The Difference a Year Makes

It’s been a year since I spoke to inner city youth on pursuing dreams; a whole year. I’ve been fortunate to mentor and inspire young adults in one-on-one environments but a whole year since I’ve been granted an audience larger than a mere handful. I’ve grown much in that frame of time – as a person and as a writer – just like any other person can or does. And recently, I was granted the opportunity to repeat what I did a year ago: speak in a classroom about what I do.

This wouldn’t be like what I did before though. This time, it would be pre-teens and new teenagers; a whole other animal to work with in a classroom setting. Last time, it was 9th and 10th graders, but this time, it would be middle school students. To any teacher who knowingly takes on the task of teaching 7th and 6th graders, I applaud you. Better yet, I say ‘you’re amazing’; you deserve a ton of credit. When it comes to these ages, the interactions can be as tender as they are hostile. The differences between a 12-year old and a 13-year old are vast; vast like an ocean, I’d say. Becoming a teenager can be like sailing off to a new continent, not knowing what to expect, but you have to go because you don’t have any other option. And that’s a maddening concept. You’re on a boat and there’s no way you can get off. The land behind you is dead or dying and your only escape is somewhere across the open ocean. But it’s not an escape so much as it’s a predetermined destination. And when you land, you find a place that’s nothing like what you left behind. It’s frightening to many, and for good reason.

I say this because I knew what I was getting into – a land full of angry inhabitants who want to be heard as much as they want to left alone. Quite the hypocrisy, but you tread lightly regardless. It was “Career Day” at one of our local city schools; a day I recall as being one filled with weird guests who had something called “jobs” and one day I would have a to choose a “job” myself. The usual suspects would come year after year to my school – police officers, nurses, firefighters, and sometimes other teachers. But never was there an author, I remember. There was never a professional wordsmith; a person like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or R.L. Stine walking through the archways of my alma mater. Not that I claim to be on their level – I just don’t remember one being at my school’s “Career Day”. So this was exciting. For me, it was, but to the kids? Well, who is to say that they had any interest in listening to me or what I had to give them.

Teenagers are complicated organisms; more so than their earlier forms, the pre-teens. Having this knowledge, I wanted to speak in a way that would be engaging, intriguing, and somehow “fun” for the class. How does a one go into a school full of hormone-raged adolescents and keep them interested though? I understand their need for visual stimulation, but hey, I’m a writer. Putting words up on a board would be business as usual to these kids. How was I going to do this and what was I going to talk about and show? Well, the immediate answer I came to was this: I have no freaking idea. That’s when I decided to rely on some divine intervention from God to help me out because alone, there’s no way I could do it effectively. That’s not to say that I didn’t prepare ahead of time. I gathered a couple visual aids, specifically on stories I’m working on, and brought those along with me. That was for starters, but only after asking what might be a good idea to bring along.

So I went to school and encountered the 7th graders first. And truth be told, it was rough. Students could scarcely pay attention for more than a few minutes. But I trudged through on how and why I tell stories, my educational background, and all other things that may help paint a picture of how I got where I was. But all that broke down when I asked the kids one simple question – “do you any of you know what ‘passion’ means? Or do you have one?” The teens didn’t have much to speak on the word, which was surprising to me. Some said it was “something that’s fun to do”; another said, “singing”; and one kid said, “you mean like lobsters or something?” (this boy loved lobsters). I went on to explain that some of their responses were on the right track – save the lobsters comment – but there was one crucial piece missing. “What’s that?” one of them asked and I replied with, “the willingness to suffer for something better, namely a reward”. That’s when I got a ton of confused faces. And unfortunately, my time was up in the classroom.

I walked out of there feeling defeated; like, I’d done a poor job of explaining my work or what drove me to become a writer. The class was hard enough wrangling up to stay attentive, but the reception I received on that final remark really shook me. Not that every teenager should have a clear understand of passion is, but to think that wanting to suffer so as to gain a reward was a foreign concept was disheartening to me. I knew many of these students, if not all, came from difficult backgrounds so suffering or struggling is not unfamiliar. But that was the issue altogether. The reward, the possible gain; the hope was missing. If any one of those kids had the insight or the ability to do so, they may have jumped up and said something like, “well, we already know suffering, but what’s this reward business you’re talking about?” That’s when I sunk inside myself and immediately became angry. Suffering for the sake of something good did not make sense. What reward? What goal? There was none, it seemed. The blank stares made sense and I felt compelled to go back into the classroom and elaborate on what I meant. But there was no time for that – I had another classroom to share with.

