In the next few days, I am supposed to speak at two youth summits and submit an outline for a book on my life to a literary agent. At first, I thought, to quote a wise young woman,
"I cannot give you the answers I have not got."
When I thought about it, it occurred to me, I may have one or two answers after all.
I was 14 years old, handcuffed spread-eagled to a bed, locked in a cell in juvenile hall when I thought to myself,
When I am the president of General Motors and write my autobiography, I'm going to start it with this moment.
Even at the time, I realized that was not a very normal thought to be having under the circumstances.
Really, it was a pretty extreme amount of restraints to control a 14-year-old girl but I was 220 pounds of mean poured into a 110-pound body. Most of the staff had bumps and bruises to prove it.
A year ago, I'd been sent to the principal for swearing at teachers and fighting with students. When he called home, my dad said,
"Hit her with the strap. That's what I do at home."
Back then, it was perfectly legal to hit students with a leather strap as part of their public school education. The assistant principal told me to bend over for my swats and I told him,
If you hit me, motherfucker, I'm hitting you back.
He told me I was suspended and I could come back to school when I was ready to take my swats. I never went back. It's been 44 years and I'm still not ready.
I knew I was in for the beating of my life when my dad got home. Still, where else was I going to go at 13? When I heard the front door open, I ran out the back, climbed over the wall into our neighbor's back yard and took off.
Since then, I'd been no stranger to Madison County Detention. Foster homes suck. I'm sure there are some out there where the parents are kind and the other kids don't continually remind you that you are only here as their Christian duty, where you aren't threatened to be sent back every time you swear or don't put your dishes in the sink. They're probably out there, but I've never personally seen one.
After running away from foster care, getting picked up hitchhiking three states away, fighting with two police officers who were only getting me off the streets "for my own good", I was back in juvenile hall. Surprisingly, they weren't too happy to see me.
I don't remember what it is I'd done or hadn't done that started it - told somebody to get fucked, not brushed my teeth, not put my dirty clothes in the hamper. They had a point system. You started with 100 points a day. There were points for everything. You even got 1 point for not swearing at the cook. I remember it because I usually got that one. They deducted points, for every little thing, too. You could lose massive points at once, too, for fighting, destroying property. You needed to "earn" staying out of your cell by having at least 70 points. Most days, before noon, I was down to about 3 and then some staff member would tell me to go to my "room" which just happened to be a cell with a tiny window with unbreakable glass.
I wouldn't go and then two or three guards would grab me and drag me kicking and swearing in there. I had been doing judo for a couple of years and even though they were all grown men, I could usually manage to throw at least one of them and bounce his head off the floor. They'd get me into the cell and I'd try to run out again before they managed to slam the door.
Some days they got tired of having me run out and dragging me in while I kicked, punched and tried to throw them and they would handcuff one wrist to the bed. This particular day, once they had one wrist handcuffed to the bed, I hauled off and socked one of them with my free hand, so they handcuffed that to the bed, too. As they started to leave, I twisted and kicked another one in the face. So, they decided to chain my feet to the bed as well.
You'd think that after this happened so many times , I would learn, or give up and quit fighting them. Nope. I hated everybody, and besides, I was locked up in juvenile hall. What the fuck else did I have to do?
If this was fiction, something dramatic would happen next. Daddy Warbucks would come in and adopt me or the guy in prison ministry who was the one person who had been kind to me would be revealed as my real father. None of that happened. The prison minister was a self-righteous asshole who let us know at every opportunity that he was just here out of Christian duty and not because we weren't all scum who were just going to go from kid prison to adult prison.
The guards were all college students, mostly majoring in psychology, who told us bullshit like,
"You are in control. You have a choice. You can choose to clean the bathroom or you can choose to lose points."
To which I would sarcastically respond,
"And you can choose to go fuck yourself."
They actually told me to my face that this was all based on behaviorist psychology by some guy named B.F. Skinner. Back then, I hated everybody and I still hate B.F. Skinner. I hated him when I was reading his articles when I was getting my Ph.D., I hated him when I was a professor and he would come up in the textbooks and I hate him to this day. One day, I'm going to take a road trip to where he's buried and piss on his grave.
So, there was no Daddy Warbucks or secret father hiding in the wings. I don't remember how long I was handcuffed like that but it couldn't have been too long because I would have pissed myself. They never show that in movies where someone is chained to the wall, but think about it, logically. If you were really chained up for days, nature would have had to come calling and you would be a urine-soaked mess.
It was actually an older, black lady that came in. She worked the third shift, doing the laundry and making sure that none of us somehow magically broke the unbreakable glass, squeezed through the 3-inch wide window and escaped.
