eHHH hhhhh He was already in the building that morning when we arrived - ready for his class to begin. After we set up tables and chairs, he went and sat at the end of the row of tables - stoic, fixed and unmoving. He was not antisocial, he was just naturally quiet and reserved. His eyes look straight ahead, not staring or attempting to comprehend anything in particular but rather as if whatever was there did not exist. He sat erect in his chair. His demeanor was one that emphasized discipline. His face appeared unemotional, exhibiting self-confidence and firmness. The numerous lines incising his face told a story of harshness and a comfortless life leading one to believe he was far older than in reality he was.
Charles was a member of one of our Career Workshop held in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is a white man trying to survive in an anti-apartheid environment where he was recently released from his employment due to the color of his skin. He was rejected each time he applied for a job because he was “too old”, or “over qualified”. In reality, he was 58 with qualifications any employer should have been elated to employ. He was a man proud of his heritage, but broken in spirit.
One of the tasks of the workshop is to itemize three accomplishments you have had in your life. As I roamed the room observing the class members and their responses to the task, I noticed Charles had not written anything in the box marked “accomplishments”. I paused and asked if he was having trouble with the assignment. With a shrug and in a low voice, he said, “I don’t have any accomplishments.”
“Surely you have accomplished something in your life,” I responded.
“I haven’t,” he retorted matter-of-factly.
Unwilling to accept his response, I asked “What did you do for work in your life?”
“I was in the uniform for 32 years,” he said.
“What rank did you reach?” I asked.
“Corporal,” he responded.
“Then you have accomplished something. To have achieved the rank of corporal is something to be proud of; it means you are a leader of men. It means others respected your judgment, your integrity and your reliability. You are a good man and have nothing to be ashamed of,” I told him.
He looked at me as if it was the first time anything that kind had ever been spoken to him and then he turned his head to hide the emotion evident on his face and the tears welling up in his eyes. I left him alone to compose himself.
A few minutes later he caught my attention and motioned for me to come over where he was. Upon my arrival, he pointed to something he had written and asked, “Is that better?” He had written under accomplishments: “I was a Corporal in the military - a leader and motivator of men.”
“That is a good, honest response,” I said. “Now write me two more.”
Another part of the workshop requires the class participants to write a short paragraph that tells about a skill they have, an experience of how they have used the skill and what the result was. Charles again struggled with the assignment, but with some coaching and encouragement he managed to write some broken and disjointed sentences pertaining to the assignment.
I pulled up a chair next to him and asked if I could give him a hand? He nodded his approval and I went to work on his paragraph. When I got done it read, “I am considered to be a honest and reliable leader of men. For example, while I was in the military, my commanders always relied on me to train and motivate men in the company. As a result, I was promoted to be a Corporal.”
“Is that accurate?”, I asked.
Upon reading it over, he nodded again.
“Now,” I said, “you write one of your own.” Below is what he wrote.
Once the individuals have written their statements, they are asked to go practice saying them in preparation to giving them to the whole class. When the time came for them to give their statements orally, I purposely chose others besides Charles to give their statements so that he had a chance to observe what was expected. When his time came, he arose and stood in front of the class, ridged but not at attention. His demeanor demanded your attention and left little room for doubt of his ability to take charge. His voice was one of confidence - cool with resolution and his eyes were fixed. His presentation was electrifying and when completed the class spontaneously erupted with applause. Emotion washed over his countenance and tears welled up and trickled down his cheeks as he turned to hide his feelings in this moment of acceptance and acknowledgement.
Following the completion of the class, Charles seemed to have more spring in his steps and carried himself as if a burden had been lifted from him. I shook his hand and said, “Take care of yourself.” He looked at me and nodded as he gave an extra squeeze to my hand.
What will ultimately happen in his search to become self-reliant again, I don’t know. But this much I do know. He wants to start his own business and with the proper encouragement and a pat on the back by those around him, he will once more be able to hold his head high.