The following was a speech given to graduates of the ASU Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program fall 2019 class at the Arizona State Prison Complex at Perryville in Goodyear, Arizona.
My daughter was born earlier this year.
It’s the kind of thing that gives you a new perspective when you have a new perspective to take. I now see the world through her eyes.
I think about the world that I want for her. And I think about what I want her to be for the world.
About this time one year ago, my wife was 33 weeks pregnant, and she woke with a terrible pain in her side and her back. We quickly ended up in the ER, and doctors spent the day trying to figure out what was wrong. They never figured that out.
At 2 a.m. they made the decision to remove my wife’s appendix. They would have to put her under general anesthesia. The baby would go under, too. Our doctor stood next to the surgeon, ready to deliver should anything go wrong.
Nothing did go wrong. Our baby’s heart never skipped a beat; never sped up, never slowed down. I was in awe of both my wife and our unborn child.
The next day, as my wife lay recovering in the hospital, I walked across the street to a major baby retail store. I wanted to buy something to remind everyone of the strength of our daughter.
I looked through all the girls’ clothes, trying to find something about strength and bravery.
There was nothing. Nothing but princesses, unicorns, fairies, hello beautiful, tutu cute, my little black dress, I woke up flawless, mermaid in training, sparkle all day, cute like my aunt, and bows and bling, it’s a girl thing.
I asked an employee if they had anything for girls about being brave and strong. She said that no, they didn’t.
I searched harder and finally toward the back of one of the racks I found “Young, Wild, & Free.” It would have to do.
When I think about what I want my daughter to be for the world, I want what many parents want, often only for their boys: I want her to be Big and Strong. But it has nothing to do with size and nothing to do with physical strength.
I want her to Be Big. I want her to Be Strong.
Be Big means to be a bigger person.
I want my daughter to appreciate perspectives that are different than hers, and to work to understand those differences rather than to dismiss them.
I want my daughter to imagine freely, to wonder and to wander. I don’t want her to be constrained by the expectations of others. I want her to be bigger than that. I want her to find what matters most to her, and to work to get better and better at that through deliberate practice.
I want her to be a giver; I want her to live with others in mind. I want her to do well by doing good. But I want her to do this in ways that are energizing to her and not in ways that exhaust her desire to help others.
And I want her to know what Dr. Ira Byock has learned from his dying patients, the four things that matter most. Saying “Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you.” And “I love you.” It takes a big person to say these things and to say them repeatedly.
Be Strong means to be a stronger person.
I want my daughter’s strength to be drawn from her vulnerability. I want her to know that it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know.’ It’s okay to ask questions. And it’s okay to fail again…and again…
I want her to know that when she’s at her lowest, she’s at the point where she can grow her strongest, and that she can find meaning in any form of adversity that she may face.
I want my daughter to lead from the trenches. I want her to say “I don’t know much about this, but if it’s important to you, then it’s important to me, and so let’s figure this out.” I want her to create a culture of strength that finds power in belonging.
And I want her to know that she’s strongest through building strength in others.
But of course, to ‘grow up big and strong’ means to ‘grow up big and strong like your father.’ And here again my daughter is fortunate that big does not mean size and strong does not mean physical strength.
But this does mean that I need to be a model of big and strong behavior. For all of these things that I want for my daughter, I can only provide the knowledge and tools and the opportunity to use them. It’s up to her to Be Big and to Be Strong when it matters.
These are the things that I want for my daughter.
These are the things that we could want for women in prison, who are somebody’s daughter. These are the things that we could want for women in the university, who are somebody’s daughter. These are the things that we could want for our sons, in and out of prison, in and out of the university.
I’ve never understood why we could care so much about our youth, but then stop caring about them when they become incarcerated adults. I see the anguish you face through reconciling your past with the hope that you have for your future. At a time when you most need skills, opportunities, and direction to find meaning and purpose, you are left to figure things out on your own.
It’s taken me longer to realize this, but I now also don’t understand why we could care so much about our youth, but then stop caring about them when they become enrolled college students as adults. I see the anxiety you face over the uncertainty of your futures and the pressure to figure things out with seeming finality. At a time when you most need skills, opportunities, and direction to find meaning and purpose, you are left to figure things out on your own.
So students, I want the same things for you as I want for my daughter. But just like my daughter, we can only provide you the knowledge and the tools and the opportunities in class to use them. It’s up to you to Be Big and to Be Strong when it matters.
Start now. Be Big on the yard and the campus to those who feel the smallest. Be Strong on the campus and the yard to those who feel the weakest. You’re small when it’s all about you and you’re weak when you hide behind armor. Be Big. Be Strong. Be You.
My daughter will finish up her first year of life in a few months. One of her favorite things to do is to give things to people; she breaks out in a smile every time you say “thank you” to her in return. She’ll literally give you her favorite food out of her mouth. She is on her way to Being Big and Being Strong.
My hope for you all is that you are Big and Strong, too.