Jagged Road to Success

Do you ever wonder how you got where you are today? Whether you consider it a good or bad place, both come with bags of challenges designed to distract you from your goals at the time.

While watching one of my favorite television series, The First Lady, it made me stop and think of the bumps and curves along my road of life. My mother would always say to me and my siblings, “You can be anything that your heart desires.” When I close my eyes, I can still see the smile on her face, encouraging each of us to believe the words. As a naive 15-year-old boy living in the ghetto, I had no idea what I wanted to do if I got to grow up. The one thing my siblings and I could agree on was that we didn’t want to live and die in the community where we lived called Bloody 5. The original name of the area was the Fifth Ward, but because of the number of murders, community members started referring to the area as Bloody 5. When outsiders learned you lived in Bloody 5, they would look frightened for their lives. We were taught early on to work twice as hard as the other students with White skin with the hope of being noticed, but with the understanding that as a little Black boy, I would never be treated fairly. At the time I had no idea what any of it meant, but I soon found out.

Near the end of my tenth year of high school, I was excited when it was announced that all students would be scheduled with a guidance counselor to help us decide what we wanted to do after graduation. I remember spending hours researching all the careers that would enable me to help my family to escape Bloody 5. I was bouncing all over the place trying to limit myself to selecting only 3 professions to be presented to the guidance counselor. Of course, every day my decision would change, and I would restart my list, depending on the characters that I liked on television. Finally, when the question was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up”, I was prepared with my response. With pride and confidence, I said to the guidance counselor, “ When I grow up, I want to be a Pediatrician, a Lawyer, or a Journalist, reporting the news. I told her that I wanted to attend a university since my grade point average was one of the highest in the school and I felt that I could be accepted into an Ivy League college. What happened next surprised me.

Initially, I thought the Counselor was excited by the big smile on her face. Then I realized that she was laughing at my response. As she softly patted my hand and said, “Do you really want to go to college where there won’t be many students that will look like you, and can your family afford to pay?” With utter shock, tears started to form in my eyes. Even though my grades were undeniably great, the voice in my ear started yelling, she is right, stay in Bloody Five and become a garbage man, a gardener, a janitor, or keep working as a messenger at the local bank. The counselor suggested that it would be better to pursue trade school and try to become a plumber, auto mechanic, or maybe a nurse’s aide. Later I discovered that all the students of color were given the same guidance counseling advice. Although my mother had planted the seed in my head that I could be anything that I wanted to be, I realized her words were just to help me stay positive about life.

During my 12th year of high school, I became more diligent about obtaining the best grades that would place me high on the list of graduates. I also became angrier at the reality of being a black boy in America, a country that hated you because of the color of your skin. Many of my friends accepted what they believed to be their faith in life, selling drugs and traveling towards the expressway of prison. I refused to settle and give up my dreams. With the lack of funds for college and honest guidance from someone with the knowledge of how to apply and get accepted into college, my road became more and more confusing with lots of turns, curves, bumps, and dead ends. I applied to several Ivy League colleges but was turned down because I was “different,” and wouldn’t be a good fit. I didn’t give up though but kept pushing myself even harder. One of the rich women that my mother worked for as a maid took an interest in me and arranged for me to attend a local 2-year college to see if I could handle the studies while continuing to work at the bank full time. After one year, she helped me to complete paperwork to enter a 4-year private college where I was accepted immediately. To this day, I am still not sure of her influence, and I wish I could thank her for believing in me.

Every day of my life I am grateful for the lack of academic support and discouragement received from the assigned guidance counselor. Her overall discrimination towards all students of color prepared many of us for worse struggles growing up and surviving in America while breathing Black. I wished I would have sent her a thank you note and flowers many years ago.

Lessons in Life have taught me to:

  • Build and maintain high self-esteem
  • Believe in yourself and develop confidence, no matter how rocky the path may be
  • Always take pride in what you do
  • Focus with a positive attitude
  • Expect the best possible outcome for what you do
  • Create powerful goals from your dreams
  • Give your brain a place to aim
  • Learn from mistakes and failures, but always rise
  • Persevere and never quit trying
  • Be resilient with the ability to spring back from difficulties

An amazing quote from Eleanor Roosevelt helped me to survive over the years. Watching the series, The First Lady, reminded me of so many things and people that I greatly appreciate having in my life.

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Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.

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Mikael Wagner

Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.