“I am worthless,” mumbled Alan. I was shocked to hear this negative personal assessment from a college student who had always exemplified professionalism and potential. I called this young man just to check on him. He had gotten a poor grade on his midterm exam in the College Algebra course and I wanted to talk with him about how he could pull up his grade before the end of the semester.
“Is this about your Algebra class?” I asked.
“No, not that.” He said.
“What happened?” I gently pried.
Alan had always been very articulate but now he stumbled over his words. “I just came from the courtroom and the judge told me I would never be a productive member of society.”
I knew Alan had an incurable, degenerative disease that caused him physical difficulties, but I did not know how bad it had gotten. He told me that because of the judge’s ruling he would be on disability for the rest of his life. College didn’t seem to matter anymore. In fact, he didn’t feel his life mattered any more.
As he poured out his heartache I heard not only the pain, but also his desire to be of value. I searched for the right words to catch him from falling any further into despair.
“The judge lied to you,” I softly responded.
“How can you say that? I have nothing to offer anyone!” he snapped back angrily.
“You have an amazing voice,” I pointed out. “I have always enjoyed our conversations. You are intelligent and well-spoken. Have you ever thought of a career in public speaking?” I thought about how others had used their experiences to bring awareness to a disease or difficulty. There are organizations that would eagerly hire a young man who could speak eloquently about the challenges he was facing on a daily basis.
Alan would have none of that! He did not want to be defined by his disease.
Still, I persisted, “How did you do in your speech class?”
“I barely passed with a low C,” he replied.
That surprised me. When I asked why he got such a low grade he said that he got high marks on his oral presentation, but because he hands shake so badly he was not able to type or write out the speech. The professor marked him down for not having the speech on paper for her to grade. Now I was impressed! To be able to give a full-length speech without notes is very unusual. He had a gift. Alan grunted.
“Humor me,” I continued, “If you were given the opportunity to speak before a crowd, what would you enjoy talking about?” What he answered was not at all what I expected.
Alan told me of his fascination with history. He talked about the founding of our nation and shared with me little-known facts about the Civil War. His tone raised a bit as he talked and energy came back into his voice. He said that he memorized the words of many famous people in history and even quoted some to me. He told me how he frequented local gatherings in Pennsylvania where historical battles were reenacted. As he spoke I became even more impressed with this man.
Finally, he said, “It’s funny, but when I was in high school I worked part time at a retail store and spent all the money I earned buying authentic costumes from different time periods of American history! I have uniforms from both the Confederate and Union armies. I have uniforms from both World Wars. I even have clothes of a mountain man that I got at a rendezvous. It drives my parents crazy!”
Then it was like he had an epiphany, “Do you think anyone would want to hear me talk about American history while wearing a costume from that era?”
Now I was excited for him! We brainstormed about places that might be interested in what he had to offer, museums, elementary schools and colleges. I gave him a couple websites for him to research that would tell him more about the business of public speaking. By the time we ended our conversation he had found a new purpose to his life.
I followed up with him a couple months later and it was a different Alan that answered the phone.
He recognized my voice before I even introduced myself, “I am so glad you called!” he said.
He proceeded to tell me that he had already given his first paid speech in costume at a local college! He talked on the Economics of the American Colonies while dressed as a colonial settler. It was so well received that he was referred to another college. Alan already had a second speech booked for the following month.
Alan is still on disability. He may not be able to finish his degree, but his time in college was not wasted. Through failure and tragedy, he found his purpose, his passion and his direction.