I have a personal tale to tell, a tale about leadership. That pretty much figures right?

There are a lot of people who know that I was a military kid. There are a few people who know that I lived in Kansas City, Missouri for one year as a kid. There are fewer people who know that the year I lived in Kansas City, I lived in the ghetto, thus I went to a school that was in the ghetto.

my great grandmother

Living life in the ghetto is hard enough, but when it’s something you didn’t grow up with it can seem even harder. That’s because you don’t have a shared experience with any of the people you encounter, thus you stand out more.

I was an outcast from the very first day. My dad had already left for Vietnam, so my mother took me to school that day. It was an old style brick building that was surrounded by a very high fence that was locked most of the day with an old guard watching, in case parents or police had to come in, to keep kids from leaving, with no grass to speak of; looked more like what some of today’s prisons reminds you of (it’s gone now).

It was easy to see that I was going to be much different than all the other kids. I was 10 years old, and at that time my mother still picked out my clothes, ironed everything, and brushed my hair, with a little part in it, using whatever the type of grease was that with available back then.

In other words, I looked pretty good. However, the overwhelming majority of the kids did not. Most of the kids would wear the same thing almost every day, with those things rarely being washed. Some kids got to change clothes daily, but they would be wrinkled and sometimes be a little shabby, as if they were hand-me-downs.

The teacher, Ms. Johnson, used to spend the first 60 to 90 minutes every morning taking different kids into the bathroom, since each classroom has its own bathroom, and washing them up and doing their hair. You would hear kids screaming from being cleaned; I thought that was very strange at the time.

After about a week, I was moved out of the classroom and into either the school’s administration area or the library. It was obvious that I was grades ahead of everybody else, even though we were all the same age. This was supposed to be fifth grade, but they were still reading Dick and Jane books and learning addition and I was way beyond that.

However, that’s not the only reason I was moved. Just like in today’s world, whenever there’s a kid that’s different in some way there are a lot of other kids who resent it. Even though it wasn’t my fault, you can imagine seeing someone coming in wearing the kind of clothes I did every day, which weren’t expensive because we were a military family after all, but looking expensive when compared to what everyone else was wearing. I had enemies, lots of enemies, and school was a dangerous place to be.

So I was spending a lot of time alone, but even though I was pretty much by myself almost every day in school, it turns out I was in danger. There were a lot of kids who were plotting to find ways to get me alone so that they could beat me up. Some of that I knew about, but a lot of it I didn’t.

The lucky thing for me was that not every kid immediately hated me. I had a couple of protectors, even though I never asked for it, and I had a couple of people who were friendly to me. One kid who lived around the corner from where I lived, named Odell, stopped by the house one day after school to give me some information about what was going on.

My great-grandmother happened to be visiting that week, and in front of her, my grandmother and my mom he talked about this potential group of anywhere from 15 to 20 kids who were going to try to find a way to trap me away from all the adults to teach me a lesson. I heard that part and I was scared, but my great-grandmother told me not to worry about it and to go off and play with Odell.

The next part of this story was told to me by my mother. After we had left, my great grandmother stood up, looked at my mother and said “Betty, there is no way that we’re going to allow anything to happen to my great grandson. We’re going to go up to that school tomorrow and we’re gonna get this whole thing taken care of.”

So, unbeknownst to me, the next day my great-grandmother and my mother went to the school and had a conversation with the principal and the vice principal. I guess my great-grandmother did most of the talking, and she told them that it was their responsibility to make sure that I was being taken care of, that my dad was off fighting a war to help protect this country and that the last thing he needed was to worry about his son in school.

After this conversation, something very interesting happened. I must’ve blocked it from my conscious, because I’m thinking it had to be one of the most bizarre and embarrassing things that could ever happen to a kid, and could’ve turned out really bad. I didn’t even remember this part until my mother told me on Thanksgiving.

The principal called an assembly for all the kids in grades four through six. When everyone was in the room, she had me come out on stage with her. Since I wasn’t in the classrooms anymore, she had sent someone to get me out of the library and have me come to the gym, which is where they held assembly.

She then proceeded to tell those kids about me, and about my dad overseas fighting the war, and that just because I came from a different background and that bothered some of them did not give any of them the right to hate me. She also told them that if any harm came to me whatsoever that there would be a lot of them would be expelled from school, even if they had nothing to do with it, because she had a list of troublemakers who she was going to suspect were in on it.

As I said, that could have gone really bad in the long run. Instead, I ended up with a few more kids who were on my side which made things a little bit safer for me. I still couldn’t go to a classroom because there was nothing anyone could teach me, but I was allowed to move a little freer around school and we even did some things that year that the school had never participated in before, such as a field trip and an entry in the city’s science fair.

I tell this story for a particular reason. Every once in a while, true leadership means deciding to take a stand for the right reason even when the odds seem to be against you. My mother was missing my dad and was worried about me to the point that she couldn’t figure out what to do, thus did nothing. The principal of the school had done what she thought was proper because of the circumstances, but really hadn’t followed through to make sure I was safe.

But my great grandmother, the only person I have ever known in person who was left on someone’s doorstep in a basket as a baby, who never went beyond third grade yet was able to raise 13 children, and was barely 5 foot tall, took the reins and lead the charge with unwavering righteous rage to make sure that both my mother and that school protected me and brought to attention just how vulnerable students could be.

In a way, it wasn’t only about me because, even though I didn’t remember the assembly until a few days ago, I do remember that there were a lot more adults walking around to see what students were doing before they could do anything to anybody else. After all, even without me was a pretty violent school.

True leaders don’t wait until a crisis happens to take a stand for what’s right. True, sometimes the consequences may not be what’s expected, but you have to be willing to speak out or take action for those who can’t do it for themselves. And if you can exhort others to take positive action, even better.

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