Thursday, March 6, 2008

My Failure by Jam Donaldson

We’ve all had our share of failures in life. Lord knows I’ve had mine. The porno letter-writing business, my Tax class in law school, the cashless ATM scheme, dating that married guy. But there’s one particular failure that I can’t seem to get out of my mind. This is a failure of a different kind. I failed my cousin.

I have a cousin. He’s bright, handsome, and sweet but unfortunately he is on his way to becoming depressingly average.

Let me explain. My cousin grew up in a working class suburb. He was surrounded by a family who loved him, he was an average student, he was part of a local band and an all-around good kid. He got into college on a band scholarship and I could not have been prouder. His mom, dad and grandmother never went to college so it was a great achievement for him to be attending a local university on scholarship.

Growing up in an area where very few black men go on to pursue higher education, I was thrilled that he seemed to be on the right path to better himself and most importantly act as an example to his two younger brothers.

But, as you probably guessed by the title of this post, things didn’t quite go as planned. In the summer before his junior year, I got the news from my mom that my cousin wasn’t going back to college. I immediately called him to ask what the deal was. He told me that he had lost his band scholarship (his story changed several times as to exactly why this happened) and he could no longer afford to attend the school. He was going to work for the next semester and save money and go back to school in the spring or the following year. Well, we all know what that means, most folks who leave college never go back and I was determined that he get his college degree. SO, I offered to pay his tuition. I didn’t care what I had to do—whether it was taking out loans or selling ass on 12th Street, I was making sure that boy graduated from college.
See, I am blessed to have come from a family where education was stressed, C’s were not acceptable and college was not optional. So I tried to convince him of the importance of him staying in school and getting his college degree. And even with my offer to pay his entire tuition… he refused. He wanted to work, and by working he could save for school and also get a car. After trying and trying to persuade him, it became clear that the desire for a car was far stronger than his desire to get his college degree.
So long story short (I know I know, too late) he ends up working at some dead end random job, he never goes back to college and now has two kids by two different women. He’s not even 24. I feel like somehow I failed him, the family failed him. I know there is nothing we could have physically done, but I cant shake the feeling that our family and community let a vibrant life full of potential slowly descend into mediocrity, and did nothing.

See, for too long we have defined failure by its extreme manifestations: ending up in jail, becoming a drug addict, being a teenage mother. But, in my opinion, when we don’t see a young person all the way through to realizing his or her potential, its just as big a failure. In our community, mediocrity, doing enough to get by, is becoming an epidemic. And that realization hit me really close to home. I wonder what will become of these young people? In a world and an economy where there is little use for the ordinary, what happens to this generation? Where are the dreamers? Who are the innovators? Where are the parents who don’t allow failure, who read to their children, who tell them in the dark of night as they put them to bed: “you can be anything you want to in this world and the possibilities for your life are endless”?

Its like our bar of standards has dropped so low that as long as someone graduates from high school, we say they’re doing fine. As long as they aren’t in the system, we say they’re doing fine. Excellence is scarce. Vision is non-existent. You have a 62 inch flat screen and your kid doesn’t have a computer in the home. We aren’t taking foreign languages, we aren’t going into technology fields.

I want to go back to the mentality of our predecessors and embrace a philosophy of goals and success and striving to be the best and reaching the highest of heights. In this global economy, we cannot afford average. This is no longer a world where you can graduate from high school, join a union and work in a factory for thirty years and still be able to raise a family. By not challenging each other to be the best in whatever we do, we are doing ourselves a disservice and more importantly we are setting our young people up to be members of a self-imposed underclass.

With access to more opportunities than ever, our young people seem perfectly content settling for less. And I cant help but think that its our fault. Have we told them that there’s more, have we shown them what more looks like? Have we reinforced in them every waking moment that they can dream big and achieve their goals through education and hard work?
I don’t know. I just felt so impotent. Me and my smart mouth were no match against “easy”, against “quick” against “right now.” I love my cousin but it hurts my soul whenever I see potential squandered. Especially when someone is handing you an opportunity on a platter. I mean, if you’re not willing to accept and opportunity when someone is GIVING it to you, what happens if you actually one day have to work for it?

I keep looking back at what I could have done, what I could have said to change his path. But how do you convince a young man to finish college when he’s been raised in a world that tells him he should be happy just getting out of high school. My voice was lost among his friends and teachers and media who told him that good enough was enough. Those who told him that passing is passing, even its with a “D.”
Now don't get me wrong, in no way am I saying that if you aren't wildly successful, then you have failed-- the failure is in not even trying.

I love my cousin and it’s the people we love that we should be hardest on. Why do you think Im so hard on black folk? I just want us to get there and it just frustrates me when it seems the only thing standing in our way is ourselves. Sure, my cousin will be fine. But Im so sick of "fine," I want amazing.

Meanwhile, Im gonna figure out a game plan for his little brothers right now. Wish me luck. Maybe there's someone in your life you can start working on. Before its too late.

Peace people.

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