Today I’m filling pages with memories and stories and this one just started pouring out.
After college I spent one year working with a non-profit company that traveled the country presenting character education programs to students K-12. We set up three giant screens and speakers, the video was full of stories and chart topping hits that would engage and encourage students to be kind, strong, and determined people. The stories spoke of kids overcoming obstacles and making good choices. It was relevant and well done. Overall, this tour was a good experience filled with meeting wonderful people and seeing new places. Some places were harder than others. Some places were more forgettable than others. This story is not one of them..
This job brought me to places in the US that I would have never seen on my own. I experienced social norms that felt like foreign countries to me. My view of the world grew during this year in ways I will never forget.
One day, we traveled to a desert town north of Los Angeles. The district was new, schools, stores and homes. It was beautiful. We were told that the new development was an attempt to get families out of the roughest L.A. neighborhoods. Gang violence was at a high and there were police dispatched to the schools and extra law enforcement, especially in the after school hours. The drop out rate was higher than the graduation rate. I went to a high school that has rowing, equestrian, and tennis teams. There were 600 students in my graduating class. I think two kids dropped out that year.
I stood in a gymnasium of five hundred high school students.The only adults in the room were me, my co-worker, and our contact person, a guidance counselor, who was less than courteous. It didn't take long to see that we were merely babysitters for the next two hours. The students were mostly bigger than me, their faces were hazed with apathy and anger. We gave a brief introduction to the video and I couldn't even hear myself through the PA system. I stopped talking and we pushed play.
They talked and laughed and walked over to their friends. Some turned to face the opposite direction. I was furious at the amount of disrespect that I saw, but not really for myself. Never in all my years of life had I felt such hopelessness in a room, it didn't matter what I had to say, because it didn't matter what they became. Why should they believe anything different.
I went to the guidance counselor and asked if I could stop the presentation to speak to the students. She looked at me with huge, amused eyes and said, well, if you wish. I saw her shaking her head as I turned.
The only light in the pitch black room with no windows and two sets of doors was from the three giant screens that projected the video.
I asked my co-worker to hit pause and with 111% fire in my blood and 110% fear, I walked to the front of the bleachers and said,
“Excuse me. Excuse me,” could they see me trembling, I don't know, I didn't matter. The fire was burning now. I continued,
“Every day, we travel to schools sharing this video, because we want to encourage students who need someone to tell them that they can do great things and overcome trouble, no matter the circumstances. Never before have I seen such rudeness and disrespect from a group of students and I am afraid for you, because if you don't start caring, you will mess up your life and you may not get a second chance. It doesn’t matter if you remember me or this video, but we are here today to share this and even if you don't want to listen, stop talking so that other students can listen. Thank you.”
The room was silent.
I set the microphone down and walked across the floor. In that moment, I felt like I could climb Everest and crumble into a sopping heap of tears at the same time. It took me five minutes to stop shaking. I was thankful for the darkness. My co-worker looked at me stunned, but proud.
It didn't take long for some noise to resume, but the levels stayed at a minimum. The bell rang just before the end of the video, the students filed through the doors. We torn down our equipment alone, usually students helped. I can't remember if the guidance counselor said good bye or not.
I won’t soon forget that day. For all the fear that shook me, I could not breathe another moment of the apathy and disrespect that filled the room. And still, I knew that sitting in those bleachers were kids who did care, kids who had big dreams, and kids who just needed even a sliver of hope.
The intoxicating mix of terror and bravery are forever scribbled into my memory. Even as I typed this out today, I trembled remembering those steps to the front of the room. More than the fear, I remember the presence of the courage and how I shook with fear the entire way, but the courage was leading my steps, pushing me forward. Standing before one thousand eyes, hundreds of lives full of good, bad, beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeless, and hopeful.
There are moments that shape and define us, and even if every single one of those kids walked out of that room unaffected, I drove away with that desert gymnasium forever imprinted in my soul.
I think we forget, I think we’ve been playing by the wrong set of rules and I’m pretty sure that if courage and fear were a game of paper rock scissors, courage could beat fear every time.
Because courage fights for hope and light. Fear fights for darkness.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
So when your hopes on fire
But you know your desire
Don't hold a glass over the flame
Don't let your heart grow cold
I will call you by name
I will share your road
(Hopeless Wanderer, Mumford & Sons)