OAKLEY -- Michael Jackson's "Beat It" blared through speakers, revving up the crowd pouring into the gymnasium.

But if any Freedom High School students were dragging Thursday morning, they snapped to attention once Laymon Hicks took charge of the microphone.

"Say, 'I feel great, I'm wide-awake, I feel good -- REAL good!'" Hicks boomed as he led hundreds of teens in reciting the snappy catchphrase.

The Tampa, Florida-based inspirational speaker was on the Oakley campus to share lessons about defeat and success in a talk he bills "Get up, get out, and go get it!"

Although just 27, Hicks has experienced plenty of life's highs and lows.

Growing up in a family torn apart by physical abuse, infidelity and divorce, he recalled fearing that his mother would end up behind bars after she tried to kill her husband for cheating on her.

Hicks often experienced the sting of disappointment as well: His absentee father consistently stood him up when he tried to arrange outings, and in a search for acceptance, he kept company with the wrong crowd in middle school in a search for acceptance only to realize that those kids were friends in name only.

Yet despite his troubled family life, Hicks adopted attitudes that enabled him to overcome.

"Don't allow your environment to dictate who you are," he exhorted his audience.

Nor has he allowed his own mistakes to bring him down.


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Hicks recounted the time a history teacher gave him an F in the class after catching him about to cheat on a test; the misstep cost him his prized membership in a national honors society as well as the chance to collect his diploma in the white gown reserved for the academic elite.

Weeks of self-recrimination followed until Hicks began reflecting on something his grandmother always told him.

"'When you fall down, you get right back up,'" he said. "Sometimes life is going to knock you down, but you have to be positive."

Hicks pressed forward and became the only black male in his high school graduating class with a grade-point average higher than 4.0.

But there's more to reaching goals than dusting oneself off after a fall -- "you have to be huuuungry," Hicks said. "Whatever you want in your life, go get it."

At Florida State University, Hicks encountered criticism from political opponents while running for student body president.

No matter -- he continued canvassing the campus in search of votes and ultimately won the right to represent 38,000 students.

On his travels, Hicks shows young people the dress shoes he wore during that 2008 campaign, a physical reminder of the rewards waiting for those who aggressively pursue their goals.

"This is hard work," he said as he dropped the pair of object lessons onto the gymnasium floor.

But Hicks readily acknowledged that social media nastiness and the lack of an emotional safety net can make it difficult to maintain a go-for-it mindset.

The wounds that teens inflict upon each other online can drive some to consider suicide, he said, and neutralizing "weapons of mass destruction" such as Twitter and Instagram requires both giving and receiving affection.

One boy who had been cutting himself told Hicks that his words of encouragement saved his life, he said.

Hicks recounted other stories of parents and children reconciling after one of them reached out with an affirmation.

"There's someone in your life who needs to hear that you appreciate them," said Hicks, who then had students text that message to a friend or family member.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.