Several years ago, I volunteered teaching personal development classes at an adult emergency homeless shelter where I worked. One of the processes I used was to invite attendees to think about someone in the world they admired, and then to name the things about that person they most admired. The person could be a famous ‘real-life’ or fictional figure, past or present. Or, someone in their life.
One day, a young man who had been staying at the shelter since being released from prison 6 months previously, shared how the only person he could think of who he admired was his grandfather. “He always treated me nice,” he said. Not like his mother whom, he said, constantly repeated to him what she’d said the day he was born. “This one’s born to be bad.”
At the age of 24, his six months at the shelter were the longest stretch of time since turning 18 that he had not spent in jail. He was determined to keep his stretch going. I want to prove her wrong, he told the class. I want to be a better man.
As part of the exercise, I invited the attendees to write a letter to themselves saying all the positive things they wanted/needed to hear this person they admired say to them. There was no expectation of sharing what they’d written, I told the class. Just that they write out what words they most wanted/needed to hear about how wonderful, kind, intelligent, amazing they were. No negativity, I told him. These are the words that celebrate you. That inspire and applaud you.
The class wrote their letters and when finished, the young man whose mother had predicated he’d turn out bad asked if he could read the letter out loud to everyone. When I asked the class if they wanted to hear it, they all said yes.
When the young man was finished reading his letter out loud, there were a lot of moist eyes in the room, including mine.
This poem is written in honour of that young man and his courageous assertion that he was not going to be his mother’s predictions. That he would do whatever it takes to break the cycle, both of her abuse and his history of getting into trouble. And, it’s written to honour the thousands upon thousands of men and women who enter a shelter’s doors, who like that young come, arrive carrying the burden of a lifetime of being told they are good for nothing, they do not belong, they are not loveable or worthy or wanted.
Words matter. Let us think about our words. Let us use our words to create a better world for everyone.
A Gift of Life By Louise Gallagher The first time she saw his face wrinkled and wet with the vestiges of its journey through the birth canal visible upon his skin, she closed her eyes. Tight. “You’ll be good for nothing,” she whispered to her newborn son as if she could divine his future by the marks her body had imprinted upon his skin through a past she could never face. And everyday, as he grew from toddler to teen to man she reminded him of his future adding the back of her hand across his face, for good measure, she told him with a laugh as she lifted a grimy glass of gin to her lips. She taught him things no child should ever learn gave him a story he did not deserve of a desperate future where he would always be good for nothing. It was a harsh and brutal story no man could carry without defending himself against a past that had branded him at birth and kept him living his 24 years as good for nothing. Twenty-four days out of his last incarceration he declared, Enough. Enough of living out a past he’d been born into and was always told was his only path to becoming a man. Enough of being the kind of man everyone called good for nothing. On that day he took his life into his own hands but not before willing his heart and lungs and other organs to give life to another. At least that way, he whispered with his final breath I will be good for something. When she heard the news of his demise his mother laughed and lifted her gin, her fifth or was it sixth of that day, Good riddance, she said to the empty room in which she sat on a threadbare couch surrounded by discarded bottles and dirty dishes. I always said you’d be good for nothing. And still, his heart beats on a gift of life creating a world of something better for someone.