23 Jul Back to school
When Sam Bracken and I wrote “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change,” we always imagined that it would be a great sendoff book for those starting college, those graduating middle and high school and those wanting a fresh start. The beginning of each school year brings fresh opportunities, yet young people are often tempted to let the labels others put on them hold them back. Sam always says, “The most important conversation you have each day is the one you have in your head with yourself.” Your thoughts — good or bad — highly influence your performance in school as well as work.
As a teenager I suffered from low self-esteem. I’d been bullied so much as a middle schooler that I changed schools. The bullies were gone, but their words dogged me as a high schooler. My high school teacher, Miss Sharon Tracey, made me start to believe in myself. She praised my writing frequently and publicly. I took the advance placement tests and was not required to take freshman English at college where I was a first-generation student. However, Auburn University required that all freshmen take an English class. My advanced English professor hated everything I wrote. I struggled to get above a C, and every paper came back to me swimming in red.
Just as Sam’s self-esteem was tied to his performance on the football field, mine was tied to how well my writing was received. When I went home for the Christmas break, my family had moved and all my journals, poems, stories, letters from penpals from around the world and papers had been stored in a shed. Everything was ruined by the damp Tennessee air and field mice. I decided that maybe the universe was telling me that my dream of being a writer wasn’t meant to be. After all, my English professor thought I couldn’t put together two sentences, and now all my writing was lost.
After taking a few quarters away from the one thing I enjoyed, I decided that letting someone else determine my future was a stupid idea — even if that person had a title and authority. I wrote a long essay on the country music scene — which I knew well since my family was in that field — for the campus literary magazine, and it was accepted. I wrote album reviews for “The Auburn Plainsman.” I screwed up my courage and ran a hotly contested campaign for yearbook editor — for some odd reason that was an elected office — and won. When I told my college advisor that I wanted to write for magazines and eventually move to New York City, he told me that only one other person in the journalism department had successfully accomplished that. His words served to fuel my determination.
We recently learned that our book was selected as the First Experience book for all incoming freshmen at Louisburg College in North Carolina, one of the oldest two-year colleges in the nation. I wish I’d had a book like this one when I was in school. Maybe it would have helped me silence the critics — both inside my head and outside — a lot sooner. Here’s Sam’s message to the decision makers on First Experience books: