ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Darrion Cockrell has been a physical education teacher for six years at Crestwood Elementary in St. Louis.
“My name is Darrion Cockrell. I go by Mr. DC. I grew up in the city of St. Louis where I used to be in a gang. But now -- believe it or not -- I’m Missouri’s teacher of the year.”
The kids just love him. He does things like dance with the kids, or raps while they're exercising.
“Whenever I’m upset and I come to gym class, I’m never upset anymore after coming just because it’s a really fun time,” 5th grader Melaina said.
His straight up joyful personality is contagious.
“He always tries to make the best out of it every time like it’s going to be the last time,” 5th grader Kosta said.
Based on his great attitude, you wouldn’t know about his past life on the streets. His story is one of pain, hope and integrity. Driving through his old neighborhood, he gets flashbacks to the horrors he’s witnessed.
“I seen my first dead body when a man was shot dead right next door on his front porch right here,” Cockrell said while driving in the car. Then he pointed to another area.
"That’s where my grandmother lived. My brother was shot and murdered right here," Cockrell said.
Down the road a little more, he continued explaining some of his most horrific memories.
“On the front porch of that house is where my father was murdered when I was 4 years old," Cockrell said.
Cockrell says he got wrapped up in gang violence.
“We didn’t like coming home and not knowing we were going to have a meal to eat or anything like that so we just thought we had to do what everyone else in that neighborhood was doing to make money because unfortunately, unlike a lot of these communities where I work at and where I live now, we didn’t have jobs and opportunities for us to make a little money," Cockrell said. "We had to either go out and rob people, steal, break into cars and do stuff that no kid should have to do at my age.”
He says he didn’t have any good male role models. Not until he was sent to a school where he was integrated with other kids who had different backgrounds and opportunities.
“That completely changed my life because I was put into an environment into a school setting where the teachers cared about me, they loved me, they cared about my family, they tried to empower my grandmother and whoever else was one of my legal guardians to make sure that they knew what was going on at school, that they wanted them to feel comfortable and wanted them to be a part of my education,” Cockrell said.
It was his educators who inspired him to become a teacher himself.
“It’s pretty cool how he comes from that bad of an environment and comes to be the No. 1 teacher in the state, that’s pretty big," Kosta said.
He’s now influencing other young children and teaching them valuable lessons.
“You always gotta see it through… you always gotta keep going,” Kosta said.
Cockrell says he sees himself in some of his students and is determined to teach them great qualities like love, empathy and respect.
“I just want them to have a positive Black male role model and just show them that we’re not all bad," Cockrell said. "A male – a Black male at that – can be successful and they can help you be just as successful too.”