This time, it would be the 6th graders. Not as old as the last group and some of them still teetering between pre-teen and teenager. I focused up and decided to stick with my original game plan but this time, get with the program and explain what ‘passion’ means as a whole. Or at the very least, touch on what that may look like for them. I got through the first part of my talk and then came back to that critical inquiry: “Do you any of you know what passion is? Or what that means?” The same responses came through. So I opened up and said, “It actually means that you’re willing to suffer for something so you can hopefully achieve something later.” Again, the blank stares. So I got with it and shared how I’d once wrote a story for a girl I liked when I was 10. I penned a short horror story for her and gave it over to her. My hope was that she’d love it and I’d win her over with my amazing writing talents. And as I told the tale, several of the girls laughed, wondering why I’d resort to something like that.

“Why do you think?” I asked.
“Because you like to tell stories?”
“Yeah. That’s it. And what do you think she said when she read it?”

The classroom went silent until one girl burst out, “She hated it, didn’t she?” To which I replied, “Yes, she didn’t exactly like it that much, at all.”

Every student in the class had a good laugh at that, but when I went on to say how I still wanted to write stories, despite that crushing blow, something clicked for a few of them.

“So, you kept going?”
“Yes. I did.”

It’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom, talking on my life as an author/writer, but more importantly, it’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom on why there’s hope despite any current circumstances. For me, it’s years of sticking with something, committing myself to a craft and not giving in to the doubts that try and intercede. For the students, it could be graver situations like abusive homes, drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. and that’s frightening to be within. Passion doesn’t exist; survival is the name of the game. So to these students and so many like them, a “guest speaker” is just another adult with an agenda; one they’re not interested in hearing about. But if anyone can bring a story that speaks of triumph – not mindless struggle or silver-spooned entitlement – ears open and heads perk up. All because there’s a hope that something will change for the better.

The storm of adolescence is hard enough, but if there’s a hope that the storm will subside someday, somehow – then that’s much more significant. And worth speaking about.

Social media is no substitute for life.

I recently went to my 10-year high school reunion. A lot of people don’t go to theirs, but I went to mine. My graduating class, 2003, had about 120 students in it so I expected to see about 15, maybe 20 of my classmates. I was pleasantly surprised to see more than that – about 25 in total – and was even more pleasantly surprised to find that most people had gone on to do things they either enjoyed (job-wise) or had families of their own (child and spouse-wise). This was very encouraging to hear. I hadn’t attended in hopes of comparing my life to everyone else’s, I just figured it would be nice to go. And the time spent doing this was time well spent indeed.

The night went on and we shared stories with one another. We laughed. We joked. We reminisced on funny moments from the past and even took time to remember those who were no longer with us. This was difficult and a sad reminder that life is short, even in the space of 10 years, but there were good words for each of the people who had passed since our graduation day. Once again, this was most encouraging to hear despite the circumstances. And so, the evening progressed onward and everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves.

But then something happened.

At one of our tables, I overheard two of my former classmates discussing their children with one another. One of the women stated how she had two kids and potentially a third on the way. The other exclaimed how excited she was and followed up with how her little one was doing. Listening to new mothers having discussions about their children is something I will never be able to relate to fully (you know, that whole pregnancy thing is something I just can’t do) but I can certainly understand the joy that comes out of new life in a family. That’s the good part of this tale.

The sad part is that I already knew all of this because I have Facebook. And Twitter. And LinkedIn. And Google+. I have most all of my social media bases covered so this was somewhat old news to me. Even if I hadn’t seen these folks for years, I already had a leg up on their lives. I had seen baby pictures; I’d ‘liked’ or commented on the new arrivals; or I’d perused old photos just long enough to discover what others were up to and how they were presently doing. I was “up to speed”, if you will. This was a little depressing, if just for that one moment, and I decidedly turned my attention to another conversation.

But then something else happened.

One of the mothers started a story about her child. And then she started another story about her new house. And then someone else chimed in about housekeeping and the lessons learned therein. And then another person spoke up about some other life lessons they had learned. The conversation went from social-media-reminder-time to normal-adult-conversation-about-life. How intriguing, right?

