This post is reprinted from Marion Be The Change, a community development and advocacy organization in Marion, IN “aimed at giving those living in poverty a voice, while seeking tangible solutions to improve their lives.” The organization focuses on talking seriously with those in poverty to hear their own stories and suggestions. Check out some other organizations doing similar work in our community development forum last November, and stay tuned for more posts from MBTC from time to time.
It was the mid 1970s and Dale was sitting in his parents’ station wagon, which was parked behind his house. He was five years old, and he nervously lit a cigar. His curiosity about smoking had been aroused the previous week. He had sat in the back seat of his parents’ car while his father drove from Ohio to Colorado to visit his uncle who was serving in the Air Force. His father smoked cigars the whole way there and back. Dale figured out how to light the cigar and take a few short awkward puffs, when he heard a noise. Scared that he might get caught, he attempted to put out the cigar in the ash tray. He must have missed in his hurry, and the floor board of the station wagon caught fire. Dale ran out into the neighborhood.
Luckily for Dale, his nine-year-old brother, Kyle, was the prime suspect. He had been caught smoking the week before, so when his parents found his brother they accused him without question. They grounded Dale’s brother for the summer and sent him to his room. Kyle was merciless when he finally found Dale upstairs in a bedroom in the family’s home. Kyle backed Dale into a corner and said angrily, “I’ll throw you out of this window and kill you. I never liked you anyway because you are adopted like me.”
Dale was devastated. His brother must have thought that he caused Dale enough injuries through his words because Dale was able to get away. He went downstairs and asked his mother if Kyle’s words were true, and that is how he found out that he was not his parents’ biological child.
He was told that his mother was 14 years old when she gave birth to Dale. She lived in a boarding home for unwed teenage mothers. Dale was saddened and stunned by the news. A short time later he remembered watching Bambi , and he went to his room and cried. His mother asked him why he was crying, and he said, “I am just like Bambi. My mother died too.”
Around this same time, Kyle started to sexually molest Dale and shortly thereafter, he was molested by the father of one of the kids on his baseball team. Soon after that, Dale’s parents divorced.Dale said that for some reason he was always deeply spiritual. He always had a sense that God existed. He said that he would sit in his backyard watching the clouds move across the sky and say, “God, I know that you are real.” He joined the Boy Scouts and went to a Methodist Church for a meeting. He said that he was compelled by pictures of Jesus. He said, “I knew that God was there, but I just didn’t know if he was there for me.”
Throughout Dale’s adolescence and into early adulthood his actions were consistent with his deep-rooted belief that God was there but not for him.
Dale said that he always wanted to be a good kid, but he constantly got the message, from both society and his inner voice, that he was deficient. He recalls having repeated nightmares in which he was falling, and he just didn’t feel like he could succeed. He also remembers going on vacations and trips as a child and desperately wanting to move to another location, so that he could get a new start.
He recalled a time when he studied hard for a spelling test. He went to school anticipating that he would do well, and he took the test. When he got the paper back from the teacher, he saw that he had scored 50% — an F. Dale felt like a complete failure. As is the case with many children who are abused, Dale’s failures came to define him. He did not just do poorly on a spelling test. In his mind, he failed one more time in life, so he must be a failure. Dale went home immediately and wrote out all of the words. This time, he scored 100%. Dale had no way of knowing that he was experiencing performance anxiety. None of us have that kind of insight as children; we have to be informed by loving adults. Dale felt like most of the adults in his life did not think that he was worth their investment.
Not fitting in with children his age, not trusting that the adults in his life had his best interests in mind, and coping through alcohol, tobacco and drugs was a destructive combination. Dale recalls that he was sent away to a group home and later he was put on “diversion,” which was the equivalent to probation for kids. Dale did not get into legal trouble for selling drugs. He got sent away for being insubordinate with his father. He recalls an incident when he went home intoxicated and said that he was going to a bar, where the local owner would let him hang out despite his age. Dale’s father refused to give him money because he knew how Dale would spend it, and Dale got angry and threw a bowling pin at him. Although the bowling pin missed its intended target and stuck in the wall, his father called the police. The result was that he was sent to a juvenile penitentiary, where he remained until he turned 18.
That One Adult
There was a family friend that took Dale under her wing when he was a child. She was a teacher in Chicago. She took the Chicago city train “the L” every day to a school in one of the roughest neighborhoods. He remembers a time when he went to visit her, and they went to a WWF wrestling match. He was able to meet Mr. T because he was one of the at-risk youth that she influenced as a child. Dale asked her if he could move in with her to get the new start he wanted. She said that it would not be safe for Dale to live in her neighborhood, and her commute and teaching duties made it impossible for her to watch him. Dale still says affectionately, “I knew she loved me.”
That One Talent
The one thing that Dale could do successfully was play baseball. He played shortstop, and he held about a .323 batting average in Pony League. Dale said that spectators were impressed because he only weighed about 80 pounds and stood 5’2″. Despite his talent, he couldn’t play in high school because he didn’t earn the required grades. One day he was standing outside of the dugout smoking a Marlboro, when a man came up to him and said, “I was going to ask you to come to my college, but you can’t be smoking. I think you lost your chance.” Dale said, “#$%^& you!” and his teammates said, “Don’t you know who that is? That is the coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats. He came to watch you play.” Dale felt dejected.
The Last Straw
Dale was in a tenth grade science class, when his teacher, Mr. Adams, asked him if he needed a cigarette. Dale said that he could tell from the teacher’s tone that he was trying to humiliate him. He already felt like the butt of everyones’ jokes and now he felt like his teacher had joined sides with the students who treated him like an outcast. He said that the students laughed when he went outside and stood by the classroom window and smoked a cigarette. The next day, Dale dropped out of school. He said, “I figured if the teacher didn’t care about me, I didn’t care about myself either.” Dale was 17 and did not think that he would graduate anyway because he had already been held back, and he had low grades.(Read more of Dale’s story on the next page!)