There are times when Dallas McDonald wonders how he ended up succeeding in advanced classes, or how he’s about to go to college, or at a completely basic level, times when he wonders how he’s even alive and well.
McDonald’s father and step-father both died of drug overdoses before he was 3, and his mother, after bouncing in and out of jail, died of an overdose when Dallas was 6.
He has grown up with his grandfather, Michael McDonald, in what he jokingly calls “the hood” in East Dayton, and he blossomed at Carroll High School, where last month he graduated as winner of the David M. Austria Award, recognizing a student who perseveres in the face of obstacles.
“It does get better, but you have to make it get better. Things aren’t going to come just because you want them to,” McDonald said. “You can’t just sit there and have life pass you by. You have to put in the work … and you will reap the rewards down the road.”
Tough early start
McDonald’s grandfather took custody of Dallas when he was 5, and he and an aunt helped take care of him early on, although it looked like it might only be temporary. But then Dallas’ mother died.
“An addict always says, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ My mom said that. But it did happen,” McDonald said, tying his situation to the drug epidemic plaguing the Dayton area today. “You’re playing with something where, if you take one wrong turn, there’s no redo. Getting involved with the wrong people — it’s a dangerous path.”
McDonald attended Holy Family and Our Lady of the Rosary schools, then headed to Carroll for high school. He said his relationship with his grandfather wasn’t perfect, and he struggled his first two years at Carroll, when he knew very few of his classmates.
“Freshman and sophomore year my grades (weren’t good) because I couldn’t handle it yet,” McDonald said. “Most people are pushed here academically and they see that through hard work you can achieve so many things, so they grow as a person. I had to flip it. I had to grow as a person and learn how to take care of myself, and then tests became easier, more second nature.”
McDonald said he was shy and “afraid to put myself out there,” until the tail end of his sophomore year when he started to click with others in Carroll’s band programs. He ended up playing in Carroll’s marching band, jazz band, jazz combo, “and anywhere they needed a drum.”
“They took me under their wing, and I would not be where I am without them at all,” McDonald said.
Thriving at Carroll
Carroll Director of Bands Carl Soucek said McDonald’s individual work ethic helped him become a percussion section leader and earn the highest possible rating from the Ohio Music Education Association for his solo performance on snare drum.
Soucek said McDonald “came in kind of green” but eager to learn, and his drive carried him through. He said by this year McDonald had become one of the best players to go through Carroll’s music program.
“He’s really critical of himself. He can see and hear and understand his own personal weaknesses,” Soucek said. “He’s quick to assess those weaknesses and build upon it. That sets him apart from a lot of other students.”
That comes through when McDonald talks openly about failure — saying he’s done it before and will do it again, learning from it each time.
“My GPA is kind of iffy from the first two years, but I’m glad I had that hiccup and now I can get over it,” he said. “Now going into college, it’ll be easier to know I need to put the pedal to the metal.”
He’s already been doing that, moving into honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. He’s known for his self-deprecating sense of humor — he says, “I’m garbage at math” — but he did well in AP biology, chemistry and psychology courses, and was named a Commended Scholar for his performance on the National Merit Scholarship Qualification Test.
He credited English teacher Mary Jane Clark, band directors Soucek and Ryan Griffin, and science teacher Christina O’Malley among many who influenced him. And he said two classmates and their families have been incredibly loving and supportive, making him a better person.
The next chapter
McDonald plans to study biology at the University of Cincinnati. The kid who reads medical textbooks for fun hopes, not surprisingly, to be a doctor. He said there’s a parallel there, because his mom was a good student in high school and thought about med school before hooking up with the wrong crowd and getting into drugs.
But even before college, he has an amazing opportunity this summer via the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM). High school and college teams spend the summer doing a synthetic biology research project, and Carroll has a team partnering with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
At a recent brainstorming session about wound care, McDonald said the group talked about trying to modify a piece of DNA so it would close up a wound and stop bleeding faster. While that’s pretty remarkable work for teenagers, McDonald said sometimes he just wants to be normal.
“I’ve wanted to be that ‘comeback kid,’ but in the end, as I mature and grow, I really don’t want to be different than anyone else,” he said. “I’ve defied these odds … but I just want to go to college like everyone else. I just want to have friends, have fun, do music … the same things that any other normal person would do.”
Soucek said for McDonald to get through a rough childhood and “then just conquer high school” is a great feat.
“He’s just an awesome kid, and he’ll do really well with whatever he decides to take on,” Soucek said.
McDonald said that focus on the future is what he wants.
“The last thing I want my story to evoke in anyone is sadness,” he said. “I don’t want someone to say, oh I’m sorry for you. I want it to inspire someone. I want to help someone else who could use it.”
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