Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's Not How You Fall

B. Stuart Noll
All Rights Reserved
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It doesn’t seem to matter where it occurs – New York, Philly, Detroit, LA, DC, or Richmond, or any other city, town or borough in this country, when you’re a young man and you fall, you’re going to fall hard! That’s just the way it is. It’s a part of life; it’s a part of growing up. The fall I’m referring to isn’t skinning your knees of course, it’s a fall from grace, it’s a significant life lesson we choose or sometimes fail to choose; it’s an experience or set of experiences from which we learn. Some also die and others often never learn or never recover.

This isn’t a story about where a man started or where he is, or even where he’s headed. Though we aren’t traveling the same path, we’re connected by a common bond, a common desire, a dream to finish in a different place than where we began. I think we both want to leave something more meaningful than a few memories behind us. This is a snapshot of a man I call my friend; a quick peek at his life’s journey so far, as seen through my eyes, a fellow traveler on the same train riding in a different car.

"Choices are the hinges of destiny." - Pythagoras

Karnel Banks, (pictured) referred to by most of us as “C” was born March 6, 1972 at Flushing Meadows Hospital in Queens in New York City, NY. The middle child of 6 children he grew up to be a sensitive and empathetic listener despite living a former life he characterizes as “a cycle of hopelessness.” Education is often an indicator of success or failure so I asked him where he went to high school. “C” looked down momentarily, perhaps a bit apprehensive about divulging he didn’t graduate and then he looked back up again and said “Walton HS in the Bronx.” He quickly let me know he gained his G.E.D. later on. That fact by itself made an impression on me. “C” wasn’t a quitter and he knew what he needed to survive. In my mind it was one of those steps in his success story.

As he spoke to me I heard a story about a teen in the ‘90’s on the streets in the Bronx. I heard a story about a man now living a new life; perhaps an ordinary life if you view it from a distance but, an unimaginable life to a guy who never expected, as a youth, to see thirty! As we talked, “C” revealed some of the situations he experienced to get to this point in his life. The ones he described were what you might think of growing up in the Big Apple. He gave me an account of a few choices and changes, part of his old life, some of his new life and certainly a piece of his legacy.

I didn’t want to sensationalize the details of his fall; I wanted to contrast the kid of his past with the man he is today. I will tell you there was strength of character even back then that kept “C” from experiencing a fate similar to many of his friends – jail, illness and death. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised that he participated in many of the activities he told me about because as a kid from Philly I had seen much of it myself, drugs, alcohol and violence, though not to the same degree or proximity. Karnel realized he had to leave NY to escape the madness in his life. He told me much of what happens, happens for survival. He told me that’s why he admired his friend Jimmy, who stayed there all these years. Jimmy overcame the hardships while remaining in the environment.

What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I watch “C” work today and interact with our teammates it’s hard for me to imagine him as an at-risk youth or a young adult on the border of the wrong side of the law and society. He possesses a positive attitude and is dedicated to his team and his contribution to our organization. When I asked him how he survived and how he managed to come to Richmond he mentioned his sister and the importance of family in his turnaround. Though he would, at the age of 18, begin to toggle back and forth between Richmond and NYC trying to find himself, he recalled the old women on the block where he ran with the gangs telling him this wasn’t the life his mother wanted for him. That meant something to “C” – it must have hit a nerve that was connected to his heart and his brain.

The most moving moment of our interview occurred when I asked Karnel “what was the saddest time of your life?” Without hesitation he said, “When my mom passed.” I understood because that too was a sad time for me as well. But, I could tell there was something special in the relationship “C” had with his mother so I asked him to tell me more about her. Now, with tears streaming down his face he said “my mother knew me, I never had to lie to her; she knew who I was. I could tell her anything.” And he often did! Believe me friends, some of the things they discussed must have been hard for a mother to hear about her son and his activities, but that also was a testament to the strength of her character and the bond they had between them.

Most mothers take a lot of nonsense from their sons. It’s like God builds something extra into their chemistry just for that reason. But this relationship was special because there was truth and honesty and love spoken, often without words. She knew him; she knew his heart, his soul. That was enough! I would miss a friend like that too!

Karnel’s mother also set an example for him, a work ethic that would ultimately help him later in life. She did everything from driving a cab to working for the police review board and some unconventional things moms don’t ordinarily do like negotiating peace agreements of sorts with thugs from a different turf. I got a glimpse of where “C” learned composure, discretion and respect. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to demonstrate what we’ve been shown.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” -
Dr. Martin Luther King

Time has passed and Karnel has a family now! He is a hard working man with responsibilities; to his team at work; to his daughter and to his sons; and to himself. I asked him why he changed, why he began to act more responsibly. He said, “I wanted to teach my children how to be a man, but I wasn’t being one. I had a choice.” I didn’t know “C” then, but I imagine He came face to face with himself and he examined what he saw, knowing what he had to do! And he did it!

He always has had a choice, and he knows it! I couldn’t possibly know what Karnel Banks was like back in the 90’s because I wasn’t with him. But I’m with him quite often today. I sense what kind of man he is and I’m very proud to call him my friend. I think he said it best when he said, “It’s not how you fall, it’s how you rise.” I respect a man who keeps getting up, dusting himself off and trying to do the right things for himself and for his family. “C” is a great example for all of us that rising is an art, often painted with sweat and tears, all that is necessary is to stand up in front of the easel of life, pick up a brush and begin to paint! It is a choice and it belongs to you!

Thanks “C” – you inspire me!

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