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CHAPTER TWO - TRUTH HURTS

Wilmoth Irving was a new beginning. Up until he met my mother and asked for her phone number, all I’d known was misery and struggle. When the money was good, our lives were defined by trauma. Once we were free of my father, we were swept under by our own PTSD-level dysfunction and poverty. Then, when I was in fourth grade, she met Wilmoth, a successful carpenter and general contractor from Indianapolis. She was attracted to his easy smile and laid-back style. There was no violence in him. He gave us permission to exhale. With him around it felt like we had some support, like something good was finally happening to us.

With Wilmoth

She laughed when they were together. Her smile was bright and real. She stood up a little straighter. He gave her pride and made her feel beautiful again. As for me, Wilmoth became as close to a healthy father figure as I’ve ever had. He didn’t coddle me. He didn’t tell me he loved me or any of that fake-ass sappy sh@t, but he was there. Basketball had been an obsession of mine since grade school. It was the core of my relationship with my best friend, Johnny Nichols, and Wilmoth had game. He and I hit the courts together all the time. He showed me moves, tuned up my defensive discipline, and helped me develop a jump shot. The three of us celebrated birthdays and holidays together, and the summer before eighth grade, he got down on one knee and asked my mother to make it official.

Wilmoth lived in Indianapolis, and our plan was to move in with him the following summer. Though he wasn’t nearly as rich as Trunnis, he made a nice living and we looked forward to city life again. Then in 1989, the day after Christmas, everything stopped.

We hadn’t made the full time move to Indy yet, and he’d spent Christmas Day with us at my grandparents’ place in Brazil. The next day, he had a basketball game in his men’s league and he’d invited me to sub for one of his teammates. I was so excited I’d packed my bags two days early, but that morning he told me I couldn’t come after all.

“I’m gonna keep you back here this time, Little David,” he said. I dropped my head and sighed. He could tell I was upset and tried to reassure me. “Your mom is gonna drive up in a few days and we can play ball then.”

I nodded, reluctantly, but I wasn’t raised to pry into the affairs of adults and knew I wasn’t owed an explanation or make-up game. My mother and I watched from the front porch as he backed out of the carport, smiled, and gave us that crisp single wave of his. Then he drove off.

It was the last time we’d ever see him alive.

He played in his men’s league game that night, as planned, and drove home alone to the “house with the white lions.” Whenever he gave directions to friends, family, or delivery guys, that’s how he always described his ranch-style house, its driveway framed by two white lion sculptures elevated on pillars. He pulled between them and into the garage where he could enter the house directly, oblivious to the danger moving in from behind. He never did close that garage door.

They’d been staking him out for hours, waiting for a window, and as he climbed out from the driver’s side door, they stepped from the shadows and fired from close range. He was shot five times in the chest. When he dropped to the floor of his garage, the gunman stepped over him and delivered a kill shot right between his eyes.

Wilmoth’s father lived a few blocks away, and when he drove by the white lions the next morning, he noticed his son’s garage door open and knew something was wrong. He walked up the driveway and into the garage where he sobbed over his dead son.

Wilmoth was just forty-three years old.

I was still at my grandmother’s house when Wilmoth’s mother called moments later. She hung up and motioned me to her side to break the news. I thought about my mom. Wilmoth had been her savior. She’d been coming out of her shell, opening up, ready to believe in good things. What would this do to her? Would God ever give her a damn break? It started as a simmer but within seconds my rage overwhelmed me. I broke free of my grandmother, punched the refrigerator, and left a dent.

We drove to our place to find my mother, who was already frantic because she hadn’t heard from Wilmoth. She called his house just before we arrived, and when a detective picked up the phone it puzzled her, but she didn’t expect this. How could she? We saw her confusion as my grandmother walked over, peeled the phone from her fingers, and sat her down.

She didn’t believe us at first. Wilmoth was a prankster and this was just the kind of fu@ked-up stunt he might try to pull off. Then she remembered he’d been shot two months before. He’d told her the guys who’d done that weren’t after him. That those bullets were meant for someone else, and because they merely grazed him, she decided to forget about the whole thing. Until that moment, she never suspected that Wilmoth had some secret street life she knew nothing about, and the police never did find out exactly why he was shot and killed. The speculation was that he was involved in a shady business deal or a drug deal gone bad. My mother was still in denial when she packed a bag, but she included a dress for his funeral.

When we arrived, his house was wrapped in a ribbon of yellow police tape like a fu@ked-up Christmas gift. This was no prank. My mom parked, ducked under the tape, and I followed right behind her to the front door. On the way, I remember glancing to my left trying to get a glimpse of the scene where Wilmoth had been killed. His cold blood was still pooled on the garage floor. I was a fourteen-year-old wandering through an active crime scene, but nobody, not my mother, not Wilmoth’s family, and not even the police seemed disturbed by me being there, absorbing the heavy vibe of my would-be stepfather’s murder.

