None of Us Looks Like His or Her Story
Recently, I attended the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools, where I listened to thoughtful and thought-provoking presentations about many aspects of independent school life and the opportunities and challenges before our students. One of the most compelling presentations occurred during the “Independent Matters: Dare to Explore” general session (NAIS’s version of TED Talks) when Steve Pemberton, Chief Diversity Officer and Divisional Vice-President for Walgreens, recounted his experience growing up in the Massachusetts foster care system, a journey he has also captured in his recently published autobiography, A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, A Mysterious Past, and How He Found A Place Called Home (published by Harper Collins in 2012).
Opening with a wry smile and speaking with a distinctive Boston accent, Pemberton began his presentation by refuting a comment he had often received from those who had learned of his background, that he doesn’t “look like” his story. He asserted that, indeed, none of us looked “only” like his or her story; instead, he suggested that we all deserved the opportunity to be perceived beyond the limitations imposed by the human tendency to size up quickly and neatly categorize each other based upon superficial factors. Having secured the attention of his audience, Pemberton then proceeded to share his story.
Fatherless and abandoned as a toddler to foster care by a mother struggling with addiction, Pemberton related how he found himself, at the age of three, in the hands of the Robinsons, a foster family interested only in how the young Pemberton could serve their needs and in the financial stipend he brought as a ward of the State of Massachusetts. The physical and emotional abuse and the loveless conditions Pemberton experienced during the almost fifteen years he spent with the Robinsons were heartbreaking and difficult to believe.
Even more difficult to comprehend, however, was how Pemberton managed to retain faith in himself as well as his fierce determination to make a successful life for himself. In spite of considerable obstacles, before he turned twenty-five he achieved success many times over as he completed high school, graduated from Boston College, and secured a role as an admissions officer there. Perhaps most significant, he concluded by telling the audience about the loving family he and his wife had built, the type of family Pemberton was so persistently denied as a child.
Throughout his presentation, Pemberton reminded his audience that he was able to achieve these successes as a result of the many small and large gestures others showed him along the way as well as by his refusal to be limited by his circumstances. As he wrote in his autobiography, “although tragedy and loss are regrettably commonplace, we aren’t measured by what happens to us but rather by how we respond to it.”
Unexpectedly, just two weeks later, I found myself reflecting once more upon Mr. Pemberton’s story and its themes of personal invention, persistence, and resilience as I listened to members of our ninth grade class tell their stories during the annual ninth grade poetry slam. As Fenn’s ninth graders courageously shared the poetry they had crafted during the preceding six weeks, I was struck by how inspiring and impressive each of their journeys had been and about how well each of them had responded to adversity in their lives. I was moved, for example, by the resourcefulness and determination of one young man as he recounted childhood memories of learning how to read and speak English as a second language. I was touched by the poetry of another young man, a talented athlete, who revealed how the pressure of meeting the perceived expectations of his peers, coaches, and family threatened to deprive him of the joy he had once found in the game since childhood. And I laughed at the loving, gentle posture each team assumed as it jousted kiddingly with the other teams for the title of “SLAM Champion." All the while, I reveled in the joy each student derived from the pleasure of letting well-crafted words, lines, and poems trip across his tongue and into the ears of classmates and teachers.
As has been the case since I witnessed my first Fenn slam six years ago, I left the event with its abundance of verse (almost seventy original poems were shared that morning) awed by each student’s courage and creativity and impressed by the care and compassion each young man demonstrated toward his peers as they each shared their poems of triumph and travail. Though the stakes and circumstances in most, perhaps all, of these boys’ cases were not as dire as those which Pemberton faced during his childhood and adolescence, each of these young men nonetheless demonstrated that day, as Pemberton has throughout his life, the resiliency and determination necessary to be an agent of his own success as well as the ability to extend to others the kindness and compassion necessary for them to achieve success as well.
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