The connections that shaped my life come into sharp focus
now. I'm standing on the stage of Ferguson Auditorium here
at the university. A grand old dame built in 1926 and she is
still so beautiful to me. The room is empty now. Just me and
1,000 seats out there in the dark with a memory sitting in
every one. I've performed on this stage a number of times,
(but never enough) and each time there was a reverence in
me. I always wanted to take my shoes off. Because to me when
I was on this stage I was standing on hallowed ground. So
grateful now for each and every time I've been in this room,
but never more so than the first time. I wasn't on the stage
then. I was at the back. Standing back there in the dark at
18 years old like so many at that age, lost and confused.
Consumed with grief at the time due to the untimely death of
my father, a number of false starts in college, and with no
clue where to turn, I heard the man speak...and I was never
A handsome African-American man stood on the stage
about to address the hundreds of teachers seated in the
audience. They were high-school and college level faculty
attending the educational conference being held at the
university that day. My mentor made me go listen to him. I
didn't want to, but I did as I was told. And the man
"I was a thug," he said. Those were his first words. "I
was raised in difficult circumstances, but so were others
around me. They were good people. I was not." He paused. "At
16, I had already been in trouble a number of times. I took
some sort of twisted pride in that." Standing at the
back, I'm thinking, "What is this guy doing up on that stage
talking to these teachers if he was like me?"
He continued, "One day an old English teacher... that I
hated," he added, "assigned what she called a 'free style
theme.' She said we could write the paper on anything we
wanted. I decided to hand it in...one of the few times I did
that," he smiled. "I decided to write this paper on my
'career goals.' I wrote about the guns I would have and what
I would do with them. About all the people I would hurt who
had hurt me. About the cars and women I would have and all
the things I had planned to do. There wasn't much 'light' in
my paper," he said. "It was very dark." He paused again. "It
was a vulgar and profane document. I wrote it to shock this
old woman and offend her sensibilities, and I handed it in
with a spiteful glee."
He continued on, "In a few days she had all the papers
graded, and she called me to the front of the room. As I
made my way to her desk the students began to snicker and
laugh, pointing at me saying, '...in trouble again, in
trouble again.' I was humiliated and embarrassed. Once I
reached her desk, I turned to face my classmates and I saw
that look. The only look on the faces of others I always
saw...ridicule. I turned to the old woman and said, 'Why are
you doing this to me? Just giving me an F would have been
enough. Why are you doing this to me?' "
The old woman looked at the class and said, "Cast
your eyes on him. You won't see his kind often in life."
And she handed him his paper. Slashed across the front,
reaching from top to bottom was a huge scarlet red "A". The
woman said, "I got you up here to show them someone who
And the young man took his paper and stared at what he
said was, "a letter I had never seen associated with my name
in my life." The woman continued, "I don't like you. I don't
condone your lifestyle, but my God, you can write!
Don't you dare waste that gift! You can earn your daily
bread with that gift. You can help people with that gift.
Don't you dare waste that gift!"
"I took my paper home," he said, "and that night I put
it under my pillow, and I said a prayer. 'Lord, if you will
let that "A" still be on my paper in the morning...I will do
the rest.' "
It was and he did the rest.
The man went on to describe how he and the teacher
became close. He graduated from high school, received his
bachelor's degree, his masters, and Ph.D. He told how he
spent the next forty years of his life helping teachers and
students learn to write better.
And then he said this...
"You hear my words, brothers and sisters.
If I can do it, so can you. Be not afraid.
I wish you well." And he walked off stage right.
I haven't been the same since.
BLUE and MIGUEL