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Actor urges students to aim high

Ruben Santiago-Hudson stood in the glass-paneled art gallery at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts on Monday morning, pointed outside to the corner of East Ferry Street and Masten Avenue, and reminisced about his childhood.

"I couldn't get this far down the street without taking a whupping," the outgoing actor said.

It was the 1960s in Buffalo, a time when youth gangs ruled the streets.

"You had to affiliate," he recalled. "Were you with the Pythons or the Matadors? I was with no one, so [I] had to take a whupping."

Many people know the story of Santiago-Hudson, a Lackawanna native who went on to an acting, directing and playwrighting career that has netted him Tony and Obie awards. But a lot fewer people know about his days in Buffalo, from first to sixth grade, when he lived on Ellicott Street, in a tough family situation.

During a brief interview Monday morning before he addressed students, Santiago-Hudson made a plea about reconnecting with one of the first people to help shape his future.

She was his second-grade teacher at School 16, Miss Patton, who later became Mrs. Nowak.

"I always wanted to see her and thank her," he said. "She put me in my first play, in the second grade."

The details are fuzzy, but Santiago-Hudson said he thought it was a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn kind of thing.

"She was the first one who noticed early on that I was a child in need and that I had something special, she thought," he said.

Santiago-Hudson was in Buffalo Monday to help "pay it forward," in a sense, to return the favor to local students, just as Miss Patton/Mrs. Nowak did for him almost half a century ago.

The accomplished actor spoke to about 100 students from Performing Arts and the Lackawanna schools to help kick off the new project, "Success Looks Like Me."

The project gives youths of color living in low-income communities the opportunity to interact with successful adults who once were where the kids are now. "Success Looks Like Me" is the signature program of the Cultures of Giving Legacy Initiative, established by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

For almost an hour Monday morning, Santiago-Hudson stood in front of the students in the school's Black Box Theatre and spoke from the heart, after throwing out his prepared speech.

Success occurs when preparation meets opportunity, he said. And he urged the students to shoot high.

Just look where he came from -- a Lackawanna rooming house.

"I'm Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a little boy half Puerto Rican, half black, and I was adopted by two mothers," he said. "Hey, no goal is too lofty."

He urged his audience to set their own goals and define who they are.

"There are many people who will put barriers around you," he said. "They are all imaginary barriers.

"What they see is in their minds. What you are is in your mind."