Inner city inspiration

On one of my recent speaking engagements, I found myself at a high school in Cincinnati. I was peering into a classroom from the hallway and wondering if I should be concerned that a student had a gun to the back of a teacher’s head, who was kneeling down, facing the wall.

I cleared my throat, hoping to alert my guide, a senior. When this failed to attract her attention, I decided the situation at least warranted a question.

“So…that student in there,” I said to my guide, nodding at the window into the classroom. “I think he might be about to…you know….execute a teacher, or whatever.”

The senior took a few steps back and peered in.

“Oh yeah,” she said, in a voice that you might use if your friend had just pointed out how the killer on Law and Order looked a bit like Mitt Romney.

She continued to watch so I did too, wondering how we might explain our inaction to the SWAT team fast-roping down on the roof at that moment, when suddenly, before I could even tell what had happened, the teacher had whipped around, seeming to break the student’s wrist, and next thing you know the gun is across the room and the student was on his back.

“Crisis averted!” she said cheerfully. “Come on, I’ll show you the other classrooms.”

As it turned out, this was a vast vocational school, and each classroom had its own unique structure. The building was more like a high tech warehouse, with entire houses constructed in some of the rooms so that students could learn how to be electricians. In other rooms, there were several cabs of eighteen wheelers, being worked on by students. There was a robotics lab, and a nursing room. The one with the guy and the gun was a law enforcement class.

Scarlet Oaks School had invited me to speak to their senior class, as all 400 of them had read Little Princes.

I’ve had a chance to speak at a couple of schools in cities, and they might be my favorite venues. Mostly because many of them remind me of my own high school in Jersey City – not in the facilities themselves, as my high school was housed in a converted Ukrainian Sunday School building – but in the diversity of the student body.

I guess you wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I spent a bunch of years, formative ones at that, in Jersey City. My neighborhood was particularly rough, which meant that I had to choose to either toughen up very quickly or just hope that the thugs would leave me alone. I chose the latter. I’m just not a tough guy – it’s not me.

I pretend to be, of course. I liked to tell the kids in Nepal that one of my hobbies was professional wrestling, and that I could kick the ass of every known mammal with the exception of a silverback gorilla with a shotgun. They were, therefore, disappointed when they got to the point in my memoir, LITTLE PRINCES, when I started to get my own butt kicked by a guy who was holding one of our kids as a slave.

But there’s a different kind of toughness that comes from growing up in that environment. I think it’s the ability to operate when the wind is not at your back, so to speak. I saw that in the kids at Scarlet Oaks.

I can’t tell you how envious I was of them, that they were learning all this practical stuff. Almost unreasonably, distractingly envious. They were learning how to remodel cars and learn culinary skills and become fire fighters, using real trucks and burning buildings outside on their vast property. And seeing the adult continuing education classes that were mixed in at the end of the day – looking at these folks who wanted to better themselves, to provide for their families.

Moreover, a lot of those students were working part time as well as going to high school, to help provide for their loved ones now. At that age I was goofing around, getting ready to go to college, which I loved but, let’s be honest, in which I barely even did the work assigned to me.

I think I survived in the end, and was able to survive through some difficult times in Nepal, precisely because I had those years in Jersey City, where things are a little bit rougher, where you see more clearly how much of our world doesn’t live in the leafy suburbs (where I am now – quite happily, I admit).

I really dug the kids there. They were bright, interested, and hilarious. At one point during the day, without warning, they suddenly recreated the scene where the kids in Nepal leapt on top of me. I loved that. I expect those kids are going to do very well in this life.

But more than that, it reminded me that the greatest dignity is in working hard every day, no matter what it is. Each classroom was focused on something completely different. The child care class was next door to the class where guys were learning auto body repairs.

And I confess that’s a reminder that I needed at this time in my life. I’ve been feeling complacent in the last few weeks. Like I haven’t been working hard. You know how every time you ask somebody “How’s it going?” they will likely let out a puff of air and raise their eyebrows and say “Busy!” with that tired smile? Well, I say that too, but sometimes it’s a lie. Sometimes I’m not really that busy. But I worry that people will have less respect for me if I answer that way.

I’m not saying there’s not a lot going on, what with the new baby and the new house. But I am saying that I know in my heart that I need to do more. I watched those kids in Cincinnati work on the diesel engines, and on cutting hair, and on studying anatomy, and I came back inspired.

My own work (writing) is lamer than that, sitting at a computer/chomping down English Muffins, but there’s still dignity in it when it’s done well, when it’s done to provide, and when it’s done with joy.

I figure this blog is a decent way to start holding myself accountable.

Oh! And before I forget! I also saw a parrot in that school that was thirty eight years old. Thirty eight!! The woman was like “He speaks a few words” and I’m like “Yeah, he better.”