"Look, I can't stand seeing you like this. It ain't right. Just promise me you won't hit me or kick me and I'll let you up."
As bad as I was, I wasn't down for beating up somebody's grandma, so I nodded and she got the keys from somewhere, unlocked the handcuffs and that was it.
In the morning, I went to court, got assigned to a foster home and left, swearing I would never see that place again. Of course, I was back a couple of months later.
My second daughter , a.k.a. The Perfect Jennifer, once said to me,
"You know, Mom, a lot of the students I teach in downtown LA have stories like yours - suspended from school, in juvenile hall, foster homes, living with a grandma that never went to high school. Those stories don't normally end up with ... and by 19 she graduated college, at 21 finished her MBA, won a world judo championships, earned a Ph.D., founded multiple companies that made over a million dollars, raised four daughters and lives by the beach in Santa Monica."
But, sometimes they do.
In every way, I was NOT one of the youth who are invited to leadership summits for youth, even in the inner city. I was in and out of juvenile hall, had punched a number of people in the face, from fellow inmates in juvenile hall to cheerleaders at my middle school to police officers. By age 12, I had started both having sex and smoking marijuana. By age 14, I was getting high every day and having sex whenever I felt like it, which was quite often. Nearly everyone had written me off - the educational system, the foster care system, the juvenile justice system. They were just waiting for me to end up in prison and that would be the end of the story.
What made the difference? Three things. First, there were some people who thought I was not a complete loser and might be worth some effort - my older brother, my grandmother, my mom, my judo coach. They weren't all "all in". A couple of those people might have had their doubts but they hadn't written me off completely and what they could do to support me, they did.
Second, and perhaps most important, at a very young age, I learned, as a dear friend of mine said,
"To live a life of the truth"
Let me explain. That doesn't mean that you are goody-two shoes and tell the truth all of the time, although I really, really do try. My friend, who was an alcoholic for many years, said,
You either live a life of the truth or the life of a lie. If you are an alcoholic, you are living a life of a lie. You are telling yourself you don't have a problem drinking, that everyone gets a DUI now and then. You are lying about why you missed work.
I've never been an alcoholic, so I can't really comment on that. I can say that I think one saving grace that I had was that I learned early on not to lie to myself. I didn't believe any Prince Charming was going to come and save me. I didn't think because I had sex with some guy we were in love and going to be married and live happily ever after. I didn't have any fantasies about someone coming in to adopt me out of foster care. I was too old and too aggressive and too obnoxious. I knew no one was going to come in and rescue me so I had to figure shit out.
You can't fix a problem until you look it in the face.
That is my number one lesson I have learned. Admit when you have fucked up. Oh, my God, I have had my share of times! You have no idea. Admit that your boyfriend is abusive, you married the wrong person, you hate your job, you shouldn't have dropped out of school, your "friends" are just there because you can get them drugs or help them get jobs or whatever it is.
However far you have gone down a wrong road, turn back!
Any time you find yourself lying to the people you care about, whether it is about who you are with or what you have been doing, take a long hard look in the mirror. You can't be an honest person part of the time. When you find yourself lying to other people, whether it is about your drinking, your friends, your studying, your relationships, you are almost certainly lying to yourself, too.
Tell the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Courage is the virtue from which all others spring
It's not enough to be honest.You have to have the courage to face facts. You may really love your friends or boyfriend/ girlfriend but if you are trying to quit meth and every time you get with them they are putting it in your face, you have to have the courage to face up to removing those people from your life. Maybe you were a complete idiot to drop out of high school - well, you probably weren't, but I was. Then you need to have the courage to face up to all of the people who "told you so", telling you so again when you take your GED and go to college.
I have found far more people with the courage to get punched in the face or knocked down than who have the courage to admit their mistakes. I've seen people's Olympic dreams slip away because they were afraid to face what their "friends" would say if they went to a new gym. I've seen brilliant software developers shortchange their careers because they worry what their co-workers would say if they leave.
And I have seen so, so many young people have lesser lives than they could because they did not have the courage to stand out, to be "the smart one", to be different, to risk failing and looking stupid.
So, there you have it, the three things I have learned.
If you are lucky and you have people who love and support you, appreciate you and don't let them down.
When you DON'T have those people, and there may be times when you don't, have the HONESTY and COURAGE to be the person you need to rescue yourself.
Sí, se puede.
AFTER WRITING THIS, I THOUGHT I NEEDED TO GIVE SOME MORE PRACTICAL ADVICE. YOU CAN FIND THAT ON MY COMPANY BLOG.