As fu@ked up as it sounds, the police allowed my mom to stay in Wilmoth’s house that night. Rather than stay alone, she had her brother-in-law there, armed with his two guns in case the killers came back. I wound up in a back bedroom at Wilmoth’s sister’s place, a dark and spooky house a few miles away, and left alone all night. The house was furnished with one of those analog, cabinet television sets with thirteen channels on a dial. Only three channels came in static-free, and I kept it on the local news. They ran the same tape on a loop every thirty minutes: footage of my mom and me ducking under police tape then watching Wilmoth get wheeled on a gurney toward a waiting ambulance, a sheet over his body.

It was like a horror scene. I sat there all alone, watching the same footage over and over. My mind was a broken record that kept skipping into darkness. The past had been bleak and now our sky-blue future had been blown the fu@k up too. There would be no reprieve, only my familiar fu@ked-up reality choking out all light. Each time I watched, my fear grew until it filled the room, and still I could not stop.

A few days after we buried Wilmoth, and just after the new year, I boarded a school bus in Brazil, Indiana. I was still grieving, and my head was spinning because my mother and I hadn’t decided whether or not we were staying in Brazil or moving to Indianapolis as planned. We were in limbo and she remained in a state of shock. She still hadn’t cried over Wilmoth’s death. Instead she became emotionally vacant again. It was as if all the pain she’d experienced in her life resurfaced as one gaping wound she disappeared into, and there was no reaching her in that void. In the meantime, school was starting up, so I played along, looking for any shred of normal I could hang onto.

But it was hard. I rode a bus to school most days, and my first day back, I couldn’t shake a memory I’d buried from the year before. That morning, I slid into a seat above the back left tire overlooking the street as usual. When we arrived at school the bus pulled up to the curb, we needed to wait for the ones ahead of us to move before we could get off. In the meantime, a car pulled alongside us, and a cute, overeager little boy ran toward our bus carrying a platter of cookies. The driver didn’t see him. The bus jerked forward.

I noticed the alarmed look on his mother’s face before the sudden crush of blood splattered my window. His mother howled in horror. She wasn’t among us anymore. She looked and sounded like a fierce, wounded animal as she literally pulled the hair from her head by the roots. Soon sirens wailed in the distance and screamed closer by the second. The little boy was about six years old. The cookies were a present for the driver.

We were all ordered off the bus, and as I walked by the tragedy, for some reason—call it human curiosity, call it the magnetic pull of dark to dark—I peeked under the bus and saw him. His head was nearly as flat as paper, his brains and blood mingled under the carriage like spent oil.

For a full year I hadn’t thought of that image even once, but Wilmoth’s death reawakened it, and now it was all I could think about. I was beyond the pale. Nothing mattered to me. I’d seen enough to know that the world was filled with human tragedy and that it would just keep piling up in drifts until it swallowed me.

I couldn’t sleep in bed anymore. Neither could my mother. She slept in her arm chair with the television on blast or with a book in her hands. For a little while, I tried to curl up in bed at night but would always wake in the fetal position on the floor. Eventually I gave in and bedded down low to the ground. Maybe because I knew if I could find comfort at the bottom place there would be no more falling.

We were two people in dire need of the fresh start we thought we had coming, so even without Wilmoth, we made the move to Indianapolis. My mother set me up for entry exams at Cathedral High School, a private college preparatory academy in the heart of the city. As usual, I cheated, and off a smart motherfu@ker too. When my acceptance letter and class schedule came in the mail the summer before freshman year, I was looking at a full slate of AP classes!

I hacked my way through, cheating and copying, and managed to make the freshman basketball team, which was one of the best freshman teams in the entire state. We had several future college players, and I started at point guard. That was a confidence boost, but not the kind I could build on because I knew I was an academic fraud. Plus, the school cost my mom way too much money, so after only one year at Cathedral, she pulled the plug.

I started my sophomore year at North Central High School, a public school with 4,000 kids in a majority black neighborhood, and on my first day I turned up like some preppy-ass white boy. My jeans were definitely too tight, and my collared shirt was tucked into a waistline cinched with a braided belt. The only reason I didn’t get completely laughed out of the building was because I could ball.

My sophomore year was all about being cool. I switched up my wardrobe, which was increasingly influenced by hip hop culture, and hung out with gang bangers and other borderline delinquents, which meant I didn’t always go to school. One day, my mom came home in the middle of the day and found me sitting around our dining room table with what she described as “ten thugs.” She wasn’t wrong. Within a few weeks she packed us up and moved us back to Brazil, Indiana.

I enrolled at Northview High School the week of basketball tryouts, and I remember showing up at lunch time when the cafeteria was full. There were 1,200 kids enrolled at Northview, only five of which were black, and the last time any of them had seen me I looked a lot like them. Not anymore.

