“Why would you say that?” I attacked back. There’s not much in the world that I detest as much as a young person limiting themselves based on a self-imposed constraint.
“My attitude gets me in trouble,” she said. “I keep getting kicked out.”
“Don’t ever say that about yourself,” I attacked back, holding back the rage that forced me to fight back the tears. “For you to say that about yourself is to say that all that I’ve achieved can not be done in you.” My words triggered a reflection on how far God has brought me since my high school years. I wanted the students to locate the same faith that has landed me work as a professional writer.
I was there to speak to students for career day. My friend Jae Peterson is a teacher at Orange High School over in Hillsborough, NC. At her request, Anne Jelinek, the career counselor, contacted me to speak to students about my work as a journalist and novelist. My day started at 8:45 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m. I went back and forth between classes taught by Peterson and Sally Satterfield.
Tameka’s comment took me back to the frustration I felt while in high school. I shared with each class a moment of transformation in my life. After dropping out of school, Mr. Battle, my school counselor, showed up at my house one day to take me back to school. While sitting in his office he rearranged my class schedule. He refused to allow me to fail.
For two hours each day I served as a student aid for the American History class that combined English and history. I took great pride in serving my teachers from the previous year. I learned some things about teaching that have served me well over the years, but there was more to what Mr. Battle did. Every day, for an hour each day, he placed me in a room and forced me to write. He told me to write feelings down. There’s more. He introduced me to Thomas McAfee, a professor at the University of Missouri, to begin a mentorship.
Battle, Ms. Westerfield, Coach Fred and my other teachers at Hickman High school saw something in me. They saw promise. They refused to allow me to fail. They witnessed my sorrow after the death of my sister and came to my rescue. They saw potential in me and went above and beyond the norm to protect me from the destructive behavior that was jeopardizing my future.
I told the students my story. Then I made a confession. “They saw a great writer in me,” I said. “They believed in me, but it really didn’t matter. You know why? Because I didn’t see it in myself.”
I wanted to drive that point home. After reading an essay written by a student in Sally Satterfield’s class, I asked him an important question. “What are you going to do with your words? Your words are power. Lives will be changed due to your words. You are walking genius. What will you do with your words?”
He told me he lives in a group home. The years of misery caused by his surroundings had limited his perspective. “Your words can be written wherever you live, and your words can take you places beyond what you see.” I prayed for the spirit of Mr. Battle to move in that moment.
I was escorted back to Jae Peterson Creative Writing class. The first face I saw was Tameka’s. She stood before the class to introduce me. In the middle of he introduction there was a confrontation with another student. “Shut up in listen,” she demanded.
The student removed himself from the classroom after an emotional outburst. “I can go home and smoke one. I don’t need this shit..,” Were his last words as he walked out the door. Peterson did her best to calm the situation. Was this the reason for my coming? Had God placed me in this space to touch this hurting youth?
I stepped out to speak with him. I gave him a lesson on respect. He agreed to return to class. We can’t help them if they’re not in the room. Something may have been said to spark a change. You can’t catch the fire unless there is a match to start the heat.
I left all of the classes with a challenge. I begged them to create. I admonished them to start a blog, to put their thoughts out there for people to read. To use writing as a way to get the feelings out, to grow and inspire.
Yesterday I opened my email. Words from an angel appeared before me. A wonderful gift from God posted the first words on Jae Peterson’s class new blog. As I read her words the tears flowed. The spirit of Mr. Battle was with me that day.
“I think Mr. Carl Kenney is a great speaker. He had lots of thing to share with us. He reminds me of myself, and I feel like if he can get though hard time and struggles then I can to,” Tameka wrote “He showed me to not pay attention to what everybody has to say and just to look at them and laugh. Cause the people that I have problem with they are not going to be there when I get my diploma. Now I should look forward to going to collage even if I think I'm not going. I should just have faith in myself. That's why I feel like MR.CARL KENNEY is a great speaker. He helped me to believe in myself!”
When I get my diploma-she wrote. I believe in myself-she wrote. Those words inspire me. Those words remind me. Keep writing Tameka. I’ll be there on graduation day.