CYC-Online 108 FEBRUARY 2008
ListenListen to this

listening to youth

Hope doesn’t just happen

James Pregent

The author traces his path to hopefulness from his struggles as a high school dropout to his battle to remain hopeful as a survivor of a traumatic brain injury. He draws from his own experiences to suggest ways to inspire success in youth and make hope happen.

Taking flight
My personal journey toward hope began 20 years ago when the idea was first presented to me at summer camp. I lay in my bunk bed as counselor Rob Edson read from Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Bach, 1970). Through this novel, I met a discontented young bird who tried to change his life. I followed the bird's struggle with rejection and rejoiced in his personal fulfilment as he learned about himself.

The message was not clear to me until years later: We set our own limits. Among life’s greatest catastrophes are found the seeds of our greatest successes. The seagull believed that there are no limits, and in some way, I believe him. This thought has been with me ever since and has given me hope.

Years after that summer, I was a teenager desperate for excitement and imagining a better life. An unmotivated student, I skipped two classes and was suspended for a full day. When I skipped a full day, the penalty was 3 days' suspension. Then I skipped 5 days, then 10 days. When I had skipped a total of 31 days, I was automatically failed in five classes and told to repeat. Knowing I would not graduate, I felt life was without purpose and planned on dropping out.

Fortunately, my guidance counselor convinced me to take the SAT, was pleased with the score, and managed to send me to college without my high school diploma. Renewed hope again rose above my horizon as I attended college with my graduating class.

College was a magical chance to socialize with all kinds of people and to really find myself. My first semester in fall 1987 brought three important forces to my life. The first was David Leinster, the history professor who saw potential in me and gave me a second chance when none was merited. The second force was learning Spanish. Though I did not develop a similar relationship with my first Spanish professor, I came to be mystified by language. The third force was aviation.

As I noticed the airplanes that frequently flew over the campus, I began to dream of becoming a pilot. When a relative gave me a free introductory flight lesson, I began spending my weekends learning how to fly. This new freedom inspired me, and I felt as though I were destined to become a pilot.

As flight assumed a greater role in my life, I found myself studying for the first time ever. For hours on end, I would watch filmstrips about aviation or read the text. I even began to copy my notes repeatedly as a study aid.

For the first time, I felt I had found my true purpose. Thoughts of college evaporated, and I left school to learn aviation. By July 1988 I had completed my pilot certificate. That summer was wonderful. With a part-time job at the airport, I lived and breathed airplanes for 3 full months.

Clipped wings
The end of September 1988 was also a beginning. I was a very young pilot, confident and excited about the future. I would fly anywhere, anytime. On September 26, a chef asked me to fly him to Martha’s Vineyard. He split the cost, and I gained some flying time. The weather was perfect. All checkpoints were on the mark. My future was before me.

As I flew home alone, the quiet time gave me a chance to work on my navigation skills. Almost home, I revelled in what had been a perfect day. But when the gentle purr of the engine suddenly ceased, the dense woodlands below offered little encouragement.

Soon I heard branches break and the ripping noise of aluminum as the left wing disappeared and the ground rushed up to me. Moments before, I had been enjoying the finest hour of my life. Then time stopped, and hope left for a very long time.

All in my head
When the lights came on again, and the audio of my life began to play in slow motion, the person I knew was no more. Paralyzed and confused, my new self was still blissfully unaware of the change and did not question the tubes, the sounds, or the flashes of light in my eyes. For a moment of ecstatic confusion, I accepted what I was. I accepted the pain, the lack of control, and just watched as though I were a detached observer. There was comfort in not really caring, in being only partly conscious. Then I recognized my mother speaking my name. I remember that moment vividly. No sooner did I awaken than I formed my new life’s first intelligible thought: No!

My injuries were confined to one area of my body – my head. However, the injuries were not so neatly confined to just one area of my head, and I had spent 13 days in a coma, my brain's geography forever changed in subtle and irrevocable ways.

My left hand remained clenched in a fist and pressed in toward my chest. There was no control of the muscles in my left leg, so it hung uselessly at my side. For 2 long months, I was furious at the world. My rational self was no more, and only a lethargic person remained. All the while, though, I was able to say, “No, this will not do!”

In time, my hand opened like a weak flower responding to the sun. I would soon take my first steps with a leg brace and walker. I actually remember my first steps of childhood and the feeling of joy as I eagerly reached for my mother. Now, though, instead of feeling joy, I was filled with rage at my weak hand and my limp leg. How could I hate my hand? It had become my enemy. Before the accident, life had shown me that hope was made of second chances and the reasonable conception of success, but this new condition had me at a loss.

