I never expected to be great. It wasn’t something that I was taught. I was more or less left to my own devices in my childhood, progressing merely by the strength of my own intelligence and not truly through the encouragement or the emboldening of my personage. I didn’t know how to be anything that was beyond my world, but I did know that I was different than those around me in my family and in my neighborhood. I was an outcast for this fact, amongst others. Such as being taller than most of my peers. I didn’t really belong at all. This need to belong can really define your values as you grow, and if there is nothing positive inserted within this desire, it can lead to a more destructive path.
What is belonging, anyway? Is it just a way to show that you are in solidarity with a certain group? Early on, when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I can remember being set apart from my cousins on my father’s side of the family. I can remember being told that I spoke “proper” English. Not really sure if this denoted a negative or positive in their mind at the time, but the separation lingered. It was something that I could not adjust, really, because being so young I didn’t know what it meant. The way I pronounced my words, in retrospect, came from the difference in school districts we attended. I was attending a mostly White school district whereas my cousins attended a predominantly Black one. Even today, my speech is markedly different, even though I use slang regularly.
In high school, I began to understand that I was not just Black or smart or athletic. I was all of these things and dared belong in all of the areas afforded me. Participation in sports made me a well-known person, although I was not necessarily a remarkable athlete. My problem was that I didn’t know which area to devote myself to as far as being smart or being an athlete. I didn’t have the push from my parents or the encouragement to be better, all that I was told was that I need to go to college, and that my mother couldn’t pay for it. So, that became my goal. Not that college would make a path for me to be great, but to attend in and of itself was great. For if I finished, as my mother pointed out, I would be the first to have graduated from college in my immediate family.
I cannot stress how important it is to inspire children to be the best of themselves. Most times, I had no clue what was going on around me. When I was up to take the ACT, I was not prepared in the least, and as a result, received a really low score. Low enough, in fact, that it made me think that something was really wrong with me. That I wasn’t really smart enough. That I had been lied to all those years. But, what it really came down to was the failure of my parents to prepare me for what I must do. I was set adrift in the sea of life without a functioning paddle. Without a real support system. Without goals. Intentions. Anything could have helped. Truly, this is why White people do so much better in these instances, because their families are usually abreast of the situation and know exactly what to expect. They have likely already procured resources to assist their children. They often have savings set up. Black people, unfortunately, lag far behind in this area.
Today, I still suffer from the failures of my adolescence. Since I was smart, I often did not study or put forth effort that surpassed my peers. My “just enough” was sufficient to pass my classes with mostly high marks. Essentially, I skated through high school. I never had trouble with any courses, really. Even math. Most of my time was spend talking to girls, playing sports or just being an unruly teenager. I had no account of what it meant to be anything to anyone, because there was no one to emulate. By the end of my senior year, I had decided to take the ASVAB test. I scored so high that I was recruited heavily by the Marines. I actually enlisted and was able to ship out to basic training. The only thing that stopped me was a relatively unknown loophole that allowed for enlisted men who have received scholarships to void their contract. A week before I was to ship out, I received an academic and art scholarship from an obscure school called MacMurray College out of Jacksonville, IL.
Maybe I should have gone. Maybe the choice I made was the best. I no longer speculate because I still love how it all has played out. The main thing I want people to understand is that to be great takes an entire support system. It takes a family that knows what is going on and what is needed to accomplish your goal. It takes making a plan and setting goals, mapping out a determined path for your life well before you are thrust into the adult world. Black people don’t always benefit from this point of view because we aren’t knowledgeable for the most part. We often have lofty dreams that aren’t grounded in reality or lazily participate in the education of our most loved and adored investments: our children. If they are truly the future, then we must allow them to be great by motivating them to be more than we could ever be. This can only be accomplished by communicating to them the importance of setting goals, planning for the future and admonishing them of complancency.