Do you know what the first day of freedom smells like? It’s a beautiful May morning – the day after high school.
I loved that day. No more tests, no more getting up and dragging myself out of bed, no more going to a prison I didn’t enjoy. I felt the same thing every graduating teen feels – liberation.
Or so I thought.
I got the phone call around ten that morning. It was like a knife in my back. Someone had planted it deep, and they kept twisting it against my nerves and muscle.
“J.J., I’m just calling to let you know, that you didn’t graduate.”
It didn’t make sense. “But I walked. I did the whole cap and gown thing. Even took all the customary pics.”
“I know. But you’re a full credit short.”
I drove to the high school. My hands shook, and I had zero appetite. One thing kept popping up in the back of my mind. I couldn’t let anyone know about this.
My high school guidance counselor was a red headed woman who never liked me. Every time I walked by her office I got the feeling that she looked down on me. I was the skater punk with no ambition, but still, inside I wanted someone to care.
I sat across from her. Her small metal desk in a crowded office. She twisted her pencil around in her hand and never smiled. The printer buzzed and pushed out a large 11 by 17 printout.
“This is your transcript at the moment. As you can see, your GPA is below a 1.7, and you only have twenty credits. You need twenty-one.”
I shook my head. “How did this happen?”
“Well, that’s what happens when you fail four to five classes.”
Ouch. Talk about blunt. “Okay, what do I need to do?”
She shrugged. “There isn’t anything you can do. Sure, you could take a couple of correspondence courses and get the last credit. Although, I think you would be better just getting your GED.”
“Can I get into college with a GED?”
She frowned, folded her hands and leaned forward. “I’m sure you could. But, you would be so far behind it would take forever to catch up. If you want to go, then I say do it. However, I think you could find a really good job out at one of the plants in the industrial park.”
“You mean the paper plants? The manure plant? Those jobs?”
“Yes,” she said. “They pay decent.”
“That’s not what I want to do.” I had seen the toll those jobs took on my father, and I was determined never to go down that path.
“J.J. You do what you like. But you don’t have very many options. This is what happens when you don’t apply yourself. I say try, but you need to be open to the reality that it may be too late to fix this.”
I balled my hands into fists and left without a word. I’d had people belittle me before. Many who told me I couldn’t do things. But I never had anyone tell me that my life was already defined and set out.
I was angry. And I punched my car as soon as I got out in the parking lot. I knew she was being honest. In time, I became grateful for it. Right then? I felt alone. As if I was living in a glass house that was finally crashing in around me.
One thing was certain—I was determined to prove her wrong.
I just didn’t know how.
My parents divorced shortly before my tenth birthday. Dad had moved out long beforehand. I know the truth about what happened—how my mom was harassed with late night phone calls from some pervert. That man managed to cross the phone lines with his neighbor, one of my father’s best friends. I know how my father confronted his friend, believing he was the one doing this. I also know how my father, being the humble man he was, later apologized when the truth finally came out.
I’ve known these truths for some time. And for years, because of situations neither of my parents created, their hatred for one another grew. Both of them were damaged by the church they loved, and scarred by the legalism. It would take years and my brother’s death before they reconciled their differences.
I say all that to say: I didn’t have the best life in high school. I know my parents loved me. But they will be the first to admit that they screwed up. They will be the ones to say that, in many ways, they were absent—maybe not physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and with very little encouragement for a teenager trying to find his way. Not because they didn’t care. They just didn’t know.
No one ever checked on my school. My mom packed up with my brother and moved away to get married. I moved in with my dad. And a kind man though he was, I don’t think he ever understood that I needed him to take an interest in my life.
The only time I ever felt connected to my father was when we rebuilt a 350 engine for my truck. We never talked during those late nights. We just ground away and cleaned the parts. The old black and white TV had science fiction shows playing all the time. The show Sliders had just started and we loved it.
That was the best season in my teenage life- watching Star Trek, Doctor Who, and whatever else happened to pop on while we got our hands dirty. Other than that, we never really had down-to-earth, heart-to-heart talks. Not until my brother died.
That makes it sound as though my parents were horrible. No. They had their own issues that took some time to work out, is all. My mother has found success. My father is a simple man who is happy. And despite the tormented past we three share, we can all agree—we are stronger today than we were yesterday. They love me, they believe in me, and I love them.
They live happy lives now, and though they may look at the past from a different lens than me, I forgave them long ago. I also stopped blaming them. My problems were caused by me.
I never tried in school.
For starters I didn’t really comprehend. I struggled with paying attention and keeping myself focused. I would be in college before I understood that I struggled with ADHD.
And the truth is: I was a fake.
I went to church. Did the whole youth group thing. Went on mission trips, went to church camp every year, worked at VBS in the summer. I did it all. But I was faking it. I didn’t have it all together.
My friends had families that went to church. I didn’t, so I always walked by myself, or prayed that one of my friends would talk their parents into swinging by and picking me up.
In truth I was dying inside. No one noticed.
I lived in books most days, devouring science fiction and dark fantasy.
