My first love is the classroom. You faithful readers know that I have been a kindergarten teacher for 31 years and counting. You also know that I am a member of the school board in the community where I live. It is in that capacity that I am frequently called upon as a motivational speaker. I find myself sharing messages of hope and faith in front of a wide range of young audiences -- from middle and high school classrooms and graduations to mentorship programs for boys and girls, church youth groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, even college-level classes.
If I had to choose one speaking experience as the most unique or gratifying of them all, I would have to say that it would be the times I have been called upon to meet with kids in the juvenile detention center in my community. When those opportunities present themselves, I always grab them for two simple reasons.
My first reason lies in the answer to a question: When young people are released from the juvenile detention center, where are they going? You and I both know that those kids are going to return to our neighborhoods. Just as I share positive messages with my kindergarten students because I firmly believe that it is never too early to start, I also feel it is never too late to introduce positive concepts to young people who have made bad decisions. I talk with them about "change." We talk about what is meant by a "positive attitude." I share that when they are released they will be faced with many choices; if their mindset is one of change -- reshaping and rebuilding their lives -- and if they carry a positive attitude, things can change for them.
"Your past is a place of reference, not residence," I tell them, borrowing a phrase from one of my favorite motivational speakers, Willie Jolley.
And I remind them frequently that "a setback is a setup for a comeback."
Everything from hereon, I advise them, is about making good choices.
The other reason why I take any opportunity to speak with these kids is that it is my job. No, it is not in the written job description for any job I hold, but as a member of society I feel it is my job to help all our children.
Believe me when I tell you that it is immensely rewarding to speak at a high school graduation, to compliment the graduates on their choices and their successes. But I feel just as strongly -- and find it as rewarding -- to reach out and help our children who, for whatever reasons, have lost their sense of direction.
I want all children in our communities and great nation to feel hopeful, not hopeless.
Those two reasons are why I take time to speak with kids in the detention center setting whenever it is offered. Each time I visit, I feel that I am able to make a connection with the young people there. I believe I have been able to leave many of those kids with some skills and internal motivation that might enable them to start making better choices for a better future.
Any impact I have had on those kids' lives, however, is overshadowed by the impact they have had on mine. My visits to the detention center are reminders to me that it is my job, as a member of society, to be an advocate for all children -- from those in kindergarten to those incarcerated.
Speaking to youth who are in detention facilities is a reminder to me that I have been called to work with all young people. Teaching concepts such as attitude, accountability, and purpose are at the heart of what I do. Challenging them to think and dream big, introducing them to Covey's 7 Habits, and instilling a sense of character are what I can do to help them turn their lives around. My sessions at the center are intent on leaving those kids with a simple challenge: "You might be presently in juvenile detention, but juvenile detention does not have to be in you."
After my first visit to the juvenile detention center, its director, John Day, had the kids send me notes of thanks. I found those letters in my school mailbox after another productive day of teaching kindergarteners. As I read the first of those letters that evening, tears began to roll down my face. The words that the children shared with me touched my heart.
"Thank you for speaking with us."
"Thank you for talking to me the way my Grandmother used to talk with me."
"Now I know what it means to have a positive attitude."
"I will practice personal accountability all the time."
"I will use every minute of every day more wisely."
One after another, those notes from the heart echoed the messages that I had hoped to instill. One child even wrote that "my dream is to become a counselor to help troubled kids."
After reading those letters, it took me some time to pull myself together. But it also reminded me of my purpose here on Earth: I am responsible and accountable to all of our children. Relating to them, connecting with them, speaking life to them, and encouraging every child that I come in contact with is one way in which I can make a difference.
It is a way we can all make a difference. As adults, we are all in a position to be part of the solution. Or, as Willie Jolley often says, "We must always focus on the concept of W.I.N. (Whatever Is Necessary). The power is in each one of us to W.I.N. with all of our children."
Article by Carlton Ashby
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