Rehearsing the Interview


I never know what to expect when I visit one of my young men at the Youth Authority camp. They have busy lives, and have a lot on their mind. What I might plan to do isn’t what is going to happen. It’s my job just to listen and just show up. What we do with our time together is their choice.

“Jack” usually wants to talk about his work outside, sorting and delivering shrubs for the estuary and streambank restoration work they do for the state department of forestry and other agencies. These young men help run the largest native plant nursery on the Oregon coast, and their efforts have helped restore salmon habitat for hundreds of miles of streams. We all benefit from their hard work, but they seldom receive any credit.

Today, though, he sits down at our table, looking neat and professional in his dress shirt and fancy tie. His pressed black pants complete his new look.

“I’m doing a job interview today,” he grins. “Part of our class on getting ready to enter the work force.”

He’s fidgeting with his tie, not knowing what to do with his hands.
“I’ve always bombed a job interview,” he said.

I get him talking about the class, and what he’s interviewing for. His passion is the medical field, and he often tells me about his dreams about working as a first responder, or a nurse in the emergency room, maybe even a doctor. I’ve wondered where that came from, but he’s never talked about it.

“It’s a medical job, at a hospital,” he said.

“Oh, then, let’s practice,” I said. “Get you warmed up, at least.”

He smiles, and leans forward, giving me the nod.

“Good morning, Dr. Jackson,” I said. “I’m glad to meet you. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for our position here at the hospital for a pediatric physician.”

He nods again, and gulps. This is the real deal, and his serious game face is in place. He runs through his resume, and his experience in working with sick and injured people, and how he’s enjoyed having his first aid and CPR card.

“How did you become interested in medicine, and being a care provider?” I ask, in my best hospital CEO voice.

His eyes look deep into mine, and his voice lowers, telling me the story of a family member’s tragedy, how he was the first person at her side, how he administered first aid, summoned the ambulance, and stayed with her until the emergency room doctor sewed her up.

His telling of the events was by the book, meticulous, and calmly professional. A family member was close to dying, but he was the professional, the guy in charge.

“The doctor told me I’d saved her life,” he said. “And, I guess I did. But, ever since, I’ve always wanted to know more about medicine, and how to save people.”

Tears flooded my eyes, as this young man opened up his heart to me, letting me inside of his young soul, sharing a seldom-told story. Six months of visiting him, and I’d never imagined the intensity of his desire to help others, to literally save lives.

Our mock interview before a mock interview continued, but nothing was pretend with us, as the reality of his feelings and of his desires to work as a medical professional filled the space between us.

A few minutes later, we wrapped up the interview, and I shook his hand.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Jackson.”

We both took a breath, letting out deep sighs.

“That was great,” he said. “I think I nailed it. First interview I’ve had that went really well.”

His grin told the story. We both knew he was ready for the “real” interview in fifteen minutes.

I don’t know if we’ll ever talk again about his story with his family, and how he saved a dear one’s life. And, perhaps we don’t need to. We’ll just leave it there on the table, in the interview room where I first met Dr. Jackson.

5/18/16 – Neal Lemery

Speaking to young men in prison graduating from high school


Trask River High School Commencement Address
June 21, 2014
Neal C. Lemery

Distinguished guests, family, respected faculty of Trask River High School, and, honored graduates of the Class of 2014:

Today, we are here to celebrate a great achievement. After a great deal of hard work, you have earned your high school diploma.

This is a remarkable victory, an accomplishment that deserves a celebration. You now have a real asset, a treasure, no one can ever take away from you: your education.

With these skills, you are now life long learners. There is no stopping you now. You can achieve anything you want because you know how to learn. You have proven that you are determined enough to apply yourself and to advance in this world. You have done something really good for yourself.

And, that is success.

Today is Commencement. Commencement means the beginning. Today is not only a celebration of what you have done, but it is also the start of the rest of your lives.

Susan Sontag, a famous writer, feminist, and social critic, shared this thought with another graduating class:

“I have said that this rite of passage—commencement—is one that faces in two directions. Your old status and your new status. The past and the present. The present and the future. But I would urge that it is not just a description of today’s exercises but a model for how you should try to live. As if you were always graduating, ending, and, simultaneously, always beginning. And your sense of the world, and of the large amount of life before you, also should face in two directions.”

Let me turn to your future. At this Commencement, it is time to start on the next step in your education.

This place where we sit today is a place of changing directions in our lives.

It has been said that if you don’t change directions, you are going to end up where you are headed.

Your work here is all about moving ahead with your lives; it is all about changing directions.

Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae musician, said, “If you don’t start somewhere, you’ll go nowhere.”

