Avec Ferocite: The Life of Antwine Willis '19
by Peter Lucier '08 and Justin Seaton '13
Sitting for one of the last times in the 95-year-old Backer Memorial, 12 days before graduation, SLUH senior Antwine Willis shook his right foot nervously. His head was cocked up and to the right, and his eyes scanned a small, defunct radio studio – one of the last undiscovered pockets of the school he knew so well, the school he’d touched with a certain, unique, hard-earned…je ne c’est quoi.
The fifth of seven siblings, Antwine grew up in north St. Louis, off of Jefferson Ave. He went to grade school at Gateway Elementary – a school which sits on the former site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, between Carr Street and Cass Avenue on Jefferson Avenue in north St. Louis. Behind the school, on 20th street, are the twin, redbrick, green-copper-capped gothic towers of St. Stanislaus Church.
Looking back, Antwine remembered, “I was very silly. I was a really goofy kid and I was kind of a trouble maker. I just like to make people laugh, and I did that a lot.”
Even as a young child, Antwine had a style and personality all of his own. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have much time to indulge his silly side. Difficult times lay ahead.
“We were a big big happy family until my parents split,” Antwine recalled, during an interview with Assistant Principal Jim Linhares for SLUH’s Insignis podcast. “We would come home, do homework, play games, do stuff a normal family does. Then my parents split up. My dad lost his job.”
Even now, it is easy to see how difficult this time was for Antwine. He seems much more comfortable talking about his activities at SLUH, or Loyola, or his friends, than he is talking about himself, his past.
But if there was a bright spot amid those difficult years, it was that it brought him together with his grandmother, Mrs. Daisy Willis, who would become one of the most significant people in his life. After the separation, Antwine and two of his siblings moved in with “Granny.” In the defunct SLUH radio studio, Antwine smiled as he remembered living with her, his right foot shaking faster. Mrs. Willis was a librarian and English teacher in the St. Louis public school system for over thirty years, and she ran her home like a schoolteacher.
“She expected these things out of us that no one had expected of us,” said Antwine. “Naturally we all started to improve our grades when we started living with a school teacher … It was nothing like I had ever experienced before. I always thought that she was super strict and super mean, because I always thought that of school teachers, but after awhile I started to see that she just really cared, and that she was an amazing person.”
Mrs. Willis’s love, and the structure she provided, was crucial for Antwine. When he was 10 years old, his father was killed.
“My father passed away when I was in 4th grade. He was killed by someone who was in conflict with my cousin, who he was with at the time. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Losing him, my view on the world kind of changed, I started dealing with the problem of evil. How could this happen?”
As Antwine grappled with questions most children his age never have, and should never have to entertain, he continued to grow, and excel academically. He spent 6th through 8th grade at Loyola Academy. A few blocks west of the Fox Theater, nestled near Cardinal Ritter High School, Loyola Academy is a squat brick building located at 3851 Washington Ave. Loyola has had a special relationship to SLUH since its founding in 1999. First conceived by SLUH’s own Fr. Paul Sheridan, SJ, Loyola Academy is a Jesuit middle school for boys who have the potential for college preparatory work, but whose progress may be impeded by economic or social circumstances. Antwine still returns there often to volunteer.
While successful academically, Antwine struggled to come out of his shell. “Loyola is a place where I blossomed in the shadows,” said Antwine. He was most comfortable in the shadows, and that’s where he would stay, for a time.
During his summers, between years at Loyola, Antwine attended SLUH’s Upward Bound program, where English teacher Adam Cruz first encountered him. Even as a 7th grader, shy Antwine was a “prince of Loyola. He belonged at SLU High,” said Cruz.
St. Louis is famous for the question “Where did you go to high school?” As Antwine completed 8th grade, he had to make a decision. His grandmother was unsure about SLUH, despite Antwine’s time at Upward Bound. She was worried he might face racial issues. SLUH’s academic curriculum is also notoriously difficult. But Dr. Eric Clark, a 1983 alumnus of SLUH, who also served as Dean of Students at SLUH for many years, encouraged Antwine. “Dr. Clark approached me and said, ‘You should go to SLUH.’” Luckily for SLUH, Antwine said yes.
Antwine came to SLUH timid and unsure – of himself and of the new people around him. But Suzanne Renard, Antwine’s freshman and sophomore French teacher, saw what she called “the light” in him almost immediately.
Renard had a habit of asking each freshman on his first day if she could call him by a French version of his name. “So I would ask Joe if I could call him Joseph,” she explained over the phone, in a convincing French accent. When she finally came to Antwine’s name, she said, “Oh, Monsieur Willis, do you mind if I just say ‘Antoine?’” He stood up, shook her hand, and said, “Yes, I wish you would.”
Renard laughed as she remembered that first impression of Antwine, with his high-top box hairdo and pencils sticking out in every direction. “That sense of self struck me from the first second – the very first second —that I interacted with him,” she said. “... But that first moment was clearly something that came out of him in spite of himself.” Before that moment, he was quiet and looking tiny in his chair, said Renard.
In Renard’s freshman and sophomore French classes and adventures with the Staycation Club, Antwine saw that sense of silliness that he’d lost track of. By leading skits and doing voices, and making it clear that she expected her students to do the same, Renard created an environment where Antwine and his classmates felt comfortable being expressive.
“Being interested in different cultures and wanting to try new things and wanting to learn languages other than the French language – that all came from Madame Renard … She was so quirky and corny, and I loved it,” said Antwine.
As his granny once told Renard, “This boy has a French heart.”
Antwine soon found a support network of women at SLUH, including Renard, who challenged and inspired him – like his grandmother had for so many years – to be his best. Another of those women was his freshman theology teacher, Mrs. Danielle Harrison.
