Sometimes Progress Means Hitting the Rewind Button

Induction into the 14th Elyria Schools & Friends Hall of Fame

18 October 2014

Acceptance Speech

When Sally Ruth telephoned to tell me that I’d been nominated for this Hall of Fame, I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t just shed a tear. I sobbed. Ever since that day, I’ve been thinking about how I can express just how much this means to me, but I can’t–and I’m a writer, which means I’m supposed to be good with words!

I decided that rather than standing up here blubbering, I would instead try to express what it means to me to be an Elyrian . . . what it means to me be a Pioneer.

Just for a minute, let us turn back the hands of time and think about those brave pioneers who settled this country. They were courageous. Tenacious. What was it about them that set them apart–what was it that enabled them to be successful in their quest? Three characteristics stand out as key to their success.

First, they were resourceful. They had this fantastic ability to make the best out of whatever was available to them.

–Sort of like me in the first week of kindergarten at Franklin Elementary, when my teacher explained a mind-boggling tradition called “Show and Tell.” I fretted and worried for the next four days and nights about what was special enough to bring in for my first Show and Tell. When that Friday morning arrived, I grabbed a spoon from the kitchen and did a little digging in the front yard flowerbed. Mrs. Carter earned my undying adoration with her reaction when I carried into her classroom a jar of worms. She was excited, and supportive, and placed that jar of worms on the shelf for display right alongside the dolls and toys and loveys the other kids had shared. She was the first in a long succession of spectacular teachers who would shape me into the person I became.

In addition to being resourceful, pioneers were also grateful – grateful for each day they were granted and grateful for every opportunity that came their way.

That’s how I felt, growing up in Elyria. Going to school felt like going to a castle. My teachers and my principals – especially larger-than-life Dick Wainwright – they were my heroes. Every year, on the last day of school, I was the saddest kid in the city.

Back then, my brothers and sisters and I walked everywhere: to church, to downtown Elyria for music lessons at Driscoll’s and Wagner’s; to Bob Vandemark’s Barber Shop for haircuts; and – my personal haven – to the public library. Every Saturday, I walked to the library and borrowed the limit – then books – then carried them home as if they were precious cargo. At night, far past my bedtime, I read by the light of the streetlamp outside my bedroom window. In the summers, I packed a brown paper bag lunch, climbed a tree, and read for hours while perched on a branch. I don’t know what would have become of me without the library, but I do know that I would not have become the person I am without that endless supply of books.

As I grew, I participated in so many fantastic experiences – you just heard about some of the activities I was involved in. And there were so many more. Fast forward to high school, where I met and dated my future husband. We held hands as we walked through the hallways and sometimes stole a kiss or two in the stairwells of Elyria High School.

I never dreamed that we would get married and be blessed with a family of six. Then again, never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d become a Random House author. And I certainly never dreamed I’d be inducted into this Hall of Fame. I only knew that I loved life, and I loved life in this little town of mine, and I was so grateful for all of it.

So yes, resourcefulness and gratitude are important aspects of the Pioneer Spirit. Add to this one more thing: a sense of purposefulness — and suddenly, you’ve put the pow into pioneering. And you can change the world.

My most recent book, which is a book about the criminal justice system, explores this concept of purpose. Camerado, I Give You My Hand shows the consequences of children growing up in ignorance of the simple truth that everyone is born for a reason. We have crisis of over-incarceration in this country, and it’s costing us billions of dollars a day. Some states spend more on prisons than they do on education, which is a particular form of insanity since we know that education is what can keep people out of prisons. We have to change this! My book offers concrete steps toward ending the madness.

For me personally, writing Camerado upended everything I thought I knew about crime and punishment. It also gave me a new purpose in life. I dream of creating a national service organization that will channel American idealism and energy back into our own communities, an organization something along the lines of the Peace Corps, except it will benefit homeless centers and prisons, all of which are in desperate need of help.

And so although I am here tonight, first and foremost, to thank you, because I am so very thrilled to be here, and to be thought of so highly by my own community that I would be honored in this way, I must confess that I have an ulterior motive. There is something else that is on my mind.

Tonight, I am going to ask each and every one of you to think back on your own childhood. Find one thing that was good, and right, and true, something wonderful that is in danger of becoming extinct. And then tap into your Inner Pioneer and do something to revive it.

Because, you see, here’s the thing: sometimes, progress is not always about innovation.

Sometimes progress means pushing the rewind button.

The secret to meaningful progress just might be in our own memories, waiting to be excavated.