I strolled into school that day wearing pants five sizes too big and sagged way down low. I also wore an oversized Chicago Bulls Jacket with a backward hat, cocked to the side. Within seconds, all eyes were upon me. Teachers, students, and administrative staff stared at me like I was some exotic species. I was the first thuggish black kid many of them had seen in real life. My mere presence had stopped the music. I was the needle being dragged across vinyl, scratching a whole new rhythm, and like hip hop itself, everybody noticed but not everyone liked what they heard. I strutted through the scene like I gave no fu@ks.

But that was a lie. I acted all kinds of cocky and my entrance was brash as hell, but I felt very insecure going back there. Buffalo had been like living in a blazing inferno. My early years in Brazil were a perfect incubator for post traumatic stress, and before I left I was delivered a double dose of death trauma. Moving to Indianapolis had been an opportunity to escape pity and leave all that behind. Class wasn’t easy for me, but I’d made friends and developed a new style. Now, coming back, I looked different enough on the outside to perpetuate an illusion that I’d changed, but in order to change you have to work through sh@t. Confront it and get real. I hadn’t done a shred of that hard work. I was still a dumb kid with nothing solid to lean on, and basketball tryouts ripped away any confidence I had left.

When I got to the gym, they made me suit-up in uniform rather than wear my more generic gym clothes. Back then the style was getting baggy and oversized, which Chris Webber and Jalen Rose of the Fab Five would make famous at the University of Michigan. The coaches in Brazil didn’t have their fingers on that pulse. They put me in the tighty-whitey version of basketball shorts, which strangled my balls, hugged my thighs super tight, and felt all kinds of wrong. I was trapped in the coaches’ preferred dream state: a Larry Bird time warp. Which made sense because Larry Legend was basically a patron saint in Brazil and all of Indiana. In fact, his daughter went to our school. We were friends. But that didn’t mean I wanted to dress like him!

Then there was my etiquette. In Indianapolis the coaches let us talk sh@t on the court. If I made a good move or hit a shot in your face, I talked about your mama or your girlfriend. In Indy, I’d done research on my sh@t talking. I got good at it. I was the Draymond Green of my school, and it was all part of basketball culture in the city. Back in farm country, that cost me. When tryouts started, I handled the rock a bunch, and when I crossed some of the kids over and made them look bad I let them and the coaches know. My attitude embarrassed the coaches (who were apparently ignorant that their hero, Larry Legend, was an all-time great trash talker), and it wasn’t long before they took the ball out of my hands and put me in the front court, a position I’d never played before. I was uncomfortable down low, and played like it. That shut me up good. Meanwhile, Johnny was dominating.

My only saving grace that week was getting back with Johnny Nichols. We’d stayed close while I was away and our marathon one-on-one battles were back on full swing. Though he was undersized, he was always a nice player and he was one of the best on the floor during tryouts. He was draining shots, seeing the open man, and running the court. It was no surprise when he made the varsity squad, but we were both shocked that I barely made JV.

I was crushed. And not because of basketball tryouts. To me that outcome was another symptom of something else I’d been feeling. Brazil looked the same, but sh@t felt different this time around. Grade school had been hard academically, but even though we were one of only a few black families in town, I didn’t notice or feel any palpable racism. As a teenager I experienced it everywhere, and it wasn’t because I’d become ultra sensitive. Outright racism had always been there.

Not long after moving back to Brazil, my cousin Damien and I went to a party way out in the country. We stayed out well past curfew. In fact, we were up all night long, and after daybreak we called our grandmother for a ride home.

“Excuse me?” She asked. “You disobeyed me, so you may as well start walking.”

Roger that.

She lived ten miles away, down a long country road, but we joked around and enjoyed ourselves as we started to stroll. Damien lived in Indianapolis and we were both sagging our baggy jeans and dressed in oversized Starter jackets, not exactly typical gear on Brazil’s country roads. We’d walked seven miles in a few hours when a pick-up truck came bouncing down the tarmac in our direction. We edged to the side of the road to let it pass, but it slowed down, and as it crept past us, we could see two teenagers in the cab and a third standing in the bed of the truck. The passenger pointed and yelled through his open window.

“Niggers!”

We didn’t overreact. We put our heads down and kept walking at the same pace, until we heard that beat-to-sh@t truck squeal to a stop on a patch of gravel, and kick up a dust storm. That’s when I turned and saw the passenger, a scruffy looking redneck, exit the cab of the truck with a pistol in his hand. He aimed it at my head as he stalked toward me.

“Where the fu@k you from, and why the fu@k you here in this fu@king town?!”

Damien eased down the road, while I locked eyes with the gunman and said nothing. He stepped within two feet of me. The threat of violence doesn’t get much more real than that. Chills rippled my skin, but I refused to run or cower. After a few seconds he got back in the truck and they sped off.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the word. Not long before that I was hanging out in Pizza Hut with Johnny and a couple of girls, including a brunette I liked, named Pam. She liked me too, but we’d never acted on it. We were two innocents enjoying one another’s company, but when her father arrived to take her home he caught sight of us, and when Pam saw him, her face went ghost white.

He burst into the packed restaurant and stalked toward us with all eyes on him. He never addressed me. He just locked eyes with her and said, “I don’t want to ever see you sitting with this nigger again.”

