Senior Spotlight: Jalen Thompson
For six months over the past year, Jalen Thompson used the kitchen table as his classroom.
He’d park himself in front of his laptop and finish his homework or attend his classes at Western High through a computer screen. Like every Guilford County student, Jalen couldn’t go to school.
The global pandemic this past year made learning virtual for more than 70,000 Guilford County students. Schools were closed to students to protect Jalen and so many others from catching a deadly respiratory illness known as COVID-19.
But Jalen also had another responsibility. He had to keep his stepbrother, first-grader Stanley Milton, on task. Stanley had to attend virtual class, too. So, at the kitchen table, Jalen sat to the right of Stanley and monitored his every move.
Jalen had to do it. His mom and his stepdad had to go to work. So, Jalen had to be the big brother with the big task.
Almost every weekday morning, Jalen woke up Stanley and fed him breakfast. Then, Jalen got him ready for virtual school by sitting with him for nearly six hours a day to make sure he paid attention and got his work done.
It wasn’t easy.
Jalen’s Big Brother Move
During the many months of COVID-19, Jalen started his mornings the same way.
He’d get up at 8 a.m. and take out his dog, a German shepherd named Nylah. Then, he’d walk downstairs, shake Stanley awake and fix him a breakfast of Eggo waffles or scrambled eggs with American sliced cheese. By 9 a.m., the two were at the kitchen table.
Jalen worked on homework or attended his own virtual classes. He made sure to keep his own frustration in check because he knew Stanley would model his behavior. So, he stayed on task to keep his stepbrother on task.
Stanley didn’t always fare so well.
“Class is boring!” he’d whine.
Jalen always had an answer ready.
“You talk about all those Lamborghinis you’re going to get?” Jalen would ask. “Well, you have to go to class to get them.”
During the first month, Jalen looked at Stanley’s class schedule from Triad Math and Science Academy every day to make sure he could keep Stanley on point. But by the second month, Jalen didn’t have to look at all. He had it memorized.
He often helped Stanley with his homework, especially math and reading. When he did, he sometimes had to miss his own classes. But Jalen alerted his teachers about his situation, and he’d later watch his class recordings online, texting or calling his teachers if he had questions.
“I let them know from the jump what was going on,” Jalen says. “They had respect for that.”
‘You Gotta Do It’
For Jalen, there was no other way around it.
His mom, Shawna Milton, taught kindergarten at Morehead Elementary, and she had to be at school. His dad, Stanley Milton Sr., cut hair, and he had to be at his barber shop off Alamance Church Road.
So, four days a week from March through June and August through November, Jalen took over. His dad relieved him Mondays.
“Sometimes, I got frustrated, more so when COVID first hit,” Jalen says. “I was watching him every single day, but I cut that out, that feeling. Had to. I kept thinking, ‘This is how life hits you. You gotta do it.’
“Some days, I’d wake up grumpy about what I had to do, but I kept thinking of my mom,” he says. “She had to go to work, and if we don’t have money, we can’t have a house. So, I knew I had to tough it out.”
Jalen learned how to tough it out early. He learned that from football.
Jalen’s Football Lessons
Like hundreds of kids in Greensboro, Jalen started playing football with the Greensboro Recreation Department. At age 7, he started at Leonard Recreation Center and played running back for the Leonard Steelers.
He then moved to the Glenwood Recreation Center and went to the defensive line. He later played for Guilford Middle on the offensive line, and at Western High, he moved back to where he started years before. He became a defensive lineman.
Like with COVID, football taught Jalen timeless lessons.
And, as he says, “how to be a man.”
“In football, you have to put your shoulder down and hit somebody, and in life, you have to take some blows,” he says. “But you learn how to take it and keep going.”
Like many high school football players, Jalen saw his season start this spring rather than last fall. Western High played six games. They won one. Still, after a postponed fall season because of COVID, Jalen couldn’t wait to play.
He got to slip on his pads, his jersey No. 50. And how did it feel to finally get back on the field?
“It felt like freedom,” he says. “We could have fun again.”
Jalen’s Stanley Lessons
Jalen, a senior captain for Western High, is a talented football player. And at 5-feet-11, 250 pounds, he’s big. He’ll graduate next Monday from Western High and play football next fall for Elizabeth City State University.
That’s why he keeps training. Jalen works out every day. He did even during COVID. He lifted weights and ran 10 20-yard wind sprints in his backyard, twice a week.
Several times a week, he ran two miles or ran up a 40-yard steep hill 20 times. The hill was located beside a church just down the street from where he lives. As he ran the hill, feeling his lungs and legs burn, Jalen kept telling himself the same thing.
“If I give up,” he told himself, “I’m not going to college.”
He didn’t. He didn’t give up on his little brother either. Stanley is 4-feet-6 and weighs, maybe, 70 pounds. But Stanley is big in Jalen’s book. He became another lesson for Jalen.
Keep going. No matter what.