Fifteen special education students at Hillcrest Elementary School, many dressed in button-down shirts and ties or dresses, sat in a classroom Tuesday, listening to the emotional tale of someone who faced similar challenges to theirs decades ago.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represents Maryland's 7th District, which includes Catonsville, stood behind a podium at the end of a red carpet in front of the students and told how his classmates would beat him up for being in his school's special education program.
"I was in special ed, but I felt like I was a caged bird. I felt like I could do better," the nine–term Democrat from Baltimore told his audience of students and parents.
"I made sure I mastered my special ed lessons. I made sure I listened to my teacher. I made sure I did my homework, but I had to do a little extra," Cummings said, adding that he asked for additional assignments.
The abuse Cummings received didn't come only from his fellow students body. The eventual Howard University and University of Maryland Law School graduate recalled a meeting during which he told a guidance counselor that he wanted to become a lawyer.
"Who do you think you are?" he said he was told.
"They are words that pain me to this day," Cummings said. "He said them to me when I was 10 or 11 years old. I'm now almost 62 and I still feel the pain from these words.
"When I became a lawyer, no one asked me if I had spent some time in special ed," Cummings said. "All they wanted was a good lawyer.
"The same little boys that bullied me, the same ones that beat me up, they became my clients," he said.
Before Cummings spoke, each student read a few sentences on what the word "perseverance" meant to them.
Dressed in a black suit with pinstripes, fifth-grader Tyrese Springer addressed the crowd from near the podium.
"Perseverance means making good choices when my friends make bad choices," he said.
After he finished, Tyrese turned to the congressman and said, "I know being a leader like you, instead of a follower, will get me far in life."
Tyrese is legally blind and has albinism, the absence of pigmentation in the eyes, skin and hair. He said classmates would tease him until he acted out.
"What I persevered to do is look at them like they're crazy and say, 'I'm not going to get in trouble for you,'" he said.
Thanks to that focus on his behavior, Tyrese rejoined the school's general education program two weeks ago.
He said he now wants to become a lawyer, football player or singer and that Cummings' visit makes him believe all of those dreams are possible.
Near the conclusion of Tuesday's ceremony, the school presented Cummings with gifts, including a paperweight with the logo of Phi Beta Sigma, Cummings' fraternity.
The students then presented Cummings with a perseverance book, which contained each of their stories. The students also gave him a second copy to give to President Barack Obama.
Cummings read the first page aloud and had tears in his eyes as he finished.
"It just brought it all together for me, thinking about what I went through as a kid and the fact that they were saying thank you," Cummings said after the ceremony. "It was a long journey. It made me think about my journey.
"I want them to take away what they gave me, that is their theme of perseverance," Cummings said. "I would hope that they took away that, although things may be difficult at times, that if they work hard, they can achieve things."