She hustled out the door after him, her face red with shame as I sat, paralyzed, staring at the floor. It was the most humiliating moment of my life, and it hurt much more than the gun incident because it happened in public, and the word had been spewed by a grown-ass man. I couldn’t understand how or why he was filled with so much hate, and if he felt that way, how many other people in Brazil shared his point of view when they saw me walking down the street? It was the sort of riddle you didn’t want to solve.

They won’t call on me if they can’t see me. That was how I operated during my sophomore year in high school in Brazil, Indiana. I would hide out in the back rows, slump low in my chair, and sidestep my way through each and every class. Our high school made us take a foreign language that year, which was funny to me. Not because I couldn’t see the value, but because I could barely read English, let alone understand Spanish. By then, after a good eight years of cheating, my ignorance had crystalized. I kept leveling up in school, on track, but hadn’t learned a damn thing. I was one of those kids who thought he was gaming the system when, the whole time, I’d been gaming myself.

One morning, about halfway through the school year, I milled into Spanish class and grabbed my workbook from a back cupboard. There was technique involved in skating by. You didn’t have to pay attention, but you did have to make it seem like you were, so I slumped into my seat, opened up my workbook, and fixed my gaze on the teacher who lectured from the front of the room.

When I looked down at the page the whole room went silent. At least to me. Her lips were still moving, but I couldn’t hear because my attention had narrowed on the message left for me, and me alone.

We each had our own assigned workbook in that class, and my name was written in pencil at the top right corner of the title page. That’s how they knew it was mine. Below that, someone had drawn an image of me in a noose. It looked rudimentary, like something out of the hangman game we used to play as kids. Below that were the words.

Niger we’re gonna kill you!

They’d misspelled it, but I had no clue. I could barely spell myself, and they’d made their fu@king point. I looked around the room as my rage gathered like a typhoon until it was literally buzzing in my ears. I’m not supposed to be here, I thought to myself. I’m not supposed to be back in Brazil!

I took inventory of all the incidents I’d already experienced and decided I couldn’t take much more. The teacher was still talking when I rose up without warning. She called my name but I wasn’t trying to hear. I left the classroom, notebook in hand, and bolted to the principal’s office. I was so enraged I didn’t even stop at the front desk. I walked right into his office and dropped the evidence on his desk.

“I’m tired of this sh@t,” I said.

Kirk Freeman was the principal at that time, and to this day he still remembers looking up from his desk and seeing tears in my eyes. It wasn’t some mystery why all this sh@t was happening in Brazil. Southern Indiana had always been a hotbed of racists, and he knew it. Four years later, in 1995, the Ku Klux Klan would march down Brazil’s main drag on Independence Day, in full hooded regalia. The KKK was active in Center Point, a town located not fifteen minutes away, and kids from there went to our school. Some of them sat behind me in history class and told racist jokes for my benefit nearly every damn day. I wasn’t expecting some investigation into who did it. More than anything, in that moment, I was looking for some compassion, and I could tell from the look in Principal Freeman’s eyes he felt bad about what I was going through, but he was at a loss. He didn’t know how to help me. Instead, he examined the drawing and the message for a long beat, then raised his eyes to mine, ready to console me with his words of wisdom.

“David, this is sheer ignorance,” he said. “They don’t even know how to spell nigger.”

My life had been threatened, and that was the best he could do. The loneliness I felt leaving his office is something I’ll never forget. It was scary to think that there was so much hate flowing through the halls and that someone I didn’t even know wanted me dead because of the color of my skin. The same question kept looping through my mind: Who the fu@k is out here who hates me like this? I had no idea who my enemy was. Was it one of the rednecks from history class, or was it somebody I thought I was cool with but who really didn’t like me at all? It was one thing staring down the barrel of a gun on the street or dealing with some racist parent. At least that sh@t was honest. Wondering who else felt that way in my school was a different kind of unnerving, and I couldn’t shake it off. Even though I had plenty of friends, all of them white, I couldn’t stop seeing the hidden racism scrawled all over the walls in invisible ink, which made it extremely hard to carry the weight of being the only.

KKK in Center Point in 1995—Center Point is fifteen minutes from my house in Brazil

Most, if not all, minorities, women, and gay people in America know that strain of loneliness well. Of walking into rooms where you are the only one of your kind. Most white men have no idea how hard it can be. I wish they did. Because then they’d know how it drains you. How some days, all you want to do is stay home and wallow because to go public is to be completely exposed, vulnerable to a world that tracks and judges you. At least that’s how it feels. The truth is, you can’t tell for sure when or if that is actually happening in a given moment. But it often feels like it, which is its own kind of mindfu@k. In Brazil, I was the only everywhere I went. At my table in the cafeteria, where I chilled at lunch with Johnny and our crew. In every class I took. Even in the damn basketball gym.

