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Hundreds of parents and students walk the red carpet into the second annual Back 2 School Expo at Halifax County High School on Saturday morning, while Comet cheerleaders and band members perform.

“I’m going to take my horse to the Old Town Road,” filled the Halifax County High School auditorium Saturday morning as students, teachers and parents danced with keynote speaker William Denson from Los Angeles, California.

They call him Mr. D, and that was his way to get the crowd excited and thinking out of the box at the 2019 Back 2 School Expo at the high school.

“I wanted to see who was courageous enough to step out of the box,” said Denson before sharing a message about following one’s dreams, being kind and keeping the right friends.

“There is greatness inside of each one of you. Do not let anyone tell you you’re not going to be great. No one can define you. How dare they have the audacity to tell you what you can and cannot do,” he told the hundreds attending the expo.

He encouraged students to ignore any negativity and to find what they’re good at and work hard to fulfill their dreams.

Telling the story of “Old Town Road,” he said in March, Billboard disqualified the song that reached number 19 on their charts because it did not fit the specifications for the country genre.

“They said, ‘this isn’t country because there’s rapping.’ He could’ve said okay, I’m through, but then he got a call from Billy Ray Cyrus,” said Denson.

The duo remixed the tune that reached number one on the Hot 100 Billboard Chart for a record-breaking 17 weeks.

His point: “Don’t you give up your dream or hope. No one can take it from you but you.”

But, he said students have to put in the hard work and stay away from the wrong crowd.

“I tell my kids and students, I can tell what kind of kid you are by the friends you hang out with,” said Denson.

He added, “Just be yourself, and love yourself. You don’t have to be anyone you’re not.”

Taking a minute to speak with the teachers attending, “I know first hand what you guys deal with.”

He said L.A. has a much worse behavior issue with children coming from single-family homes, being homeless and are just in “tough situations.

“The challenge I have for you guys is get to know your students. Until you talk to your child, you never know what they may be going through,” said Denson. “I admire you teachers. I commend you. I want to encourage you to continue doing what you do.”

Parents, he said, “your teenage child cannot be your best friend. They don’t know anything about life… They’re still babies, and your job is to put them on a path and keep them there,” said Denson.

He also asked that parents get to know their children’s teachers.

“They work for you. Your job is to make sure they (children) get to school on time, make sure they have the proper attitude and make sure they want to learn,” said Denson. “And, we can’t make excuses for our kids,” he added.

Teachers, parents and students form a team, according to Denson, who said as long as all three prongs are working together, the child will find success.

Following Denson’s speech, more than 300 students and parents walked across the auditorium stage to receive a free book bag full of school supplies.

Organizer Sandra Garner Coleman, ED-3 trustee on the Halifax County School Board, said volunteers had prepared 500 bookbags for elementary schools and middle and high schools. She said the remaining bookbags would be divided among all the nine county schools.

“I think today went really well. Everyone has been engaged, and the main thing is building community togetherness. I am all about strengthening the bonds between the community and the schools,” said Coleman.

She went on to praise Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg for all the work he has done for the school system and for how approachable he has been.

When he is contacted about an issue, she said Lineburg is willing to work with a parent or student to find a solution.

“We want to show the children how much we love them, and we just want parents to feel comfortable,” said Coleman.

All in all, she considered Saturday a success and hopes she is laying the groundwork for this to be a yearly event for many years to come.

Parents and students also were able to visit with dozens of vendors in the lobby, enjoy a free lunch, learn about the parent portal, meet their children’s principals, enjoy a bounce house, meet the Cometbots and more during this year’s Back 2 School Expo.

Ashley Hodge reports for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at ahodge@gazettevirginian.com

Ashley Hodge is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at ahodge@gazettevirginian.com