Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to:
- connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
- share ideas about learning and human development;
- spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy.
Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing.
Michael Ulku-Steiner, Head of School
My New Year's Role Model
With 2016 now just hours away, I have narrowed my list of potential new year’s resolutions to one: be more loving, patient, and generous – starting with my family relationships. My role model for this project: my friend Chris Rosati.
If you don’t know Chris already, he’s the Durham Academy alumnus whose creativity, resilience and love have stirred a hurricane of kindness across the country. Think this sounds hyperbolic? Watch Chris’s five appearances on CBS News “On The Road” with Steve Hartman.
- Grand Theft Donut
- A Father’s Gift to his Daughters
- Silver Linings Playbook
- The Butterfly Effect
- An Epidemic of Kindness
Chris was not a model student at Durham Academy. His teachers remember him as an earnest person, a gregarious classmate and a mediocre academician. Nonetheless, Chris is a model alumnus. He reminds us as forcefully as any former student that our mission aims not just at academic targets but rather at “moral, happy, productive lives.” I think it was Chris, with typical mischief in his eye, who first told me that “The A students become preachers and teachers. The B students work for the C students.”
Last month I went back to work for Chris Rosati. Inspire MEdia, the non-profit he founded after being diagnosed with ALS, was hosting a benefit Gala. Chris needed performers. Though our career as rappers had taken a precipitous downturn with the publication of our second single “Lice, Lice, Baby,” (I wish I were making that up), Lee Hark and I agreed to participate in the Inspire MEdia Lip Sync Contest.
Reactions to our live performance of New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love” and Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” at the American Tobacco Campus that night ranged from “moderately embarrassing” to “gruesome.” Our costumes were top-notch but I fear we are the primary reason last month’s event will be known as Inspire MEdia’s Last Annual Lip Sync Contest. Luckily for us, Chris’ friend and fellow DA alumna Rosemary Nye salvaged a shred of our credibility with her video introduction (our version of Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky.”)
Erasing these forgettable interludes was the radiant highlight of the Gala: Chris himself. Speaking from his wheelchair into pin-drop silence through his Steven Hawkingesque computer device, Chris reminded us why we were gathered together that evening, and perhaps even why we have gathered together on the planet.
Click here to see a short video about the 2015 "BIGG Bash." With Chris’s permission, I have included his remarks below. Many of the names he mentions belong to DA alumni. Chris’ network of love, however, stretches far beyond our school and city. As you read his words and consider the man behind them (one of the most frail and powerful leaders in Durham), I hope you too will be inspired to fold a little extra kindness into your new year.
Thank you. Great to see you. Ladies look beautiful. Some stylish outfits. Even Doctor Bedlack wore something outrageous.
I want to thank you all. Tamra and Laura, Amon, Jamie. You guys are great. And I fully understand if you resign Monday. Thank you to the committee who planned this, the sponsors, Mike, David, Charlie, Greg, the folks at Professional Healthcare, Chris Porter. Thank you to everyone who donated time, money, items, love. The board. John Ross came down from New York. Jayne and Stan from Maryland. My aunt and uncle. Jory, Karen and the kids came from Virginia. Thank you to my wife and my family. Thank you to all who accepted the invite to be in our lipsync battle. If I missed anyone, I’m sorry. All of you. Thank you. And I want to thank Chad Flowers and Debra Morgan. Many of you saw Debra reporting from Paris all week. And Chad was the man behind the camera. I can imagine the physical and emotional toll of that experience. It would have been understandable to cancel. But they both came. So folks, let's give a hand for Chad Flowers and our emcee for the evening, Debra Morgan.
It was very difficult to figure out what to say tonight. I want to tell you what we are about to do with Inspire MEdia. Because it’s awesome. But I also did not want to miss an opportunity to share. I do not get to share, to interact with many people any more. I miss it. And I need to share some things.
Not long ago, my good friend Jamie, asked if having ALS had changed me at all. My response, it’s made me more of who I am. Took over 40 years for me to finally love who I am. To just put myself out there. The good. And the bad. And be ok with it. Even if it isn’t what people expect. So, here I am.
Two weeks ago, I confessed to Anna, that I didn’t want to come to this. I wanted tonight, to not be about me. I wanted to raise awareness of Inspire MEdia. To raise some money. But mostly just to make y’all happy. I wasn’t looking forward to tonight because, I love you so much, I just hated the idea of you being sad for one second, looking at me. Looking at us, and wondering how we do it.
