You must be the change you wish to see in the world

Forgive me for a moment, but I’m going to get personal. But I promise it’s for a purpose.

The headline for this post is the same as the quote I keep at the top of the page. This quote is a specific truth about life, especially mine. My life today is something of an American success story. I grew up very poor, bouncing through 11 cities and five states, living on government assistance and the kindness of family and strangers. I lived in trailer parks and ghetto apartments with drive-by shootings.

Sometimes the adults in my life weren’t doing their parental jobs. I became a very angry and rebellious teenager. But I never did anything to jeopardize my future. And that was with intention.

I remember very clearly one gray Anchorage day looking out the window at the street corner. Some kids who were my year at my high school were dealing drugs. I knew they had guns. One of the kids still went to school and he always brought a gun on the school bus, which is why I switched to taking the city bus (even though the stop was half a mile away and I had to walk in deep snow in a ditch to get there). I had a pit in my stomach because I knew I had to walk by those kids to catch the bus to my job. I watched those kids and I remember thinking, I have to get out of here. I’ve got to do whatever it takes to get the hell out of here. And by “out of here,” I mean out of poverty.

The only thing I could think to do was stay in school and get to college. That probably sounds very after-school-special. Maybe it is. But I can tell you, it wasn’t as easy as that. I had to navigate by gangs, guns and drugs every day. I had to work two part-time jobs to help my mom pay rent and bills. There wasn’t always food at home. I would often get home late at night and then I would have to sit down and do my homework. I fell asleep a lot in class.

And since Anchorage was on a magnet school system, I was at a school with very few poor kids. Some of my teachers had no sympathy for my situation. (One told me that I was lying about my circumstances and maintained that theory until she met my mother.) So — cutting to the chase — just getting through high school was something of a hurdle. It wasn’t the school work,  it was the circumstances of my life that was threatening to hold me back. Social scientists call that socio-economic status.

But I was incredibly stubborn. I wasn’t going to let poverty or my life circumstances hold me back! Not. Going. To. Happen. I developed a me-against-the-world attitude. I learned self-defense (for the grabby guys on the bus).

And I had one inspirational ace-in-the-hole: I went to the magnet school for the arts. That’s right, I was a band geek. Sound corny? Probably. I was in school bands from 4th grade through high school and it was never more important in my life than my junior and senior years of high school. Honestly, there were days that I would cut all my morning classes, except band. There were days when the alarm would go off and I felt like I couldn’t possibly take another day — of school or my life. But then I’d think about band and I’d will myself through another day. Don’t misunderstand, I was no prodigy. But for me band was like The Zone that you hear athletes talk about. It started with the walk down the bandroom corridor. Then into the bandroom itself. I would take my seat, get out my music, put my instrument together and the rest of the world melted away. Music was a higher place than my life. An escape. And a window to another, larger, better world. I could lose myself in the intricacy, the beats, the melodies. And in the bandroom, we were all equals.

I genuinely believed that college was my ticket out of the slums, but I had to survive high school first. Even though I wanted to go to college, I’m pretty certain I would have dropped out of high school without band. Ironically, I wasn’t good enough at music to get a scholarship. (So not as after-school-special as you thought.) But there’s no doubt in my mind that music kept me sane, focused and moving toward a future. (And, by the way, I graduated high school early, with honors.)

And I did go to college. And finish. And it has afforded me opportunities that my parents have never had. Whenever I think on these things, I thank my younger self for being so determined and such a fighter. Through all those things, I had to be the change in my life I wanted to see. For me it was mostly a solitary journey. I took help when and where I could find it. I was never too proud to beg! But sometimes in life you just have to dig down and earn it. That was my journey and it has made me the woman I am today.

So here’s the purpose part of this post: I want to help a kid. Or even kids. The kind of struggles I went through as a kid aren’t unique. There are kids in our own community going through the same, or much worse. Maybe there’s a way we can help them.

I believe that literacy and music can set you free.

Now, I could do something on my own. And I am. But one of the reasons I started this blog was to be the change in this community that I wished to see. I worked as a reporter for seven years in this town. I met a lot of people and saw a lot of good and bad. But as a reporter, my hands were tied. I couldn’t become a personal advocate or get personally involved in the subjects. Now I’m liberated from that.

I can do things on my own, but think of how much more that could be done if a bunch of us work together? In July a bunch of people I never met before came together to help me organize the local Fag Bug events. That was powerful! And while I believe in that tremendously, I feel even more passionately about the desperation some kids in our community are feeling right now. Every day.

When I took up music in grade school, it set me on a path that set me free. What if I had never been able to do that? Who would I be?

I’m not sure what we could do together. But I know in my heart there is a way to help these kids. I’m going to get in touch with the school district and non-profits like the Boys and Girls Club. Maybe we can buy some kids some instruments. Maybe we can buy them some books. Maybe we can buy them some food. I believe it should be something tangible.

I’ll get back to you about this. (And I promise not to be so long-winded in the future.) In the meantime, I would love to hear from you readers. What ideas do you have?

2 thoughts on “You must be the change you wish to see in the world

  1. Dare I say it… This entry was so touching! I don’t mean to be cheesy, but really. I have a similar, although less intense in many ways, story… I’ll email over some ideas, but our notes on nonprofits, etc., from j-days in Vegas probably look a lot the same.

  2. I totally agree with you. While I was privileged not to struggle with poverty, my childhood was scarred in other ways and it was only through literacy (I am a poet) that I was able to survive.

    I read about a literacy program out of Alabama that you might be interested in. Here is a link to a news article about it:

    Perhaps you can write to state officials (write up a dummy letter and post it here — we can all sign it and send it in) to get some federal funding for a literacy program for public schools?

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