Life's Hard Lessons: What Suicide, Rejection & the Job Corps Taught Me
Updated: Feb 8
Growing up with 10 kids in a family, even with the best of parents, one can get lost in the shuffle. When I was about four, my parents had taken in my aunt's kids, all six of them. My parents were both from down south and this was just what families did - take care of each other. So, it wasn't even a second thought to bring them into our family when my aunt could no longer take care of them.
We lived in a three bedroom home. My parents were in one room and the rest of us piled up in the other two rooms - the boys in one and the girls in the other. Everybody had a chore to do to keep the house in order, and when we'd go places, all 10 of us kids would pile into the car sitting on each other's laps.
Neither of my parents finished school. My dad quit in the 6th grade, but he was a hard worker. Even though he had a drinking habit he taught me something about work ethic. He always finished what he started.
He was never the violent, or non-functioning type of drunk, but I can remember as a child sometimes we would have to help him into the house as he was stumbling outside or we would find him passed out in the bathroom after a night of drinking. It wasn't something we really talked about. It was our normal.
As I've gotten older I think back on my dad's drinking and think maybe he was using alcohol as a way to numb his pain. But overall, my parents did a good job raising us.
However, with all this going on and nine other kids in the house I started looking for acceptance, even if that meant getting into trouble with the law. When I was about 15 a group of us kids started hanging out at one of the other teen's house after their parents left for work. This is where the trouble started.
We were skipping school, drinking, smoking weed and gambling. One day, a guy who was older than us gave me and another kid his gun and told us to break into this drug house and steal his weed.
Being young and impressionable, me and this other kid wanted to fit in and impress him, so we agreed. When we got to the house the guy was there, so we didn't use the gun. To our surprise, the man ended up giving us weed.
So, on the way back the other kid came up with an idea. "What if we said we got chased and we lost the gun while we were running, and then you and I could sell the gun?" To a 15-year-old this sounded like a good idea, so I agreed to his plan.
Once we arrived back at the house this is the story we told, however, the guy whose gun was now missing wasn't buying it. He pulled a gun on us. "You think I'm stupid? Where's my fu**ing gun?"
He put the gun to my head and started playing Russian roulette. Each time he pulled the trigger I thought this was going to be the end for me. Finally, his girlfriend intervened and told him to stop. Releasing the gun from my head he said, "I know where you live!"
I went home and told my older brother. He was livid. He went storming over to this man's house and an argument erupted. Thankfully the situation ended without anyone being harmed, but either way I was causing my family grief they didn't deserve.
My parents didn't raise me this way, so I couldn't understand why I was acting like this. I had already put my parents through too much. They had been contacted by the truancy officers because of me skipping school so much. Then there was the night an officer brought me home because I had been caught stealing a car. Now here I was on the verge of breaking into people's houses with guns and jeopardizing my brother's safety.
I knew something in my life had to change. That's when I heard about the Job Corps. I knew you had to be 18 to join, but I also knew I couldn't keep doing what I was doing, so I lied. I told them I was 18, and somehow no one ever verified my age, so the next thing I knew I was off to North Carolina for training.
It was out in the middle of nowhere, so one of the few things to do was either read or work out. This ended up being a blessing in disguise because it would begin my love of reading and open me eyes to a whole new world to see that there was so much more out there waiting on me.
My second year in the Job Corps I got a job on the firefighter crew. I loved it. We traveled around fighting fires and I was getting paid $19 an hour. This was great money for a teenager in the 70's. However, at the end of my second year I decided to get out, not because I didn't like it, but for the past two years I had kept making excuses to not provide my birth certificate, which was needed for different assignments because I didn't want anyone finding out about my age.
So, after two years of serving in the Job Corps I decided to go back to my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Once I got back I decided to go back to school and get my diploma. The kids I used to hang around were calling me "Poindexter".
A couple of years ago, my lack of self-confidence might have caused me to cave into peer pressure and go back to trying to fit in, even if it meant it was self-destructive. But these two years away in the Job Corps had opened my mind to all the opportunities in life and I knew I wanted something more. It set me on a new path and I no longer cared what others thought of me.
In fact, their rejection was actually another blessing in disguise. It seemed the more they didn't accept me the better my life got because it pushed me in another direction, and that was a good thing considering where their lives were headed.
Here it was two years had passed and all these people I used to hang out with were still doing the same old mess. Many years later I saw them and they were still in that cycle. Some had ended up in prison.
