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Boxing champs and good students

Christian “The Spider” Dobbins (left) and Dre’Vonn “Deuce the Truth” Kelley (right) shadowbox. Photo by Ari Robin McKenna

Hitting the bag, hitting the books

These 5th grade boxing champs aren't letting school slide

South End fifth graders Christian “The Spider” Dobbins and Dre’Vonn “Deuce the Truth” Kelley Jr. have taken local amateur boxing by storm. Champions of their respective weight classes in the Northwest region in early 2024 and ranked third and second in the nation, respectively, they are just getting started.

Their meteoric rise in the sport nicknamed the “sweet science” has everything to do with talent, focus, and parental support. Yet their parents and some of their teachers say their boxing success coincides with something else arguably more important and more difficult to distill: Both boys, while training five days a week, have hit their stride in school.

Dre’Vonn Kelley Jr. and Christian Dobbins. Photo by Ari Robin McKenna

Hanim Ocak, Christian’s mom, and My Smalls, Dre’Vonn’s mom, know their sons have various academic talents and are clear that education, not boxing, comes first. That didn’t stop Christian and Dre’Vonn from each needing to face down problematic elements of their Seattle Public Schools education. In a district where students of color are the majority, approximately four-fifths of their classroom teachers are white — increasing the possibility they will be misunderstood or underestimated by teachers who don’t look like them. Also, in a country where 88% of writers and authors are white, young readers of color struggle to consistently read books that present experiences similar to theirs.

While their involvement with boxing seems to have been a catalyst for these multitalented youth, critical educators who took the time to get to know Christian and Dre’Vonn played a crucial role in making them unbeatable young kids, in and out of the ring.

Slipping the Shadow of Low Expectations

Until this year, Hanim Ocak felt her son Christian was misunderstood at school.

Seated with her partner, DeMar Baisy, in the White Center Starbucks, she describes all of Christian’s former teachers as “female, caucasian: a Northwest kind of granola teacher.” She says most seemed to be less comfortable with students who aren’t white. While these educators communicate to parents how important educational equity is, Ocak says they actually stress “compliance.” They seemed more interested in labeling her son than understanding him, and by the time Christian reached fifth grade, he’d developed a chip on his shoulder.

Christian, who is Black, Turkish, and Irish, “has been known to walk off the scene if he is not happy. That’s part of his self-control. He doesn’t argue with people. He’ll just walk off,” said Ocak.

Martie Binkow, Christian’s fifth-grade teacher, was able to begin bonding with him before he entered her class. In the schoolyard, they occasionally talked about boxing and basketball. After a while, a fourth-grade Christian steered the conversation toward whether he was being targeted for discipline and whether he’d been tagged with the mark of low expectations in school because of his race.

Like 88% of Roxhill Elementary teachers, Binkow is white, but she says being “very direct” is essential to having difficult conversations with Roxhill students, three-quarters of whom are students of color, about race.

“Who am I to tell him it’s not a problem?” asked Binkow, referring to Christian feeling pinpointed for discipline and perceived as an underachiever. “I just listened. Most kids just want to be heard.”

Binkow’s father worked with the likes of legendary boxing promoter Don King as well as Muhammad Ali, and her uncle recently helped expand the streaming audience of Premier Boxing Champions fights. Binkow, who hails from California’s San Fernando Valley, says that, at a certain point, Christian began to treat her like she knew “what’s going on.”

Strong in math, a good reader, a skillful writer, and artistically talented, Christian also has a genuine interest in history, Binkow says, and he loves learning about others’ cultures. He also has a “social and emotional awareness of other kids that’s unique” and is the reason he is “so well-liked.” She says since he’s been training to box, his ability to self-advocate has taken off. Binkow says other students have followed suit and are advocating for themselves. Ocak says she sees her son striving toward the high expectations set by Binkow as well as by Kevin Loyal, founder of Creating Healthy Attitudes & Motivating Our People (CHAMP) Boxing. She says Christian’s desire to be on time to every training session and impeccably prepared for each fight has “rolled off into school really positively.” Escaping the shadow of low expectations, Ocak says her son is “able to just apply himself and execute whatever that goal is.”

