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His parents were heroin addicts. He was orphaned at 20. He graduated from Lincoln High School -- "by the skin of my teeth" -- with a 1.7 GPA, fourth-grade reading skills and a learning disability.
Yet this fall, Robert Johnson is bound for law school at the University of Oregon and counts former AG -- and university president -- Dave Frohnmayer among his mentors.
And if that isn't impressive enough, Johnson brings one more unique variable to the equation: the ability to frame his experience so that others might learn from it.
"To quote President Obama, I want to eradicate the slander that a black youth with a book is acting white," Johnson said Thursday. "I want to serve people who come from nothing. I want to be governor some day.
"If I can't change the world directly, I'd like to spark the brain of the people who are going to change the world."
Johnson, 27, had a number of legitimate excuses for struggling in high school. He had what he calls a "nomadic" childhood, largely because his father, Robert Johnson Sr., was a legendary drug dealer in the Philadelphia projects.
"It wasn't, like, covert," Johnson said. "He was notorious in north Philadelphia. A big fish in a big pond."
During one of his father's sabbaticals from prison, the family moved to North Portland. Long before his parents died, three months apart, in 2004, Johnson had taken over the parenting of his brother, Daniel, but it was the lone bright spot on his resume. "School," he admits, "was an afterthought. I was doing things I shouldn't be doing."
Then Johnson caught a break. An assistant coach at Umpqua Community College saw him playing basketball at Wallace Park in Northwest Portland and invited the 6-foot-1 guard to Roseburg.
Johnson first arranged for his brother to take over his security job at Fred Meyer, then headed south. Somewhere on the road to Roseburg, he had his Damascus moment:
"Before I ever stepped on the court for basketball," Johnson says, "I had a serious epiphany: Maybe I could do the classroom thing."
Hit the books. Deal with that reading disability. Engage his professors. Reward everyone who ever had faith in him.
And not half-heartedly, but a take-no-prisoners approach, especially with his own anxieties.
"When I first went to college, I was deathly afraid of speaking," Johnson said. "When I decided it was going to be school over basketball, I decided to focus on public speaking because that's what I was afraid of.
"And when I found out I could break those walls down, I realized I could do anything."
As in win student-of-the-year honors at Umpqua.
Secure a Ford Family Foundation scholarship and transfer to Portland State in 2008.
Graduate from PSU with a 3.5 GPA.
Initiate a scholarship program at Roosevelt High School for his senior capstone project.
Gain acceptance to the University of Oregon School of Law.
And roll up under the wing of Frohnmayer.
"He's an A-plus story," said Frohnmayer, who met Johnson through the Ford Foundation. "What you find in him is a steely determination. He's a work in progress, someone who is remaking himself, in a whole and complete sense, and that's a thrill to watch.
"For someone that age to be consciously working on his own philanthropy is extraordinary."
Johnson files the effort at Roosevelt under bringing his story "full circle. I never thought I would be here. Some of the kids at Roosevelt don't think they have it in them, either. I want to help them get a foot in the door. There's a lot of help out there once you believe you can actually do it."
That may be the best part of Johnson's story.
Not just that he figured things out. Not that he names his benefactors: Robert Key at Roosevelt, Paula Usrey at Umpqua, Linda Maizels at Portland State and Frohnmayer.
Not even that self-pity is so alien to Johnson's nature that he credits his parents for giving him the skills to evolve and adapt.
The best part of this tale of redemption might be Johnson's willingness to name his missteps so that others may benefit from his painful experience.
To not only aspire for the best in life but also to inspire others to do the same.
It's early yet in his political career, but the man has already locked up my vote.