Marianna Fire Chief Nikki Lovett talks with student Jeff Sheehan as Jackson Alternative School principal Phyllis Daniels listens in.
Marianna Fire Department Chief Nakeya “Nikki” Lovett was the guest speaker Thursday at a gathering of the Marianna Middle School’s Club Y.U. (Youth Unchained). Then he went on to speak at Jackson Alternative School. In both cases, Lovett was there in celebration of Black History Month.
The first black fire chief in Marianna, Lovett talked to students at both schools about goal-setting, the importance of getting an education and of resisting peer pressure. Another main message was about picking yourself up after a failure, learning from it and as a result turning it into an ultimate victory.
He shared a painful lesson from his childhood to make that point.
He failed 4 th grade, he said, because he was not doing the right things. He wouldn’t do his homework or apply himself in class. Even though his teacher gave him stern encouragement all that year, he didn’t take her admonitions to heart. He was feeling a bit rebellious at the time and says now it might have had something to do with the fact that, after eight years as an only child getting all the attention, he had to start sharing that family spotlight with a pair of twin siblings and one more brother. Whatever the cause, Lovett had a bad year all round.
He said some of his former classmates still remember how he dissolved into tears when he read his last report card that year and learned that he would not advance with his peers. It was a shocking blow, he said.
But instead of letting his failure defeat him for the long term, Lovett took a good look at himself and changed his ways. He at last started listening to the adults who were trying to guide him. His father (Jarvis Lovett) told him something back then that the fire chief now uses as a catchphrase in his talks to students around the county.
He remembers his father sitting him down for a long talk after he failed that grade. “My father was instrumental in my life,” Lovett said. “He told me that the way to achieve success was to look in the mirror when you fail and ask yourself, ‘now that I’ve failed, what can I do to succeed?’ I knew I didn’t want to fail again, and what my father said really took hold. I learned from him the thing I tell the kids: Nothing will beat failure except another try. I know first hand how painful and miserable it is to fail, but I can also tell them first hand that you can fight through that and you can come out of that experience a better person. I’m grateful, now, for it because it woke me up and taught me to make the right choices.”
Lovett said he’s no longer embarrassed about failing 4 th grade; in fact, he said, the experience so transformed him that he became totally committed to doing his best in all endeavors. And that, he said, is what helped him earn the right to wear his dress-blue chief’s uniform, supervise 27 firefighter/EMTs and oversee a $1.5 million annual budget. “Nobody waved a magic wand and said,'Poof, you’re chief,” Lovett told the students. “I worked my way up through the ranks, I studied and learned, I pushed myself. There’s no reason that you can’t succeed if you do those things, too. Doing the right things; that’s what it takes.”
Lovett said he thinks it’s important to open that old wound from time to time for the sake of the young people in his community. If his story helps just one, he said, it will have been worth sharing.
“ I feel that they did listen and hear me out. I know that they were very attentive and respectful, and that meant something to me, too. They see me around and most know me to some extent. But when you see someone in passing you never know their struggles and what they’ve had to endure to get where they are. For me to tell them a little about my life and how I got here, I hope it made an impression on them as far as how they live their own. I want them all to make successes of their lives, and I know without a doubt that they can if they do the right things.”
Club Y.U. is a program sponsored by MMH faculty members D’Leisha Ephriam, Ken Baker and Daren Gammons. There are 56 students in the Club. They provide a variety of community services, and the organization is also a platform upon which they build and showcase their skills and talents.