Filling out the application on his own to get into Early College High School was a cinch for then-14-year-old John Fuller, except for two parts: his address and his mother’s signature.

The eighth-grader had moved frequently between the homes of friends and family, sometimes without his parents. At the time, he was staying with his older sister.

That didn’t stop him from applying to, and being accepted by, four of the top high schools in Akron Public Schools.

This month, Fuller graduated not only from Early College High as the valedictorian, but also from the University of Akron after earning an associate’s degree. He will attend Ohio State University in the fall on a full scholarship and plans to study nursing.

His achievements earned him a top-three spot in the 2019 Beacon Journal Star Students recognition, selected from Akron-Canton area graduating seniors who were nominated by their school guidance counselors.

He did it all on his own, despite being homeless for much of the last 18 years. How? Even he’s not sure.

“I can't really answer that,” the 18-year-old said. “Because at some point you just have to do it.”

At school, where Fuller had a 4.38 GPA, he says his classmates knew him as a soft-spoken honor student, a mentor, the president of several clubs and a smiling face. He was the president of the National Honor Society, a member of Ohio State University’s Young Scholars Program and made the Dean’s List at the University of Akron.

But Fuller said he lived a “double life.” At home — wherever that was, whatever that looked like — life was different.

Fuller said he was exposed to drugs, alcohol and violence from a young age. Many days, the only meal he received was at school.

He moved frequently, sometimes staying in shelters, and attended a half-dozen schools, never cementing long-term friendships with his classmates or other kids in the neighborhood.

He said he applied to Early College because he wanted to “be with people that I know want to succeed.”

It has been easier to keep his dichotomous lives separate rather than discussing his home life at school, Fuller said. But as he grows older, he sees the impact his story can have on others, especially young black men in Akron who don’t see the value in education, or a way out of poverty.

“I tell people because I know it helps them,” he said. “It helps me.”

He also has more than a decade of insight into the holes in the American education system and the way schools support, or fail to support, students like him.

Fuller was suspended frequently as a young child from various Summit County schools, mostly for talking back to teachers and not listening, he said. He doesn’t remember any teacher sitting him down to ask why he was so upset.

His life changed in the fifth grade when he had his first black teacher, Carletta Ray. She taught math, and it was the first time Fuller said he had seen an African American excel in the subject.

“I started to realize: I want to be like her,” Fuller said.

As a senior, he mentored a student who adults had labeled unmotivated. He quickly learned that student didn’t fully understand how school could benefit him, and didn’t understand that he didn’t have to be perfect to succeed. The fear of failure stopped him from trying.

His hero, not uncommonly, is LeBron James. Not for his basketball superstardom or his money, but for how James never forgot his hometown of Akron.

“That's everything that I stand for,” Fuller said. “He gives back to his community.”

The youngest of four children, Fuller is the first in his family to graduate from high school.

His commitment to school was so strong that one year in middle school, when his family moved yet again, he took a city bus every day to meet his school bus so he wouldn’t have to change schools.

That meant the seventh-grader spent an hour each morning sitting on church steps in the cold in between buses.

His sister and his mother said he was always motivated and loved school from an early age.

His mother, Kathy Conwell, said her son, who struggled even to speak through the first grade, “exploded” when he hit middle school. He studied through the summers and always told his older siblings he was “going to be something.”

“Everything he’s doing, he’s doing on his own,” she said.

Fuller attributes much of his independence to necessity, but his inherent self-drive is also undeniable.

His counselor at Early College, Bambi Berger, said Fuller used his family’s struggles as motivation.

“It was his determination to get himself out of that situation,” she said.

His sister, Sarah Conwell, said her two children look up to their Uncle John.

“John’s like a hero to my children,” she said. “They love Uncle John. They’re so proud of him.”

Fuller is living with a friend this summer in Pittsburgh, but spent much of the last year living with his 21-year-old brother and four nieces and nephews.

He said he worries frequently about being a burden to his siblings.

That’s why he started working at the University of Akron bookstore about 20 hours a week during his junior year, where he enrolled in a management training program and was frequently confused for a much-older college student.

Even when he goes off to college next year on a full scholarship, Fuller said he still wants to work.

“Just to kind of keep that perspective — and not be entitled for anything,” he said.

 

Contact reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.