Be the change that you wish to see in the world. --Mahatma Ghandi
I believe that every person on the planet has a characteristic that defines them. I do believe mine is empathy. Having empathy as the center of your character is a blessing and a curse. I often think of others and their feelings before I think of my own. My parents raised me to walk in another person's shoes before I make judgments about them or their actions. That leads me to sometimes forget to sleep and eat and be on time when I promised my wife I would ready. Empathy has made me a lot of friends, but it also gets me in trouble.
For example, and many of you may think less of me for saying or feeling this, but September 11, 2001 is one of the most vivid memories I have in my life. It was one of the most heart-breaking and devastating days in our country and in my time. When word started to circulate what truly happened in those planes, my first thought was "what could we have possibly done to those men to create such hate in their hearts that they would even think these thoughts, let alone act them out?"
I was married and 26 years old at that point. 8 years earlier, my first thought would have been to enlist and immediately join the army. Their hate would have been met by mine. At 26, though, I had lived a little. I had perspective. I had been married for 4 years and had learned that the world did not revolve around me. I knew that I had a choice to be a part of the problem or I could choose to be a part of the solution. My empathy for those who were viciously murdered was overwhelming for months, but my empathy for the families of those who acted out those awful plans was equally overwhelming.
As I look at the landscape of our world, I instinctively worry about my children...and yours. With those thoughts, I begin to think about those who shaped me. Outside of my family, I have had two great role models in my adult life. One is "Mr. Dave", a Dean of Students and an openly gay man, and "Mr. Christopher", an old school college educator and my African-American big brother.
Mr. Dave taught me courage, conviction, and patience. He also taught me the power of tolerance while showing me that my potential was far greater than I could ever imagine. He put me in positions of leadership that no one else on our campus wanted. People ran from the role he asked me to take on. As hard as it was to be who he wanted me to be, I quickly learned from his guidance and reassurance that I really had no idea who I was and where my values were capable of taking me. He made me look in the mirror and see that I was not the tiny little village where I grew up. I was not the majority. I was not someone who was capable of abusing my power or god-given traits. He taught me to care for and respect everyone equally whether they were different from me or disagreed with me. I learned that everyone could become my friend, and I could become theirs.
Mr. Christopher...well, I lost him in a tragic car accident 16 years ago...almost to the day I write this. You see, there were not a lot of "Hicks" (as I called him) where I grew up. There were, however, a lot of "hicks", if you know what I mean. There was not 1 person of color in my high school...not a student...not an educator. I was lucky to have parents and siblings who made friends with people from all over the world and of all color and faith. I was raised to have open eyes and to treat everyone equally. Hicks was my first real boss. He gave me my first opportunity to lead and teach at the college level. Just like Mr. Dave, he taught me how valuable tolerance is in every situation and how important it is to always think and ask questions before acting or reacting. Hicks became my brother. His strength of conviction and patience and calm in the face of the worst storms will be something I will never let go of. Of all the people I have lost in this world, he is the angel that is always on my shoulder. When things get tough, he is sitting there reminding me that no matter how big the storm, the rain and the wind will soon pass, and the sun will show itself again.
If those two people are my professional role models, Rosa Parks is my hero. I often ask myself if I would have had the courage to sit in the chair next to her. My empathy tells me that I would. My brain tells me that she needed to do it alone to truly change the world the way she did. Do I have the strength as a father to teach my children to be as strong in their convictions and values as Ms. Parks? I can assure you that I work at it daily.
I am blessed. With that blessing, I cannot and will not take my blessings and gifts for granted. Most of you are reading this to learn about college recruiting or becoming a better basketball coach or a better teacher. My question for you is "Does any of that matter if we allow the weak to be harmed by the strong?" Can we truly call ourselves educators if we choose not to act?
As you read this, I plead with you to join me in building the greatest of walls. When we see hate... when we see fear, will you join me in building a wall around those who can't protect themselves? Will you join me in being a shield against hate, intolerance, and bigotry. Will you join me in demonstrating to those who were not raised better that we are willing to sacrifice our blessings, so every person has the right to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
I promise to always be at the center of that wall. I promise to be your rock when you are not sure if you are strong enough. I promise to be your voice of courage and assurance that you are capable of standing strong in the face of that storm. I promise to still be standing with you when the sun comes back to warm us and greet us with a new tomorrow.
What a wall WE could build...