By the end of that year I turned sixteen and my grandfather bought me a used, doo-doo brown Chevy Citation. One of the first mornings I ever drove it to school, someone spray painted the word “nigger” on my driver’s side door. This time they spelled it correctly and Principal Freeman was again at a loss for words. The fury that churned within me that day was indescribable, but it didn’t radiate out. It broke me down from within because I hadn’t yet learned what to do or where to channel that much emotion.

Was I supposed to fight everybody? I’d been suspended from school three times for fighting, and by now I was almost numb. Instead, I withdrew and fell into the well of black nationalism. Malcolm X became my prophet of choice. I used to come home from school and watch the same video of one of his early speeches every damn day. I was trying to find comfort somewhere, and the way he analyzed history and spun black hopelessness into rage nourished me, though most of his political and economic philosophies went over my head. It was his anger at a system made by and for white people that I connected with because I lived in a haze of hate, trapped in my own fruitless rage and ignorance. But I wasn’t Nation of Islam material. That sh@t took discipline, and I had none of that.

Instead, by my junior year, I went out of my way to piss people off by becoming the exact stereotype racist white people loathed and feared. I wore my pants down below my ass every day. I ghetto wired my car stereo to house speakers which filled the trunk of my Citation. I rattled windows when I cruised down Brazil’s main drag blasting Snoop’s Gin and Juice. I put three of those shag carpet covers over my steering wheel and dangled a pair of fuzzy dice from the rearview. Every morning before school I stared into our bathroom mirror and came up with new ways to fu@k with the racists at my school.

I even concocted wild hairdos. Once, I gave myself a reverse part—shaving away all my hair save a thin radial line on the left side of my scalp. It wasn’t that I was unpopular. I was considered the cool black kid in town, but if you’d have bothered to drill down a little deeper, you’d see that I wasn’t about black culture and that my antics weren’t really trying to call out racism. I wasn’t about anything at all.

Everything I did was to get a reaction out of the people who hated me most because everyone’s opinion of me mattered to me, and that’s a shallow way to live. I was full of pain, had no real purpose, and if you were watching from afar it would have looked like I’d given up on any chance of success. That I was heading for disaster. But I hadn’t let go of all hope. I had one more dream left.

I wanted to join the Air Force.

My grandfather had been a cook in the Air Force for thirty-seven years, and he was so proud of his service that even after he retired he’d wear his dress uniform to church on Sundays, and his work-a-day uniform midweek just to sit on the damn porch. That level of pride inspired me to join the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force. We met once a week, marched in formation, and learned about the various jobs available in the Air Force from officers, which is how I became fascinated with Pararescue—the guys who jump out of airplanes to pull downed pilots out of harm’s way.

I attended a week-long course during the summer before my freshman year called PJOC, the Pararescue Jump Orientation Course. As usual, I was the only. One day a pararescuman named Scott Gearen came to speak, and he had a motherfu@ker of a story to tell. During a standard exercise, on a high altitude jump from 13,000 feet, Gearen deployed his chute with another skydiver right above him. That wasn’t out of the ordinary. He had the right of way, and per his training, he’d waved off the other jumper. Except the guy didn’t see him, which placed Gearen in grave danger because the jumper above him was still mid free-fall, hurtling through the air at over 120 mph. He went into a cannonball hoping to avoid clipping Gearen, but it didn’t work. Gearen had no clue what was coming when his teammate flew through his canopy, collapsing it on contact, and slammed into Gearen’s face with his knees. Gearen was knocked unconscious instantly and wobbled into another free fall, his crushed chute creating very little drag. The other skydiver was able to deploy his chute and survive with minor injuries.

Gearen didn’t really land. He bounced like a flat basketball, three times, but because he’d been unconscious, his body was limp, and he didn’t come apart despite crashing into the ground at 100 mph. He died twice on the operating table, but the ER docs brought him back to life. When he woke in a hospital bed, they said he wouldn’t make a full recovery and would never be a pararescuman again. Eighteen months later he’d defied medical odds, made that full recovery, and was back on the job he loved.

Scott Gearen after his accident

For years I was obsessed with that story because he’d survived the impossible, and I resonated with his survival. After Wilmoth’s murder, with all those racist taunts raining down on my head (I won’t bore you with every single episode, just know there were many more), I felt like I was free falling with no fu@king chute. Gearen was living proof that it’s possible to transcend anything that doesn’t kill you, and from the time I heard him speak I knew I would enlist in the Air Force after graduation, which only made school seem more irrelevant.

Especially after I was cut from the varsity basketball team during my junior year. I wasn’t cut because of my skills. The coaches knew I was one of the best players they had, and that I loved the game. Johnny and I played it night and day. Our entire friendship was based on basketball, but because I was angry at the coaches for how they used me on the JV team the year before, I didn’t attend summer workouts, and they took that as a lack of commitment to the team. They didn’t know or care that when they cut me, they’d eliminated any incentive I’d had to keep my GPA up, which I’d barely managed to do through cheating anyway. Now, I had no good reason to attend school. At least that’s what I thought, because I was clueless about the emphasis that the military places on education. I figured they’d take anybody. Two incidents convinced me otherwise and inspired me to change.