Harrison was an indomitable force at SLUH. Often donning varicolored headscarves, she stressed the unconditional love of God and sang loudly and often. A force for good with a special concern for black students at SLUH, Harrison often stayed after class with Antwine and pushed him to open himself up to the school.
“She would just tell us, ‘Expand, go try new stuff… Some parts of the school don’t have a lot of black representation.’ So she would say, ‘Go try this. You never know,’” said Antwine.
Renard, now retired and living in Chicago, and Harrison, now an administrator at Visitation Academy, each gave Antwine time, advice, and support before he could ask for it, and their care had tangible effects. By his sophomore year at SLUH, Antwine was an active member of six SLUH organizations, the founder of a short-lived after-school dance club, and an emerging presence in the school.
His junior year, Antwine was selected as one of seven juniors who would represent SLUH as a participant with Youth Leadership St. Louis (YLSL) – a year-long service program that re-cultivated his concern for social justice.
The first YLSL 2017 trips – which challenged students not only to engage with social justice issues, but to imagine creative solutions to them – fell around the same time as a heavilycriticized case in the national discussions on police violence: the Stockley verdict.
On the day of the Stockley verdict, Adam Cruz, the English teacher who had worked with Antwine as a 7th grader at Upward Bound, walked into class ready to talk about the swirling issues. In a class of 21 students, Antwine was the only African American. Cruz remembers resistance and confusion from Antwine’s classmates, but even as a junior, Antwine spoke out for ten full minutes in class. He talked about his experience – coming from Loyola, about being the only African American student in the class, and, as Cruz remembers, most importantly, about loneliness.
“The poise and grace he showed made me completely and totally embarrassed. Embarrassed about how angry I was. About how combative about it I was – I saw someone living those experiences, and who had none of that anger, or if he did have that anger, had found a way to express it that could hopefully bring his classmates into the fold rather than alienate them.”
In the aftermath of the Stockley acquittal, Antwine and his classmates recognized an issue in their daily lives that needed solving.
“We thought the biggest problem facing SLUH was the talk around social justice issues. When I was a freshman and sophomore, we would have these ‘civil discourses’ that always ended up with someone being heated, someone complaining to the administration,” said Antwine. “So, what we wanted to do was create a space where we could actually have civil discourse – just a chance to talk about these issues and get people’s different perspectives.”
With the help of Director of Equity & Inclusion Frank Kovarik, Antwine and his peers in YLSL and ACES (the Association for Cultural Enrichment at SLUH) created the Voices of SLUH series, an opportunity for students at SLUH to hear about and discuss racial injustice in their famously divided city. The work of putting that first assembly together built up Antwine’s confidence and passion for social action and began him on a track of hyper-involvement at SLUH.
“When I was in middle school I was such a timid person – I would still be concerned with social justice issues, because my grandma always talked about it. So I was still aware of the injustice in this world, but I was never ever the person to say anything about it … But I did become that person at SLUH.”
On April 17, 2019, thirty-nine days before Antwine's graduation, Daisy Willis died of pneumonia, having been sick for the better part of two years. By that point, Antwine had cemented himself as a joyful leader and caregiver, at home and at school.
He had become president of the Staycation club, Yearbook Editor, Senior Advisor, varsity football team manager, and an active member of ACES and STARS (Student-Teacher Association for Racial Studies). He had helped organize the first and second ever Voices of SLUH programs, written Op-Eds for the school newspaper, participated in Youth Leadership St. Louis and WashU’s Changing Systems Youth Summit. He had been offered a scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis and had taken steps toward his dream of studying French and medicine in college.
He had taken a dream trip to France – a trip that his grandmother had fought for, just as she had fought every day to give her grandchildren the lives they deserved. “One day she said to me, ‘You know, Antwine hasn’t had much, but we’re gonna move heaven and earth to get him to France with you,” recalled Renard. Daisy was unstoppable. By his senior year, so was Antwine.
When Antwine sent Renard a bilingual reflection he had written on his trip to France, entitled “When I Fell in Love with Paris,” it gave her pause. “I said, ‘What do you plan to do with this? You’re really wearing your heart on your sleeve here,’” said Renard.
Antwine responded, “It’s OK, I’m not worried. I know what you mean, but.. Je ne regrette rien (I regret nothing).”
In his piece published in the Spring ‘19 edition of SLUH’s literary magazine, Sisyphus, Antwine describes Paris as a place “that wasn’t afraid to argue about politics and then go back to being friends, a place where every opinion has an outlet, and a place where every person expresses themself fiercely // Ils n’ont pas peur se disputer sur les politiques et puis retourne étant amis, un endroit ou tous les opinions avait un endroit être entendu, et un endroit ou tous personnes expriment lui-même avec férocité.”
Antwine, with his French name and French heart, brought a little bit of Paris to SLUH. He was nourished by a network of family members, friends, and experiences, and he, in turn, nourished everybody around him. He argued about politics with friends, voiced his opinions gracefully, and expressed himself fiercely, and as Madame Renard said:
“SLUH was lucky to have him.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Justin Seaton ‘13 (left) graduated from Saint Louis University in 2017 with a degree in Communication: Journalism & Media Studies. He then spent time independently traveling and freelance writing before serving as an ASC teacher in SLUH’s English Department. Peter Lucier ‘08 (right) is a Marine veteran and a graduate of Montana State University. As an Alum Service Corps (ASC) volunteer he taught junior English at SLUH. He will begin law school at Saint Louis University in the fall.
WILLIS ON INSIGNIS
Antwine Willis '19 spoke with Jim Linhares, show host and SLUH Asst. Principal for Mission, about 'finding a voice' in the spring 2019 episode of the school's Insignis podcast.