It’s 1964 and I’m sitting alone in the back row of a theater in Urbana, Illinois. Shirley Bassey is singing Goldfinger and shimmering images of golden women dance across the screen. I have a beer in one hand, a box of popcorn in the other and a formal letter from the University of Illinois tucked in my back pocket informing me I have just flunked out of school. I’m afraid, embarrassed and I might be crying.
A few years later, I’m hitchhiking across Nebraska. A rusted Ford Fairlane stops and even as I hop in the back, I know it’s the wrong ride. A young man and older woman are in the front. Between them on the seat are a handgun, a half empty Jim Beam bottle and a cowboy hat. I slide in next to a skinny boy picking his fingernails with a pocketknife. Eighty miles later, near Ogallala, the car slows and I’m tossed into a ditch bleeding and naked.
A few more years pass. Over 40 men are packed in the cell at the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix. They all look tougher and older than me. Feeling like a charlatan, I try to blend in. A stocky, bald man with huge arms walks over to me, smiles and spits in my face. I look down as if I’ve lost an important item and slowly back away.
Nearly four decades have passed but I still recognize these events as defining moments that eventually moved me toward sanity, responsibility and joy.
Many of you work with individuals who are in the midst of facing consequences from irresponsible and illegal behaviors. You recognize how difficult circumstances can be converted into starting points for healthy decisions and constructive actions. Your professional guidance puts the weight of behavior change on each individual. You know how to motivate, nurture and instruct. You provide a ray of light to shine through the darkest moments along life’s path.
The ex-student in the Urbana theater, the naked kid along old Highway 80 and the young man in a Phoenix jail all want to thank you for being there.