I was experiencing how the possession of social media was no substitute for actual life. This may seem like a “duh” statement, but consider that notion for yourself. How often are we content to just follow a person’s activity on the internet rather than pick up the phone and talk to them? A close friend or relative even. And how often do we accept commenting on a person’s status as being ‘enough’ to show support for them doing a tough time? The amount of time it takes to dial a number is the same amount of time it takes to write a post on Twitter or Facebook. There may be slight variances by mere fractions of a second, but I’m pretty sure they’re really close.

I’ve been particularly convicted by this fact as of late. I see the lives my closest of friends and family are having across the vastness of internet space and I sometimes feel like that’s good enough. Like that’s all I need to be doing to be a good friend or relative: just follow their daily posts and keep tabs on them. So long as no one is dying or in pain, we’re good, right? I’ll see you at a holiday or something and we can chat idly there too, right? Yep, that’s what we think. But of course, something will happen and I’ll be reminded of how silly that thinking truly is.

Case in point, I had a phone conversation with a high school friend (one who could not attend the reunion) a couple weeks ago. I haven’t seen him for over a year, maybe longer. We were close in high school and closer afterwards but our careers pulled us to different parts of the U.S. Now, he lives two time zones away from me. Sad? Sure, but I’ve seen his wedding photos, replied to comments he’s made online, and have read that he’s just as witty as ever in his status updates. So I am at peace and in balance with our relationship, right?

Well, after a six month hiatus from speaking, we connected via phone and caught up on everything but the photos, the status updates and the comments. None of those things really mattered at all, really. He’s fond of cooking now; something I was shocked to discover, and I hinted to him that I was to be engaged soon (for the record, not as shocking to him but exciting news nonetheless). There was much life to be had in our conversation and I left it feeling like I’d been brought “up to speed” on the last six months of his life. A life that just couldn’t be summed up in a candid photo or a sarcastic one-liner from Twitter. No, neither of those could do the conversation – the connection we made – any bit of justice.

If anything, I felt cheapened by my own presumed assumptions. I had seen a photo of him jumping in the air so I figured that he was physically alright and yet, he’d had surgery and had been couch-ridden for days on end. Hence, his new obsession with cooking. I wanted to reference how I’d seen other updates or pictures of the past six months but hearing him tell me was far more gratifying. And when I reciprocated that discussion with my own life stories, I got the same result in return. So as our conversation ended, I wasn’t left pondering about something I’d seen or read out of context – I instead knew where he was in life. And he knew where I was. That was a good feeling.

So is social media the devil incarnate sent to break our ties with the ones we know? Some would say so. I’ll choose to say ‘no, not exactly’. All I’m saying is to not treat social media as a means for being engaged with people’s lives. Sure, you can follow others on social media and that’s all well and good, but do not mistake the experience for knowing someone’s story. The real thing is much more enjoyable, I assure you. Not to mention, it’s real too.

This was too big a post for Facebook.

I started making a status update, but it got far too long so here I am. Back on WordPress.

In light of everything going on, I’m ecstatic over my book being released on Wednesday. I’m really excited, of course, but I’d be committing a major wrong if I didn’t mention my experience speaking at a public school this week too. I had been asked recently by a friend of mine to come share my story of becoming a writer with several high school classes. He informed me this would be a school in the inner city of Cleveland and that I’d be speaking on “pursuing dreams”. This all started because I had shared with him how as a nine-year old, I was given an assignment to write down 1 goal I had for the year. Where kids were writing down things like, “Don’t tease my brother,” or “I’ll get an A in English” or “I won’t pee the bed”, I wrote something a little different: I said “I want to write a novel.” The teacher pulled me aside and asked if I even knew what a novel was. When I told her it was a big book, like a dictionary, with lots of words and a story inside, she said “yes, that’s what it is.” I then said, “Well, what did you want to talk about?” She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, I hope you accomplish your goal.”

I never wrote a novel that year but some 18 years later, I certainly did publish a book. Not with tremendous ease, but I did. But just as easily, my teacher could have crushed my dreams 18 years ago by saying, “That’s impossible; now go write down something more realistic”. But hey, she didn’t. She gave me wood for a fire that was already lit inside. And when I got older, I poured gasoline on that fire until it was so strong that I couldn’t deny it any longer. And because of that experience, though I won’t owe it to that one experience completely, I’ve now written two books as of this past Wednesday – in essence, my dream became a reality. Plain and simple.