Okay. Back to work, I guess… Unless you want to hear more about the parrot? Because I’m telling you, this parrot was…okay.

By | 2018-01-19T21:00:45-04:00 May 24th, 2011|22 Comments


  1. Lissette May 24, 2011 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    Feeling the love here in Jersey City :D. I know I still think fondly of those high school days. It’s a different place now in a lot of ways, but I’m hoping my son will be attending 12 years down the road.

    That vocational high school sounds neat!

    LOL @ the parrot.

    • Conor May 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm - Reply

      I’ve seen the new school but never been in – looking forward to getting there!

  2. Kayla Brochu May 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    Can’t wait for book #2! Now stop reading your comments and get back to work!

    • Conor May 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm - Reply

      How did you know it was going to be called #2???

    • Oyebola February 26, 2016 at 11:00 am - Reply

      That’s a subtle way of thikinng about it.

  3. Tenzing May 25, 2011 at 5:33 am - Reply

    I can’t wait either for the second book and also hope to hear more updates on the kids from Nepal!!!

    • Conor May 26, 2011 at 7:10 pm - Reply

      Our Executive Director is in Nepal right now, looking forward to hearing updates myself!

      • Tenzing May 26, 2011 at 9:06 pm - Reply

        yay! thanx for writing back!! 🙂

  4. Liz May 25, 2011 at 8:09 am - Reply

    Fantastic blog, love. And you are a great provider.

    • Conor May 26, 2011 at 7:10 pm - Reply


  5. Taras May 26, 2011 at 4:27 am - Reply

    I can honestly say I would have rather been learning carpentry or plumbing instead of some of the stuff we sat through. Good Times!!!

    • Conor May 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm - Reply

      What about everything we learned in “Lab”? The room with the sink?

  6. brnoze May 26, 2011 at 7:43 am - Reply

    What a great idea to have outgoing seniors read Little Princes! The message is simple, when the opportunity to do good presents itself, embrace it. The students will be making their own life courses and to have the knowledge that someone else took the initiative to change other’s lives may help them to choose to do more. It doesn’t have to be in Nepal, it can be in their own Ohio backyards. Whoever made this required reading may have just given wings to some amazing things.

    • Conor May 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm - Reply

      Couldn’t agree more…How great would it be if more people get involved in their communities?

  7. Alex mann May 26, 2011 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    mmmmmm English Muffins.

  8. Missy May 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    I teach World Literature to 10th graders, and I am hoping to teach Little Princes next year if I can figure out a way to get that many copies of the book. I was so inspired by Little Princes and am actually going to Nepal for a little while this summer to volunteer. What does it take to get you to come speak at a high school? I do teach in a supurb of Atlanta but please don’t let that turn you off!

    • Missy May 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      That was supposed to say suburb, although sometimes it’s supurb too, I guess.

  9. Nancy May 28, 2011 at 7:44 am - Reply

    Conor, Scarlet Oaks cannot thank you enough for the time you spent visiting our campus and speaking with our senior English students. Although we’ve done our senior read for the past seven years, we believe that your visit has been the most memorable and the most life-changing for our young people. During that day you spent with us, and then into the following last days before they graduated, the students excitedly talked about you, your stories, and how you took the time to answer their questions with such depth and passion. For these young people to be transformed from outside their own selves to a place of caring for others and others of another culture is no less than life altering. Remarkably, many of them are now aware of how possible travel is and several have plans to study abroad when they get to college. In addition, many of them have set goals to leave their own small communities for the first time in their lives and visit other places near and far. We senior English instructors thank you for supporting our senior read and for being a bridge into the adult world of literature and life for our young people. Sincerely, Nancy; Scarlet Oaks

    • Conor May 29, 2011 at 7:33 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much, Nancy, what a great note to get! It was such a pleasure being there – I had a blast. Thank you guys so much for hosting me, I won’t forget it!


  10. TJ May 29, 2011 at 3:38 am - Reply

    Well done Nancy!!!!!!!

  11. Marcy Prager May 29, 2011 at 6:25 am - Reply

    You WERE working, to give those students joy for working hard. These are the speaking engagements that really matter, for students and for all of us to recognize the growth mindset when we see it. Every student should read this blog. I’m sending it on to the head of Professional Development in the Brookline School System where all of the coaches and the 2nd, 3rd year teachers read Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck. It helps teachers teach that working hard and practicing makes success. Just being smart doesn’t cut it.

    Your blogs are a book my friend. I do believe this with all of my heart. Ask your publishers what they think. So continue to write them, because you have many readers who enjoy them. You have a wonderful sense of humor! Did I mention commitment and love that emanate from your words?

    • Conor May 29, 2011 at 7:34 pm - Reply

      Thank you Marcy, I can’t tell you what that means to hear that!

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