Hanging on his every word, I took a sip from my 7th cup of coffee, both intrigued and a little nervous.
"Just be prepared," he warned me. "they're great kids, but there are some deep, dark stories there."
He looked down at the breakfast he had barely touched, and continued, "They may not even pay attention to you, you just never know..."
Here I am, fresh off my big, fancy TV show finish, and a couple of episodes into the series already airing on A&E's History Channel. It's only my second speaking thing. I'm so new, and as of this writing, still so new, that I don't even know what to call what I'm doing.
It all sounds so pompous. It sounds like authority, and authority never sits well with me.
Disruption Is What I Do
Personally, I've been completely turned off by most of the "professional speakers" I've ever heard. Canned speeches of exaggerated truth from some seemingly wealthy, self-proclaimed public figure, all designed to drive home a weak message on how to live your life.
Through my own experiences, I have always been amazed at how poorly a public speaker can maintain a "freestyle" conversation, continuing to communicate in simple sound bites and crafted responses. Big, fake smiles attached to an even faker one-on-one communication style.
I never want that to be me. I will never "can" a speech. Nope. And I am adamant about it. I would rather not be part of this speaking thing if it means I have to do it like everyone else. My entire life has been steered with a desire to be different, to do things differently, to shake up the status quo and challenge stale ideas, seemingly illogical practices, and traditions followed simply because "that's the way it has always been."
I guess, in a way, #liveforaliving is me trying to disrupt under the disguise of a business. Don't tell anyone...
The first thing I noticed about the school was the authenticity of the staff. Every single person I met was clearly there for the kids. Top to bottom. A seemingly uncontrollable, unapologetic need to care. Not the bitter, hardened staff that is sometimes associated with schooling so-called challenging youth. I know. I was a member of the challenging youth clan, and I'm here to tell you that you can never count us out.
In fact, I have a Facebook friend, once my 6th-grade math teacher, Mr. Lothrop, who in 1982 made me take back a Swiss Army knife I had stolen from a sporting goods store during a 3-week school trip to Colorado. He saw promise in me, despite my poor decision-making; and instead of dropping me in the dunce bucket, writing me off as simply a bad seed, he took an interest in me, started teaching me how to use computers, after school, and on the very first Radio Shack TRS-80 personal computer. I never looked back. My entire career is now based on technology and I am good at what I do.
This was a school of "Mr. Lothrops", full of a number of diamonds in the rough who were certainly going to benefit from these love leaders.
Oh Crap, I Actually Have to Speak
This is always the most awkward part for me.
Once I get started, you have to send in bouncers to shut me up, but not unlike the first speech I ever did, at a jail in Sonoma, California, I froze at the beginning. I found myself just staring at the room full of kids and wondering, "why should they listen to anything my dumbass has to say?"
Then it came to me.
Raising my own hand in solidarity, I asked, "how many of you feel like you get in trouble a lot?"
Now, you may not know this, but getting in trouble can be a form of identity, a way for some kids to get attention when there was previously very little. Trust me, I know. It's sad, but it's real. Some kids wear it like a badge of honor. I did.
A nice collection of hands raised up high accompanied by big ol' mischievous grins.
"Awesome," I said, "I'm with my people."
Bam! It was at that moment that I could feel the comfort settle in. With one silly little statement, I had established that I was one of them. Every nerve, worry, concern, fear, just disappeared.
So what did I talk about?
I dunno. Nothing ground-breaking. I talked about celebrating diversity and celebrating your individual uniquenesses. I talked about self-esteem and believing in yourself even if your friends, parents, teachers, and the general public sometimes don't.
I told stories of youthful mistakes and overcoming them. I told stories of terrible things that happened to me as a kid, outside of my control, but how I blamed no one, and instead have suited up to be the best version of myself I can be.
I told stories of fighting for what you want and what you believe. I told stories of fighting for others who may not be as strong. I encouraged standing up for the underdog. I told stories of finding the joy in doing for others.
And, most importantly, I did it my way. Sitting on the desk, hands a'flyin, and none of it in the traditional vibe of, "now eat your vegetables kids and make sure to listen to your parents."
I asked them questions, kept it interactive and flowing and made an attempt to connect with every single one of them.
What I Learned
I like to end these stories with some key takeaways, things I learned that really stood out to me and continue to drive me to build on this speaking thing.
The most evident observation was how much you can touch people if you just bare you soul. You never know who, and to what degree, you can inspire until you try. As the last of the kids left the room, I found myself engaged in conversation with one of the teachers who literally broke down in tears - not just in relation to being touched by my delivery to the kids, but clearly rustling up some of her own demons in the process.
Both the director and my contact expressed how impressed they were with the behavior and positive engagement displayed by the students. I just don't think it would have gone the same way had I not established a connection right out of the gates.
Lastly, driving to the airport I was filled with visions of the kid who came up to the desk I was sitting on, and just plopped down right next to me without saying a single word. After I finished my answer to another student, I looked at him and said, "well, hello, what's up?"
"I just like you," he said.
There is no greater validation in the world.
Or, the chatty li'l girl who walked up to the desk and handed me a picture she had been drawing for me while I talked. Hopefully, laying in bed at night, or alone on the playground, or shoots even buried in the frustrations of family life, she will think of some of the things I said and she will act accordingly.
One can only hope.
So, yea, full speed ahead. I'll continue to carry a message of positivity, strength, individualism, and fight to as many people as will listen to it. I especially like speaking to the kids. They need it the most, and I believe I have a rare gift to connect with them on a different level than most adults, parents, and authority figures.
It would be a crime not to use it. Challenge me.