Erik Clemons is the Executive Director of LEAP in New Haven, Conn. Its mission is to develop the strengths and talents of young leaders who create and implement year-round, community-based programs designed to achieve positive academic and social outcomes for children living in high poverty urban neighborhoods. Erik is married and the father of 4 children.
"The Hero on Metro North"
Growing up in the midst of extreme poverty, and equal despair, I was much more apt to describe what a hero was not, as opposed to was. I'm sure quite different from my peers; my sense of a hero was not a blue-suited, red caped man who flew through the air, and stopped bullets in mid-flight, or a nocturnal, cool car driving guy with a sidekick. To be honest, given the situation I found myself in, I had no conception of a hero, or heroism for that matter.
At the age of 14, I found myself in Stamford, CT, living in a rooming house; of course, my mom, older sister, and younger brother were with me. My mom and brother slept in the bed, my sister took the couch, and I slept on a reclining chair. Here we were, cramped in a 20x20 room, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with strangers, some of which were prostitutes, drug addicts, or those who were recently released from prison, and just looking for a break. This building, with its little segmented rooms, had its own culture. Many of its inhabitants talked more about how they came to live here, as opposed to how they will get out. Moreover, conversations about dreams deferred saturated the atmosphere, to the point that the despair and hopelessness was palpable. This ever-present despair and hopelessness were like conjoined twins. Which, I now realize I could always sense them, but never articulate their presence, or effect. Yet, you just knew they were there, and you just waited for the incremental and measurable results of their insidious work(s).
To counter my impending dreams deferred, I would play basketball, and work at the Grade A Supermarket on Newfield Ave. Usually, on Wednesday's I would hop on the Metro North train, and ride 10 minutes, to my hometown of Norwalk, CT. We happened to be in Stamford, because my mom's job was there; thus, it was more logistically feasible. This one particular train ride, I noticed a nattily dressed black man, seated with his legs crossed, reading a newspaper. For whatever reason, I was struck by the print of his socks, which were exposed because of his crossed legs. He sported a short afro, glasses, and a nice watch. I immediately thought about how lucky his son is to have a dad like that. You see, my father was truant/MIA, and I knew, at my age, I needed, wanted a role model (being fatherless, especially at the age of 14 is almost a cruel reality. Even worse is having an absentee father, and knowing he is alive!)
This "train guy," I thought, would be the perfect one. So, I decide every Wednesday I would ride the train, at the same time, and look for this guy; which I did. For 3 months I would hop on the Metro North, and search for him. When I spotted him, I would position myself, where I could watch and record every subtle and overt move he made. I made mental notes of the way he folded his newspaper, the newspaper(s) he read, his cufflinks, shoes, suits, ties, briefcase(s), how he spoke, and what he spoke about. In essence, I had decided that when, if I grow up, I want to look, and act just like him! Given the situation I was in, this "train guy" unbeknownst to him, would serve as my hero. His image, coupled with my creative imagination concerning his fatherhood and lifestyle, gave me hope, and assuaged the despair and hopelessness I went home to.
|Young people benefitting from LEAP (LEAP)
Surprisingly, 25 years after I drafted him to be my role model, while in Westport, CT, I saw the man who serendipitously guided me through my season of discontent. Actually, he and I were waiting in the same line at a bank. He was noticeably older, but still possessed the same air of confidence. I approached him, teary-eyed; I introduced myself. I explained our time on the train, and what he meant to me. I thanked him for being my hero. He politely said "you are welcome." Ironically, after subversively intruding upon him 25 years ago, I didn't ask for a name, because I felt that I had intruded enough. Moreover, his name would have diminished the profundity of his appearance and example. You see, remaining nameless allows for the "train guy"to be anyone who unconsciously and unceremoniously avails him/herself to a child seeking a hero.
The most important revelation wrought from my experience with the "train guy" was a salient realization that upon emulating/drafting the nuances of his person, I was now accountable to those who resembled me. Meaning, I have a duty to bear resemblance to a "hero" for every child in need; especially the least among us (to whom much has been given, much is required). This is why my position as Executive Director of LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership) is so special to me. The opportunity to exercise servant leadership; the act of serving the staff, children, youth in, and communities of our program, where all involved are compelled to be leaders is immensely gratifying! Admittedly, although this role is quite exhilarating, it is equally scary. At any given time, I serve as parent, mentor, role model, and spokesperson; for staff, youth, and child. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, race plays a major part in this role. Many of the LEAP staff and children have grown up within the same situation I have, where, quite frankly, African American male leadership is strikingly minimal, and survival is considered success. With that, being an African American husband/father and professional places a natural insistence for me to be "on" at all times. Actually, I chose my hero because he was an African American man, who I wanted to look, and be like when I became of age. And, he was "on" during every single train ride. So, again, I cannot underscore enough, how impacting the "train guy's" examples were. He gave me a template to emulate, a sense of hope, and a deep responsibility and purpose, as it relates to my personal and professional life.
In essence, I am able to define hero and heroism. They involve the surrendering of ones ego to the needs of the less fortunate, speaking, behaving, and or existing in a way the empowers people (especially children/youth) to believe that they can achieve anything they wish/dream to achieve, and showing people the best of who you are, thereby providing an example of the best they could be!
-Erik M. Clemons