He was 9 the first time he smoked pot and had a drink. His brother was one of the cool kids and he wanted to be like his older brother. His brother drank and smoked pot. So would he.
At 12 he was a runner for a gang. At 16 he left home, the drugs and escalating violence of his life beyond the scope of his parents ability to handle. And he liked the relative freedom of life on the street. He liked the money and most of all, he liked the drugs. By 18 he was a dealer and he'd made a name for himself. Monster. That's what they called him. Not because of the way he looked. He was a good looking young man. Long blonde hair. No scars or broken bones. Yet. They called him Monster because his drug-induced violence knew no bounds. He was capable of anything -- as long as his next fix was the monkey he was after.
At 22, in a drug deal gone 'real bad', he became a convicted killer serving an 8 year sentence for manslaughter. It wouldn't be until just before his 40th birthday that he knew the meaning of sobriety and took his first tentative steps into the responsibility of being human.
At 41 he knows he is capable of standing up for himself, without guns, or a bat, or knife, so that he can make a difference in the world -- not through violence, but through his words.
He was 9 when he first stepped onto the dance floor and began performing. His sister was a member of the Young Canadians. He wanted to be just like his sister. He wanted to dance.
At 12, he had his first solo in front of 18,000 people a night during the Calgary Stampede. At 16 he won a $2,500 scholarship. He was on the honour role and president of his class. And still he danced. He loved it. It was freedom. The music stirred his soul. It resonated throughout his body. He felt powerful when he danced. In charge. Free.
By 18 he was ready to move on from centre stage with the Young Canadians to places unknown. He wanted to experience new opportunities, new horizons. To stretch himself beyond the city limits, out there in the big, wide world beyond.
It's his last year in the Young Canadians. His last year of High School. He doesn't know where his life will lead him, but he does know the opportunities are limitless. He's off to University in the fall. He's off to try different things. His training as a dancer, as a cast member with the Young Canadians has prepared him, built his confidence, cemented his self-worth in the belief that he is capable of anything. He wants to make a difference. To change the world.
Two different lives.
Two different worlds.
Two different journeys.
Yesterday, I listened to Darren (not his real name) give his story in front of a group of teachers who had come to spend the day at the Drop-In. I had asked him to present to this group of junior and senior high school teachers. He is a powerful speaker with a powerful story that inspires. He was nervous. Uncomfortable."I like presenting to the kids," he said. "I'm not sure about adults. They'll probably judge me."
"Can anyone judge yourself more harshly than you have?" I asked him.
Nervously he ran his hands through his long blonde hair. "No." he replied somewhat sheeplishly.
"Breathe. You want to make a difference. You want to reach the kids. These teachers reach many kids. Your words will spread far beyond this room. They will carry your spirit with them and they will impact the lives of others. You're a courageous man, Darren. You can do this."With each word I spoke he nodded his head.
"Yeah. Yeah. I can do this." And he walked to centre stage and began to speak.
Last night, I went to the dress rehearsal of the Young Canadians show for this year's Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show. They were spirited. Lively. Entertaining. Professional. Ranging in age from 8 to 21, these youth are focused, driven, compelled to do their best and claim their right at Centre Stage.
The contradiction of my day did not escape me. To listen to a convicted killer inspire a room of seasoned teachers who've heard it all, seen it all. To watch him move them to tears, to touch their hearts and open their minds to the possibilities of forgiveness, to new life after a sentence of death by drug abuse was breath taking.
To watch a group of 160 youth dance and sing their ways into the hearts and minds of the hundreds of family members, friends and guests who witnessed their performance last night, was breath taking. Beginning tonight, and for the next ten days, they will be performing in front of 18,000 screaming, stomping, hollering fans as they light up the night with their spirited performances. It takes commitment, dedication, a sense of purpose, hundreds of hours of practice, hundreds of rehearsals, of dancing through tired muscles, blisters, cuts and bruises for these performers to be ready to step onto the Grandstand stage.
For Darren to step into the centre of a room and tell his story, it takes commitment, dedication, a sense of purpose and a strong will to rise above the pain and sorrow and grief of his past. He doesn't do it for pity. He doesn't do it for 'atta boy's, so others will commiserate with him, feel sorry for him. He does it to inspire. Darren wants to make a difference.
In his presentation he speaks of two things in his life that he regrets. Two things he cannot change. Two things he cannot let go of. One. Taking another man's life. Two. The loss of his children.
Both happened because he was stoned. He doesn't use his drug addiction as an excuse though. He states it simply. Clearly. Cleanly. "I was an addict. I would do anything to stay an addict."
Today, Darren, like the kids last night, is committed to being his best. To using his talents, his story and his past to inspire others to create better futures.
"Kids think the drug scene is kinda exciting. Romantic almost. I tell them like it is. I was the crazy crack head walking down the street, with shit in my pants, smelling like a dumpster 'cause that's probably the last place I ate from, looking into cars. If I saw a purse or briefcase, or a nice jacket on the seat, I smashed the window, grabbed whatever it was and ran. As long as I could get money to feed my habit, I didn't care what I did."
He takes a breath.
"I was the guy, lying on the ground, drinking out of a puddle in the alley. That puddle where someone pissed, someone dumped garbage, someone puked. I drank from that puddle 'cause I didn't want to spend a dollar on real water. I needed every dollar I had for my next fix."
Watching the Young Canadians is inspiring.
Listening to Darren is life-changing.
Not one of the 26 people in the room yesterday afternoon left with a judgement about Darren running through their minds. We all left knowing that we had been touched by the spirit of a man, once broken, who is learning to fly. We left having been touched by the awesome nature of a man to rise above the past, to forgive, to embrace all that he was with the power of all that he can be when he claims his right to be free.
"I was 9 when I started using drugs," said Darren. "I'm 41. I spent 30 years of my life running away from myself. 30 years abusing my spirit, my soul, my humanity. I've been clean and sober since March 06. I never want to forget two things. The taste of the gun metal in my mouth when I had decided I'd had enough. I never want to forget that taste because I never want to be there again. And the only way I can never be there again is to stay sober. And I never want to forget I'm an addict. I never want to forget that because knowing who I am is the most important thing to me today. I've learned I am not the Monster I became. I've learned I am a man looking to change. Capable of change. Capable of helping others."
At the end of the performance last night, the kids went home to their families supported by the love and applause and admiration of the audience who witnessed their dance.
Last night, Darren crawled into his bunk at the Drop-In. He's grateful for his bed. For the chance to find himself beneath the trauma and turmoil of his past. He's grateful for the staff whose belief in him gave him courage to believe he could live a drug-free life. As he fell asleep, his mind rested easy. He'd had a good day. Another day to live clean and sober. In his locker at the foot of his bed, pasted to the back of the door is a letter he received from a young student who had heard him speak earlier this year. "Thank you," the student wrote. "You've changed my life." As he closes his eyes, Darren's mind goes to the words written on that page. They mean the world to him. In changing his life, he's changing others. And that's a good difference to make today.