Last Wednesday night was an incredibly surreal experience for me, as I gave the keynote speech at my alma mater Deering High School’s academic letter award ceremony.
It was a humbling experience- one that I never would have guessed I’d ever have the opportunity for when I was screwing off in high school, getting kicked out of college, getting arrested for being an idiot, battling mental health problems, or working like a dog on the lobster boat- but thanks to the support of people from all walks of life that I’ve met on the road less traveled, and the love of my family and friends, I made it back from the brink of self destruction and came full circle, standing with my mom in front of the DHS clock tower.
Thanks for not giving up on me, Portland. I’d like to think that I’m just getting started.
Here’s the speech that I gave:
“Hello and good evening folks. I’m a proud Deering High graduate from the class of 2002 and I’m honored to be here, but as someone whose only “A” in high school came from a senior year art class and left a legacy more of underachieving than getting the most out of myself, I’m still not sure that I’m the right person to be giving a speech like this.
Let me start by thanking all of you for having me here and congratulating the students, parents, teachers, and administrators for a job well done.
Students, you inspire me. I admire the work ethic and focus that it takes to get to this point in your high school careers. You might not realize it now, but being here tonight exemplifies both strong character and backbone in each and every one of you.
Parents, without you none of this would be possible. Your ambitious children are morphing into successful young adults right before your eyes, and it’s because of your love and support that they’ve had the confidence in themselves to become the people that they are today.
Teachers and administrators, I still can’t believe that you asked me to speak here tonight, but thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for the immensely important and impactful work that you do.
Specifically, I’d also like to thank Tina Mikkelson for reaching out to me and bearing with me and my hectic schedule during the planning for tonight.
My mother Cathie, a Deering grad from 1972 who has shown me undying love and understanding no matter what sort of trouble or seemingly hopeless predicament I’ve gotten myself into, also deserves a sincere thank you.
The reason that I’m so surprised about being asked to speak here tonight is because the idea is supposed to be to inspire you… to try to give you an understanding of what it’s going to take to be successful in life.
So the thing is, although I still have high hopes and aspirations, I’m probably one of the least successful people from my graduating class, and I graduated 14 years ago, so they could have asked literally thousands of other people who have graduated from Deering just in the time since 2002 and all of those people would have been better suited to give this speech tonight.
But, even though I was a bit reluctant to accept to offer from Ms. Mikkelson, I decided that it’s a really cool and rare thing to be able to speak at your alma mater, and that even though it would be a nerve-racking experience, it would also be one that I won’t get many chances at.
Still, when it comes to being “successful,” I don’t think I’m the guy to be giving the advice. So instead, I’d like to talk about being “unsuccessful” tonight, because I have much more experience on that end of things.
Let me take you back to the spring of 2002. I was a senior about to graduate, a three time all-state lacrosse player heading to Bryant College on an athletic scholarship.
Making the all-state team and getting a college scholarship had been goals of mine, but I had another goal of being named a lacrosse all-American that went unmet.
When I heard the news that I hadn’t been named to the all-American team, I blamed everyone else around me.
I blamed my coaches for not advocating for me enough, I blamed my parents for not supporting me enough, I even blamed my friends for distracting me from my focus.
The next fall, I headed to Bryant with the hopes of becoming a freshman starter. We started off-season lacrosse practice shortly after the semester began, we were ranked number two in the country in Divison II mens lacrosse pre-season polls. We had hopes of winning a national championship, so the atmosphere was intense and competitive, and in the first practice- after working my tail off since middle school to get to that point- I cracked my shoulder blade going after a ground ball.
I sat out for a couple of weeks, watching the other freshmen find their groove and gain in confidence as they made the jump from high school standouts to college nobodies.
Wanting to get out there and prove myself, I returned to practice before my shoulder was ready, and in my first practice back, I rebroke it.
In the weeks that followed, I lost focus and let my grades slip. I also lost confidence in my ability to play and succeed at the college level on an elite team. By the end of the semester, I had returned to practice, but my heart was no longer in it, and my grades were in terrible shape.
Just as before, I blamed everyone around me, and for all the same reasons as before.
I decided to transfer to the University of Maine in Orono, not because I wanted to refocus on lacrosse or school or anything positive, but because I wanted to party and act irresponsibly.
To put it quite simply, I went to UMaine because I wanted to act like an idiot.
That isn’t to say anything bad about the university or anyone else who goes there. UMaine is a great school with a beautiful campus and a ton to offer any student who chooses to go there and get the most out of themselves, but that wasn’t why I went there.
Not surprisingly, my time in Orono didn’t last very long. I hardly ever went to class, I got drunk just about every night, I got into fistfights at parties and was a constant and obnoxious annoyance for just about everyone around me.
Still, when the dean of students sat me down and told me that I had gotten into more trouble than anyone else in the history of the university- and that I had done it in just a semester and a half- and that I was expelled and had until 3 pm that day to get off campus, I blamed everyone else around me.
The next fall, almost a year after being expelled from UMaine, I enrolled at USM. I wasn’t really sure why I was going back to school, I guess I just sort of felt like it was what I was supposed to do, it was better than working full time, and it would allow me to play lacrosse again. Not exactly the best reasons.
I didn’t really understand or realize it until the past couple of years, but in my time at USM I also began dealing with a new obstacle.
My grades were much improved from my time at Bryant and UMaine, and in my senior year I was named co-captain of the men’s lacrosse team, but over the course of my three years attending USM- possibly even prior to that- I battled unknowingly with mental health problems.
