This morning, at Lawrence High School in Massachusetts, I was honored give a lecture as part of the White Fund Enlightenment series, to an auditorium filled with seventh and eight graders, mostly high school students, and a small group of adult learners. It’s always challenging to talk to younger people—you can’t skate along by throwing college words around but rather—because you have to translate sometimes complex ideas down in a way that’s palatable.
This is the other thing: many of these kids, all from Lawrence (or “Little Santo Domingo”), have been dealing with issues that many Americans haven’t had the burdened to lug around: poverty, high drop-out rates, depression, negotiating their hyphenated identities, and that’s just scratching the surface.
I decided to approach the time I had with them like this: sharing the tools I believe they need for a successful life. The tools I’m referring to isn’t of the material kind but of spiritual transformation, you know, practical advise.
I wasn’t there to encourage them to chase the so-called American Dream: that dream is a nightmare. If the American Dream means that you have to sell your own soul in order to completely assimilate to what people believe is the ideal of being America, that’s problematic.
I was thinking about what advise my older self would give my younger self if that kind of time travel were possible, in order to prepare me to negotiate my way through the next several years, and I came up with this:
Move every single day. A body that stops moving becomes still and sluggish. And that eventually leads to an inactive mind. An inactive mind stops thinking for itself, fueling itself. Soon, you’ll be looking for validation and acceptance from others, which for many young people leads to making a shit-load of wrong choices like premature sex, teen pregnancy, promiscuity, drug abuse—not to mention—obesity. Get it?
Learn about your history: you may find out that you’re the embodiment of what it means to be American. You are the genetic circumstance of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. You carry this New World’s history books within your DNA, your very beings, and these are the oldest books in the Americas. Don’t take that for granted.
Becoming American doesn’t mean that you have to completely turn your back on where you came from. Take what you like from your parents homeland and culture, and the things you like about Americanism, and make them work for you. The academic word for this process is selective acculturation. Do it. It’s good for you.
Observe and/or say something positive about yourself every single day. I don’t care if you’re in detention for something you did or didn’t do, or staring at an “F” on an English paper or science project in front of you. We all have bad days. Still, give yourself props for being an individual—for example—not caving in to joining gangs or giving up your virginity to the first guy or girl who paid you a compliment, or for making it through another day in one piece.
Learn how to like yourself. By doing this, you will learn how to like others in your community and, as a result, will be inspired to mobilize and effect real and long-lasting change.
When you really start digging what you see in the mirror, you will find another way to articulate your feelings, to express yourselves, other than hurt reach other or yourselves. Trust me, I’ve been there. I was a violent adolescent unable to put my feelings of anguish into words.
Don’t buy everything you read and learn in school—or necessarily what the adults in your life feed you—as absolute truths. We’ve been systematically miseducated. Ask questions, and when something doesn’t sound right, well, ask questions and debate: develop your brainpower and your vocabulary will follow.
Don’t worry about fitting into any checkboxes right now, regardless of what society dictates. Identity is always shifting and only you can do the work of defining yourselves.
And finally, learn how to be a gracious loser. Only then, will you become a first-rate winner. Life is mostly about rejection, especially if you decide to dedicate your lives to the arts and creative fields. If I listened to the scores of people who’ve told me throughout my life that I couldn’t and shouldn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to receive the blessings the universe has bestowed on me via writing and filmmaking.
My word is bond.