My recent trip to Canada held one major surprise and the image, vivid after more than two weeks, of a kid in a red shirt.
I returned from a meeting-packed three days in Winnipeg, where I keynoted two conferences (one at Winnipeg University’s “Thinkers’ Conference”), participated in panels, shared thoughts with people working with at risk kids, and engaged in discussions with political and policy leaders. I also had the pleasure of spending a good bit of time with the Conference’s closing keynoter, Shulamith Koenig, an absolutely amazing woman, the recipient of the 2003 UN Prize for Human Rights.
When I’m on a speaking trip, I always want a jammed schedule: I refuse to air-drop in, give a speech and leave. I’m eager, no, more, I need to steep myself in what’s going on locally: I always learn, returning home spurred on by new ideas, new approaches.
I asked Bob Axworthy, the tireless conference coordinator and my “minder” for the three days, to give me in addition to everything else he had scheduled, the opportunity to speak with a few young people. “I’ll take you to Saint John’s in the city’s North Side,” he said. “Good bit of crime. Low graduation rates. Located in the highest crime area of the city.”
I had difficulty pulling myself away from a conversation at “New Directions,” and so arrived late at North High. The principal quickly took me upstairs, where I met a somewhat guilty-looking Axworthy. “Here’s a microphone. You’re on!” “I’m on?” He held open the door, which led to a stage in front of which sat ” a few kids” – about 350 of them at a school assembly.
After whispering to Axworthy that I was going to get even with him, I began with a personal note, describing the profound influence Dr. Martin Luther King had on me and my career. Not much resonance. So I shifted to them.
I had no notes, but this is what I recall of the hour with the kids. “I’m glad you’re here,” I began. “Many of your friends aren’t. Many if not most of you have been through a lot of stuff. Some of you have mothers on crack. Some of you may have a dad in jail;. Some of you may have seen friends or relatives hurt badly, maybe even killed. Some of you have been on drugs. And some of you have been abused physically or even sexually.
“But guess what? You’re here. You’re in school. And for some of you, that takes about every ounce of strength you’ve got. What’s even more important is this: what you’ve been through, the tough stuff, gives you a skill. You’ve got a friend who’s into drugs? If you’ve been there, you can help. If you’ve been hurt or lost a dad you can help another who’s going through the same thing. You’ve got pain. We all have some. You have more than most. It’s not going to go away fast, so use it to help others. You see, your pain must not be wasted. And helping another go through the hard stuff will ease your pain like nothing else.”
Then I shifted. “Let’s look at what it takes to make it. We’re going to share thoughts about resiliency. A big word. Who knows what it means?” Most hands were in total lock down until one kid ventured, “Hope.” “Close. We’re getting somewhere.” Then this from a half-slouching, half-grinning kid in a red tee shirt: “It means making it when you’re not supposed to.” “Brilliant,” or something like it, I replied.
The Search Institute, the nation’s premier strength-based/resiliency research entity, points to 42 resiliency characteristics. I have my top five, and began to share them with the kids. I tried hard to involve as many of them as possible, but got only six or seven hands, maybe more. But one thing was clear: Red Shirt dominated, legitimate domination, for without wanting to show it, he watched me like a hawk, and was right on top of most questions…and the answers.
“Number one, a goal,” I began. “You are bound and determined to complete something. It can be small, like making the soccer team, passing your English class. Or it can be larger: graduating, getting a job, being the first in your family to go to college. The point is this: you are determined to make your goal. You are focused. You’re going to get there. Nothing’s going to stop you. If you don’t have a goal, anything can knock you over or knock you down.
“Second, an adult who is always there. Can be a parent, a coach, one of your teachers here, an uncle, a grandmother. Someone you can go to always, especially when you’re hurting.” I didn’t ask for hands, as this is a conversation for an intimate group.
“Third, a skill. Something you can point to: ‘I can sing. I can shoot hoops. I can make people laugh. I am a brilliant mathematician, and can I even act! Discover what you’re good at and celebrate it.
“Fourth, optimism.” Got a few hands on the definition of optimism. “Optimism can be a form of hope. I have hope. I know things will get better. Or optimism can be described in a theological way as in ‘I know God holds me in his hand.’
“Fifth, altruism.” No takers on the definition of altruism. I told them that it meant that they had something that someone else needed and that they had a responsibility to help, that real living meant being there for others, too. “It also means that you know you have good stuff. If you share it, it means you feel good about yourself, that you have something someone else needs.”
We ended. I was given a Saint John’s “Tiger” tee shirt and “Tiger” mug just before the kids poured down from the tiers.
I asked the principal to grab Red Shirt. I had to talk to him. She steered him to me. I took his hand in both of mine, and I pulled him close. “I don’t know who you are. But I know this: you’re smart, really smart. And you read a lot.” Slight nod and an almost embarrassed smile. “And,” I said. You’re trouble. I can feel it. But man, you’re brilliant and you can do something huge with your life. Look at what you did today. You were the star. Some big words and big concepts. And you nailed most of it. ” I got an ambiguous half-smile and a curious look. He moved on and out, leaving with a knot of his buddies.
As we walked down the stairs to the car, the principal told me that Red Shirt was the biggest gang banger in the school.
Scott Larson, President of Straight Ahead Ministries, works with the toughest kids in the State of Massachusetts (among many other states). In a recent article, “The Power of Hope,” written for the Winter 2013 edition of the journal “Reclaiming Children and Youth,” Larson said, “…having a sense of vision for a future is much more powerful [a] motivator than the mere commitment NOT to repeat the painful past…Hope requires saying yes to a future worth having, rather than merely no to that which is not wanted. And generally that future is one that is beyond the limits of past experiences. This is where the challenge to finding hope lies.” Larson asserts that staying out of trouble, getting out of the gang, staying away from drugs and not getting locked up is not enough. We’ve got to help kids see a different future and then “…have someone walk with [them] through the changes necessary to access that future.”
Strange. I’ve seen and interacted with thousands of kids over my life time. But for some reason Red Shirt sticks with me.
I’m going to ask Axworthy to follow up with him. Maybe become his mentor. Axworthy owes me that. Someone owes Red Shirt that.
Jack Calhoun, March 8, 2013