The following was given as the keynote address for the 2020 NLSC Virtual Sessions held on June 26, 2020.
Think back to those formative years of middle school. For some, it was a time of innocence, youth and lots of fun. For me, however, it was the darkest time of my life. My middle school years were filled with self-doubt and loathing. I felt hopeless and alone. But I can see today how that time also served to forge me into the person before you.
It started in sixth grade. I was tall, scrawny and a bit of a nerd. I probably looked as if I was a character pulled out of a stereotypical coming-of-age movie. Classes were easy for me, but that made it worse and drew attention from some kids at my school.
These were kids who found pleasure in tormenting others. They harassed me, they cussed at me, and they called me embarrassing names. I tried to ignore it, but it was so hard and humiliating. Eventually, they escalated from name calling to stealing my stuff. They broke the lock on my gym locker and stole my clothes. I never found most of the clothes … except, I did find my new basketball shoes sitting in a recently used urinal.
It was so humiliating. I talked to my school counselors as we are always told to do, but the bullies got nothing more than a slap on the wrists. I felt hopeless. I couldn’t figure out why they picked on me, tormented me. Because they saw me as worthless, I began to see myself as worthless. Some days, I would go home from school and sit in my room until I cried myself to sleep.
One day, my dad came into my room and sat down on the edge of my bed. He told me a graphic story about the way he too was abused by kids when he was in school. My dad had experienced exactly what I was feeling, and he had gotten through it. I never knew this about him.
He reminded me that there are always things that you can’t control, mainly other people’s actions. No matter how hard you try, you may never change another person’s thinking. He challenged me to think about what I could control, specifically the environments I put myself into and my reactions to the bullies.
Now before I go further, I know we all struggle with things in life. For me, it was bullying. But maybe those bullies were also being abused by someone. Most everyone has a story of a time that something terrible was happening to them and they didn’t know how to handle it. This is simply my story.
But here’s how I know my dad’s a genius. His advice worked for me, and it can work for anyone, no matter what the situation. In his fatherly rambling, he hit a few key points that we can all use when we want to take control of a situation.
First, stop blaming other people or things. When I find myself falling into a cycle of blame, it’s sometimes because I don’t want to think about my own actions and look for a solution. I learned that blaming people is an excuse to not analyze the issue at hand. If you want a situation to change, you have to take a step back and understand what is in your control.
Second, Dad told me I needed to stop looking to others for my own self-worth. As a middle schooler, my entire self-worth was defined by what others thought about me. Instead of looking outside of yourself to determine your self-worth, look inward and take action to show people who you are. If you want to be seen as caring and giving, help students who are struggling in class or help with your community food drive. If you want to be seen as dependable, consistently keep your word on deadlines, projects, and promises. If you want to excel academically, put in the effort and be proud of those grades. Doing good and daily demonstrating who you are is a better window into your soul than seeking the opinions of others.
My dad also told me how important it is to surround yourself with people who care. Struggle is a necessary part of life. It’s the world’s way of forcing us to grow up. It can be hard. It may even seem impossible, but the people around you make a world of difference. I don’t know where I’d be if my father didn’t have that tough conversation with me, or if I had not found a group of like-minded friends to connect with. Humans are made to struggle, but we aren’t meant to struggle alone.
My dad served as a guide for me during that dark time in my life. Not everyone has a guide to keep them moving forward. I challenge you to find that guide for yourself or to be that guiding light for someone else.
We all have within us the power to change our circumstances. To do so, we must first stop blaming others. Next, focus on what we can control. Then, never let others determine our self-worth. Define it for ourselves. And finally, let’s all remember to surround ourselves with people who will support us through it all. When we follow these steps together, we can all get out of the dark.
National High School Parliamentarian, 2019-20