The 18-year-old Hephzibah graduate sheepishly smiles after the announcer calls his name and he shakes hands with members of the Richmond County Board of Education. He barely makes eye contact with friends and family cheering in the audience as he walks back to his seat. He sits soberly as the graduation ceremony continues.
When Billingsly talks to fellow graduates after the ceremony, his voice is quiet and he’s always grinning. He shakes hands with teachers, school employees and family friends, accepting compliments and congratulations with an easy-going shrug.
Billingsly seems like the many other Hephzibah graduates that donned cap and gown Monday. But if you ask him about the personal struggles he faced on his path to graduation, he’ll reveal a very different side of Jah’Von Billingsly.
He’ll tell you about the fights, and how he struck out against other groups of students over insults or to protect his friends. He’ll tell you about skipping classes and ignoring homework, causing his grades to slip. And he’ll tell you about failing the 9th grade and spending time in anger management classes at Augusta’s Juvenile Center.
Above all, he’ll tell you that he and many others felt he would never get to walk during the Hephzibah High graduation processional.
“I fought a lot. If someone said they were better than me, I’d get angry. Sometimes, I thought I had to fight to protect my friends,” Billingsly said. “I realized I was failing myself. It was time to make a change. I was being hardheaded and messing myself up.”
Inspired by that realization, and hoping to be a better role model to his younger brother and sister, Billingsly began to change his life, one block at a time. He made sure to never skip classes and school assignments, and began to reorganize his social circle, as well as taking supplemental classes at the juvenile center.
Billingsly’s opinion of himself began to change. He began to see a future for himself as he began to bring his academic record back on track.
“As the years passed by I realized just how much I needed school,” Billingsly said. “I started to grow up and focus on what was really important. I wanted to provide a good example for my siblings. They need to see what it’s like so they can accomplish what they want in life.”
Billingsly now plans to study dentistry.
“I used to pull out my siblings’ loose teeth for them,” Billingsly said. “I’ve always been interested in it, so I’ll look into doing that now.”
For Billingsly, graduation is a victory for himself and those around him.
“It feels good,” Billingsly said. “I finally made it. I didn’t think I would be able to make it or keep going. But I can prove you can overcome.”