I have always been a fan of stories about people who come from behind. I am a fan of the underdog. In fact, I am a fan of anyone that is unbeatable because no matter how many beatings they take, they just keep going. I am a fan of the dreams that come true. In fact, I openly admit to being a fan of high school movies about kids that overcome the odds and the conflicts of popularity. I love this. I admit to enjoying the corny endings where the entire school applauds and gives someone their due.
As a matter of fact, I take this back to the time when I graduated high school. Only, I wasn’t in high school anymore. No, my graduation came differently. My graduation came in the mail, which was months after I took my high school equivalency exam.
I was in my mid 20’s at this point. I never told anyone that I was a high school dropout. I never talked about school because my stories were not the favorable moments, like say, taking driver’s education classes or going to my junior or senior prom. No, my stories did not match the celebrations that coincide with the typical teenage life.
I was “Away” to put this simply. I was on a farm with a collar around my neck, which means I had legal charges on me. I had two felonies, which were eventually plead down to A and B misdemeanors. My choices resulted in me being remanded to long term drug treatment in lieu of one year, plus 90 days in one of the state’s correctional facilities.
I never did well in school. Then again, in my youth, I never did well at anything. My focus was different at the time. My structure of belief was different as well. I resigned to the fact that there was something clinical wrong with me. There was something mentally wrong. I could not study like other kids. I could not learn because I believed that I lacked the capacity to understand or be capable. I believed this, wholeheartedly, and furthermore, I heartily believed that I would be dead at a young age anyway. Either dead by a bullet, or dead in jail, dead at a drug spot on some corner in East New York Brooklyn, dead by poison or my own hand, either way, I was destined to die young. Period. End of sentence.
After I completed the mandated treatment and returned back to the real world, I saw what happened to my so-called friends. Many of them were locked up. Some of them were dead already. They either died directly or indirectly from the lifestyle. Some of my friends were strung out and looking to perfect their life through dirty chemistry. I couldn’t go back to that. I had made a few promises. I couldn’t be who I was but yet, I was never sure how to be the person I wanted to be. Then again, I’m not sure I believed I could be anything other than this: some ex-junkie kid with stains on his record and a drop out that never made it past the 11th grade.
Years later, I was working in the real world. Of course, I always lied about my education. I would always check off the box that said high school with some college. And I was always encouraged to go back. I was encouraged to at least take my equivalency exam. Get your diploma, I was told. Give it a chance, they said to me. And by they or them, I mean my circle of influence, which was my family at the time.
I took a few classes but I never followed through. The information was intimidating to me. The teachers were intimidating. The classroom and the other people were intimidating. Plus, my lack of belief and painful relation to younger experiences and classroom routines were too painful to overcome. Rather than endue, I quit. Instead of following through. I found excuses to leave and not return. Until, inevitably, there was no way for me to escape. Eventually, I had to take the exam, otherwise, my living situation would change. To explain, I was living in the basement of my Aunt’s house. And she informed me that either I take the exam or my living situation would change. So, needless to say, I agreed to take my high school equivalency exam, pass or fail, and this would allow me to stay where I was.
I took a few courses. I did what I promised. I agreed to go to school but I was sure that I would never learn anything. Besides, the classes were a joke. I was given material to read but why bother? I wasn’t going to pass anyway. I went and sat in about four or maybe five classes. I doubted myself, every step of the way. I hate math, so of course I was going to fail that. I was going to fail everything and what would this mean? This meant I would receive a notice in the mail that said something like, “Dear Mr. Kimmel, we regret to inform you that you did not pass your high school equivalency exam.”
I remember where I sat. I remember the building. I remember the outdated decorations in the room. I remember the teachers and the proctors that stood in the room during the examination. And one by one, I took the test, one section at a time. I completed them and thought to myself, “There goes another one that I failed.” I never studied. I just took the tests.
I was angry after the test. I left the room and exited the building. Then I went in my car, and here’s something I never admitted to anyone: I cried the entire way home. I cried like I was a small child that had his favorite teddy bear taken away and murdered.
I was so beaten. I was down on myself. I swore I would always be stupid.
