He was best known as a tireless crusader within the halls of Congress for equality, social justice and principled government, but for one morning Elijah Cummings was the man who convinced a group of Meade High School students that they could achieve any dream.
The Representative of Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District had expressed interest in the Homeland Security Program at Meade High School. So when the Fort Meade Alliance arranged an industry event at the Northrop Grumman Electronics Museum to celebrate the program, organizers asked Cummings to be the keynote speaker.
“It was the most moving speech I had ever heard,” said Penny Cantwell, Chair of the FMA Education and Workforce Development Committee.
Standing in front of a crowd of about 200, including 40-plus students from Meade High School, Cummings described how he wasn’t expected to amount to much in life. Born to former sharecroppers, Cummings had been placed in special education in elementary school and had been derided by a guidance counselor when, at age 10, he said he wanted to become a lawyer.
Yet Cummings went on to study at Howard University and the University of Maryland Law School, become the first African American Speaker Pro Tem of the Maryland House of Delegates, a long-time congressman and chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
“What he achieved was not what other people saw for him, but what he saw for himself,” Cantwell said, adding that Cummings stressed to the students that they too could achieve big goals through hard work and determination.
That morning, Cummings’ story and encouragement “related to the kids in such a deep and powerful way that when he finished his speech, before he took a single step back from the podium, they were all on their feet clapping and cheering. It was incredible,” she said.
A staffer soon approached Cummings to remind him that he needed to get back to Washington. But Cummings directed the staffer to push back his meetings then proceeded to work his way around the room to each of a dozen tables where Homeland Security students had set up demonstrations of their capstone projects.
“He talked to each student, asked them questions about their projects, about what they wanted to do in life, what was important to them and what they were going to give back,” Cantwell said.
When he approached one boy who unlike the others had not dressed up in a shirt and tie, Cummings questioned his attire. The boy began to mumble some response, but “the Congressman responded, ‘I just want you to know that impressions matter,’” Cantwell recalled. “About a month later, that kid’s grandmother told the school that he took his next paycheck from his part-time job and went out and bought himself a shirt and tie.”
Cummings’ words that day, Cantwell said, were a powerful reminder of how important it is to help all students, not just the 4.0 kids, to find their interests, set personal goals and have the confidence to work towards them.