If you want to change your life, if you want to change the path you were on when you got here, take the next step in your life.

You’ve already proven to yourself that you are smart enough, and energetic enough, to earn a high school diploma. Achieving that puts you ahead of one third of all of the young men in Oregon. That means you are in the top two thirds of your peers.

But, that’s not good enough. That’s not good enough for our society, and it’s not good enough for you.

You deserve more. You’re smart and you’re motivated.

So, take that next step. Be the change you want to see in the world. Find your passion and go after that. Discover what you love to do in life, and become an expert in your profession. Become the best in what you do.

You who create with your hands, the artisans, the tradesmen, the craftsmen among you, you need to take that next step. Your work will build our communities, and change the world. You are a key part of our future. So, find that trade school, or that community college, find the skills you need, and gain that expertise. Don’t settle for being the average Joe in the world, just taking any old job that might come along. Take a couple of big steps and become an expert in what you love to do.

Some of you will keep on your academic path, and will find a college to challenge you.

People who graduate from college have more opportunities. They make more money, and they raise healthier, smarter kids. They are able to solve harder problems, and they are the ones who change and grow our society.

And, you can start college right now. College is right out that door over there, right down that path. Your college is right here where you live. And, your teachers are ready for you.

And, the best thing about your college is that is it free.

Free. What a deal. One of the best gifts you’ll ever get.

All someone needs for a college education is their time, their brains, and that fire of motivation that burns in their soul.

You have the time, you have the brains, and you have that fire.

For each of us, finding what we love to do in life, and becoming really good at it take some real effort, and some real commitment. That commitment comes from you. That can only come from you.

Whatever you go after in life is an investment in yourself. Everything you work for becomes part of you, and makes you a better person. It changes your life.

When you leave here, you will take your education with you. You will take your determination, your stubbornness, and your work ethic. You will take with you the tools you will need to be successful, and to go out in the world and live a meaningful, productive life.

And, most of all, you will take that passion, that fire, to make a difference in you and in the world.

Just ask those who have gone on ahead of you, who have moved out into the world and done something with their lives. They will tell you, again and again, get an education. Find your passion.

So, what does that life ahead of you, that life filled with purpose and passion, look like? What does that fire in your soul look like?

I want to end today with another man’s perspective. He’s a man who overcame many of the obstacles you have faced in your lives, a man who worked hard and moved ahead, and took advantage of the opportunities he had.

This man grew up in the tough part of a big city, his dad left when he was two years old, he was raised by a single mother, he almost dropped out of high school, he got involved in gangs, and some drugs. He was Black, he was poor, and yet he found his fire, and moved ahead in life, doing his part to make the world a better place.

This is what that man,that man we know as President Barack Obama, says about what a purposeful, focused life, a life dedicated to improving yourself, means:

“I’m talking about an approach to life — a quality of mind and quality of heart; a willingness to follow your passions, regardless of whether they lead to fortune and fame; a willingness to question conventional wisdom, …; a lack of regard for all the traditional markers of status and prestige — and a commitment instead to doing what’s meaningful to you, what helps others, what makes a difference in this world.”

Class of 2014. We salute you, and we urge you to move ahead into your amazing and fabulous future.

Thank you.

23


23

is a number, prime,
the times you’ve flown around the sun,
becoming your own private history,
the foundation of your house,
the footprints on the beach,
telling you where you’ve been,
the direction you took to get here,
preparing you for your next step,
your next place you’re headed to.

From here, all things are possible,
all dreams can be yours to hold in your hand,
all can be what you make of it.

What lies behind you is only behind you,
what matters is what lies ahead,
the footsteps on your beach are
yours to make,
fresh, clean,
unlimited.

Adding to 23, a day at a time,
soon, another year, two, five,
the beach walk longer,
richer in every sunrise,
Every new breath.

23 doubled, tripled, even times four, or more,
your life just now beginning to see what you plant,
what you are even now harvesting,
what you plant for the generations to come,
for them to see who you were,
what you dreamed.

23, a number,
23, only a bit of infinity,
of your possibilities.

Neal Lemery, 1/29/2014

The Power of One


The Power of One

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Can I really make a difference in the world? Does what I do really matter?

The other day, I ran into a young man I’d worked with, having long talks about his future. We became friends, and I was a cheerleader in his life. I watched him refocus in high school, and graduating there. I walked with him and held his hand as he thought about college, and enrolling.

A few years later, I watched him receive his community college diploma, laughing with him as he posed for a family picture, diploma in hand. His wife, and his sister, now both in college, stood proudly beside him.

