Dropout now a teacher after inspiration hit

Lorenzo Williams lived the life of a dropout, bouncing from odd job to odd job before finally ending up back in school -- as a janitor.

 

Through all of his jobs, though, he maintained his passion for art, a talent he traces back as early as kindergarten, when classmates would line up at his desk in Jersey City, N.J., to have pictures drawn.

It was no different when he was cleaning the halls of anEdgefield middle school. For about five years, he worked as a custodian but also worked on the side creating art for teachers there. One day a fifth-grade teacher approached him and encouraged him to return to school.

"She said there's nothing wrong with what you're doing, but when you have skills like you have you don't have to clean commodes the rest of your life," Mr. Williams, 49, recalled.

Those words struck him, and at that moment he decided to turn the corner and return to school -- this time as a student.

The high school dropout has since earned a master's degree and has become a teacher at Butler High School. And the artist on the side has become a professional. In July, a children's book he illustrated was published. My Hero, My Dad, The Nurse was written by Dr. Maggie Thurmond Dorsey, a faculty member at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

"It sounds like a made-up story, but it's true," Butler High counselor Matt Johann said. "He's a role model to students, not just to artistic students, but everybody."

For a couple of years, Mr. Williams taught a class for students at risk of dropping out or getting into trouble, a class he felt particularly suited for teaching because of his background.

"He's one of those people who bring much more to the building than to fill a vacancy," Mr. Johann said.

Mr. Williams said that when he was young he grew bored with school and dropped out, needing only 1.5 credits to graduate.

He learned how tough life could be without an education.

"Not having a high school diploma always stopped me," Mr. Williams said.

Hephzibah High School Principal Walter Reeves worked with him for five years at Butler and said he has a way of relating to students.

"You had someone who saw something in him and helped him out," Dr. Reeves said. "That's something that comes across in his teaching."

Butler has also benefitted from having a professional artist serve as its art teacher, he said.

"One year Butler had more winners at the Exchange Club art show than (John S.) Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School," Dr. Reeves said.

Mr. Williams was named Butler's teacher of the year in only his fourth year of teaching. In 2007, he was the school's STAR teacher, selected by the student with the highest SAT score.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

LORENZO WILLIAMS

AGE: 49

FAMILY: Married for 27 years; six children and two grandchildren

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina Aiken and master's degree from Lander University

POSITION: Butler High School art teacher

QUOTE: "I just thought it was a good way to give back," Mr. Williams said of teaching.