They weren’t severe in comparison to what most people imagine when they think of someone with mental illness, but they were persistent, and everything from my grades, to my performance on the field, to my personal relationships with friends and loves ones began to deteriorate unchecked.
Because of my transfer status, my playing eligibility ended a year before I was set to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics. So I was able to complete my college lacrosse career, but in the year that followed I failed so many classes that I lost my financial aid and was effectively kicked out of school for being unable to pay for it.
Once again, rather than look inwardly, I blamed my parents, my professors, my coaches, and university administrators.
With no other option, I began looking for full time work.
This was at the height of the recession at the beginning of 2009, and I quickly found myself in desperate circumstances, willing to take any sort of work I could find.
After months of searching, I found a job at Barber Foods in the meat packing department working for near minimum wage.
Unable to make rent on the apartment that I had been able to afford with my student loans, I found a second job dishwashing on the weekends, and a third cleaning offices on weeknights.
Still, it wasn’t enough to get by. And I found myself scrambling for an affordable place to live, still blaming everyone else for my circumstances but me.
Over the next few years, I went from the meat packing plant to an inbound call center, waiting tables, building lobster traps on the waterfront, and then became a stern man on a lobster boat.
None of these jobs paid very well, and none of them were easy, but over time I began to realize that nobody was going to solve my problems but me.
I realized that no matter how much or how little support I had from family and friends, no matter how hard I worked or how much I wanted to give up, the only way to get myself out of the hole that I had dug for myself was to dig myself out.
So I scratched and clawed and hung onto hope until I started seeing the light shining through, I stuck with it on the lobster boat and learned that the best way to get through a day on choppy seas is to put one foot in front of the other with the belief that if I just kept working and staying positive then things would eventually get better.
And you know what? They did.
In time, I stopped hiding from my mistakes. I stopped clinging to all the regret that I had about going from a kid with all the potential in the world to a man with not a whole lot going for me, and I became restless with my life. I started thinking outside the box for ways to improve my standing in the world and my outlook on life, and I started taking chances, big leaps like running for city council in 2013, writing for the Bangor Daily News, and working towards making a positive difference in the community by way of advocating for those going through struggles similar to the ones I had gone through, but for whatever reasons were unable to dig themselves out of that hole.
Through my writing, I was able to make connections with people at Amistad Peer Support and Recovery Center that would lead to me leaving the lobster boat and taking a job as a program coordinator, working directly with adults struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.
In my time working at Amistad, I was able to put a lot of things into perspective. For one thing, I realized how extremely fortunate I was to have been able to recover from severe depression, plus keep a job and a roof over my head.
I saw so many people going through things so much more painful and traumatizing than anything I had ever been through, and I saw them continuing to get up each day and carry on. I saw people in the most stressful and frightening circumstances- sleeping on thin mats at the shelters, huddling together in wooded tent encampments on the outskirts of Portland, and nearly freezing to death in snowbanks and under bridges, and I saw them show up each day at Amistad with smiles on their faces, asking me about my own life and struggles, interested in who I am as a person and what they could do to help me with whatever sort of relatively simple problems I might be dealing with.
As my relationships grew and bonds strengthened at Amistad, I continued to gain confidence in myself. I began thinking more and more outside the box, and I began re-evaluating my life goals and self-worth.
So last summer I got the crazy idea to move out of New England for the first time in my life, and- using the connections that I had made on the Portland waterfront- move to Charleston, South Carolina to start a lobster distribution business, selling live Maine lobster to restaurants and catering companies down south.
It took a ton of work, self motivation, and even a bit of stubbornness- and I’m still not sure if it will turn out to be a financially successful endeavor- but I’m quite happy to say that tomorrow morning I’ll be heading down to Charleston with the second official delivery for the Maine Lobster Connection, which is the company that I’ve started with my cousin Kim.
I’ve done a lot of inward thinking in the past year, wondering if I made the right decision in moving down south, missing my friends and family back home, and just generally being unsure about myself.
The biggest realization that I’ve come to, though, is that for all that I’ve been through, for all the mistakes and stupid decisions that I’ve made, for all the personal struggles and times of just wanting to give up- all the failures- it’s how I’ve responded to it all that’s made me who I am today. It’s what I believe defines my character and ability to believe in myself no matter what, and it’s why I believe I’m standing here before you.
Failure is what has given me the tools to be successful.
So if there’s one thing I could impart to all of the young people in attendance tonight, it’s the importance of failure.
Let’s hope that none of you go through some of the crap that I’ve been through, and that if you do then let’s hope that you’re mature enough to own up to your mistakes and take responsibility for them- which is something that took me many years to be able to do- but no matter what sort of life circumstances you find yourself in as you go out into the world on your own, remember that failure is an integral part of success, because it’s how you pick yourself back up, how you respond to being in the bottom of that hole, that will ultimately define your success.
It’s a hopeless feeling to look up and see no light at the top of the darkness, and it takes one’s own will to begin digging yourself out- through headway and setbacks- until you begin to see the sun shining down on you once again.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from one of my favorite comedians and social commentators, Louis CK:
“I think you have to try and fail, because failure gets you closer to what you’re good at. Whenever you leave behind failure, that means you’re doing better. If you think everything you’ve done has been great, then you’re probably dumb.”
Thanks again everyone for having me, and to the students- congratulations, and good luck. Go make Deering proud, the world’s waiting for you.”