I was not looking forward to tonight, because, I struggle. It’s getting tough. And I’m sad a little more than usual. Scared too. But the sadness, that’s tough. I didn’t want any more sadness, for any of us.
It’s only recently that I gave any mind to the idea of a bucket list. Unfortunately, on the top of my list are things I won’t be able to do without a miracle. I want to kick the soccer ball with my girls. I want to see them fall in love. And let them cry on my shoulder when they discover heartbreak. Tell them it’s all going to be ok. I want to walk the beach in late September holding Anna’s hand. I want to buy an RV, and road trip. Every Summer. Every Spring Break. Make memories. And I want to sit with my friends around a fire pit at the lake, and laugh, without everyone wondering, how we do it.
That’s something I need to share. That I struggle.
The next thing I want to share is, I have to make a decision. In two weeks, I’m supposed to have surgery. A tracheotomy. A ventilator. I would live on a machine. I never imagined why anyone would choose not to live. Even if it meant a machine, pain, constant, constant care. Never imagined I’d chose not to live. What a decision. You know? Choosing to live. Or, to die.
I needed to share that. That’s why I struggled with what to talk about. How do you give an inspiring speech when you yourself are so discouraged and uncertain?
Eventually I realized, the question is not, do I have the surgery or not. We’re all gonna die some day. I don’t get to decide if I die. But I do get to decide, when I stop living. So the real question is, do I want to stop living? Do I give up?
It’s easy to give up. Look around. We see terror, suffering, willful ignorance. Hate. And apathy. Everywhere. Things we cannot imagine. And we don’t feel what we probably should. I mean, please. Someone tell me it gets better. Someone tell me that if I look. If I peak where I don’t want to. Please tell me I’m not going to see what I fear is there. Please make me believe again. I so badly want to believe it gets better. I need to believe that. Don’t you?
We all struggle at times. We all have to make hard choices. But if we choose to not give up, if we choose to live, then we have to believe.
I may die tomorrow. I may piss a few people off and live another 5 years. But despite the struggle and the sadness, I’m just not ready to give up. So I am going to believe. Because when I believe, I feel. Alive. When I believe, I believe I can change it. I know it can get better. I believe a small act of kindness can just go and go and go. On and on. Each act lifting a few others. Then they do the same. Again and again.
I am most alive, when I am an unapologetic dreamer, and a fearless believer. Do I really believe I can help change the world? Absolutely.
Look at these kids. Remember that feeling? You can feel that again. These kids will show you how. There are so many that can make you believe again. That's what inspiring story can do. And that's Inspire MEdia Network’s purpose. To help us all believe.
Inspire. MEdia. Network.
Inspire. Kyle shared a little about the clubs. Next year, we’ll launch more. We’re onto something. One school in Texas already put BIGG in as the core of their service learning. I get emails from teachers asking how they sign up. There’s so much demand. Have you seen some of what’s happening in many of our schools?! Let’s make character education a priority. One administrator at that school in Texas summed it up perfectly. “We believe character should be a priority. And we’re absolutely certain character will take care of everything else.” Do I believe I can change the world?! Damn right. It starts with getting our children to experience all that comes from giving back. Within 5 years, I want every. Single. School, in this country, to have a strong character education program. Imagine the impact.
MEdia. And there are stories that need to be shared. That’s how we maximize the impact. Steve sharing what Cate and Anna did, that led to people all over the world doing acts of kindness. Acts that probably had an even greater impact on the giver than the receiver. So, next year we’ll also begin to put the MEdia, in Inspire MEdia Network. We’ll launch a weekly short called, The Good News. It will be just like me. Inspiration and hope, delivered with a heavy dose of humor. Would you watch that? A show that makes you laugh while reminding you that good can and will win?
Network. We are building a network. Not only a media network. A network of schools, students, butterflies and believers. We’re going to build an army no one can defeat. My army, our network, the good they do, it’s contagious. Our network spreads goodness further and further. Into the schools, through these young men and women into the souls of adults - jaded, lost, sad, searching. And each one of them, the teachers and students, the people they impact directly with their deeds and when their stories are shared, everyone is made better. The world’s never seen an army, a network like the one we’re gonna build.
Do I believe we can change the world? Damn right I do.
If you have the ability to support any more financially, wonderful. We are about to ask.
And as for the sadness. You hurt for us. We hurt for you. Hurt is the cost of loving deeply. It’s worth every tear. Loving deeply is the best way to live fully. And tonight, thanks to all of you. I am very much, alive. Thank you. I love you.
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