THE MAN WHO SPOKE
The connections that shaped my life come into sharp focus now. I’m standing on the stage of Ferguson Auditorium here at the university. A grand old dame built in 1926 and she is still so beautiful to me. The room is empty now. Just me and 1,000 seats out there in the dark with a memory sitting in every one. I’ve performed on this stage a number of times, (but never enough) and each time there was a reverence in me. I always wanted to take my shoes off. Because to me when I was on this stage I was standing on hallowed ground. So grateful now for each and every time I’ve been in this room, but never more so than the first time. I wasn’t on the stage then. I was at the back. Standing back there in the dark at 18 years old like so many at that age, lost and confused. Consumed with grief at the time due to the untimely death of my father, a number of false starts in college, and with no clue where to turn, I heard the man speak…and I was never the same.
A handsome African-American man stood on the stage about to address the hundreds of teachers seated in the audience. They were high-school and college level faculty attending the educational conference being held at the university that day. My mentor made me go listen to him. I didn’t want to, but I did as I was told. And the man spoke…
“I was a thug,” he said. Those were his first words. “I was raised in difficult circumstances, but so were others around me. They were good people. I was not.” He paused. “At 16, I had already been in trouble a number of times. I took some sort of twisted pride in that.” Standing at the back, I’m thinking, “What is this guy doing up on that stage talking to these teachers if he was like me?”
He continued, “One day an old English teacher… that I hated,” he added, “assigned what she called a ‘free style theme.’ She said we could write the paper on anything we wanted. I decided to hand it in…one of the few times I did that,” he smiled. “I decided to write this paper on my ‘career goals.’ I wrote about the guns I would have and what I would do with them. About all the people I would hurt who had hurt me. About the cars and women I would have and all the things I had planned to do. There wasn’t much ‘light’ in my paper,” he said. “It was very dark.” He paused again.
“It was a vulgar and profane document. I wrote it to shock this old woman and offend her sensibilities, and I handed it in with a spiteful glee.”
He continued on, “In a few days she had all the papers graded, and she called me to the front of the room. As I made my way to her desk the students began to snicker and laugh, pointing at me saying, ‘…in trouble again, in trouble again.’ I was humiliated and embarrassed. Once I reached her desk, I turned to face my classmates and I saw that look. The only look on the faces of others I always saw…ridicule. I turned to the old woman and said, ‘Why are you doing this to me? Just giving me an F would have been enough. Why are you doing this to me?’ ”
The old woman looked at the class and said, “Cast your eyes on him. You won’t see his kind often in life.” And she handed him his paper. Slashed across the front, reaching from top to bottom was a huge scarlet red “A”. The woman said, “I got you up here to show them someone who could write!”
And the young man took his paper and stared at what he said was, “a letter I had never seen associated with my name in my life.” The woman continued, “I don’t like you. I don’t condone your lifestyle, but my God, you can write! Don’t you dare waste that gift! You can earn your daily bread with that gift. You can help people with that gift. Don’t you dare waste that gift!”
“I took my paper home,” he said, “and that night I put it under my pillow, and I said a prayer. ‘Lord, if you will let that “A” still be on my paper in the morning…I will do the rest.’ ”
It was and he did the rest.
The man went on to describe how he and the teacher became close. He graduated from high school, received his bachelor’s degree, his masters, and Ph.D. He told how he spent the next forty years of his life helping teachers and students learn to write better.
And then he said this…
“You hear my words, brothers and sisters.
If I can do it, so can you. Be not afraid.
I wish you well.” And he walked off stage right.
I haven’t been the same since.