On January 21, 2020,I was asked to share some highlights of my life with approximately 250 middle and high school students, teachers, and parents at a prestigious preparatory school at Hilton Head, SC.
As I began the eight-mile drive to the appointment I had not selected a subject or approach. Upon entering the school parking-lot I thought about my DESK. After a very warm welcome to the school and introduction to the student body, I extemporaneously shared these thoughts:
Thank you very much for the invitation to spend time with you today. You have a beautiful school here. Yesterday, on January 20, we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, an important person. When Dr. King and I were students your age in Georgia, we couldn’t attend schools this nice — we were Colored boys. We had to find alternate ways to make ourselves what we wanted to be.
You will read in your books about other important persons. But the most important person you will know in your lifetime — is yourself. For all your days, you will spend most of the time with yourself. I repeat, you will spend the most minutes of your life alone. It would be a very good idea to ask and get some answers about the person you’ll be travelling with, especially, who you are, and who you want to be.
When I was age seven, I walked along the railroad tracks near my home with an old uneducated Black man who gave me one of my most valuable lessons. I have framed his words and they rest on my desk. He said, “What you is, is what you think you is, so make yourself what you wanna be.” His gift instructs that I am who I think I am by my own appraisal and definition. And, if I don’t like who I am, it is my responsibility to change myself. Thus, never forfeit to another the right to label my identity or to solely guide my destiny.”
At the age of 52, I wanted to be a lawyer. I needed to know my resources and to have a plan. As students, you appreciate acronyms, so I went to my D-E-S-K. Here is what’s in there:
D — DISCIPLINE. I needed to know if I could discipline myself for four years of night school and to eventually pass the California Bar Examination at age 56. On February 1, 1986, at 6:45 pm, I opened a new package of cigarettes, as I had done each day for almost a decade. I decided to test my discipline by holding a cigarette and declaring that it would be the last cigarette I would smoke in my life.
E — ENGAGEMENT, or EFFORT. When you decide who you want to be, it is your dream and objective. You cannot assign the hard work to anyone. You must engage, stay narrowly focused, and make the effort.
Please know that you will likely suffer delays, disappointment, and frustration. Such is life, but you must stay disciplined and engaged.
S — SINCERITY. You might change your objective of who you want to be. That is a legitimate reason to change course but be sincere about the reason. Never lie to yourself or another. There just might be someone who sees your engagement and wants to help you be who you want to be. Simply use the tools in your D-E-S-K and change direction.
(I paused and thought of my dear late wife, Toian, who came when I needed her because she sensed my sincerity.)
K — KINDNESS. Regardless of who you are now or who you want to be, kindness is a virtue that comforts your pathway. Be kind to those who don’t look like you, don’t speak the same language, don’t worship the same God, don’t have the same skills, or live the best they can at different economic and social levels. But most of all, be kind to the most important person you will know in your lifetime — yourself.
(I paused for another five seconds)
Since approximately ten minutes after my promise on February 1, 1986 to stop smoking, I have not smoked another cigarette. And five years after that promise, at age 56, I passed the California Bar Examination on the first attempt.
Thanks for sharing your time with me today.
After the presentation, nine students waited their turn to speak with me privately, to comment on how the message affected them. The most moving were the comments of a girl, as she tugged on my coat sleeve and tried to hide her tears from her peers. She whispered to me, “Thank you for reminding me that my life is important.”
I wiped my tears as I drove home.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
To order your copy of my latest book,
WE, go to www.jeatrilogy.com