I credit the Job Corps to saving my life. It made me see the world different. I began to realize that the name calling from my peers wasn't a reflection of my self deficiency, but was a self-reflection of their own feelings of inadequacy. It's what many refer to as the "crab mentality".
When someone starts to better themselves they want to pull you back down where they are. The unfortunate part is they couldn't see that the same opportunities were afforded to them if they had wanted to put in the work to change, but they didn't. However, I knew I couldn't stay in the crab bucket with them.
My growth continued to be fed through my love of reading. I had a science teacher who recommended me to read, "Dress for Success". It began to make me think about my appearance and whether it was portraying to others an image that said I wanted something from life.
We can fool ourselves and say that appearances don't matter, but it's simply not true. Whether we like it or not people do judge us by the way we look. People make impressions of you within seconds, and as a black man I felt wearing certain attire people would judge me. So, I didn't want to give anyone additional reasons to misjudge me.
I began changing the way I dressed and how I spoke. When you open your mouth it will either solidify what people think or turn things on their head. I was determined to begin turning things on their head. As a result I ended up getting a job in retail at an upscale department store while my peers were all working in fast-food chains. I enjoyed my position here, however, after awhile I still yearned for more.
My older brother had gone into the military, so I decided this would be a good next step to follow in his footsteps. I joined the Navy and spent six years serving my country and traveling around the world.
This was a great experience to see how other people lived in different countries. People in America talk about poverty, but I've seen real poverty. I've seen people go to the nearest trash site, dig up a dead carcass, skin it and eat it. I've seen whole families living under cardboard boxes. So, when people here say they have it really bad they have no idea what bad is.
I'll forever be grateful for this experience, which has helped me appreciate the small things in life that we often take for granted, including the people in our lives. Unfortunately, this lesson was learned in the hardest way I could ever imagine, and I pray no one ever has to learn this lesson in the way I did.
I'll never forgot that day I got the call. My older brother who had gone to my defense against a drug dealer, and whom I had always looked up to had taken his life. I never saw this coming. My whole world was turned upside down. He was the strongest among us, so what did this mean for the rest of us?
My brother was my best friend, so seeing your best friend go....seeing the final beep on that machine in the hospital....it was one of those things that breaks you down.
The conversation my brother and I had some months prior to this began to haunt me. He had made the comment, "Maybe everybody would be better off without me."
I had looked up to my brother my whole life. He worked out, had a good job, had a young wife and a baby. I thought he had it made. I didn't realize this comment was a cry for help.
It took me years to overcome this guilt. Anyone who has ever lost someone to suicide understands what I am talking about. The guilt was so overwhelming for years I couldn't even admit that my brother had died of suicide. I would tell people that he died of heart problems.
So often people say things, but we never really hear them because we're so consumed by our own things in life. After losing my brother I made a committment to really start listening to people.
Too many times we put stipulations on people. We need to listen unconditionally and love unconditionally. People need to cherish the moments they have with people because things happen, and once they happen you can't unring the bell. Once they happen all you have are those memories.
Sometimes in a rush to do a lot of things we miss doing the simple things like going for a walk or going to the art museum with someone you love.
My brother's loss really woke me up to what really matters in life, but after I was diagnosed with cancer it served as another reminder to me that tomorrow is never promised.
Oftentimes, when people die they are surrounded by their ghosts of all the things they said they were going to do here, but never did. These were things they were supposed to do, but kept putting off.
I made a pact with myself that when I died I wasn't going to be visited by any ghosts. It was then that I decided to start capturing people's stories on podcasts. Once I capture these stories they live on.
If I could leave people with a final thought it would be this:
No matter where you are in life, you are continuing to write your story. So no matter what other people's opinion is of you it doesn't have to be your outcome. Your story is constantly being written.
Don't take that song you're supposed to sing or that story you're supposed to write to the grave with you.
People said to me, "What makes you think you can do that? Where's the money? What makes you think anyone will listen to you? Who is going to be interested in that?"
I didn't care. I felt like that story needed to be told, and so I moved forward with what I had at the time, a notebook and a pen, and began telling stories. And as years went on it began to evolve. The point is, you have to take action, if not you're doing yourself a disservice. You're doing God a disservice.
There's a force that's greater than us that is moving us forward, if we just move. Maybe your story is for one person. Maybe it's not for the masses, but if that one person gets it, it's worth it.
Story written by Julie Busby, who resides in Dayton, Ohio, as told to her by Gregory Tucker.