My friends were the characters I found in those pages. They didn’t change or betray you like real friends did. I was the closet reader who stayed up until two in the morning, turning pages. To everyone else I was the skater who played in a punk band which went across the state, performing shows.
I secretly listened to Nine Inch Nails and, Marilyn Manson, and spent most of my classes scribbling new songs or writing stories. I was creative and never embraced that creativity. I never harnessed it. I never knew it was a gift and that I could use it.
I was wasting my life and blaming everyone else. And it showed in my songs. My stories were full of the pain I embraced and poured down on the pages. I kept those stories hidden. Afraid to hear what others thought.
But music, art, stories – they were the only thing I was good at.
No one cared. That’s what I told myself. After all, I was just “the-tag-along.”
I have believed the lie that I’m just a little outcast, that I’m the tag along, that people only tolerated me.
In my home town, sixth grade is still in the elementary schools. We didn’t have middle school; we had junior high, which was seventh through ninth.
When I was in sixth grade I wanted to play football with all my friends. But a new state law had been passed that year concerning ages and sports eligibility.
Because my parents held me back and made me repeat third grade when they got divorced, I was a year older than the kids in my class. And as a result of this law, I was too old to play on the sixth grade football team.
I could play with the seventh graders. But their practice started at 2:30 and I didn’t get out of class until 3:30. Not to mention that I didn’t know any of those kids. They weren’t my friends. And that was the whole point of wanting to play to begin with.
One week my friends were going to have a pool party for the entire football team. It would be the last week before their parents closed the pool for the fall and winter. So one last swim was on everyone’s mind.
I remember my friend saying, “Hey, just because you’re not on the team, you can still come. We’ll let you know when it is.”
I waited around and never got the call. But one Saturday as I was out riding my bike, I heard a bunch of kids yelling in the back-yard at my friend’s house. I thought I may have missed the call. I peddled hard over to my grandmother’s house, then rushed in and phoned them.
I was ready to come, even changed into my swim suit. But, who goes without an invitation, right?
Their mother picked up. I asked if I could speak with one of them. She said sure just a second.
A few minutes passed and then I heard one of my friend say, in an annoyed voice, “What the heck does he want?”
Their mother replied, equally annoyed, “I don’t know.”
I hung up and didn’t call back. That Monday at school I pretended as if nothing had happened. I’m sure I may have misinterpreted the situation. Regardless, from then on, I always felt like the outcast. The one that’s there, but stuck in the outer circle of inclusion.
I was a tag along. Nothing more. And that’s the identity I lived with for the next six years.
I’m a firm believer that God has plans for each one of us. That He creates us unique, with gifts in order to glorify Him.
While my faith in God seemed to others to be strong, inside it was weak. As I noted, I was the tag along. No one ever seemed to give me a chance. So, why would God?
Looking back on my life, I see every door that opened. I see His divine sovereignty working. It amazes me to see where I have come. I shouldn’t be where I am, but I’m here all the same.
One of the first pieces of evidence was a family that came into my life at the exact time I needed someone.
They were the Fosters.
When I felt no one else cared, they showed me the love of Christ in ways I had never experienced before.
Shortly after I discovered I didn’t graduate, and had determined to keep it a secret, Mrs. Foster confronted me about it, not in a harsh way, but in a loving, caring way.
They were determined to help me succeed. I’m not sure why. Even looking back all these years later, I don’t understand their willingness to help me. But they did.
The lesson I learned from them is simple: Don’t ever rob someone of the opportunity to bless you.
I didn’t want them to. Maybe it was pride, embarrassment, or just plain inconvenience. But whatever excuse I tossed up- they managed to shoot down.
Kris and Christine Foster purchased two correspondent courses from the University of Oklahoma, each a half a credit a piece. Completing these would help me get my high school diploma.
And on Halloween night 1997, I graduated high school—albeit with a 1.87 GPA. But I did it.
For the first time in a long time, I felt as if someone cared. I felt I could do this. That somehow I would find a way to be successful and overcome the odds.
I had failed and was at the lowest point in my life. But I was on my way to success, and that was all that mattered.
My story doesn’t end there. I got into college, went to Roger State University, and then eventually transferred to Oklahoma Baptist University. I would go on to work in student ministry, where I eventually got burned out.
And over the next thirteen years I worked my rear off as I went from a guy pushing pallets of paper in a warehouse to upper level management for a marketing company in OKC.
I have continued to fail. I’ve failed as a husband, a father, a son, a supervisor, and a manager. Not a week goes by that I don’t screw it up badly. But over the course of the last twenty years I have managed to do one thing over and over—I’ve learned to pick myself back up again. I’ve learned to cast away the lie that no one cared, and that I was simply the “tag along.”
You see, I do matter. And so do you, dear reader. Everything about you matters. People do care about you. People do love you. And you have gifts you can harness and use.
You see, the definition of success isn’t measured by the final output; it’s based on how many times you stuck it out and got back up. Most leadership books will disagree with me on that. Let them. But rise up past your circumstances, trusting the plan God has in store for your life, and not the world’s plan. In may not make sense to those on the outside, but in God’s terms, it worth it.
The journey with Him makes it worthwhile.
Now go dream, go believe, and trust the path He has for you.