Early lessons continue to hold me in good stead

Posted: Nov 02, 2001 12:00 AM
It is my honor this week to receive from The Boy Scouts of America, the Whitney Young Service Award for outstanding dedication to youth services. The award recognizes our efforts to develop the business skills of local youths through internship and recruiting programs. Over the past decade, we have opened our business to more than 200 disadvantaged urban youths with the hope of cultivating in them a sense of other possibilities. The honor carries for me a special resonance, as its namesake, Whitney M. Young Jr., is one of my personal heroes. As executive director of the Urban League from 1961 to 1971, Young helped push black Americans into the corporate mainstream. He also generated some heat amongst black separatists for the fervor with which he pursued political and business connections. Derisive snorts of "Uncle Tom" were not that uncommon. It did not matter. Young had a vision - to make our businesses and government agencies look more like America. His dedication to that goal opened up new forums for black achievement and has been the better part of our success today. The award also carries for me a personal resonance, since I was a member of a youth group similar to the Boy Scouts - the 4-H Club. Though 4-H members were taught to judge livestock with a certain uncanny fervor, the goal of the two clubs remains essentially the same: To cultivate in our youth a sense of individual striving, validation and heart- thumping joy. Perhaps for this reason, my mind keeps coming back to those early memories when, beneath the kindly lash of my 4-H master, Bill Jones, I first began learning about the world. A cherished recollection: We are in the woods. My 4-H master's body is tense, his eyes fluttering behind his glasses. He gazes upward at the arrival of birds. "That is Mother Nature," he announces, squinting to get a better look at the blurry gray flock. The children gazed, too, for a moment, then proceeded to chase every bird in sight, our skinny arms flapping, our little voices squawking. Much to our master's dismay, we had found a way to turn even the casual art of bird watching into an active sport. A few moments later, we moved on to the next trouble spot - perhaps poison ivy or the strangely captivating urge to pet a porcupine (comparable amongst city children, my friends tell me, to the urge to touch a moving fan). Besides not touching a porcupine, there were, of course, other lessons that I learned from my stint with 4-H, lessons that have stuck with me through the years. My 4-H master taught me the value of personal responsibility, economic independence, thrift, hard work, an essential optimism that things will work out for the best, hope in the future and in each other, valuing education and the love of learning, ambition, enthusiasm, a healthy dose of pride, determination and perseverance. I now realize that these are the essential ingredients for success in all aspects of life. We don't necessarily appreciate their importance until we've reached a certain age and have gained a certain degree of life experience. As a grown man, I treasure these early lessons. They were not complex. Often they involved little more than acquiring knowledge on the topic of tree moss or wood whittling. But because we worked in groups, these lessons implied a certain consistency of values. And since our 4-H master nudged us along in a wide range of tasks, we learned a sense of cheerful industry, striving and personal validation. Those were important years, a special time when my self-concept was starting to unfold. Perhaps for this reason, these small experiences seem crucial in nurturing my delicate self-image, my confidence and my assertiveness. Those lessons on wood whittling and tree moss did much more than instruct me. In a very tangible way, they set me on the path to becoming the man I am today. They were important not because they were profound (they were not) but because they helped impress certain values upon my young mind - the quality of virtue and striving and a hunger for knowledge. These lessons formed a foundation that would haul me along into adulthood and, along the way, help me discern between right and wrong. Decades later, these early lessons remain not just as memory, but also as a constant source of rejuvenation and a lingering joy in my heart.