Someone else, myself
After I left the hospital, my first nightmare was realizing that I could no longer socialize the same way I had before the accident. My words slurred, and my leg dragged. I knew who I was, yet it was painfully obvious that I was someone else.

I had become a person who could not control the words he spoke or the levels of voice he used. Depression set in quickly, and many of my friends left my side. During this darkest point in my recovery, I felt alone and helpless and turned to alcohol and late-night parties with strangers. I often thought of suicide.

My peers were ultimately responsible for encouraging me to re-immerse myself in college life. Feeling hopeful, I took an apartment with a friend and began to weight-lift with him regularly. Exercise became a source of energy, and in 1989, I had managed to almost completely conceal my disabilities.

It proved to be a very difficult number of years before I regained control of my life even though my physical recovery was rapid. Hope was never more evident than when a series of coincidences led to my becoming an exchange student in Seville, Spain, in 1992.

Afloat in Spain
Spain became another second chance for me. No one would know of the plane crash and the physical and social difficulties I had experienced. At once, I drank in the culture. The people were wonderful, and hope was everywhere I looked. The Spanish people encouraged me in the gym. I began to increase my workout regimen. Soon I began to run regularly with a new friend, Juan-Axel Rodriguez, who dared me to run with him in the February 1992 “Maraton de Sevilla,” a 26-mile marathon. With his constant encouragement, and the cheers of the crowd, we completed the marathon in 4 hours.

Later that year, while lounging beside the Guadalquivir River with some American friends, I spotted a fleet of Olympic sprint-kayaks being propelled over the water by the Spanish Olympic team. Filled with desire, hope came in the form of a boat: My next physical goal was to develop upper-body strength so that I could impress the sprint-kayak team.

Of all the pleading and persuading I have ever done, none was as satisfying as the conversation that earned me a trial spot with the kayak training team. Their champion, Paco Barea, treated me as an equal. This was to bring more hope than aviation had brought me years before.

Renewed again, my “kayak odyssey” was to bring me back to Spain three more times and also lead to several tryouts for the United States Olympic Training Kayak Team. Through the extreme happiness I felt from these accomplishments, I learned that hope came from the chance to succeed.

Refusing defeat
Right after the plane crash, survival had meant living through traumatic brain injury (TBI). Now survival meant living with TBI. I ask myself daily: Why bother to keep trying to change your life and make it better? The answer never seems to satisfy me. The one thought that saved me and pushed my rehabilitation will condemn me to a life of discontent: “This will not do.”

In very real ways, refusing defeat has led to great gains. At the same time, refusing to accept the present has led to discontent. I have often wondered why I am driven to impress others and feel compelled to strive constantly toward the next goal. Although I do not know the answer to these questions, I believe that as I dream the impossible dream, I am most alive. Regardless of the outcomes of my dreams to fly or be an Olympic caliber kayaker, these dreams were taking me somewhere.

Although my kayak odyssey did not lead me to fame or riches, it did lead me to what I needed. By the end, I had a rehabilitated body, a college degree in Spanish, and a wealth of great friends I never would have known.

Flying lessons
Eventually, I moved to Florida and found myself in college again. This time I decided to study special education. At a particularly difficult time in my education (student teaching), I was placed as an intern at Oasis, a dropout prevention school for eighth-grade students. Although this placement was not what I had been accustomed to, nor was I what they were looking for, the program’s nurturing environment showed me that there really is a gift in the problems we encounter.

Several decades after my summer camp counselor read from Jonathan Livingston Seagull and introduced me to the idea of hope, I found myself working with youth to help them begin their own journeys toward hope. After my accident, a scream had sounded inside my mind and lasted for years: “Why? Why did this happen to me? It isn’t fair.” The students at Oasis were hearing similar screams, no doubt. For some, their parents have divorced. Others have been traumatized by a death or incarceration. Still, whatever has happened to traumatize the individual, hope must be found. The following strategies are just a few of the ways of guiding students in their search.

Seek to inspire. What I missed in my own adolescence was the driving ambition that came to me only after a series of tough situations. l yearned for an inspiring adult to show me the way. As Kantrowitz (1999) has said, “Teenagers claim they want privacy, but they also crave and need attention – and they’re not getting it.” Because we are adult role models, we need to invigorate our students and build a bridge between their wants and obligations.

Know their passions. Every student is passionate about at least one thing: skateboarding, a rock group, a certain type of clothing. Whatever it may be, we need to find and encourage what naturally inspires the youth.