Ocak, who texts with Binkow as needed, is relieved someone finally “realized how intricate” her son is.

Boxing champs and good students

Original artwork by Christian Dobbins, shared by his mom, Hanim Ocak,owner of Skylash Studio in the North Admiral neighborhood.

Zen and the Art of the Reignited Reader

Paranormal Pie sits across the street from the Kajukenbo gym Loyal rents on weekdays for CHAMP Boxing. Inside, Dre’Vonn sits beside his mom, My Smalls. His school day at Wing Luke Elementary, where he’s been since kindergarten, is over, and training starts soon.

Smalls says Dre’Vonn used to get bored in school, knowing he would just come home and watch TV and play Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto. “I signed him up for boxing because I noticed he just had a lot of things on his mind,” Smalls says. “Right now, it’s just me and him at home — his dad’s away for a little bit — I could tell he was just more reserved.”

Though Dre’Vonn had tried football and basketball when he was younger, Smalls noted that he “was more likely to communicate how he felt about things” since he’d switched to boxing.

Dre’Vonn described the zen of hitting a heavy bag: “You get to really punch a bag and get all your anger out. And once you get all your anger out, you’re just thinking about punching the bag. You have no thoughts but punching the bag.”

My Smalls with her son, Dre’Vonn Kelley Jr. Photo by Ari Robin McKenna

Like Christian, Dre’Vonn is academically inclined, but he has struggled to reach his potential as a student. He enjoys playing clarinet in music class and likes to read, but sometimes he’d run out of books he was interested in.

Charles Sanders, a K-5 reading support specialist who grew up in the neighborhood, says that’s a common problem for his students, 91% of whom are students of color. Sanders has chosen to address this issue head on because he sees all his students as potential readers — as long as they are holding the right book. After spending countless hours wandering the shelves of local bookstores, his classroom library now boasts books that speak to his students and are relevant to them.

He likes to challenge students to find something they connect with. If they can’t, he asks, “Do you trust me to pick something for you?” Sanders says for some, it may take a graphic novel to get them going; for Dre’Vonn, sports books were his gateway back into reading.

Sanders relishes the shift in how reading has become a part of his students’ lives. “They’ve gone from the point of looking at it as work to something that they can’t wait to get with their peers to talk about what’s going on.” Sanders takes pride in seeing Dre’Vonn choose whom to sit with at lunch based on his desire to discuss “the chapter they just read” in his fifth-grade advanced reading class.

When asked what his favorite book was, Dre’Vonn answered The Beast, the second book of The Darkdeep Series. A fantasy trilogy for middle-school readers Sanders describes as “Stranger Things meets Scooby Doo,” it takes place in Skagit County. Sanders says his students — unused to books with characters who look like them or that are set nearby — express disbelief that it takes place close to “the area we live in.”

As Dre’Vonn reignited his love for reading and reveled in the discipline boxing requires, Sanders saw new facets of the fifth grader. Sanders says he’s discussed Dre’Vonn’s transformation with Assistant Principal Angela Bogan (who held a lunchtime showing of a KING 5 special featuring Dre’Vonn and Christian) and the social worker Rosslyn Shea. All three see it the same.

“Dre’Vonn is turning this corner to where he’s not a follower, he’s a leader. He’s making decisions for himself, and he’s making wise decisions,” Sanders said. He’s consistently advocating for himself, which Sanders says is a “far change from who he was last year.”

Sanders goes on to venture a guess at the elusive combination that parents and teachers seek for students to thrive in school:

“I can put these pieces together. There’s a little bit of what I’m providing, the structure that I’m giving him that’s helping him stay focused, and then he’s also getting that from his coach. These things are helping him be successful in what he’s trying to accomplish right now. I’m proud of that for him. I love the growth that he’s going through right now.”

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About the Author

Ari Robin McKenna / South Seattle Emerald