At the store, he shared a photo of his new baby, and his dream of a bright future, getting his bachelor’s degree, creating a bright future for him and his family.

“Thanks,” he said, quietly. “Without you pushing me, encouraging me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

A few weeks ago, I took a young man to a university, walking with him into the registrar’s office to schedule his classes, and get him ready for fall term. We’d worked together last spring, to get him admitted, and transferring all his credits he’d earned for his associates degree, ready to start his junior year. He’s been aiming for a bachelor’s degree for a long time, and was finally able to make the move into a four year university, one that has an excellent program in his area of interest.

He’d been dragging his feet, not making the phone call to schedule his class registration, and all the other paperwork that needed to get done before he was really ready to begin classes. The plan was for me to drive him there, make a day of it, and to celebrate his achievements. But, he was dropping the ball, ignoring my increasingly less than subtle hints to take that drive, and move on with his life.

I nudged, I prodded, and I waited. Procrastination and fear took over, even a bit of resentment towards me, for being the quiet voice urging him forward, encouraging him to go live his dream.

Time was running out, and I spoke up, becoming direct, calling out for him to confront the elephant in the living room, and get moving here, moving ahead with his life. We met, finally, to have that hard conversation. We argued, we struggled, we finally got to the heart of his struggle, we each teared up, our guts churning.

We named the elephant, and we argued some more. He asked me where he thought I’d be in a few years, if he didn’t go to college, if he didn’t make that short trip to the university’s registrar that week, and be ready for fall term.

I got blunt, and painted a realistic picture.

“If you don’t live your dream, if you don’t work towards achieving your goals, life will be hard, and life will be disappointing. You will end up being disappointed in yourself. Is that what you want?”

He admitted he really did want to go to college, but the old voices, the voices of childhood that had always whispered that he wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t deserving of success, those were the voices speaking loudly in his head lately.

We refocused. We didn’t dwell on “failure” and “I’m not good enough”. Instead, we moved on, living in today. And, looking towards the future, planning for it, taking real time steps to get where he wanted to go.

I grabbed the car keys, and his cold, sweaty hand, and walked him to my car. Amazingly, at least to him, within an hour, we were at the registrar’s office in the university, organizing his schedule, planning for his graduation in two years. He registered for classes, accepted his healthy array of scholarships, and sent in his student loan application.

On the way out the door, we picked up his student body card and scheduled a time for him to meet his department head and double check his class schedule, to make sure he was on the right track with his major.

Along the way, every college staff person was courteous, informative, and dedicated to getting him enrolled and off to a good start. Each one of them took the time to take an interest in him, focus on his needs, and help him achieve his goals for the day, and for the next two years of his life.

Each one of them, taking the time, being interested, investing in him. He saw that in how they treated him, how they were living their day. The caring about one other person, one at a time, with all of their focus, all of their energies, all of their wisdom.

And, so it begins, the new student and the teachers, the first lesson, building on the past, and aiming at the future.

One person at a time.

Neal Lemery, August, 2013

So, You Are Really Going to College; I Think I’ll Just Cry


Why is it a big deal to be accepted for a Bachelor’s degree program? Why do I tear up when a good friend of mine shows me his acceptance letter to a university?

It isn’t all that much of a surprise, him being accepted. It really is a given. He’s bright, ambitious, and has been doing some serious academic weightlifting in his first two years of college course work. He hides most of his light under the proverbial basket, but we all know he’s going on to get a bachelor’s degree.

To actually see the letter, and see the grin on my friend’s face, spoke to my soul, and lightened up my heart. Tears came, and I choked on my words.

It goes back to my family, and the feelings I had when I received a similar letter, back when I was more that ready to leave home, and leave my little town, and venture forth into the world. It was a huge milestone for me, and marked the beginning of my adult life, when I could actually go out in the world and live my dreams.

My dad’s parents were hard working wheat farmers in rural Saskatchewan. My dad took me there when I was a teenager, and showed me the foundation of the family homestead cabin. The barn was still standing, but the house was long gone. A lifetime of cruel Canadian prairie winters had had its way with the clapboard house. My grandparents, their six children, and my great uncle lived there for about ten years, as they plowed and planted the wild Canadian prairie, raising wheat, oats, horses, and all of their vegetables.

The prairie wind whistled through the nearby trees, the ones my grandfather planted when they first homesteaded the place. It was summer, but I could only imagine what the wind was like in the dead of winter, with the snow and the forty degrees below zero nights.

The railroad was sixteen miles away, in the closest town. Every fall they hauled their wheat to the grain elevators at the railroad station, and hopefully earned enough money to buy their essentials for the next year.

