“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
While working on the post Be Someone, I came across the above quote during one of the writing lessons in Tammy Strobel’s summer session of Writing in the Digital Age. As sometimes happens with the best quotes or the best books, they find you when you need them the most.
During the creation of Be Someone, I became obsessed with my painter. Who was this person? Where were they from? What did “Be Someone” mean to them? I knew it had to mean a great deal to them because of the risks they took to leave their message. To date, I have found three separate instances of the “Be Someone” message. One location I spoke of in Be Someone. That one is near the roofline of a building (image at the top of this post).
If it were five feet off of the ground, I wouldn’t be impressed. But it is near the roof.
Think about the logistics of that. They had to climb to the roof of the building and lean over the edge to paint their message.
Here is another one on an overpass just north of Houston.
This person (or persons) painted this directly above a busy interstate. I would have been scared out of my mind. And keep in mind that they didn’t write profanity. No. They risked their lives and their safety to convey a simple, but inspirational message. “Be Someone”. How could those words not be special to them?
I built an image of the painter in my mind. The fifteen or sixteen year old that I imagined… maybe they were told they would never be anybody. Maybe those words came from a parent, or from a disgruntled teacher. Maybe they were just told that they “couldn’t” do something. Not that they weren’t allowed to accomplish anything in their lives, but that they were destined to be nothing, to be forgotten and to fail at everything they tried. Maybe, just maybe, their “Be Someone” message is in rebellion against those messages.
I talked about it so much in my vanpool, that the other passengers groaned whenever I brought it up.
One rider asked me, “Why would you be surprised by the message? Not all grafitti is bad.”
His tone was ever so slightly condescending, indicating that my boot heels were tracking cow shit on the carpet of his favorite fine museum. But his question was fair. Why would I be surprised? I’ve seen pretty grafitti on tv or in pictures. Some of it is amazing art work. But the words I saw were not pretty. They weren’t even attempting pretty. They were plain and black and writ large so that passengers like myself could see them from the freeway.
When I tried to explain that I was fascinated that the painter had said the words “Be Someone” instead of something ugly or obscene, another rider said, in an I’m-joking-but-not-really-so-please-drop-it sort of way, “Probably so people like you would talk about it.”
That made me stop and think, too. Could the painter have intended me as their audience? Not me specifically, but people like me? People that would read the message and think, “Yes! I want to ‘be someone’, too!” When I read the words, I hear encouragement, but I hear a note of defiance, too. Someone saying, “Yes, you can do it even though they said you couldn’t”.
What I failed to convey to my fellow vanpoolers in speech was the desperation I saw in the words. I read “Be Someone”, but I heard, “Please let me be someone. Please let me be a success. Please let me out of this cage I’m caught in. Because if I’m not someone then I’m no one and I don’t want to fade into nothing.” I saw a drive to be become more, to become better than the painter was raised to believe or hope they ever could be.
Have you ever been told by someone you couldn’t do something? I’m not talking about “you can’t go to the prom” or “you can’t date so-and-so”. I’m talking about “you lack the capability to perform this task, so you should give up, don’t bother trying”. I have. It hurts. It hurts a lot.
During my entire elementary and high school education teachers told me that I was not a “math person”. I struggled with math. I worked at problems and concepts until I was in tears over homework. I took pre-algebra three times. I squeaked through geometry. I surprised myself by getting an A in high school algebra. The first A of my life in a math class. I finished up highschool math in Algebra II with a C, the bare minimum to graduate, and swore I would never take another math class again. When I went back to college as an adult, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to pass College Algebra to get any sort of degree. I looked at it as an exercise in survival. I was terrified, and overwhelmed with the voices of my old teachers, then 1200 miles and two states away but still very loud, telling me that I wasn’t a “math person”. But I was determined to get a college degree. So I decided to start over.
I started with the most rudimentary of mathematics courses. It was like learning to read all over again, starting with the ABC’s. I learned to do what most second and third graders can do: add, subtract, multiply and divide. I lived in a state of controlled panic before each math test. But I dragged myself to the classes anyway. I took notes during class and studied until I fell asleep over homework problems. And that is how I earned the second A of my life in a math class.
In the next class, I got another A. Then another. After an A in College Algebra, I began to wonder if all those teachers over the years were wrong. Maybe I was a “math person”. Maybe there was no such thing as “math people”. Maybe, just maybe, there was just hard work and determination to get through the hard parts and learn from your mistakes. After an A in Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus, I knew they were wrong. I surprised everyone I knew by selecting Mathematics as my undergraduate major. Hell, I surprised myself.
When I was in school and people would ask me what my major was, I heard the words again, but not in regards to me. With a complete twist of irony, I heard them in reverse.
“You must be really good at math.”
“You must be a math person.”
And I heard the words in a self negative fashion. “I wish I could do that… but I’m not a math person.”
To general disbelief, I told them that it was hard for me, too. I wanted to share the triumph I felt when I conquered Linear Algebra and Differential Equations. And I did it, not because I was a “math person”, but because I sweated over homework problems at 4 am before I had to go to work and after the kids had gone to bed at night. And because I refused to give up. But mostly, I succeeded because I decided that all those teachers over the years were wrong. I denied them the ability to define me. I gave myself permission to “Be” the “Someone” I chose to be instead of the person they saw before them.
That is the type of hurt and total defiance that I heard shouting from those simple words spray painted on the side of a building.
For all I knew, I was the only one that cared. I found that hard to believe. It was such a poignant message! And the medium for the message told its own story! And to find it all over Houston! I was fascinated!
What does “Be Someone” mean to this person? I don’t know. I think the answer is different for everyone. It might mean they want to be the President of the United States. I don’t know what challenges they have seen in their lives. Whatever it means to them, I know what it means to me. It means not settling for what or who others think you are. For me, “Be Someone” means living my life on my terms. It means being happy with myself, with my own capabilities, my own choices and with the way I’m living my life. I only get this one shot. I intend to make good use of it.
After that day in the van, I kept my obsession to myself. In fact, I considered not posting Be Someone at all because I was still hearing the voices of all the people that said I couldn’t do something. Based on the reactions I received in the van, I thought readers would find the topic stupid. And then I remembered the triumphant feeling of crossing that stage and collecting a degree in an unimaginable subject. But I always watched for those words. I couldn’t let it go. So I am again defining what is important to me, on my own terms, defying what others write off as insignificant.
I still smile when I see the words from I-45. Their presence feels like a small but definite victory in a world where it has become easy to get swept away. I am still on the lookout for more instances of the “Be Someone” message. From my seat inside my comfortable vehicle, drinking my morning coffee and wondering what my day at work holds in store, I send up a silent little “thank you” to the powers that be for my life. And, every time I pass those words on my drive, I give the painter a silent cheer, wishing him luck in his quest to “Be Someone”.