"Wait, is that … Seth?"
Dr. Sybil Brown was peering at her television, watching the local nightly news and its coverage of the protests Downtown following the death of George Floyd. There, among the assembled masses, Brown saw a face that resembled one of her former mathematics students at Northland High School.
To her delight, Brown’s suspicion turned out to be accurate. It was Seth Towns, who one day was detained by the police for participating in a peaceful protest and the next was filmed delivering a speech in another demonstration.
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Having developed such a close relationship with Towns during his time at Northland that he referred to Brown as his second mother, the sight of the Harvard graduate and current Ohio State transfer exercising his constitutional right to protest filled Brown with pride.
It did not, however, surprise her.
"He spoke very firm and confident, and that’s him," Brown said. "He is confident. I’ve never seen him shy away from anything. He’s very socially connected and does not like to see injustice.
"I would call him a change agent."
Towns brought such an approach with him to Northland, where it was nurtured while he fashioned a standout career both on the hardwood and in the classroom. Described as popular but not a follower, Towns racked up academic honors as a member of the National Honor Society, was a competitor on Brown’s STEM math team and carried a grade-point average north of 4.0 before landing a scholarship to Harvard, where he earned a degree in sociology.
Along the way, he earned scholarship offers to play basketball at Ohio State, Michigan and others before committing to the Crimson as a three-star small forward in the class of 2016.
When he arrived at Northland, Towns didn’t waste time making an impression on his teachers and older peers. As a freshman in Brown’s math class, he was soon helping tutor juniors and seniors who shared the class with him.
"He wasn’t intimidated," said Sean Taylor, Towns’ basketball coach at Northland. "He gave respect to the older guys, but he wasn’t intimidated. He thought he was on their level and above as a young guy. He came in mentally ready. He’s a better person than he is an athlete."
Taylor, who teaches math to juniors and seniors, did not have Towns as a student. Kevin Tooson, who was the Vikings’ football coach at the time, did.
During Towns’ senior year, Tooson had him in his classroom for an African American studies course that also earned college credit. Through a partnership with Kenyon College, students in the classroom were provided with books written more recently than those used in the regular classrooms.
It helped further a passion for social justice in Towns.
"It’s not just racial things with Seth; it’s right and wrong," Tooson said. "He sees what has happened, not just with the situation in Minnesota, but if you go back to 2015 and 2016 with Sandy Bland and the young man (Michael Brown, a black man killed by a white police officer) in Ferguson, Missouri, he’s always felt like these things are wrong and it needs to be brought to the light."
As a senior, Towns and his classmates put some of those thoughts into action. Near the end of one school day, Taylor said Towns and his classmates gathered in the commons area of the school. All dressed in black, one recited some original poetry before the rest of the participants laid down as if dead and remained there until the day was over. Video of the event was featured on CNN’s website.
"It was peaceful, nonviolent and it was simple," Tooson said. "It did not disrupt the school day. It did not disrupt any learning. It was peaceful, and he was part of it. To see what he’s doing now is not much of a surprise."
That same year, Brown recalled a trip to Harvard that included the rest of the STEM club because the annual National Society of Black Engineers conference was being conveniently held in Boston. It provided a glimpse to the rest of the students that, yes, any of them could eventually earn their way into a school like Harvard.
The trip left an impression that outlasted Towns’ time in school.
"He really left a strong impact on the students that were there while he was there," Brown said. "That was Seth. That was him."
Since he was identified as having taken part in the Columbus protests, Towns has posted a monologue to his personal Twitter page and appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter, telling a national audience that "there is a huge dilemma in this country right now that needs to be addressed and I won’t shut up. I won’t stop."
It’s a pledge he’s making good on, and one that is exactly what those who helped guide him through high school knew was to come. Taylor said the Northland community is as proud of him for graduating from Harvard as it is to see him standing up now for black rights.
Tooson added that it’s not just Towns’ actions that are impressive, but also where they come from.
"I’m proud of him, to take a stand and just to be who he is," Tooson said. "This is the type of young man he is. It’s not a façade, it’s not publicity: This guy, that’s who he is and he wants to make a difference for his community. It is 100% authentic, 100% real."
And it’s just beginning.