The first was when I failed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB) during my junior year. The ASVAB is the armed forces version of the SATs. It’s a standardized test that allows the military to assess your current knowledge and future potential for learning at the same time, and I showed up for that test prepared to do what I did best: cheat. I’d been copying on every test, in every class, for years, but when I took my seat for the ASVAB I was shocked to see that the people seated to my right and left had different tests than I did. I had to go it alone and scored a 20 out of a possible 99 points. The absolute minimum standard to be admitted to the Air Force is only 36, and I couldn’t even get there.

The second sign that I needed to change arrived with a postmark just before school let out for the summer after junior year. My mother was still in her emotional black hole after Wilmoth’s murder, and her coping mechanism was to take on as much as possible. She worked full-time at DePauw University and taught night classes at Indiana State University because if she stopped hustling long enough to think, she would realize the reality of her life. She kept it moving, was never around, and never asked to see my grades. After the first semester of our junior year, I remember Johnny and me bringing home Fs and Ds. We spent two hours doctoring the ink. We turned Fs into Bs and Ds into Cs, and were laughing the whole damn time. I actually remember feeling a perverse pride in being able to show my fake grades to my mother, but she never even asked to see them. She took my damn word for it.

Junior year transcript

We lived parallel lives in the same house, and since I was more or less raising myself, I stopped listening to her. In fact, about ten days before the letter arrived, she’d kicked me out because I refused to come home from a party before curfew. She told me that if I didn’t, I shouldn’t come home at all.

In my mind, I had already been living by myself for several years. I made my own meals, cleaned my own clothes. I wasn’t angry at her. I was cocky and figured I didn’t need her anymore. I stayed out that night, and for the next week and a half I crashed at Johnny’s place or with other friends. Eventually the day came when I’d spent my last dollar. By chance, she called me at Johnny’s that morning and told me about a letter from school. It said I’d missed over a quarter of the year due to unexcused absences, that I had a D average, and unless I showed significant improvement in my GPA and attendance during my senior year, I would not graduate. She wasn’t emotional about it. She was more exhausted than exasperated.

“I’ll come home and get the note,” I said.

“No need for that,” she replied, “I just wanted you to know you were flunking out.”

I showed up on her doorstep later that day with my stomach growling. I didn’t ask for forgiveness and she didn’t demand an apology. She just left the door open and walked away. I stepped into the kitchen and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She passed me the letter without saying a word. I read it in my room where the walls were papered over with layers of Michael Jordan and special ops posters. Inspiration for twin passions slipping through my fingers.

That night, after taking a shower, I wiped the steam away from our corroded bathroom mirror and took a good look. I didn’t like who I saw staring back. I was a low-budget thug with no purpose and no future. I felt so disgusted I wanted to punch that motherfu@ker in the face and shatter glass. Instead, I lectured him. It was time to get real.

“Look at you,” I said. “Why do you think the Air Force wants your punk ass? You stand for nothing. You are an embarrassment.”

I reached for the shaving cream, smoothed a thin coat over my face, unwrapped a fresh razor and kept talking as I shaved.

“You are one dumb motherfu@ker. You read like a third grader. You’re a fu@king joke! You’ve never tried hard at anything in your life besides basketball, and you have goals? That’s fu@king hilarious.”

After shaving peach fuzz from my cheeks and chin, I lathered up my scalp. I was desperate for a change. I wanted to become someone new.

“You don’t see people in the military sagging their pants. You need to stop talking like a wanna-be-gangster. None of this sh@t is gonna cut it! No more taking the easy way out! It’s time to grow the fu@k up!”

Steam billowed all around me. It rippled off my skin and poured from my soul. What started as a spontaneous venting session had become a solo intervention.

“It’s on you,” I said. “Yeah, I know sh@t is fu@ked up. I know what you’ve been through. I was there, bit@h! Merry fu@king Christmas. Nobody is coming to save your ass! Not your mommy, not Wilmoth. Nobody! It’s up to you!”

By the time I was done talking, I was shaved clean. Water pearled on my scalp, streamed from my forehead, and dripped down the bridge of my nose. I looked different, and for the first time, I’d held myself accountable. A new ritual was born, one that stayed with me for years. It would help me get my grades up, whip my sorry ass into shape, and see me through graduation and into the Air Force.

The ritual was simple. I’d shave my face and scalp every night, get loud, and get real. I set goals, wrote them on Post-It notes, and tagged them to what I now call the Accountability Mirror, because each day I’d hold myself accountable to the goals I’d set. At first my goals involved shaping up my appearance and accomplishing all my chores without having to be asked.

Make your bed like you’re in the military every day!

Pull up your pants!

Shave your head every morning!

Cut the grass!

Wash all dishes!

