Everybody Has a Story
by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi
When asked about his relationship with Barbara Everton, Jahlil Nickens simply says, “She’s like a grandmother.”
It’s easier, he said, than explaining the bond between the two, forged from a friendship that has spanned 12 years despite gender, age and racial differences.
Nickens, 18, is the first African-American male valedictorian at Lancaster High School. He graduated two weeks ago with the Class of 2017.
Everton is a retiree living in Urbanna. She didn’t reveal her age. There’s obviously decades between the two, probably close to five.
But even a quick glimpse of the two interacting reveals a special relationship, one of secrets kept, shared experiences and, oh yes, love. Everton really is a doting grandmother when it comes to Nickens.
The two met when Nickens was 6 years old and a first-grader at Lancaster Primary School. Everton was a volunteer with the newly formed mentoring program Northern Neck Together.
“A friend of mine knew I’d recently retired and knew I wanted to do something and I loved kids,” she said.
The idea of the program was to connect an adult mentor with an at-risk or in-need student. It was not a tutoring program. It was “more about spending time together” than doing schoolwork, said Everton.
“The idea was to be an adult friend,” she said. “One who was constantly there as a listener, someone outside of the family who could spend time with them and encourage them.”
The two met weekly on Wednesdays at LPS, where Nickens said there was a closet full of games and toys and books to read.
“We played a lot of Chutes and Ladders and Candyland and did a lot of reading,” he said.
Unfortunately, for some reason (Everton never really knew why), the Northern Neck Together program disbanded after only a year. But she and many of the other mentors agreed to continue mentoring their students through middle school.
“I’d pick him up at school [usually on Wednesdays] and he was starving of course, so we’d get a snack and go the library,” said Everton.
They continued to meet weekly at the Lancaster Community Library and go on little field trips, sometimes taking a friend or two of Nickens. They went to see the Harlem Globetrotters, to the petting zoo at River Birch Nursery in Middlesex, spent an afternoon at the beach in Mathews County, visited Water Country in Williamsburg and the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. And those were just the trips that quickly came to their minds.
“I’ve been lucky,” said Nickens. “[What we have] it’s a special thing. A lot of people don’t have this type of relationship. I tell people she’s like a grandmother, or an aunt. She’s a family member. She’s helped me through a lot. There were a lot of hard years.”
“Cars are a great place to talk,” said Everton. “We did a lot of talking there. Worked through a lot of things.”
Although Nickens became involved in sports in high school, playing basketball, football and running track, he and Everton continued to meet.
“It was too hard to do it all the time, but we made an effort to still get together,” he said. “We’d meet for a burger once or twice a month.”
Nickens also attended the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School, which helped him to graduate with a 4.6 GPA at the top of his class. He’s headed to Virginia Commonwealth University this fall where he plans to major in computer science at VCU’s school of engineering.
“I knew he was bright right away,” said Everton. Although the initial mentoring program wasn’t about tutoring or schoolwork, the two would usually complete a page or two of Nickens’ homework during their afternoon sessions.
“He’s a math whiz,” she said. “He ended up teaching me math.”
Nickens became a climber with the Jacob’s Ladder enrichment program for intellectually-gifted, at-risk students when he was in fourth grade. Every summer for four years he attended the Summer Enrichment Camp. It was during that time that an anonymous donor offered to pay Nickens’ tuition at Chesapeake Academy in Irvington.
He said he was getting into a little trouble at school, nothing serious, but enough his family wanted to send him to the private school. So he reluctantly accepted and attended Chesapeake from fifth through eighth grade.
“The whole experience really helped me but it was like a culture shock at first,” he said. “I really didn’t start making friends until I started playing basketball. I kept to myself the whole first year.”
Nickens was a minority at the school and most of the other students were “used to having things” he didn’t.
“It was hard at first, but I made friends and now a lot of them go to Lancaster,” he said.
The assignments and work requirements at Chesapeake also helped him to prepare for the Governor’s School, he said.
“It’s hard for me to write papers, so all the papers they made me write at Chesapeake really helped,” he said.
Everton was with him through all those adjustment periods. She was one of his constants.
“She’s really someone I can talk to without making judgments,” he said. “I can be myself with her. Just be me.”