October 30, 2019

One of my daughters looked at me while doing her homework and asked in utter frustration, “When in my life will I ever need to use these math equations and algebra?”

“You never know,” I say.

She rolled her eyes at me and went back to her books.

We all have skills that end up serving us in ways we could never imagine.

If you had told me that being a sergeant in the Israeli army would give me street cred with gang members in East LA, I would have laughed so hard I probably would have fallen off the chair.

Most of the kids I work with don’t have a lot of exposure to the arts in their life. Some of them are natural singers and dancers. For many, standing up in front of a crowd is not their cup of tea. In fact, it is absolutely and completely out of their comfort zone.

I tell them again and again that change happens when you step out of your comfort zone. I also tell them that they don’t have to be performers, but the experience of doing something uncomfortable can be very empowering and an important skill to learn.

“That is simply bullshit,” she says to me. “I do not need to be in the culminating show. What skill is that teaching me?  Nothing, Ms., absolutely nothing.”

Who knew that the extensive peace work I did in my twenties and thirties in the Middle East, the hours working with Palestinians and Jews in Israel’s West Bank, Jordan and more would give me the skills to negotiate with the toughest withdrawn non-cooperating youth on this planet?

“I am not reading my poetry to nobody! Do you hear me, Ms.? No fucking way!” she says, pouting.

I don’t even answer. I simply smile, knowing that she will lean in and read.  Because at the end of the day, everyone else will be reading and sharing. The audience will be loving it.  It will be a safe environment and it will be glorious.

Actually, by not saying anything, and simply letting them resist is my way of leaning in and getting  them to participate.

I remember standing outside the door of my beloved Palestinian friend’s house, her son yelling that he does not want to talk to a Jew. I remember him being adamant about not wanting me to even step inside the house. I remember her making him come outside, he sat on the porch hating me. I remember waiting for him to lean in and listen and eventually he became my best buddy.

Who knew those experiences would teach me that inside some of the sternest NOs, lives a yes that is waiting for the opportunity to come out?  If we are blinded by the NO, we might never have the magic of the Yes.

“I have absolutely no skills,” he told me.

“I’ll never get a job.”

“That’s not true,” I told him.

“I am a homie who did time and too much drugs, Ms.”

“Okay,” I tell him, “It’s all about how you tell the story.”

“What?” he asks.

“You were in the gang for years. That sucks, but you learned how to be a team player. Right?”
“Hell, yeah,” he said. “I am also loyal as fuck.”

“Cool,” I say.

“I also can problem solve, not gonna lie, but I solved some serious shit, Ms.”

“Cool again,” I say.

“I would say you got over real obstacles in your life,” I add.

 “You need to take the skills you have and use them for good. You have everything you need right here,” and I put my hand on his chest.

He looks at me with tears in his eyes.

“I know you see it, Ms., but I don’t think anyone else will.”

“They might not,” I tell him, “but we will help them see it.”

We put together a lovely résumé, stretching the skills he has in one place to fit the boxes he needs in another place.

“Wow, Ms.,” he says.

“You sure that’s me?” he asks when he sees the words on the paper.

“Yup,” I say.

“What are you going to tell people when they call you for a reference?” he asked me.

“The truth,” I say, “my truth,” and I smile.

“What does that mean?” he asks me.

“You know how to do everything that is written on that résumé.

It doesn’t matter how or where you learned it.

You just need to work hard and do your job.

Once they hire you, they will see how amazing you are,” I tell him.

I sang the praises of this man on each phone call that I got, but, because of his record, he didn’t pass the background check.

I changed my tactic and I started by saying he has a record, but he has amazing skills. I plead, “PLEASE give him chance.”

Then I start second-guessing myself.  Can he do this? Will he be okay? How can I vouch for him? And I panic a bit.

Here is the thing, sometimes it’s not okay. I have had that happen.  I sent someone to work somewhere and it was a bad fit. Sometimes the skills we think we have cannot help us. That’s okay. But sometimes it works, and the skills we learned in one place prepare us and help us move forward and things click.  My guy got a job. A friend of a friend hired him. He is doing great!

I recently got a phone call telling me how amazing he is and thanking me for the referral. I hung up the phone and cried.

I cried from relief that it all worked out.

I cried for joy for my guy who so desperately wants to change.

I cried because there were 2 other referrals that didn’t work out so well, and I had started to doubt that what I am doing is okay.

I cried, because crying is a skill  I do well. I realized that we need to always try and make the effort and believe in the possibility of the best, because that is clearing the path for that best to occur.

“Ms.,” he asked me.

“Do you really think I have all these skills”

“Yes, sir,” I say.

“Well, then I believe that too.”

“Good,” I say.

“You make me the best me,” he says.

“No, I don’t,” I say.

“You have it all.  I just invited it out.”

“Well, it’s all out and ready to go,” he said.

I cried, because, thank god someone was waiting and willing to let him try and I am so incredibly grateful, because he is now doing well and becoming everything he can be with a skill set that was just waiting to be found.

Naomi Ackerman is a Mom, activist, writer, performer, and the founder and executive Director of The Advot (ripple) Project a registered 501(c)3 that uses theatre and the arts to empower youth at risk to live their best life.

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