The Accountability Mirror kept me on point from then on, and though I was still young when this strategy came through me, since then I’ve found it useful for people at any stage in life. You could be on the cusp of retirement, looking to reinvent yourself. Maybe you’re going through a bad break-up or have gained weight. Perhaps you’re permanently disabled, overcoming some other injury, or are just coming to grips with how much of your life you’ve wasted, living without purpose. In each case, that negativity you’re feeling is your internal desire for change, but change doesn’t come easy, and the reason this ritual worked so well for me was because of my tone.

I wasn’t fluffy. I was raw because that was the only way to get myself right. That summer between my junior and senior year in high school I was afraid. I was insecure. I wasn’t a smart kid. I’d blown off all accountability for my entire teenage existence, and actually thought I was getting over on all the adults in my life, getting over on the system. I’d duped myself into a negative feedback loop of cheating and scamming that on the surface looked like advancement until I hit a brick fu@king wall called reality. That night when I came home and read the letter from my school, there was no denying the truth, and I delivered it hard.

I didn’t dance around and say, “Geez, David, you are not taking your education very seriously.” No, I had to own it in the raw because the only way we can change is to be real with ourselves. If you don’t know sh@t and have never taken school seriously, then say, “I’m dumb!” Tell yourself that you need to get your ass to work because you’re falling behind in life!

If you look in the mirror and you see a fat person, don’t tell yourself that you need to lose a couple of pounds. Tell the truth. You’re fu@king fat! It’s okay. Just say you’re fat if you’re fat. The dirty mirror that you see every day is going to tell you the truth every time, so why are you still lying to yourself? So you can feel better for a few minutes and stay the fu@king same? If you’re fat you need to change the fact that you’re fat because it’s very fu@king unhealthy. I know because I’ve been there.

If you have worked for thirty years doing the same sh@t you’ve hated day in and day out because you were afraid to quit and take a risk, you’ve been living like a pussy. Period, point blank. Tell yourself the truth! That you’ve wasted enough time, and that you have other dreams that will take courage to realize, so you don’t die a fu@king pussy.

Call yourself out!

Nobody likes to hear the hard truth. Individually and as a culture, we avoid what we need to hear most. This world is fu@ked up, there are major problems in our society. We are still dividing ourselves up along racial and cultural lines, and people don’t have the balls to hear it! The truth is racism and bigotry still fu@king exist and some people are so thin-skinned they refuse to admit that. To this day, many in Brazil claim that there is no racism in their small town. That’s why I have to give Kirk Freeman props. When I called him in the spring of 2018, he remembered what I went through very clearly. He’s one of the few who isn’t afraid of the truth.

But if you are the only, and you aren’t stuck in some real-world genocidal twilight zone, you’d better get real too. Your life is not fu@ked up because of overt racists or hidden systemic racism. You aren’t missing out on opportunities, making sh@t money, and getting evicted because of America or Donald fu@king Trump or because your ancestors were slaves or because some people hate immigrants or Jews or harass women or believe gay people are going to hell. If any of that sh@t is stopping you from excelling in life, I’ve got some news. You are stopping you!

You are giving up instead of getting hard! Tell the truth about the real reasons for your limitations and you will turn that negativity, which is real, into jet fuel. Those odds stacked against you will become a damn runway!

There is no more time to waste. Hours and days evaporate like creeks in the desert. That’s why it’s okay to be cruel to yourself as long as you realize you’re doing it to become better. We all need thicker skin to improve in life. Being soft when you look in the mirror isn’t going to inspire the wholesale changes we need to shift our present and open up our future.

The morning after that first session with the Accountability Mirror, I trashed the shag steering wheel and the fuzzy dice. I tucked my shirt in and wore my pants with a belt, and, once school started up again, I stopped eating at my lunch table. For the first time, being liked and acting cool were a waste of my time, and instead of eating with all the popular kids, I found my own table and ate alone.

Mind you, the rest of my progress could not be described as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it metamorphosis. Lady Luck did not suddenly show up, run me a hot soapy bath, and kiss me like she loved me. In fact, the only reason I didn’t become just another statistic is because, at the last possible moment, I got to work.

During my senior year in high school, all I cared about was working out, playing basketball, and studying, and it was the Accountability Mirror that kept me motivated to keep pushing toward something better. I woke up before dawn and started going to the YMCA most mornings at 5 a.m. before school to hit the weights. I ran all the damn time, usually around the local golf course after dark. One night I ran thirteen miles—the most I’d ever run in my entire life. On that run I came to a familiar intersection. It was the same street where that redneck had pulled a gun on me. I avoided it and ran on, covering a half mile in the opposite direction before something told me to turn back. When I arrived at that intersection a second time, I stopped and contemplated it. I was scared sh@tless of that street, my heart was leaping from my chest, which is exactly why I suddenly started charging down its fu@king throat.

Within seconds, two snarling dogs got loose and chased me as the woods leaned in on both sides. It was all I could do to stay a step ahead of the beasts. I kept expecting that truck to reappear and run me the fu@k down, like some scene from Mississippi circa 1965, but I kept running, faster and faster, until I was breathless. Eventually the hounds of Hell gave up and loped off, and it was just me, the rhythm and steam of my breath, and that deep country quiet. It was cleansing. By the time I turned back, my fear was gone. I owned that fu@king street.

