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  • Writer's pictureAJ

You From The Ghetto

Truth is the story of your life, how you tell that story is marketing.

Without knowing anything else about these two people, which one would you admire more?

Person 1, who was born poor, survived a difficult childhood, defied the odds by achieving what his friends and family never thought possible?

Or person 2, who grew up solidly middle class,

even upper middle class, had college paid for by his parents and had an upward trajectory to success?

I bet you have mad respect for person 1. You don’t look down on person 2 but if they didn’t succeed then it was their own fault, whereas person 1 overcame many obstacles and deserves respect.

The hitch is that they’re the same person, they’re both me.

If I had concentrated on the first story, made it the only story, I’d have sold more books (what book you ask? That’s exactly the problem) and been hailed as a true rags to riches story. Instead, I’ve concentrated on the second me, the one who had advantages the first didn’t, the one most people know since it is the most recent me.

But how can I be both?

Because my life contains a plot twist, a sudden and dramatic change in my circumstance. Let me introduce you first, to the second me.

At 10 years old I was living in an affluent suburb in NJ with lots of yard space, an excellent school system, a second home at the shore where we’d spend most of the summer and where we had a boat aboard which my father would take me fishing and water-skiing. My grades weren’t great but everyone from the teachers, to the principal, to my parents did everything they could to help me improve, which I did. By high school I was in the marching band, was a DJ on the school radio station where I met the Governor, and was determined to make a career in radio, and later the television business.

In college, which my parents were able to pay for, I excelled in broadcasting and journalism. Upon graduation I began working in my chosen field and quickly made a name for myself. Eventually I made it to ABC Network news where I was an editor on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. In addition to my career I owned rental properties and eventually a franchise massage spa with over 30 employees.

This me had every advantage and no reason not to succeed. A conversation I had with one of my employees at the spa, however, will introduced you to the first me, the one without the advantages, the one who struggled in many aspects of life.

Looking over the payroll information for an employee I’ll call Calvin, I saw he lived in Irvington. Seeing him in the break room I said, “Hey Calvin, I see you’re from Irvington.”

“Yeah, you know Irvington?” Implicit in his question was another question, “what could this rich white guy possibly know about Irvington.”

“I sure do, I grew up there.” The look on his face was incredulous and the tone in his voice was even more skeptical.

“You? Where.”

“I lived on Fuller Place near Myrtle Ave,” I said.

“Wow, you from the ghetto” he replied in a shocked tone.

I sure was. I was the fourth child of a single mother living in a three bedroom apartment. In this town I was the minority. There was a convenience store on one corner with an apartment building directly across from it. One night, sitting outside, we watched the police converge on the apartment building storming in with guns drawn. A short while later they were leading a man we knew by sight out in handcuffs. Shortly after that they were looking in our bushes for the murder weapon, the gun he had used to shoot a guy in a phone booth down the street (the gun was not in our bushes).

By nine years old I was smoking and, as hard as it is to believe of a nine year old, was in a gang. The area schools were let out early one day for fears of a large gang fight. On my way home I avoided getting jumped because I was with members of my gang, the only white kid in the group.

I can go on with stories of drug use, fights, robberies, and more but you get the picture. Even after my mother re-married and we moved to the suburbs, I struggled. In Irvington I was a top student with straight “A”s but here, where the schools had much higher standards, I was at the very bottom, they even wanted to hold me back a grade. I didn’t fit in with the all-white rich kids and their summer vacations to Europe or their ski trips to Colorado.

It wasn’t until high school that my grades showed the improvement everyone was looking for. Though I was in the marching band, I was a terrible musician and left the band to focus on the radio station which the school eliminated from the curriculum after my sophomore year. In spite of high (but not spectacular) SAT scores it was still difficult to get into a college. I ended up dropping out of the first college I went to before the first semester ended and my parents made me pay them back for the tuition.

The only reason my parents were able to pay for the rest of college was because I went to a community college for two years before transferring to a State University to finish my degree.

I experienced life from two very different perspectives. The person I am is a product of both of these experiences. I can tell the story of my life many different ways to suit whatever agenda I have, to make my accomplishments look more challenging, but that’s just marketing. Instead I think my accomplishments (or lack of them) should speak for themselves.

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