"There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
I can't say nothing because we are them. And, they are us.
These were my kids. These are our kids.
You know those soul-tugging pulls I write about? They led me to one of the most magical places on Earth. And one of the toughest: Norcross High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia. It was there, alongside some of the most amazing human beings I've ever met in my life, I awoke to so many things.
It was here, I looked into the eyes of a Dreamer for the first time.
M taught me so much about life - and how we choose to show up for ourselves and our families when things are hard. I'm pretty confident that she taught more than she learned that year - as much as I loved biology.
I taught a lot of those kids.
Four years after having her in my freshman biology class, she came by my classroom to share the news: graduation. She had made it - the first in her family to do so - she was graduating.
Eight years later, and I still get the chills thinking about it.
It was a hard battle for her to get that far. We were both so proud.
During all four years of high school, she worked the overnight shift to help provide for her family. Exhausted, she showed up anyway.
English was not her first language - biology is tough enough for so many students, I was totally unprepared in my early years as a teacher for just how challenging it would be to work through language barriers. And, together, we pressed on anyway.
She was initiated into a gang in elementary school - not by choice - making life that much harder. And, she was one of the most hard working, compassionate students to ever sit in my classroom.
On a good day, a hotel room in the 'tough' side of town was her home. And, she showed up anyway, never once complaining about what she had to endure - what she had to witness.
M, like so many of her peers, lived in this in-between world of never-enoughness. She never felt fully accepted here, in the country she called home for almost her entire life. And, she was too 'American' to be fully accepted back 'there.'
She didn't remember her journey here because she was so young. When I asked her why, she told me that her father was encouraged to come to Atlanta to help build venues for the 1996 Summer Olympics. So, her family left everything they knew - and made the trek. For a better life.
And now, here she was days away from graduation with no plans. No college even though she wanted to be a nurse. No job because she had no social.
I threw out possibility after possibility - unable to accept that this could be her reality. After all that work. After all that sacrifice.
Dreams Come True, a message I've been sharing since I won Gold ~
But, this. What did this mean? For her. For all these kids. My heart shattered.
I was at a total loss. I felt the deepest sense of helplessness.
All this courage. All this resiliency. All this perseverance.
Why can't she have a chance? I lost sleep over it.
Our conversation - our relationship - cracked me wide open to a world I didn't fully understand. I didn't get it until I looked into her eyes - and truly listened to her story.
And, that only left me with more questions.
Who are we?
M graduated - alongside the class of 2009. She went back to her overnight shift - completely disempowered - completely afraid to use her brave voice - stuck in this place of uncertainty.
This shit isn't easy.
I know what is easy - avoiding eye contact so we can't see them, blocking our ears so we can't hear their stories .
Insulating ourselves - making it an us vs. them issue.
This is a human issue.
In the words of Brene Brown:
"We don't want to connect with people who are in pain, especially if we believe they deserve their pain - or if their pain is too scary for us. We don't want to reach out. It feels risky. Just by associating with them, we could either end up in the same "other" pile or be forced to acknowledge that bad things happen to people like us."
We want to simplify, when it's not simple.
We want to dehumanize our fellow humans.
We want to insulate by casting them as "others."
We want to avoid the fear.
We want to avoid the pain.
We want to avoid the hard by turning away.
Here's the thing, when you look them in the eyes - when you hear their stories,
You see hope in their eyes.
You see kindness. Compassion. Courage.
You see grit.
You see love.
You see pain.
You see that we are more alike than we are different.
You realize: We are them. They are us.
It was inside the walls of Norcross High School I awoke to many things.
It was here I felt my whiteness, for the first time in my life.
It was here I gained the critical awareness I needed to own my privilege.
It was here I began to understand the impact of poverty - a world that cannot be captured in the words of a sociology book.
It was here I gained the critical awareness that colorblindness IS a form of racism.
It was here I learned to truly listen.
It was here I saw the transformative power of love.
My kids have taught me so much about life.
I still call them my kids - even though many are married now, with their own families.
As for M. I'm not sure what she's up to now.
Here's what I know for sure:
They are my kids. They are our kids.
We cannot betray them by staying silent.
Samantha Livingstone is an Olympic Gold Medalist, transformational speaker, high performance coach and mama of four. She inspires and empowers others to cultivate the courage, resilience and perseverance needed to let go of perfection and other limiting beliefs so they can live their dream. Samantha candidly shares her battles with her inner critic, depression, perfection, PTSD and parenting as a working mother because she believes in the transformative power of story – and the strength that comes from knowing we are not alone. She is on a mission to pay forward all that she’s learned to help others find joy and live free.
A mama of heart warrior and mama of twins, Samantha and her husband, Rob, live in the Berkshires with their four girls.
You can learn more about Samantha at www.samanthalivingstone.com.