This Philly teen did everything asked of him, and so he’s finally asking for a little help

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Kevin Davis will graduate from high school this year with a perfect attendance record and dreams of opening his own restaurant.

Kevin Davis will graduate from high school this year with a perfect attendance record and dreams of opening his own restaurant. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kevin Davis, Jr. doesn’t like to brag.

Bragging would involve talking. And Davis doesn’t like to talk.

You can ask the graduating high school senior why he’s never missed a day of school, but don’t expect a sonnet.

“I know if I miss something, I’m always going to be behind,” Davis says in a voice that barely breaks a whisper. “And I don’t ever want to be behind. I always want to be ahead.”

Call it the Zen of Kevin.

Each school day, he wakes up around 6:30 a.m., washes his face, prays, flips on the news, gets dressed, makes sure he “smells good,” tells his parents he loves them, and then walks his little sister out the door.

The broken arm he suffered in sixth grade kept him in the hospital until 3 a.m., but didn’t keep him from attending school the next morning. In 11th grade, he tore the ligament in his right knee, but hobbled into school with the help of a cane.

And when he gets sick?

“I wear a mask,” he explains.

In a more just world, says his principal, Margaux Munnelly, there would something waiting for Davis at the end of his K-12 journey — maybe a scholarship or a grant or something from the adult world to acknowledge that Davis has done everything asked of him for the past 13 years.

“But once they leave us, they re-enter a world of disparity and unfairness,” says Munnelly, the principal at Mastery Charter School’s Pickett Campus. “It does break my heart.”

Margaux Munnelly, principal at Mastery Charter School Pickett Campus, is working to make sure Kevin Davis Jr. can realize his dream of going to culinary school. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Davis needs $25,000 to attend a one-year program at JNA Institute of Culinary Arts just south of Center City. It’s step one toward becoming a chef and, eventually he says, overseeing a dining empire. Davis’ ambitions, it turns out, are a lot louder than his voice.

Problem is, there aren’t many scholarships for kids on Davis’ path, so he plans to take out a mountain of student loans.

Davis’ 12th-grade literature teacher, Lila Corgan, thinks he deserves better.

She’s convinced Davis to publicize his efforts and received his reluctant permission to start a GoFundMe page to raise money for tuition. Corgan called the campaign “Kevin’s 13-year commitment,” a reference to his attendance streak.

‘I want to make a change’

Davis is still getting used to the idea.

“On the way to this interview, he was lagging behind me by about 20 feet, just being like, ‘C’mon, Corgan, like, really?’ We got to do this,” Corgan says.

But below Davis’ surface, shyness hides a churning drive.

He thinks he got it from his parents. Mom works for the School District of Philadelphia as a special-education aide. Dad manages the night shift at Lowe’s in Quakertown, leaving at 6:30 each night and returning at 6:30 the next morning.

“Even when they’re sick and don’t feel like going to work, they still do get up every morning, even if they don’t want to,” Davis says.

Sports run in the Davis family. He’s distantly related to NBA stars Dwight Howard and Wilt Chamberlain, he says. And he played varsity football for Mastery his junior and senior years.

But Davis wants to make it big in a field not typically associated with African-American men.

“Most black men are famous because of sports,” he says. “So I want to make a change.”

Davis started cooking when he was 9, inspired by his mom and grandmother. Typically, he’d experiment with whatever was around the house; that meant rice or pasta. By playing around with the latter, he developed a love for Italian food, and eventually a recipe for lasagna that involves three kinds of meat and three kinds of peppers.

Before his grandma died in 2010, Davis promised her he’d be the first in his family to continue his education after high school. He latched onto the idea of culinary school because eventually he wants to open a restaurant in her honor.

(He’s got a sweet name in mind for the joint, but prefers not to publicize it, lest someone poach it.)

There’s a common thread running through Davis’ career aspirations and his attendance streak: a quiet desire to be different. Cooking distinguished him from other black men the same way his school habits separated him from his peers. Wanting to be different inoculated him from peer pressure, and made it easier to sustain the gentle ribbing he received from classmates when word of his perfect attendance record got around school.

“He keeps saying, ‘I want to be different. I want to do something different,’ ” says Corgan, his teacher. “He realized pretty early on this is really a pretty simple way of being different.”

The next step is more complicated.

Davis can’t just show up every day any more. He’ll have to pay for the privilege of continuing his education.

He admits, begrudgingly, the tuition bill scares him. But he won’t dwell on it for long.

“There’s nothing that’s going to stop me,” he says.

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