EAST PALESTINE - Village high school students tapped into a mix of emotions this week as David Kohout, executive director of Talk Is Cheap, challenged them to achieve greatness.
The two-and-a-half hour assembly touched on the high and low points of life, and students reacted to Kohout's transparency about his own life struggles with silent respect.
But while Kohout spoke about serious matters, he also used humor to reach out to the students, evoking roars of laughter-usually at the end of a tense moment.
Other times he let the students reflect on the serious stuff, leaving jokes for another segment.
"Some of you have had unmentionable things happen to you," he said, but encouraged them that it's not their fault and they should never feel like losers.
"I believe I am standing in the presence of greatness," he said.
The statement was repeated several times throughout the assembly, with Kohout leaving off the last word, "greatness," for students to say. At first, the response was weak, but as the assembly went on students said it with more conviction.
He told them to consider each other and be respectful because they don't always know what is going on each other's lives.
"You don't know some of the student's stories in this room and you should tread lightly," he said.
He then challenged them to make a decision: Bitter or Better. How would they respond to things in their life? Would they become bitter, or make it better?
"I can't change you, but I can make you think," he said.
He also spoke to students about suicide-which he had even considered at one point in his life, and about how he had used drugs and alcohol during his high school years in Boardman and graduated in 1981 with a 1.68 grade point average.
He told them that, just like some of them, he had acted out in school to mask his own unhappiness. He said his life changed after someone told him, "God loves you."
He said that although, unfortunately, he isn't necessarily free to discuss God in schools, the point was that he was able to change after getting the focus off of himself and on the bigger picture, and they should do the same.
He then told them to never think of themselves as failures and that even if they are making poor decisions, it's not too late.
"In my home you aren't allowed to say 'can't,' 'never,' and 'always.' You will believe what you say," he said.
He said students diagnosed with "disabilities" shouldn't see themselves as any less, and not think of themselves as "disabled" but "different." He also told the boys to treat the girls with respect and that they should be viewed as a treasure, not a target.
Several times he stressed the importance of leadership, and pointed students toward books like "Good to Great" by Jim Collins and others by John C. Maxwell.
When he wasn't speaking he showed video clips to make a point.
"You're not a loser you're a chooser ... I am standing in the presence of..."
"Greatness," they responded.
High School Principal Laura Griffiths said Kohout was invited to speak because she wants students to know that they matter.
"It concerns me when they don't. I see kids that are hurt and just need encouraged," she said.
She and Kohout taught together in the Boardman school district for 11 years.
Kohout also said during the assembly that he is making a promise to the district he will back to speak in the future. He said the commitment is not one he makes with other districts but that he chose East Palestine because he wants to see it move forward.