As I consider how I was inspired to connect, mentor and engage community the way I presently do, I’m reminded of a relay race. My parents raised me to be compassionate and care for people. They did so by the level of accountability they held me to in looking after my younger sister and brother.
I learned compassion while helping take care of my maternal grandmother, who came to live with us before I graduated from high school. We were extremely close. Her passing in December 2002, at the end of my first semester at Bradley University, was really hard. However, it wasn’t until my second semester that I began to discover the special gift her life would give me.
As of January 2003, I had never really spoken publicly. Previously, I had only ever given presentations nervously, praying for an A or a B and taking my seat. I had never spoken passionately about something near and dear to my heart. Until Professor B. J. Lawrence encouraged us to choose a personal–but not too personal–topic for the informative speeches we were to give as part of her Interpersonal Communications class. Professor Lawrence encouraged us not to choose a topic that would cause us to have an emotional meltdown, as our grades could suffer.
I heard her, but I didn’t listen. I chose to give a speech on peritoneal dialysis, a condition my grandmother had lived with for over 16 years. As part of my presentation, I laminated a copy of my grandmother’s obituary.
When the time came to give the presentations, I volunteered to go first. I placed her obituary on the projector, took a breath, and turned the projector on. Then I paused, giving the class a chance to read what was on the screen. All the while, I didn’t take my eyes off Professor Lawrence.
After she read the dates, she fixed her eyes on me, silently asking one simple question: “Are you sure?”
I choked up briefly, then pulled myself together and delivered the speech. To this day I don’t remember the grade it received; I only remember the courage it took to get over that hurdle of emotion. My grandmother’s love was the first leg in the relay; my overcoming my fear of public speaking was the next.
My Teachers Showed Me My Full Potential
The teachers who mentored me through elementary school took on other legs in the relay, acting as trainers, runners and cheerleaders. My teachers showed me the importance of speaking to a child’s full potential even when their formal responsibilities were purely academic. Teachers like Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Brewer and Mrs. Jones taught me about my identity alongside reading, math and science.
Though we moved to the suburbs when I was in the sixth grade, the short time I spent in Ms. Jackson’s class taught me a very valuable lesson about excuses. As she always told us when we made them, “I’m not interested.” I grew to appreciate that excuses aren’t accepted, so don’t make them.
I’m grateful for the educators and leaders who invested in my growth. As a child, I never imagined being one who does the same for younger generations. And yet, with time, I took my place in the relay. For over 10 years I’ve worked with youth in workforce development and community engagement. Most recently I have worked with them to pique their interest in STEM careers and entrepreneurship at Young Women’s Leadership Charter School.
Thanks to the people who mentored me–my grandmother and my teachers–I’m able to pass the baton and carry that mentoring forward to new generations of young people. It’s a profound responsibility and I take it on without excuses.
Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash
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