Since writing Real Role Models, I've spoken in dozens of public elementary, middle and high schools, even some colleges, and the most common thing I can tell any of these students is that you only get out of life what you put into it. It's a total cliche, I know, which is why I've decided to start using this intro from The Game's debut album, The Documentary, to start out all my speaking gigs.
I know it may not seem like the best message to share with some young, impressionable Black students...to say that life is just a game (especially when so many people think playing games like LeBron and Kobe is the only way to "make it out"), but there is too much truth in this statement to pass up. You hear it in sports..."you gotta play all four quarters"..."keep your head in the game"...but why not in life or in school?
Last week, while appearing on "Writers in Focus", a public TV show in Atlanta where James Taylor interviews authors, I had the opportunity to partner with Teach for America and speak in four different Atlanta Public Schools. First, it was Therrell High, then Best Academy then a couple classes at Frederick Douglass High. Now I've spoken in schools from Texas to North Carolina, and I'm partial to Austin ISD schools, but my last class at Douglass High was truly the best experience I've ever had talking about Real Role Models.
It was a senior physics class. I asked them if they planned to go to college and many raised their hands. Then I asked how many would, like me, be the first person in their families to graduate from college if they did so and still a few raised their hands. The classroom was 100% black from my recollection so this was no surprise for an inner-city school, but what was truly surprising was that so many of them seemed to believe they'd done what it took to get into college. Too often, kids want to go to college, but don't do what's necessary to make it happen...this class seemed different.
I was around 12 years old when I decided I wanted to go to the University of Texas and someday own my own business so I asked the class to raise their hands and share with me what they wanted to be when they were 12 years old. The kid I called upon said he'd wanted to be a video game developer since he was 8 or 9 years old and still does today. Others said they wanted to own businesses or be pediatricians or architects. All of these professions were commendable and the students answering exuded the kind of confidence in sharing their hopes and dreams that I once did at their age. That leads me to believe they actually know it'll take a lot of hard work and dedication to make it happen.
People always ask me if I get nervous when I enter these classrooms, but I never do. The only time I get nervous is when I get the feeling that the students are genuinely listening to me and taking in what I'm saying and identifying with my background (which is always one of the most important parts of my appearances). In this particular classroom, it seemed as if every single student was hanging on my every word and looking at me as their role model. I know that it seems like this is the purpose, given the title of my book, but honestly I try to emphasize the stories in the book...of doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc. Seldom do I focus on my own story after I've established a connection with the audience.
On this particular occasion, it was different. When I was done talking about Tracie Hall, a librarian from Compton, and Tim George, a pediatric brain surgeon from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and Bev Kearny, the women's track coach at Texas who overcame paralysis, I was looking at a classroom full of attentive Black students with their arms raised. And what questions did they ask? 'How did you get to college?' 'What did you want to be when you were in high school?' 'How hard was it to write a book?' 'Why did you decide to write about role models?' ...
I was both astonished and honored to be getting so much interest from this classroom of future executives, graphic designers, doctors, and, yes, video game developers. It just goes to show that these young Black students understand that this is a game we're living in...and real role models - perhaps myself included - know how to play it.