From then on, I brainwashed myself into craving discomfort. If it was raining, I would go run. Whenever it started snowing, my mind would say, Get your fu@king running shoes on. Sometimes I wussed out and had to deal with it at the Accountability Mirror. But facing that mirror, facing myself, motivated me to fight through uncomfortable experiences, and, as a result, I became tougher. And being tough and resilient helped me meet my goals.

Nothing was as hard for me as learning. The kitchen table became my all-day, all-night study hall. After I’d failed the ASVAB a second time, my mother realized that I was serious about the Air Force, so she found me a tutor who helped me figure out a system I could use to learn. That system was memorization. I couldn’t learn just by scratching a few notes and memorizing those. I had to read a text book and write each page down in my notebook. Then do it again a second and third time. That’s how knowledge stuck to the mirror of my mind. Not through learning, but through transcription, memorization, and recall.

I did that for English. I did that for history. I wrote out and memorized formulas for algebra. If my tutor took an hour to teach me a lesson, I had to go back over my notes from that session for six hours to lock it in. My personal study hall schedule and goals became Post-It notes on my Accountability Mirror, and guess what happened? I developed an obsession for learning.

Over six months I went from having a fourth grade reading level to that of a senior in high school. My vocabulary mushroomed. I wrote out thousands of flash cards and went over them for hours, days, and weeks. I did the same for mathematical formulas. Part of it was survival instinct. I damn sure wasn’t going to get into college based on academics, and though I was a starter on the varsity basketball team my senior year, no college scouts knew my name. All I knew was that I had to get the fu@k out of Brazil, Indiana; that the military was my best chance; and to get there I had to pass the ASVAB. On my third try, I met the minimum standard for the Air Force.

Living with purpose changed everything for me—at least in the short term. During my senior year in high school, studying and working out gave my mind so much energy that hate flaked from my soul like used-up snake skin. The resentment I held toward the racists in Brazil, the emotion that had dominated me and was burning me up inside, dissipated because I’d finally considered the fu@king source.

I looked at the people who were making me feel uncomfortable and realized how uncomfortable they were in their own skin. To make fun of or try to intimidate someone they didn’t even know based on race alone was a clear indication that something was very wrong with them, not me. But when you have no confidence it becomes easy to value other people’s opinions, and I was valuing everyone’s opinion without considering the minds that generated them. That sounds silly, but it’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when you are insecure on top of being the only. As soon as I made that connection, being upset with them was not worth my time. Because if I was gonna kick their ass in life, and I was, I had way too much sh@t to do. Each insult or dismissive gesture became more fuel for the engine revving inside me.

By the time I graduated, I knew that the confidence I’d managed to develop didn’t come from a perfect family or God-given talent. It came from personal accountability which brought me self respect, and self respect will always light a way forward.

For me, it lit up a path straight out of Brazil, forever. But I didn’t get away clean. When you transcend a place in time that has challenged you to the core, it can feel like you’ve won a war. Don’t fall for that mirage. Your past, your deepest fears, have a way of going dormant before springing back to life at double strength. You must remain vigilant. For me, the Air Force revealed that I was still soft inside. I was still insecure.

I wasn’t yet hard of bone and mind.

CHALLENGE #2

It’s time to come eyeball to eyeball with yourself, and get raw and real. This is not a self-love tactic. You can’t fluff it. Don’t massage your ego. This is about abolishing the ego and taking the first step toward becoming the real you!

I tacked Post-It notes on my Accountability Mirror, and I’ll ask you to do the same. Digital devices won’t work. Write all your insecurities, dreams, and goals on Post-Its and tag up your mirror. If you need more education, remind yourself that you need to start working your ass off because you aren’t smart enough! Period, point blank. If you look in the mirror and see someone who is obviously overweight, that means you’re fu@king fat! Own it! It’s okay to be unkind with yourself in these moments because we need thicker skin to improve in life.

Whether it’s a career goal (quit my job, start a business), a lifestyle goal (lose weight, get more active), or an athletic one (run my first 5K, 10K, or marathon), you need to be truthful with yourself about where you are and the necessary steps it will take to achieve those goals, day by day. Each step, each necessary point of self-improvement, should be written as its own note. That means you have to do some research and break it all down. For example, if you are trying to lose forty pounds, your first Post-It may be to lose two pounds in the first week. Once that goal is achieved, remove the note and post the next goal of two to five pounds until your ultimate goal is realized.

Whatever your goal, you’ll need to hold yourself accountable for the small steps it will take to get there. Self-improvement takes dedication and self-discipline. The dirty mirror you see every day is going to reveal the truth. Stop ignoring it. Use it to your advantage. If you feel it, post an image of yourself staring into your tagged-up Accountability Mirror on social media with the hashtags #canthurtme #accountabilitymirror.

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