Who Do You Want to Become?
I announce, in my best teacher voice, to a class of juniors in some rural North Mississippi high school, “Ok, we’re talking about goal-setting today. I’m going to read a story about a girl, and I want you to think about what her future might look like.”
The gist of the story is this: The girl’s home life is chaotic and social workers often come to ask her questions at school. Her mom can’t hold a job due to mental health issues, her dad is absent, so her family doesn’t have much money. From a young age, the girl loves school because it’s safe. Fast forward to her junior year of high school – her family is homeless. She’s in advanced classes, but her grades slip as she deals with the stress of her family situation.
At this part of the story, I ask, “What do you think happens to her?” Each class responds with the same predictions: She drops out of school, goes to jail, becomes a teen mom or a drug addict. Another sad, but very common answer students give is, “She commits suicide.” And usually one optimist in each class says something like, “Maybe she makes it out. You never know.”
The students, waiting to see if their predictions are correct, are totally absorbed as I read them the next part of the story. “On a regular day, a free college-access program visits her school. In the middle of feeling so lost, The girl all of a sudden has a goal. She wants to get into that program. She writes the required essays, asks teachers for recommendation letters, and takes the ACT. Eight months later, she learns that she is selected for the program, and she spends the summer on Princeton University’s campus learning and growing.
She returns home and applies to numerous colleges. The girl is admitted to her top choice, but she needed money to attend. She applies for countless scholarships but none of them selects her.
Until one did, and it was a really good one; it covers the cost of undergraduate and graduate school. Long story short, she moved from her home state of Mississippi to New York City for college, studied abroad in Europe, graduated with a degree in psychology, and landed an amazing job in Washington, DC working with White House staffers from the Obama Administration.”
At this point someone usually interrupts, “Wait, is this supposed to be a real story or not?” I smile, nod and continue on, “After a year in DC, this girl moved back to Mississippi for a little while and today she is here talking to you.” I look up from my paper to see confused expressions, followed by gasps of realization, and then questions like, “WAIT. Ms. Kiki, it’s you?!”
After they calm down and forgive me for leading them on like that, I tell them the point of my story, which goes a little something like this:
Don’t ever think that what your life looks like today will be what it looks like tomorrow. You decide what your future looks like, and life is wild.
You think you know, but you don’t know what’s coming next. So promise yourself that you’ll follow through on the things that really matter to you, even when it seems like everything is against you. You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Who do I want to become?’ and then make it happen, because you have the power to do so.
Your past does not predict your future. Instead, your past relates to your future in ways you get to define. So, how does my past affect my future? I still struggle from childhood wounds, but I thrive as an adult. I take pride in taking care of myself mentally, physically, and emotionally, and I’m learning to leave behind old survival patterns that no longer serve me. I refuse to let the way I grew up define me or my capabilities.
My goal now is to ensure that others who face early childhood adversity have the same ability to become whoever they choose. I believe the best way to enable those individuals is to educate and empower them to make healthier decisions. My next step is to pursue a Masters of Public Health at Emory University. There, I hope to assist professors with research on adverse childhood experiences and resilience as well as learn about creating health programs that prevent toxic childhood stress. My favorite psychologist, Carl Jung, has this quote which goes, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” I hope you reclaim any forgotten power when you read that. I hope you feel liberated when you realize that you get to decide from this moment forward.