Things we’re afraid to talk about

Last week I went with my boyfriend, John, to a school in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago to film him as he spoke to a class of 8th graders about overcoming adversity. John was a former World Team Member for USA Wrestling. He won a gold medal at the Pan American games. He was on the Dream Team 4 times. At one point he went almost 60 matches undefeated (with other countries often forfeiting their weight class to the U.S. because they’d rather lose 6 points by forfeiture than lose 7 when he inevitably pinned his opponent). To remain on the World Team, wrestlers constantly have to battle to keep their spot against incoming young guys straight out of school who are hungry to prove themselves. After going nearly 2 years undefeated, John was beaten by a “new guy” in his weight class, and just like that he was off the team…in an Olympic year. Three years spent being the best in the country in his class was over with one match, and he became an alternate rather than an Olympian. He went to Beijing and watched someone else live the dream he had been working towards his whole life. After the crushing defeat, he was determined to get back on the team and was getting very close when he broke his back at the U.S. Open in 2011. For ten minutes he couldn’t feel anything from his hips down. This is what he was planned to talk to the kids about, but in the end he talked about something much more difficult, much more painful.

While he doesn’t talk about it a lot, John, is a product of the broken foster care system. Born into the projects of Philly to a mother addicted to drugs, he spent the first weeks of his life in the NICU. Neglect was rampant in his neighborhood, so he often went unfed and uncared for. He was told at a young age that he would most likely have major developmental/learning issues due to the trauma he went through in utero. Needless to say, he wasn’t given a lot of opportunities or support in the early years.

When his father passed away and his mother went to jail, he and his 3 biological sisters went into foster care where they were immediately separated. He suffered a year and a half of abuse and neglect before ultimately becoming a ward of the state, at which point he was transferred to an orphanage. Before today, John has shared these facts with about 8 people total. With his permission, I am writing this blog post today.

John around age 6

John was fortunate enough to be taken in by a loving family, the Conners. He inherited an older brother, and later a younger sister came along. After living in Florida and then Philly again, they settled in Nashville, the place he considers “home.” He was given food, his first haircut (at age 6), a home, and most importantly a family. When he got to school, he was severely behind. By sixth grade he was reading at a 2nd grade level and couldn’t divide or multiply. Today, he has a bachelors and Masters degree. He has a great job, and he regularly speaks at conferences in his industry about overcoming adversity. In these speeches he has never once talked about his childhood. He talks only about breaking his back and his almost realized Olympic dreams.​​

Justin (John’s older brother) and John

As he was preparing for his presentation with the children at this school in Chicago, I asked him if he was going to talk about his childhood. His initial response was a resolute no. I understood right away. We all have experiences or things about ourselves that we’d rather not share. They are painful and difficult, and we worry about what people will think if they know the “truth” about us. As we talked more I asked him,

“What do you think it would have meant to you though if an adult had come to your school when you were struggling as a kid and told you that not only had he been through what you’d been through, but that you could be successful too?”

His reaction told me he knew what he needed to do. But it’s one thing to know what you should do, and it’s quite another to have the courage to actually do it.

John preparing for his speech

When John stood in the empty cafeteria where his speech was going to take place, I could see the nervousness in him. He had decided what he was going to talk about. He had written it out, and read it over and over. He had his notes, and he prepared. John is in business development. He is a master at presenting. He’s been nicknamed “The Closer” at multiple workplaces because he’s that good at connecting with people. Connecting while discussing HIPAA compliance and ICD-10 regulations is very different though than connecting with a room full or hormonal, insecure yet bold, middle schoolers while sharing something that has caused you so much pain. As the kids filed into the cafeteria, it was obvious who the class clowns were, who the well behaved front row kids were going to be, and I wondered what he was going to do. He didn’t want to read from a page, so I knew at any moment he might go offscript and make the easier choice to talk about lighter things. I’m pretty sure I would have.

The kids were rowdy for about the first 3 minutes of him talking until he really started to share. Without telling the kids any details that might scar or scare them, he talked about the difficulty of his childhood, the loneliness he felt, and the lack of hope that pervaded the first part of his life. He talked about finally finding a family and what that meant to him. He talked about his learning disabilities and his “angel,” a teacher named Miss Stockton. By sixth grade, John had become very adept at hiding his difficulties in school. He counted by using his fingers under his desk, he was often sent to the office for acting out, and when it was time to read aloud in class he always found a way out.

On the first day in Miss Stockton’s class that she asked students to read aloud, she went around the room to each student. Miss Stockton was in her 60’s ad the time and was a no-nonsense, Southern woman who wasn’t afraid to raise her voice. As she went around the room calling on students to read, getting closer and closer to John’s turn, his heart began to race. When the girl in front of him finally finished reading, John grabbed the biggest book he had on his desk and threw it on the ground so hard that it made a loud thud that caused some kids to jump in their seats. Miss Stockton immediately pointed her finger toward the door and yelled,

“Get in the hall. Now!!”

Certain he was going to get expelled, or worse, he waited 45 minutes in the hallway while Miss Stockton finished her lesson. When the door opened for the kids to go to recess, she brought him back in the classroom, closed the door and got in his face,

“Boy!…Why didn’t you tell me you don’t know how to read?”

This was the first time a teacher had noticed. Instead of reprimanding him, she did what other teachers had failed to do. She didn’t assume his disruptive behavior was a sign of him being a bad kid, she recognized it for what it was, a symptom of a bigger issue. Miss Stockton tutored John every day after school from 6th grade through 8th grade. She volunteered her time with him for 1–2 hours a day, 5 days a week, for three years. When John later had family issues in high school, she was there. When he needed a letter of recommendation for the USA World Wrestling Team, she wrote one of the most poignant recommendation letters I’ve ever read. I believe that there are angels among us, and Miss Stockton is one of those angels.

Reference letter from Miss Stockton

As John spoke I watched the kids start to quiet down and listen. I saw their looks change from bored to interested, from indifference to captivation. This isn’t to say the entire room went silent, these kids are 12 years old and have short attention spans. But in the moments when John really opened up, and shared the types things that we’re often afraid to talk about (namely, feelings) the kids were hooked. It’s hard to know if the kids were so interested because they had never heard stories like his, because they were being talked to like adults and they liked it, or because perhaps even one of them heard what he said, and thought, “that sounds a lot like me.”

John shaking hands with a student after his speech

It’s a vulnerable thing to talk about fear or the things we’re afraid of, but I believe that doing so gives them less power. It is a beautiful thing to watch someone own something that used to frighten them and hold it out for the world to see as if to say, “this can’t hurt me anymore.” When we do this in front of people who might be suffering the way we used to suffer, we help those people feel less afraid and less alone. John, thank you for serving as a role model to those kids and to me. I’m so proud of you. You are the strongest man I know.

To anyone out there reading this that feels inspired, I encourage you to share something today with someone that you love and trust. You may be shocked at the weight that is lifted off of your shoulders when you do and by the ripple effect your courage might have for others going through something similar.