that we used to get on the first of the month, she would literally like sell everything,” he said, “like everything, like all of the food stamps, clothing, anything she could get her hands on that could [fetch a] profit or get money.”

At age five, Shepperson was placed into foster care; then, he was briefly reunited with his mother, who proved still unable to care for him.

“I used to have to sleep in the hallway” of the apartment building, Shepperson recalled. “My mom would have so many [dope] fiends in the house. I would knock on the door … She would peek her head out … a whole puff of smoke would just come into the hallway.” He faded into a halting whisper when recalling the bad times. 

Shepperson spent most of his childhood in D.C.‘s foster care system, bouncing from private homes to more than 12 group homes, where he never felt loved or wanted.

“I’ve never had like the family dinner.”  

Along the way, he encountered teachers and mentors who showed compassion for him, including a teacher who gave him personal hygiene kits and a high school counselor who paid for Shepperson’s ticket to tour black colleges.

Shepperson did go to college, historically black Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, earning a Bachelor’s in Speech and Theatre.

Today, Shepperson helps Benjamin Stoddert’s sixth-grade boys know that “they can be something in life.”

Benjamin Stoddert received a subpar 48 percent performance rating on the 2018-2019 Maryland State Report Card and is working hard to improve outcomes in partnership with stakeholders. 

Shepperson arrived at the school in October and almost immediately started an afterschool enrichment program called Young Men of Distinction.

On a Tuesday afternoon in February when school dismissed for the day, 12 sixth-grade boys in grey polo shirts and khakis zigzagged behind “Mr. Shep” as he searched for space to conduct tryouts for the school’s upcoming Black History Month program. 

They followed his every move with gleeful, gangly footsteps. 

“I’m able to reach these kids because I know. I was them,’’ he said. 

Shepperson’s big goal is to take the members of Young Men of Distinction on a college tour, like the one that sparked his interest in furthering his education beyond high school. 

“In order to broaden their horizon and [get them to] think blue skies, you have to pull them out of their environment so they can see it’s a bigger world out here.”

Watching the group of boys follow their Mr. Shep through the school corridors, one has to believe that they will follow his lead to believe in themselves and achieve big dreams.