Knowing this might be encouraging to hear, my friend asked me if I could share this with some freshman/sophomores he regularly met with. He works for the city so he’s usually in schools trying to raise awareness and provide opportunities for growth or mentoring. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher in some regard so I didn’t mind accepting the invite. It’d be a good idea to share some of what I’d been through, I figured. He then told me I’d be speaking at a school with a 50% graduation rate. And on top of that, the majority of these kids come from “families” (and I use that term loosely) which live at or below the poverty level.

To be honest I had a few hesitations, but God-willing, something inside of me said that I needed to go to this school and talk. And not just “talk” with the kids, but to engage them. As in, challenge their thinking, their attitudes, and where they were in life. Please do not confuse this with a sales pitch – I was not there to sell myself. If I was selling anything, I would think it it’d be hope. And hope was something I came find very little of in this place. Not because of the teachers or the admministration, but because of where these kids were coming from.

Every floor was policed by four to five security guards. Metal detectors were at the front door. Students wore next-to-nothing but this was not entirely because they wanted to, but because that’s probably all they could afford. And yet, they walked everywhere with iPods and expensive shoes to flaunt some sort of financial status; a status that was likely fostered by a tax credit or welfare check their parents/guardians recently received.

This was intimidating at first but I literally had no fear as I stepped into every classroom. I had little expectation for attendance, let alone interest, but I was willing to see what would happen and how my story would be received. Some kids put their heads down on desks and talked out of turn, but that was only at the beginning of the class – for by the time I started asking questions, sharing a story of life and asking them what their lives were about, everything changed. What was it exactly that happened? Well, it was no work of mine – I will not toot my own horn – it was merely about giving time and energy to engage a person about their life. That is all. Several kids came up to me after class wanting to ask more questions about how I decided on a path, how I honed a voice, and just what it meant to be an “author”. That’s great, yes, but the engagement is the victory. The interest, the not-being-afraid to approach someone and speak freely for fear of being chastised; this is the heart of reaching people.

The day culminated with a young girl, probably 15, calling her mom on a teacher’s school phone for a ride home. The words, “Will you be here when I leave?” and “Are you coming to get me or not? Is there anyone there who can?” are questions that I couldn’t help but overhear. Here I am, sitting at a computer, writing this blog post, and my biggest worry is how to write this post without any grammatical errors. But to this young lady, I’m sure the burdens she carries (specifically those related to just finding a ride home) are much greater than mine. And for such a small person, how could it not break a person in two?

Getting to speak at a school full of kids with broken homes, broken families, and broken spirits is so incredibly humbling that a ranty Facebook status or blog just doesn’t do the experience justice. As of now, I’m still miffed as to what platform is best to make such a statement and actually, I may just have to remove this later for the lack of empathy I’m sure others will have towards this post. For unless you experience it firsthand, I’m not sure how you may relate.

However, I want to be clear on something I’ve come to realize: we are more focused on getting everyone affordable insurance, marrying everybody who wants to and wearing colors for charity and yet, there is no action taken towards bettering the American family and its youth. If you are someone reading this and you want to “fight” for some cause, then there is no greater cause than fighting for the support and growth of a young person. That reason alone transcends any political, economic, or religious debate you’ll ever find yourself in. Time, education, role models – half of these kids (not just in the city) have nothing to look UP or FORWARD to. At school, at home, anywhere; they are lost and looking for someone to just BE THERE, but with so much confusion and anger coming from so many places, how on GOD’S GREEN EARTH are they ever going to grow up strong and true? I’m appalled, sickened, and humbled by the experience. If you choose to live your life in an ivory tower, then so be it. No one is going to stop you. But when you look out your window and see the desperate eyes of so many hurt people, I wonder how much energy it takes to turn away and pretend that the issues of those close to you are of no consequence to your life. I will be going back to that school (or others) in the near future and I hope to reengage the students that I spoke with about chasing their dreams and discerning what is harmful to their lives and what is life-giving. That doesn’t require a master’s degree, it doesn’t require me to be some decorated war veteran with a story to tell, and it sure as hell doesn’t require that I sacrifice my own status in going there. It only requires time – and that’s something every person can give.