When the kids were old enough, they would move into town for the winter, boarding with friends, and go to high school. Until then, a one room school house several miles away from their house provided their education.

My grandmother was tough. German, self educated, and the manager of the farm. She cooked all the meals, and also fed the neighbors at harvest time, cooking on a little stove that burned wood, if it was available. But, mainly she fed the flames with tight bundles of straw or dried prairie grass, or dried cow or horse manure. Winter brought temperatures down to forty below zero and blizzards that necessitated the running of a rope between the house and the barn, so you wouldn’t get lost and freeze to death when you had to go feed the animals and milk the cow.

They did all right on the farm, making money most years. They even added a room onto the house, so my grandparents could have a room of their own. Everyone else slept on rough planks laid across the rafters, above the little stove.

World War I broke out, unleashing a strong anti-German sentiment in Canada. The family spoke German at home. Commonly used German words in English became unpopular, and other phrases and words replaced them. Yet, my grandparents were proud Canadians, perfecting ownership in their homestead with their hard work.

One year, they made enough money that they took all the family to the world’s fair in San Francisco. It was quite the adventure, and my dad, the youngest at 6, told stories of the four day train trip, and the wonders of the world’s fair and San Francisco.

I think the trip made a big impression on everyone. My dad and his brothers and sisters all loved to travel, and were all students of the world.

The biggest impression, though, was with my grandmother. She believed, ardently, that in order for her children to get ahead in the world, they needed a good education. And, a boarding high school wouldn’t provide everything they would need to get ahead in life.

She had a dream that every one of her children would go to college. And, not just the boys; the girls, too. She studied, looking at options. She learned that Oregon had a number of colleges, and farming was profitable, land was available. In the 1920s, when their farm was earning good money and land values were up, they sold the farm, and moved to a smaller farm just north of Salem.

A good high school was less than ten miles away, and Salem was the home of a good university. A half dozen private and state colleges were within sixty miles of their new home.

One uncle became a doctor, the other uncle a forester, who would operate his own logging company and also teach forestry at Oregon State University. Two aunts not only earned their bachelor degrees, but also their masters’ degrees. My other aunt finished three years of college.

And this was in the 1920s, the decade where women finally won the right to vote. It was still unusual for a girl to graduate from high school. Women in universities were a rarity.

My dad, the youngest of the six kids, enrolled in the University of Oregon, and then went on to medical school in Portland. He worked nights washing dishes in a cafeteria, putting himself through medical school. His parents paid only for his books. All of his higher education was accomplished during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when farm income was down, and jobs were very difficult to find.

When I was growing up, there were a lot of books in the house, and going to school was seen as the job that my two older brothers and I had. Homework was a priority, and my parents took a keen interest in my schooling.

The talk around the dinner table was “when” we were going to college, not “if”. It was a given.

When I was seven, my mom and dad gave me some money. All of us went down to the bank and I opened up a savings account.

“This is your college fund,” my folks told me.

And, I was expected to put money into the account, from time to time. A bit of money I might earn doing some chores, birthday money, maybe even some money I might receive at Christmas. Later, I’d make a little money helping my mom’s folks on their dairy farm. Most of that went in the bank, too, except the money for a few school clothes and supplies.

My folks added money into it, too, making sure they wrote me a check, so I could make the deposit.

It never occurred to me to take money out of the account. I actually didn’t know how to do that. And, the nice lady who ran the savings accounts and note section of the bank would have made sure I didn’t make a withdrawal. She knew what the money was for, and she’d be on the phone to my mom in a heartbeat if I showed up to make a withdrawal.

My dad’s mother had a stroke when I was in first grade, and came to live in the hospital in my town. Nursing homes were pretty rare then, and my dad arranged for her to be a long term patient at the hospital. She would come visit us a lot, and I remember her urging me to study hard and to learn everything I could. The stroke had made her a woman of few words, but I still remember her preaching to me about school, the flame in her steel blue eyes conveying her passion and her command.

We subscribed to the daily paper, and Time and Saturday Evening Post. There was another national newspaper we also read, and talked about at dinner. We had a big set of encyclopedias and my dad subscribed to the Book of the Month Club. I read most of that material.

In the first grade, our class paraded down to the town’s library and I got a library card. I’d always check out books, and was a big reader in the summer reading program. My mom would read books, too, and I saw my dad reading every night, and also studying medical journals, and listening to tapes of medical lectures.

Having one’s nose in a book was just a normal event in our evenings at home.

My older brothers went to the University of Oregon, and during our visits to them at school, my dad would make a point of walking around the campus with me, letting me get familiar with the place.