I feel fortunate that aviation captured my imagination. It seemed a far-off dream, but that is what made it so appealing. It was a win-win proposition. If I failed to earn my pilot’s certificate, then I could have claimed it was too much work and I did not really want it. If, instead, I achieved my goal, then all the better for me. There was safety in the win-win structure of my plan.

Provide structure. The educational implications for the traumatically brain injured person are great. A formerly “normal” individual will have been deprived of many of the tools that they previously used to succeed in life. Memory, speech, problem solving, movement, and/or social skills will have become a weakness.

The student is most likely to need structure and discipline to help him or her re-establish neural pathways that will mimic the former characteristics the person possessed. One way that the teacher can provide support for the student with TBI is by providing organizational skills and tools that can be used throughout the day.

The greatest resource that I found in my rehabilitation was my journal. At the occupational and speech therapists” request, I began to write down everything that happened in my life and schedules for what my day was to entail. It is very important that the youth with TBI is given a planner and journal and that they are assigned specific tasks to complete with each. These skills can stay with a student for a lifetime.

Look beyond the surface. For those who survive TBI, the internal and invisible world of the student is just as important as his or her external world. For those youth struggling with emotional difficulties, the need to look below the surface is just as great. It is easier for society to accept an obvious impairment than the subtle behavior changes that milder trauma may have produced.

As my life after the accident became unbearable, there were times when I felt that I could not cope. How different is that from the way that some youth feel today? Looking around, I feel empathy for the student who is struggling to succeed.

Listen for calls for help. The children with emotional difficulties run a close parallel to the TBI survivors. They are often unconscious of their behavior and feel as though there is no hope. Is it a surprise that so many of the emotionally handicapped commit suicide? We must remain vigilant to the signs of depression in youth and be ready to heed calls for help.

Provide opportunities to succeed. Living without hope, the child is condemned to either accept the state of his or her existence, or to do something drastic to change the state of mind (i.e., substance abuse, crime, or suicide). It is imperative that the child is shown hope by giving him or her opportunities to succeed.

Teachers need to provide students with the appropriate opportunities in which to have successful social encounters. Group work needs to be strategically orchestrated so as to place the student with difficulties with a nurturing peer. Again, hope can be realized only when a realistic perception of success is apparent.

Destination: Hope
When I think about the obstacles in my life and the lives of those I know, I wonder: What, exactly, is hope? I have begun to ask the question of nearly everyone I pass.

Yourself and others. One of the more memorable replies came from Joy Carter, a Florida State University graduate and my server at a St. Petersburg restaurant: “There are two kinds of hope. One is for yourself, and the other is for people other than yourself.”

I agree. Hope is a much more complex issue than I had first imagined. Hope is a concept of service to oneself and to others. It is more than a mere whimsical preference for beneficial outcomes. It is a deliberate construction of potential, by tenacity, and for necessity.

A second chance. One of my eighth-grade Oasis students offered that the school had brought her hope. She said that being given a second chance made all the difference. My students were not performing up to their ability level last year, and frequently missed school. On a track that could have led to failure, these children have been shown what success is and how to apply it to their lives.

Hope is found in opportunity. Remove opportunity, and we crush hope. One of my professors, Eleanor Guetzloe, has stated that we must never put our students in a situation where any and all chance of success is lost. Oasis has become a second chance for me. I am now an Oasis staff member. The other staff members have all been instrumental in providing me with the opportunity to succeed. Second chances have always been a very special thing for me, and I imagine that the greatest motivator in my quest to become a teacher is that I might provide second chances to students in need.

“This will not do:” Hope for me is the product of my discontent with what is. Next May I will graduate with a master’s degree in varying exceptionalities. I own a home and have married. So many accomplishments and still I find myself saying, “This will not do.” Nothing is enough, so I desire more. This is my hope, yet how can I teach this tool to my students? How can I teach something I only feel inside?

An attitude, a task. The answer to my questions came from an unexpected source. Jack is an interesting character I met in a local pub. He cheerfully told of the problems in his life that cumulatively made my plane crash appear insignificant. Yet he seemed carefree.

I had to ask him: “Jack, where does hope come from?” His answer was vague so I asked him again: “Where does hope come from? What makes hope?” He looked a little annoyed, but then he said: “Well Jim, hope doesn’t just happen. You have to make it.”

Bach, R. (1970). Jonathan L.ivingston Seagull. New York: Macmillan.
Kantrowitz, B., & Wingert, E (1999). How well do you know your kid? Newsweek, 133(19),36-41.

This feature: Pregent, J. (2000). Hope doesn’t just happen. Reaching Today’s Youth, 4, (4). pp. 42-45.

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