By Billy Corriher
It's tough for most adults to keep the attention of teenagers for more than an hour. But Dr. Evelyn Wynn-Dixon is an exception.
Dixon was trying to instill the virtues of hard work and self-respect to a class of Riverdale High School students recently by telling them how she endured the depths of poverty and despair and emerged a strong, successful woman.
"No matter what you face, if you've got the guts to fight, you can overcome it," she said. "You've got to have hope and believe in yourself."
Dixon, 54, didn't hold anything back as she told the teens the sad story of her life as a young, poor single mother.
The students listened to Dixon's story of being evicted with her four children after her husband left. She said her mother had just died, too. And to top it all off, it started to rain as Dixon and her kids stood beside their belongings outside their former home.
"I had nothing," she said. "So I tried to commit suicide."
But Dixon said she couldn't bring herself to slit her own wrists. Instead, she made a decision to get her life together.
"I decided to live," she said.
Even though she remained dependent on welfare and food stamps, Dixon went to nursing school and, at 35, graduated at the top of her class.
"Everything doesn't come to you right away," she said. "But don't let nobody tell you what you can't do. You can break that generational curse."
Dixon told the students how she went on to earn her doctorate degree and become the neurology coordinator at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. She has lived in the metro-Atlanta area her whole life but wasn't able to buy her first home until she was 50 years old.
"Success didn't come to me when I wanted it to," she said. "But I believed in the plan God had for me."
Dixon said three of her four children have also gone on to become successful professionals.
"They said my children should not have made it out of the projects," she said.
Dixon told the students that one of her children, however, succumbed to drug addiction.
"I was blind to his problem, and I lied to myself," she said.
Her son got in trouble with a bad crowd because of his addiction and was even shot while driving Dixon's car.
"I was afraid to drive anywhere because they could recognize the car," she said.
But Dixon said she hasn't given up on her son, and she warned the students at Riverdale High to avoid taking the same path as he did.
"Crack destroys your mind," she said.
Dixon also warned the children against using other drugs and getting involved with gangs, the consequences of which she sees every day at Grady.
Dixon's normally soft-spoken demeanor did a 180-degree turn as she sternly lectured the teens on avoiding dangerous behavior.
"You can have fun without all that," she said. "Eventually, you need to think? what do I want to do with my life?"
Dixon also told the young women in the class to respect themselves and not give in to the pressure to have sex.
"If they really love you, they'll wait," she said.
Dixon said she felt the cultural pressure to get married so her children wouldn't be labeled. But she said women shouldn't be dependent on men, no matter how tough life as a single mother can be.
"I got married so my baby would have a name," she said. "There were unwritten laws, and we adhered to them."
Senior Ashley Pruitt said she liked Dixon's speech, and she hopes it got through to her classmates.
"She needs to talk to more of the students," she said.
Senior Veronica Teach said she was also glad Dixon came to address her class, and Dixon's comments on the dangers of infection from body piercings hit home for her.
"I was thinking of getting (a bellybutton ring), but now I'm kind of glad my mom wouldn't let me," she said.
Dixon said she has been lecturing for two years and goes to elementary school students, churches, homeless shelters, or any organization that is interested.
"I just want to extend some hope through my life experience," she said.
Wanda Wallace, a member of the Riverdale City Council and a neighbor of Dixon's, attended her speech Monday morning.
"These kids need to hear this," she said. "Just teaching them to have goals? that's important."
Dixon said if she can keep one child off the path of drug addiction that her son chose, her efforts would be worth it.
"After being homeless and on welfare, all the things I encountered with being a single mother? I decided I needed to share my life experience so people would not make the same mistakes I did," she said. "I let people know that no matter what you're going through, there's still hope."