When one of my aunts would come for her annual visit, she would bring a book for me and talk about education. She had her master’s degree, and would stay up late at night talking with my dad about science and math, and physics. She became an expert in botany and would go out on hikes with us, and related the Latin names for the plants we saw.

When I was a junior in high school, my folks started taking me to colleges to “look around”.

I picked a different college than my older brothers — Lewis and Clark, and my dad astounded me during the first visit to the campus by asking the admissions staff about their masters’ degree programs.

During my first year and a half in college, my dad would write letters to me, encouraging me, and urging me to study hard. It was a rare letter than contained anything else.

One of my aunts died suddenly in my first year of college. She was the one who would come every year from Texas, or New York, and later, Illinois, to stay with us. She always brought me a book then, and always sent me another one for Christmas. She would read with me, and ask me questions about what I was learning. She had moved to Salem, about a year before she died. We drove to her funeral, which was the day I was going back to school for winter term. Somehow, it seemed like a good way to honor her, remembering her at her funeral, and then going back to college. I studied extra hard that term, just for her.

My dad had a heart attack in the middle of my second year of college. I was home for the last week of his life, and then for the funeral. And, all of my family made a point with me to get me back to school before the end of the term, and even to work on my homework those awful and sad couple of weeks.

Getting an education has just been a part of my life. When I was a kid, any kind of road trip or venture into the big city somehow involved learning something. I always had a book to read in the back seat, and we would stop to read all the history and geography road signs. We’d go to museums, see a play, or a movie, and talk about what we were seeing. I’d be expected to know my way around a road map, and to give a short briefing to the rest of the family on some point of history or geography of the area.

When I got married, my wife and I scrimped and saved, putting a little money away each month for my stepson’s college fund. We bought a set of encyclopedias on time, so he’d have some reference material at home. There was always homework hour after dinner, and we both went to his school conferences.

We did the college visits with him, too, and one summer when he was in high school, we arranged for him to attend a week of living on campus, participating in an enrichment program.

Our foster sons heard the speech, too, and knew we were serious about homework and school. Some of our best conversations occurred during my drive to school every morning. And, our road trips had some good conversations and study questions, too.

Later on, I served on the local school board. And, my wife, the high school teacher, was always promoting opportunities for young people. She organized several trips to Europe for her students, exposing them to a wide range of experiences and cultures. She expanded on her own French classes in college, and spent a summer in France, returning fluent enough to teach French. Later, she learned Spanish, enrolling in another immersion program.

Every year, I find a college class or two to take, and, a few years ago, even took a serious run at a master’s degree in counseling, until I realized the program and my goals were at odds.

We laugh at how many books we read, and the coffee table and my bedside table are usually piled high with books. My favorite gifts to give at Christmas are books, and my favorite store is a book store.

I just retired, but the first week into that adventure, I started a guitar class, and a weightlifting and fitness class at the local Y. Taking some classes seems the right thing to do as I begin a new part of my life.

I’m now president of the local community college’s foundation, working to improve scholarship resources for young people around this county who are working to earn a college degree. One of my tasks is to write an article in the local paper about the benefits of scholarships and endowments to our kids’ future, and our future.

I’ve counseled, encouraged, and mentored dozens, if not hundreds of young people over my legal career here, to make something of themselves, to improve their lives, and to use their brains to get ahead in life. I’ve taught some classes, and tutored a few neighbor kids. I’ve given a few speeches on the power of education.

My wife and I are mentoring young men in prison now, supporting them in their work to improve their lives, use their brains, and get ahead in this world. And, a big part of that work is education. We bring them books, pay for music lessons, challenge them, and have serious discussions about their lives and their goals.

So, when a young friend of mine shows me his letter of acceptance to a university, all of this comes full circle to me. Yes, there are tears. Tears of joy, of gratitude, even tears of grief for those who have passed on.

A few more people show up in the room with us: my grandmother who moved the family halfway across the continent so they could get an education; my aunt, who would make it a point to bring me a book and read to me each summer; my dad and my mom, who helped me save, and encouraged me to use my brains; all the young people I’ve worked with, encouraging them to move ahead with their lives. My younger me is in the room, too; a young man hungry to move out into the world, make something of himself, and get an education.

That young man who is handing me his letter looks a lot like me, at that age. A little shy, and a lot happy, deep inside. There’s a lot of pride and joy inside of him, and he’s not quite sure what to do with all of that.

I’ve seen the result of all this seed planting, and I’m old enough to appreciate the harvest of what these seeds have grown. We aren’t done yet, with all of this work.

So, let me tear up a bit, and choke on my words, and remember all of the good words and many years of quiet, persistent support for others to move ahead and make something out of themselves.

1/10/2013