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.

We Are All Like Stones On A Hillside

In a literal sense, this isn’t an accurate statement. None of us are actual stones on a hillside. That’s a given, but even so, I feel like it’s a great analogy for any one person’s life as you begin to unpack the idea.

A close friend of mine, who shall remain anonymous, recently overcame some major trauma in his life. And it wasn’t any current trauma. We’re talking years upon years of dealing with a very serious issue that has been holding him back, specifically in the area of having and forming solid relationships. The issue being abuse; abuse that was committed against him when he was a child for several years. I can’t sit here and say that I relate to the events of his early years – as difficult as they were – so it breaks my heart to even hear about it. The type of abuse caused him to make life choices that were hazardous and downright toxic in his later years. And over and over, he returned to a place where he knew he was suffering, but since it was all he knew – or thought he knew – he would go there, hating and sulking in the futility of familiarity. I can’t imagine what it was like, but I can see and relate to the hardship. His hardship was unique to him, just as I have my own to contend with like so many others. That is a truth.

Many of us, including myself, were blessed with a safer, more secure upbringing. I am forever grateful for that. Conversely, many of us are not so fortunate. My friend was not in that regard, but in the midst of this trial, he’s endured and something really amazing happened over the past couple weeks. He made a major breakthrough – a concept that sounds out of date and “pie in the sky” but honestly, he did. How do you know? Or better yet, how does he know? Well, for the first time – and I’ll paraphrase his own words – he legitimately felt an absence or longing when he made amends with the party who failed to protect him from the abuse of so many others. His failed protector being his own father; the one person we, as children, look to as our guardian when we are younger. Now, even his father will admit that saying goodbye to his son is no longer an awkward task – it’s a difficult one instead. There’s a new desire to enjoy one other’s company; something that was previously offset by conflicted feelings via years of assumed passivity, denial, or abandonment.

That’s how my friend knows. That’s how his father knows. And the distance between them, be it physical, emotional or spiritual, is no longer filled with that violent static. The grieving has been shared fully and the accountability brought forth. That means there can be movement now; no longer are they inhibited by past chains dragging behind. And that’s powerful.

Many a time, we may feel like we aren’t getting anywhere. Past problems hold us down, keeping us from progressing forward. And we feel stuck in a place that outwardly may look like progression, but inside, we are more than aware of the unhealed wounds. Think of how long it takes people to “get over” a break up or separation. The void left is never equal, it would seem. One person gets a chunk of themselves sucked out and the rest of their existence crumples without warning. This leaves their internal builder – aka themselves – with the job of putting things back in order. But since it happened without warning, the builder is plenty angry with his situation. And however long he chooses to moan, resent, or refuse to rebuild, will determine how long it’ll take to fortify the structure once again.

But relationships are one thing in comparison to a forced encounter; one that was completely out of the person’s control, specifically speaking of my dear friend. Time will march on regardless and we will be asked to “move forward” despite what may lie behind us. That’s the most difficult thing of all – struggling with how to break an age-old struggle before it permanently becomes a part of us.

This reason is why I use the analogy: stones on a hillside. All of us are like stones on the edge of a hill, looking around; wondering if we’ll ever go anywhere other than where we are. We can see the horizon ahead of us, and that gives us a sense of vision or possibly clarity, but the distance is so wide that we’d rather stay where we are – perched on the hilltop and out of the potential mess that could be waiting below. We don’t know what’s there, we just know that it’s unknown and that’s a frightening thought. And it’s these thoughts, coupled by our experiences, that shape us in such a way we can’t move to begin with. Life’s experiences can harden someone to the point of immobility if he isn’t mindful. This leads to inactivity, allowing all manner of weeds (problems) to ensnare the person and further cripple what could eventually start a path towards regeneration. All the while keeping one eye on the sky ahead, thinking and believing it’s either too far away or it’ll just never come to us.

This sounds like something we’d all want to avoid if we could. So how does one do that? Or what’s more, how does any one person stop this from becoming a reality in his own life? The same can happen to people who have little suffering to cope with – they are instead stagnate, immobile on life’s journey. To me, that sounds like a nightmare. I’ll speak honestly when I say that I am someone who has difficulty sitting still. It’s not that I have ADHD (perhaps to some degree but who doesn’t) but I don’t like getting caught or stuck on problems I know can be overcome. If there’s a vision or path to take, then I want to take it. No doubt about that. But everyone has blind spots. And what’s comfortable or familiar may be an attractive option versus something new that demands a serious undertaking. That’s when stagnation can set in, subtly and without warning. And as before, that’s when the weeds will gather and choke the life out of you.

So once again, what does a person do to keep this from happening? Well, a good first step is asking God what to do with your life. No apologies here – it’s a legit thing to ask. It’s what my friend did and it brought him to a place that’s been incredibly freeing. As for me, when I first asked God what He wanted for my life, He gave me some quick instructions: get rid of your clothes. Not all of them, just some of the ones you don’t need anymore. That appears to be rather insignificant, but hear my story. I keep clothes. For a long time. As in what seems like forever to some people. And God knew that I needed to get rid of them if I was to make some changes – good changes – and start rolling forward.