I swore I would never make much of myself. If anything, I would be like my teachers used to tell me. I would be nothing more than a ditch digger or someone lying in a ditch somewhere. I believed in these old tapes and messages as well as their reinforcements, which came to me from so-called educators and counselors that labeled me. I have these records in my mind that date back to my early childhood. And they play sometimes, even still.
Like, seriously, how in the world do you tell a 12 year-old kid that he is emotionally disturbed?
How do you give a kid a label like this without any explanation and then call yourself a professional?
But either way, I believed this. I believed that I would never be more than an incapable mental patient.
Eventually, time passed between me and my equivalency exam. I went back to my life. I went back to playing pretend and acting “As if.”
I went back to work and began to forget the exam ever existed.
I remember when I came home to find a letter in the mail. The letter was addressed to me from the Department of Education. I swear, it took me a very long time to open this letter. And why bother?
I already knew what the letter was going to tell me.
“Dear Mr. Kimmel, as expected, you’re stupid. Better luck next time.”
I remember where I was when I opened the envelope. I remember unfolding the letter. I remember crying even harder when I read the words that informed me of my grades. I passed.
I mean, I really passed.
I passed, and meanwhile. I kept myself prisoner for so long in the beliefs that all I could ever do and all I would ever be was a failure.
So, no. I never walked across a stage to receive my diploma. I never had the typical stories of high school romance. I never had much more than an inaccurate version of myself but at last, I finally had my high school diploma.
As I write this to you, I immediately found my thoughts turn to a state of judgement. As if to say, “Big deal, you passed your high school equivalency exam. You also know how to go to the bathroom and pull your pants down . . . So? What do you want, applause?”
Then I reassured myself because my successes and my achievements have nothing to do with anyone else’s approval. This was huge to me. And I feel for the people that cannot relate because they will never know or understand what it means to overcome.
No, I never went to a prestigious school.
I never had much of an educational career but if you were to reach out to me back then and ask, “Say, do you ever think you will be giving college lectures on a book you wrote,” I would have said “You’re crazy.”
I might have cursed you, if I’m being honest.
They talk about this thing called tenacity; as in to be tenacious, to hold fast, to be persistent and to keep going no matter what happens, no matter how it hurts; you just keep going. (I know it hurts though. A lot sometimes.)
I love the stories about the underdog. I love the stories about the unbeatable because they keep going, no matter how many beatings they take. And rest assured, life can give a beating.
Life hits really hard. You get hit.
You fall down to the point where you don’t even know if you have the wherewithal to get back up. You question everything. Maybe you doubt yourself. Maybe you doubt if you can go one more round.
Or, maybe life puts you at an impasse and whether you turn left or right, there is no escape. Doors slam shut. The windows of opportunity dwindle and close. You go back to your life and your lies and the mundane. You go back to acting “As if,” expecting your downfalls because hey, “This is who I am,” right?
I give it to you.
It’s hard to get up sometimes. It’s hard to be tough. It’s hard to hear the chants of “You can do it,” and “I believe in you!”
And for the record, I’ve had tears streaming down my eyes since the beginning of this message.
To be honest, there are times when doubt rears its ugly head. There are times when the worst is all that comes to mind. There are times when all I have is this routine and my time here with you.
At least I have this . . .
At least I have my routine because there are some that have nothing. There are some that think the same as I did when I was young; that this is all they can be; that all they can be is a failure. And this messages might not be for everyone, which is fine because I know that out there somewhere is a kid that can’t seem to see above the labels.
This is for them.
All I can say is I feel this.
All I can say is I wish I had someone like this when I was a kid. I wish there was someone that knew what to tell me. I wish there was someone that could explain things very simply instead of giving me these long-winded, clinical discussions and heavy-hearted titles, which make it hard for a kid to be a kid.
Somewhere out there is a grown up that is still threatened by demons like this. All they do is try and hide from this. All they feel is trapped by a trillion different ideas which limit them from being their best. There are people that walk amongst us, and you might not know, but their depression has them one step away from yet another tragedy.
If I could help one person like this . . . just one, and I mean really help them; I swear this would mean more to me than the day I opened the letter from the Department of Education.
I’ve been thinking about my dream lately and that farm I want to build.
One day, kid.
One day . . .