As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare. I would imagine my teacher asking our class, “By show of hands, how many of you live with your mom and dad?” All of my classmates’ hands would shoot up, leaving me with my hands in my lap. Worst of all, I imagined my teacher looking down on me as I sat there, the odd one out. I projected all kinds of reasons why she looked at me that way: Was she judging my absent parents? Was she frustrated about my life chances? Was she overwhelmed by my heightened risk of being imprisoned, killed or incapacitated? I never could figure it out. But each time the nightmare recurred, my lack of confidence in myself and my upbringing was front and center.
As I think about that nightmare today, I think about how differently I feel now. I recently had a young person ask me if I was embarrassed to be held back in second grade. I said no. I know that my environment was challenging at best, life-taking at worst. I know that I have overcome some steep odds against me.
In the City of St. Louis public school I attended growing up, my imaginary nightmare would not play out the same way in real life. That’s because many of my classmates faced unstable family lives. Most of the students received free or reduced cost lunch, an indication of poverty. Most of my classmates lived in rundown neighborhoods and those whose parents could find a way out, got out. Life chances are tougher for kids who grow up without two parents, are in foster care, or live in low-income neighborhoods. I wish the solution were as simple as telling a parent to “step it up.” But of course, it’s not. For children who need the extra support, for whom their statistical fate is seemingly sealed, we must do more. We must connect them to people and programs that can help them succeed. It’s because of those who champion our most vulnerable children —coaches, teachers, mentors, neighbors and parents — that we can unseal their fate and change the trajectory of their lives. I’m living proof.
This Sunday is Father’s Day – a day to celebrate all the men in our lives who have helped us and other young people grow and thrive. Thank you to those who practice this every day and who serve in this important army, shouldering the fate of future leaders. It’s you who revive regions by developing and shaping young people to live their best possible lives.