There is a very interesting phenomena when growing up as a child at risk. Some at-risk factors are invisible and others are painfully present.
For example, I lived in poverty. I didn’t know it, but I did. I spent my first 5 years living in a trailer park in Severn, MD, the next 2 years living with family or friends around Anne Arundel County, MD, and the last 14 years of my childhood living in a palatial 850 square foot single family home on Kent Island, MD, just on the other side of the Bay Bridge. For each stop along the way, I was surrounded by friends who were, more or less, living at the same economic level. When you are surrounded by good friends and loving family members, there isn’t much evidence of poverty. Sure, we didn’t take regular vacations but you really don’t miss what you don’t know. The only evidence I had that we were poor emerged in November and December each year. Around the holiday season, the Elks Lodge, American Legion, or other community group would sometimes bring by a basket of food to our home. My parents worked hard to provide a roof, regular meals, and, on my 16th birthday, even a used car to help me with my 66 miles round trip commute to Queen Anne’s County High School. Most of my friends didn’t have a car so, as I’ve mentioned, I didn’t consider myself poor.
Though poverty remained a largely invisible at-risk factor for me, the presence of alcohol, abuse, and domestic violence was something that was impossible to ignore.
At some point early in my life, my father, a child of two alcoholics and the victim of traumatic physical and emotional abuse, succumbed to his demons. He began drinking heavily, often to the point of passing out. My father always possessed a fierce temper, and, mixed with alcohol, that temper was a force to be reckoned with. The abuse, usually emotional but sometimes physical was directed toward my mother, my sister, and me. From the time I was 11 years old, I lived in a constant state of fear. My mother, caught in a generational mindset of having to “be responsible for holding the family together”, suffered the most.
When my father worked, my mother stayed home to raise my sister and I, taking in as many as 8 children for in-home daycare… remember, it was a palatial 850 square foot home, a tight space for my mom and 10 children. When my father stopped working, my mother began working evenings for the State Comptroller’s Office. She would wake us for school at 6:00 am, prepare breakfast and lunches, prepare something that could be heated for dinner, and then head off for her 3:00 pm – midnight shift in Annapolis. She’d catch a few hours of sleep before repeating the whole process again. And, remember, she was doing all of this in a constant state of fear. She counted the days that my father was passed out from drinking as among the good days.
I share this part of my personal story because it explains who I am at my core. I was shaped by these experiences. They are present with me each and every day. And, they are the reason that I sought a career in education.
I selected a career in education because of two driving factors.
First, at a very early age, when I was living in that trailer, I remember my mom, tears streaming down her face, leaning in to say, “Billy, you have to go to college. I’m not going to be much help describing what that will be like, but you need to know that I’ll do everything I can to get you there.” Even endure years of emotional and physical abuse it turned out. She followed with, “And, life is hard. To succeed, you are going to have to take risks. If you want to try something, you are just going to have to do it. Don’t worry about failing. I’ll always be proud of you if you try. You do not want to go through life regretting missed opportunities. Say it with me, NO REGRETS!” I repeated, “No Regrets”. She told me that last bit over and over again throughout the years and it is a major influence in my life today. If there is something I want to try, I will try it regardless of the consequences.
The second reason I ended up in education was because of the educators that helped me along the way. You see, I believe that I am a statistical anomaly. I shouldn’t be in the position that I am in. I should have failed, or given up, or even quit somewhere along the way. But, when I think really hard about my school-aged experiences, I can think of a series of teachers that went out of their way to show me kindness and to open doors that otherwise might have been closed to a kid like me. I am not sure if they knew about my home life or if they were just being nice. Either way, at each and every turn, it seemed that there was a teacher providing some opportunity that would lead to another opportunity, and then more opportunities, and so on and so on. No regrets! I wake up every day and head to work trying to think of ways to increase opportunities for our students. It is an obsession… and I can be downright stubborn sometimes when I am advocating for what I believe our students need. Sometimes to a fault.
When I was asked to share my story, I spent a lot of time thinking about the target audience. I settled on, students. I know, because of my experience in classrooms, that there are hundreds of students in our school district who are experiencing elements of my childhood right now. I want to give a few pieces of advice to those students;
- Keep Dreaming – I was a big dreamer as a child. I was always dreaming about what I would do with my life. Dream often and dream big. Don’t let people tell you you can’t achieve something… they are wrong… you can do it!
- Accept Help – You will meet literally hundreds of people who will try to provide you with help. Let people help you. No one who achieves success did so alone. We all need help… usually a lot of help. When people help you, say thank you.
- Take Risks – When you are a vulnerable child, taking risks is very hard to do. Be brave. Take the risk anyway. You will always be better for the experience and, when something works out, the confidence gained will propel you forward. Don’t be afraid to fail.
- No Regrets – Think about the words of my late mother… No regrets. You get one life. There will be plenty of successes and failures. There will be times when you are filled with pride and times when you are ashamed of your actions. Experience life… feel it. Don’t regret missing an opportunity.
In closing, I am honored that you have taken a few minutes to learn about part of my story. I have achieved a great deal of personal satisfaction in my life and in my profession. I am married to my best friend, Page, and we are proudly raising our teenage daughter, Abby. I give Abby lots of advice, parents always do… it’s our job. But the advice I want her to heed most is, “Life is hard. To succeed, you are going to have to take risks. If you want to try something, you are just going to have to do it. Don’t worry about failing. I’ll always be proud of you if you try. You do not want to go through life regretting missed opportunities. Say it with me, NO REGRETS!”