Back planted firmly against a metal locker, the young man stared intently at the hustle and bustle of the Kellam High School hallway. The freshman’s blue eyes were focused and calm and a shy smile stretched across his face. With a quick flick of the wrist he swept his tousled brown hair over his forehead then extended an arm for a firm, fast handshake.
Don’t let Will Sexton’s unassuming nature fool you. He may be modest, but he is mighty. At 14, he has big ideas about how to change the world and has already started to make his mark on it.
“I feel a passion to stand up for what I believe in and to help inspire that passion in others,” Sexton said. “I want to make a difference in my own way and remind others about the importance of being true to themselves and to each other. If just one person starts to think a little differently, then I have accomplished my goal.”
Sexton’s goal is to help shift fellow teenagers’ thought processes about the importance of using small acts of kindness to stamp out bullying, discrimination and school violence. It is a mission he accepted after joining the Rachel’s Challenge program at Princess Anne Middle when he was in sixth-grade.
Rachel’s Challenge is a program that addresses issues such as bullying and student isolation. The program is named for Rachel Scott, the first student to die in the Columbine High School shootings, and teaches the philosophies by which Rachel lived. For Sexton, it was call to action.
“Students hear counselors talk about bullying and they roll their eyes or tune it out,” he said. “When they hear another student talk about it, sometimes they start to listen a little more closely because not many kids are brave enough to step forward and tell people what they are doing is wrong.”
But being that brave student hasn’t always been easy for Sexton.
He learned early on that being dedicated to the work of Rachel’s Challenge meant standing out from the crowd —something not always well-received in middle school. In seventh-grade he spoke to a group of 250 eighth-graders about bullying and was nearly booed off stage. Embarrassed and discouraged, it was enough to make him consider giving up the work. But then a persistent voice inside Sexton’s head kept posing a question that has since become his daily mantra:
“If I don’t, who will?”
The answer was as clear as the writing on his “I will…” T-shirt and spurred a movement at Princess Anne Middle the likes of which Alex Bergren, the school’s principal, has never seen.
“It is a rare middle school student who has the courage to be himself and stand for what’s right, no matter what is popular or what peers might think,” said Bergren. “Will is both humble and determined, and uncommonly dedicated to being the best person he can be, and to treating others with kindness and acceptance. The culture change that has happened at PAMS with regard to bullying and other negative behaviors is thanks in no small part to him.”
Sexton challenged his fellow classmates to take on new community service initiatives, to respect each other and to always strive to be the best version of themselves. The Princess Anne Middle student body raised money for disaster relief, hosted anti-bullying rallies and events and developed Rachel’s Challenge into a strong program with a solid foundation.
Sexton recently caught the attention of the Superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools and was invited to conduct a training session at the city’s Northside Middle School to help form a Rachel’s Challenge program at the school. Undaunted, Sexton trained a new group of middle school students on how to use and spread the Rachel’s Challenge philosophy.
Still, he believes his work is far from done.
At Kellam, Rachel’s Challenge will continue to be a top priority for him, as well as living by the values of the program.
Sexton is just beginning to explore what he might want to do after graduation— be it teaching, public speaking or even working for a nonprofit organization. The one thing he is certain of is that his career path of choice won’t ever keep him chained to a desk.
“Sitting in an office, waiting for things to happen, that just isn’t me,” Sexton said. “Whatever job I decide on will have to involve helping the community because I want to do something that has more meaning and value than just the money it puts in my pocket.”
Compass Keeper Q&A:
What is your favorite subject in school? Why?
“I love English, really any of the liberal arts. Writing is a way to explore your personal philosophies and to reflect on your values.”
What is your pet peeve?
“Bullying above all else. There is a fine line between teasing, joking and bullying and the real bullying makes me grind my teeth.”
What is your weakness?
“I don’t have enough confidence, sometimes not enough in myself and sometimes not enough in others. There are times when I want to take over and do everything myself and I have to learn to let go a little and let others.”
What do you like to watch on television?
“My favorite shows are comedies, things that make you laugh. I love The Middle and Modern Family.”
What is your favorite kind of music?
“I like music from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.”