Updated: July 2, 2014 2:33PM
Istood before a jovial group of promising teens at the West Side’s Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, their voices roaring inside the assembly hall.
“I may be young, but I’ve got a plan,” they yelled, repeating after me the pledge of success I wrote some years ago. “I hold my destiny in my hand. . . . Drugs — are not my destiny. Prison — is not my destiny. Failure — is not my destiny.”
All of these could have been my destiny, I told them. And yet, despite my doubts as a teenager growing up on the West Side — my inability, in my darkest days, amid life’s haze, to see any light of promise — I now know that all things are possible, if you work, plan, build, dream.
I told them that I am proof that a kid can overcome. That the ’hood is no match for a kid with heart. That fatherlessness is not the signature of doom. That poverty is not the predictor of promise. That nothing — not lack, pain, suffering, confusion, familial dysfunction, teenage parenthood, life, death, brokenness, failures — can prevent someone whose mind, heart and soul have been infused with the faintest bit of hope. That hope, rooted in a child with the willingness to work and never give up, is the lifeblood of success.
I am convinced that it is not money or education alone that young people from poor black and brown communities need most. They need a blueprint for sound character, a template for good behavior, and an understanding of the possible repercussions for their actions. They need to learn how to navigate conflict without resorting to violence. To see true-life examples of what happens when you play by the rules.
They need an understanding of the vastness of this world and their potential place in it. And they need to know this: That they have the power within their own hands to determine their destiny.
Invited to Spencer by student Brittany Ollie, I said as much, speaking recently to a group of soon-to-be eighth-grade graduates.
For years, I have spoken at schools, churches, community organizations and youth centers across Chicago and other cities. Whether at commencement ceremonies, on career days, at Black History programs or church scholarship celebrations, my aim has been to encourage, educate, enlighten, uplift.
I seek to do so by sharing my testimony and by letting them know that I once sat exactly where they now sit. “I was so poor growing up,” I say sometimes. “Somebody say, ‘how poor were you?’” The crowd responds in unison: “How poor-r-r-r were you?”
“I was so poor I thought a ketchup sandwich was a treat . . .
Somebody say, ‘How poor were you?’ ” I call again.
“I was so poor that I couldn’t afford a five-cent cookie to go with my free lunch . . . I was so poor that my shoes had holes in the bottom of them, so I used to try to hide them underneath the desk at school or the wooden pews at church.
“But I’m not poor anymore,” I say as the young people typically applaud with glee. “. . . I later learned that I was never poor,” I continue, “just broke. There is a difference.”
That is my assessment of many children living in poor neighborhoods today. They aren’t poor, just broke, and in some cases broken.
And if we who have experienced some measure of healing do not reach back — reach out — to help and heal them, what is their hope? What is their future?
That is why I speak, sharing my testimony, and the lessons that helped carry me from brokenness as a boy to wholeness and success as a man.
I seldom turn down these engagements, though responsibility — and my own need for recharging from time to time — sometimes prevent me from accepting some invitations.
And yet, I am encouraged, knowing that there are so many others out there like me, willing and unashamed to share their story. Willing to stand up and point the way, for the children’s sake, toward hope.
By the way: Congratulations to the Spencer Academy class of 2014!