He never needed help
“Okay, so we’re all here because of our hard work and of course, the help that we’ve received. And, that’s the message that we want to convey to our students. We’re here to help and at times, you’ll need help.”
That statement seemed simple enough. Hard work leads to success, but no one does it alone. I didn’t think anything of it, as I looked around the room at my cohort. I just joined an Americorps program focusing on working in public schools with “disadvantaged youth,” a group that I easily fell into before college. I wanted to do something before graduate school and working with my community made the most sense. After orientation, I’d be sent to East New York, in Brooklyn, to meet the kids.
“Uh, excuse me — that’s not true. We don’t all need help. Some of us never got any help. We had to do out all on our own.”
Without looking up, I knew the voice but was still shocked.
“I had to do it all on my own,” he continued. “Nobody helped me in high school or college, or anywhere and it’s unfair for us to make that assumption.”
Stunned, I finally looked up for confirmation. It was who I thought it was and I didn’t even realize that I knew the strongest man in the world. The only person that never needed help.
When I wasn’t doing well in class, I asked for help. When my personal and romantic relationships were waning, I asked for help. And, when I was too depressed to get out of bed, I found a way to ask for help.
The summer before my freshman year of college felt like a DC movie directed by James Gunn. There were way too many scenes, nothing was connected, and at the end of it, I honestly felt like “that just happened to me.” But, it was necessary. Contingent upon my admission into school, I had to complete a six-week immersion program on campus. That entailed moving before my high school graduation, taking classes, and participating in a month-and-a-half of icebreakers with strangers. Although, getting to know everyone was the fun part. I was eighteen, I left home, and I felt freer than ever before. That meant parties and women, but it also meant failing each of my classes, which wasn’t a problem until I met with my counselor.
“It’s not too bad. It’s practice, really. I’ll do better in the fall semester.”
“No, you don’t get it. If you don’t pass these classes, you won’t be allowed back for the fall semester.”
“Yup…I did not know that.”
The conversation went something like that and ended with me cursing myself out on the walk back to my dorm. It was a little jarring that I was on track to fail. I never failed anything in my life and after graduating second in my high school class (I’m still upset about that), I thought that college would be a breeze.
I was wrong.
So, I did what any poor Black kid faced with the impending doom of failing to meet expectations would do: I worked my ass off. I attended every study hall, every office hour, sat in the front row of each lecture, and asked for extra credit. I formed study groups for every class and at the end of the summer, I actually won an award for academic achievement. That turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened because I approached the fall thinking “If I could just turn it on halfway through and finish with all A’s then this shit will be a breeze.”
Again, I was wrong.
The fall semester was a sequel to the abysmal movie that I headlined in the summer, filled with parties, late nights, and very little studying. When I found out that I was failing every class, including physical education (how the hell do you fail PE?), I had no choice, but to settle down and fall back into the good habits that I grew up with. Forming study groups, doing extra credit, and most of all asking for help. That experience humbled me and another academic award was waiting for me at the end of the semester.
I got all C’s and managed to narrowly avoid being placed on academic probation. Success.
It wasn’t until after that experience that I sat through a session on asking for help. It was there that one of my mentors said, “Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.” He admitted that the quote wasn’t his and he’d most likely stolen it from a refrigerator magnet, but regardless of where it came from, it couldn’t have held more weight.
When I wasn’t doing well in class, I asked for help. When my personal and romantic relationships were waning, I asked for help. And, when I was too depressed to get out of bed, I found a way to ask for help. That refrigerator magnet saying changed me and fifteen years later, I still hold on to it.
I took another look at the guy from across the room. “He did it all on his own?” I thought. I thought back to what I knew about him. We hadn’t just met during orientation. He was two years older than me and from the same neighborhood. Our high schools shared a building, we attended the same college, and now we were about to serve in the same community. I knew part of his struggle and I knew that he couldn’t do it alone, but what bothered me was that he honestly felt like he had to.
I haven’t spoken to him in years, but my wish for him and everyone in 2022 is to know that no one has to do it alone. Being self-aware and vulnerable are our greatest strengths and knowing when we need support will only bring us closer to our goals. At times, I still struggle with asking for help, but it’s a continuous work in progress.
I’m not the strongest person in the world, but I’m getting there.
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