So I did. And a piece of the stone slab that was ‘me’ got chiseled away. That was the first answer I received. A remnant of the old had to be no more. I removed the unnecessary weight; a part of me that wanted to keep my room cluttered and full of junk that really just needed to be gone. Period.

What was next then? Well, I asked again and this time I got told that I needed to coach. Coach what though? That was question three. Then I was told a youth program. I once dreamed of being a school teacher – it’s something I saw on the horizon but was so unsure on how to get there. And since I had chosen a different career path, I thought it was beyond me now. But after I asked this question again, I got a response rather quickly. A coworker of mine asked me to help him coach his son’s ball club. So I took the opportunity and found myself renewed by the experience. Indeed, the vision I had really could be a reality. How exciting, right?

And so, another piece got chiseled away.

Another question, another answer. Another question, another answer. The process seemed to be getting faster. I was still me, but the form I had before all the asking-and-questioning was disappearing. That’s when I started rolling. That’s when things got really interesting. You know that feeling you get when you feel unstoppable? Not the unstoppable like when you’re a teenager. That’s just blind ignorance due to youth and vigor. I’m talking when you know that you can’t be stopped in your endeavors because something is backing you – even if you’re unsure what that something backing you is. That’s the kind of unstoppable I was feeling; rolling full steam down a hillside, gaining speed, and enjoying the ride.

Naturally, that’s when I hit a major snag. What kind of real life story would this be if there weren’t more obstacles? Pieces of myself, still being worked on, staggered my roll and I came to a standstill. Ever feel that way? That’s what happens when you start breaking those outer layers off. It’s fascinating how being honest with God about ourselves has such a powerful effect in our waking life. I really began to see the parts of myself that were truly ugly and I was exposed with issues that I didn’t even know were there! Wounds, lies, broken promises, character flaws – all are fair game when you start rolling. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us, if we’re outside-looking-in, but it’s the blind spots we all have and don’t ever see coming. So when we hit a snag, we get frustrated.

Don’t be alarmed though. My only advice is to not dwell in frustration once you hit that initial snag. Most people end the journey here, too afraid to pull out more of the junk that inhibits their movement. Instead of growing moss on the hilltop, they grow it here; somewhere in between the top and the bottom. But here’s a question – aren’t the plethora of previously answered and kept promises enough to keep going? This is crucial to maintain momentum. And if you do, you’ll be amazed at what you find – more people rolling like you. Just as flawed, but moving just as fast. Just as quickly as you.

These people aren’t like the ones on the hilltop. They’re embracing life’s call, but they are doing so out of a discomfort to become who they were called to be. They’re uprooting the bad parts of themselves, giving it to God, and soldiering onward. Why? Because there are more people flying faster and the thrill of flying faster is far more exhilarating than standing still. Is that not an agreeable statement? Sounds like a lot more fun too. Why position your eyes on the burdens the world wants when you can ask God what freedoms he wants to give you? That may seem like a loaded statement; vague, to a point. But consider starting small and going from there. Mine was clothes, after all. It can be as simple as that.

There’s no secret formula here, but there are definitely easy places to start. One word of caution though: the common confusion after we begin is wondering what God may tell us. When we ask God, “What can I do to help people?” we expect the answer to be something like, “be a pop star.” You know, something that appears to be far-reaching and full of genuine impact. Don’t be disappointed though when God says, “No”. Instead, His plan could be something equally or much more significant than the pop star dream. Something like a school teacher, a cashier at a retail store, or a landscaper. All are important trades. And they are important because they all tread in a very specific, very important field of expertise – they all deal with people.

It doesn’t matter where people are working or what titles they possess. We all mold and shape one other because we come into contact with each other daily. So if we’re asking the right questions, we can be chiseled down to have more of that; the more of that being the surprising journey. I used to think that I wanted everything in my life planned and plotted out according to what I thought was best, but honestly, I find that way to be quite boring. I thought I wanted to know everything – and truthfully, I sometimes do – but my confusion was more about security and comfort. There is certainly security and comfort to be had in God’s plans, but there is also the grander opportunity to be grafted into something better than what you are presently. I’d rather be constantly chiseling away pieces of myself – in keeping with this analogy – than be a square block on the hillside not doing much. That sort of life is predictable and ironically, it isn’t necessarily safe either. Weeds choke out whatever sits for too long. The same can be said for our own lives. How many people do you know that still harbor resentment for something that happened decades ago? There’s a burden there that’s deeply rooted and in serious need of being uprooted. Much like what transpired with my friend. Imagine the kind of freedom he can have now that he’s dealt with this issue. He and his father both. And what’s even more amazing, is how he can share his story with others to encourage people with similar pasts or struggles. My friend is rolling again, but that’s not all – he’s now a beacon to others still on the hillside. And when someone sees that on him – the piece that’s been made new – something cool may happen and another stone will rush down to join him. Thus, igniting their own journey from the hillside.

Asking God what to do with our pain isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s merely a fair start. One that can lead to more life, something so many people have forgotten about and what life is supposed to look like. And if that isn’t convincing enough, consider the alternative to not asking. Nothing can change and nothing has the chance to improve. So be encouraged to start rolling in whatever direction God asks you to, but also consider asking first. It’s certainly worth more than a quick look or a passing glance.

The chasm is wide, but we’re all looking out across the horizon anyway, wondering what it may be like on the other side, provided we are brave enough to ask.