When I was told by my friend Beth Jacobson that she was recommending me to speak to students being inducted into the honor society at Westinghouse High School there was a moment of horror. Me? Speak to teens? What would I say that they wanted to hear? What does any teen want to hear from any adult at or near their parent’s age? What adult did I want to hear from as a teen? So after a few days of refusing to even consider it I decided to at least speak with the honor society’s faculty sponsor Donna Ivanisivec. She talked about how excited they would be to hear from someone not affiliated with the school and that I would do great (why she thought that I’ll never know! I guess Beth really did a great job talking me up). So I agreed to do it, I had three weeks to figure out what inspiring things I could say to today’s youth or fake an illness.
I wasn’t opposed to public speaking, I do it a lot, either at events or business presentations. But this was different, business speaking isn’t very inspiring and when I’m talking at events I’m usually giving away cool stuff (I’m not stupid, I figured out long ago people come out to eat, drink, be merry and win free swag).
So I began my journey of writing out what I would say in my speech. Coming from a long line of ministers, I knew to keep things short and contained to three major points. So I had my tentative outline. Also, it would help to tell a funny story. But what if they didn’t find my story to be funny? So I went with a story they could relate to that also happened to be funny. I started to build my story, a funny opening, 3 key points 1) remember where you came from it will help determine where you go 2) remember the people who got you there 3) everyone has value and a wrap up on how life is a series of preparation, purpose and sometimes luck.
The day came, I had to decide on what to wear, I went with a suit but no tie (I have been mistaken for a minister too many times when I wear a tie so I shun them like the plague when choosing my wardrobe, except of course when I go to church). Nope, looking like you’re preaching to teens equals instant turnoff.
I arrived, still quite nervous. Notes written, reviewed for time, practiced but not memorized. The kids filed into the auditorium all between the age of 15 and 18 all young enough to be my sons or daughters. (There’s nothing like visiting a high school to realize how old you really are). I was introduced by one of the students who did an excellent job reading my bio. The auditorium politely applauded. Luckily parents of the honor society inductees were seated in the first few rows. I quietly said a “thank you god” so I wouldn’t have to look down in the middle of my speech and see one of the kids falling asleep.
I followed my outline:
The Funny/Relevant Story: My meeting with “Weezie”
I told them about working on a project with Young Money Records meeting rap superstar LiL’ Wayne (Wayne of course is hugely popular, so I had their attention) and the true story of going back stage and posing for a picture with him. How excited I was to send my youngest sister (a self -professed "biggest Weezie fan in the world") I had sent pictures of the concert all night. So by the time I got backstage my iPhone battery was dead. His manager, a brilliant gentleman named Horace Madison offered to take a picture with his blackberry. We posed he snapped, great, she’d never believe me without photographic evidence. As a matter of fact not many people would believe me. About an hour later Horace and I are at a restaurant and I remind him to text me the photo. Horace for all his financial acumen helping stars make millions upon millions, didn’t know how to take a picture with his blackberry. So there is no photographic proof of the meeting! The kids thought that was pretty funny I think they figured someone as old as I am didn’t need to lie about meeting Lil’ Wayne so I was over!
The "Meat" of the speech. Who am I??
I talked about going to a small high school that didn’t even have an honor society (or at least no one told me if we did). I talked about figuring it all out, but it took me a while. I talked about motivation and how losing friends helped me gain purpose. The more I spoke, the more I learned about myself. I had a story a story that was real and might just resonate. Not so long ago I was one of those kids in the auditorium , I remembered listening to people who came to my high school so actually with something to say sometimes politicians who seemed to be checking off a box to “talk to some kids” once a year. I wanted them to understand that life is a series of ups and downs. It’s never going to be a smooth ride but what do you do on a ride? You hold on until said ride settles down, until you figure out the roads, the twists and the turns and navigate the bumps. You don’t forget who really inspired you, the parents and the teachers you ignore today will be there for you all along the way. The lessons they teach today can help you more than any politician, or boring guest speaker. I told them to value them and value yourself. It all became clear to me at that point I was there to remember who I was as much as I was there to share wisdom with the students. I never let anyone tell me what I couldn’t do but there were a long line of bumps and bruises along the way. But the people who saw my potential never let me forget it. The people I lost along the way were some of the ones who believed in me the most. I honor them with my accomplishments. My job that day was to inspire them to slow down and listen, and slow myself down and learn what my own journey meant to me. Everything you work for leads you to the next day and tomorrow isn’t promised, even to the young (as many of these kids know living in Chicago). So I encouraged them to enjoy life and the journey to success.
The Big Finale: "Everyone Has Value"
As I came to a close I finished with another true story. This one was related to everyone having value. I talked about vising Springfield at an annual state legislator’s conference back around 1999. I was displaying art for my family’s business. I attending a party filled with politicians, they were letting their hair down quite a bit. There were two state senators dancing on the floor. The female senator was a pretty good dancer but the guy, he was a little awkward. So awkward I all but laughed in his face while his was stiffly trying to keep up with the beat. The next day I remember seeing his picture on the wall with the other current senators and reps and thinking: “Not only can’t this guy dance he’s gonna have a hard time moving up in politics with a name that hard to pronounce ‘Barack Obama’”
I felt bad for him but hoped he would do well, and learn some more dance moves along the way. I told the students to do me a favor and if the president ever visited the school, apologize for me and tell him I would love a job in his administration!
All in all, I had a wonderful time, The "life is about luck" part came in when I randomly gave two students being inducted in the society $50 gift cards. I was given school gear and made an honorary “Westinghouse Warrior”. I am grateful to Beth for suggesting me as a speaker, and to the school for actually helping me learn more about myself that day. The students at Westinghouse have great futures ahead of them. Now if I could just overcome that huge bump in the road laughing at a future president, I might be OK.