I’m going to coin another corny phrase: inspiration comes in the most unexpected places.
Maybe I can make it a little snazzier than that.
Anyway, I was at a work event the other night – a memorial for fallen police officers on (*gasp*) National Police Officers Memorial Day – and I didn’t expect to leave that program refreshed and rejuvenated and re-inspired. I thought I was going to learn a little about the history of the LA Police Department and a little more about a handful of police officers who died while on duty.
I learned a lot more than that.
After presentations on the history of LAPD (so I did learn some history), which included an incredible story about this urban jungle’s very first sheriff, and presentations on Old West lawmen, a young police chief steps up to the podium. And he begins to tell his story…
He is the first in his family born in America. Both of his parents emigrated from Mexico; his father was an alcoholic and his mother came from an abusive family. His parents spoke no English, so when he first went to school, he didn’t either. Lack of English and the challenge of keeping up with the other students quickly landed him in Special Ed.
He was teased. Bullied. Beaten.
He got older and he started defending himself against the bullies. Fighting back. But they still managed to beat him down. And to top it off, he started getting into trouble at school for all the fighting.
Then he hit his teenaged years, and he started getting into more trouble. He was suspended several times from school for various infractions. He took to drugs, drinking, and petty crime.
One day, he and a buddy concoct a brilliant idea. They each take their respective 1960s-era boats they drive, and they head towards their high school. A few blocks away, they park their cars in the middle of the street to block all traffic. The school buses start coming down the street with the high school students on board, and they can’t get by. Traffic starts backing up. The guys refuse to move. Traffic backs up some more. School starts and 90% of the students are not in class because they are still on their bus in the middle of a traffic jam.
The guys finally move their cars and head to class themselves. Within moments of their arrival, the future police chief is called into his principal’s office where there is a deputy sheriff waiting for him. The deputy greets him with “what the F$%^ did you think you were doing?!?!” but follows up the exclamatory question with a real query: why? Why did this young man cause such trouble?
And the future chief himself said, “that deputy was the first adult to ever take an interest in me, and who wanted to know me.” The deputy and the student talked. And talked. And talked some more. As they finally started wrapping up their conversation, the deputy invites the student to attend an Explorer’s meeting – Explorer’s being the young men and women who aspire to a career in law enforcement.
The guy goes, and he is blown away by what he sees. He realizes in an instant that he wants to be a police officer. And he immediately applies to join the Explorers. The application process is a brutal one: written test and oral interview. The guy passes the written test (barely) but he flunks the oral interview outright. He leaves the interview room in tears and bumps into the deputy sheriff. He manages to gurgle out, “they didn’t want me!” to the concerned deputy, who immediately turns the guy around and marches him back into the room. The deputy confronts the panel:
“If we’re not going to help him, then who? If not now, then when?”
The panelists changed their minds and the student was admitted to the Explorers. Where he thrived and excelled all expectations. When he graduated high school, he went into the Police Academy, and after graduating from that program, landed a job on the LAPD.
But he felt insecure. He lacked self esteem. He knew he was a hard worker, but he was worried: he barely made it through high school. He had been in Special Ed. He didn’t feel educated, especially compared to his fellow officers.
He talked to the deputy sheriff, who encouraged him to go back to school.
And he did. Where a former Special Ed student, who barely graduated from high school, went on to get an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree, AND a Master’s degree! As he pursued his education, he advanced in his career. He made it all the way to Captain. And finally – Police Chief. A position he still holds to this day.
That deputy sheriff that saved his life. That encouraged him to go to the Explorer’s meeting, and got him into the Explorer’s program, and encouraged him to go back to school. He was shot and killed in the line of duty.
And the police chief told us that night: “Every day, I look for the kids that are just like me. The ones that nobody cares about. The ones that are headed down the road to disaster. And I want to help them. I want to do for those kids what this deputy sheriff did for me. I want to save their lives.”
I can say that as the police chief ended his presentation, there were very few dry eyes in the house. I, for one, felt a flash of inspiration. I remembered in that moment why I do all the things I do. Why I’m a museum educator. Why I have started volunteering with an after school tutoring program.
I want to make a difference.
I want to help children find the confidence to believe in themselves. I want them to experience art, history, science, and culture, and have those experiences stay with them their entire lives. I want to know that work I did made a child’s life better, even if only for the few moments I am working with them.
I want to be the source of inspiration for others.