On October the 13th of 2010, I had the most intimidating, amazing day of my life. I had been invited, by the school counselor, to be a guest motivation speaker on senior day at Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas. It was career day for these kids, and I was asked to share my story in a motivational way.
This was something I had dreamed of since I started my journey of self-discovery and healing about 5 years ago, but I never thought I would truly have the strength and courage to do it. And I still don’t. It is only by the grace of God that I was able to share what I am about to share with you with these 300+ teenage strangers.
I arrived at Shoemaker about 20 minutes early. If you know me, you know I am perpetually early. I like to find where I am going, see my surroundings, gather my thoughts and calm myself before I begin any new endeavor. One of the hardest things that I had to do on this day was look at that huge courtyard full of students and not turn my car around and drive back home.
I played KLOVE on my radio the whole way to Killeen, about an hour drive for me, and it truly calmed me and gave me a peace that I needed to muster the strength to open that car door. I gathered my items for my EIGHT presentations, took a deep breath, and walked through that once so familiar, social jungle we know of as High School.
Once I checked in, and found my room, I organized my notes, said a little prayer, and waited for the kiddos to arrive. My first day of teaching high school flashed into my mind as that door to the choir room opened and those highly hormonal teenaged persons began to pour in.
They took their seats, all smiles and my day began.
I will from this point forward write as if I am there again. There were 8 separate 30 minute presentations and each one was unique with its own separate challenges and victories but I will share the highlights here with you as if I am back there. It still plays in my mind as fresh as the day it all occurred.
“Good morning guys!” I said. There was that all too familiar low rumble of good mornings as the kids settled into their seats.
“I will begin this morning by telling you a bit of general and vague information about myself just to get the doors of communication open. My name is Rachel Stolle. I am a 29 year old Baylor University graduate, ex-high school science teacher, theatre director and cheerleading sponsor. I am the mother of 2 beautiful children, currently a stay at home mom, staff writer for poetic monthly magazine, cake decorator and published children’s book author and illustrator. Before I go into any more detail about myself I want to give you an idea of what my plan is for us today and what I expect from you.
I am here to challenge you. (I had a dry erase board behind me with the word SUCCESS and the word Career.) I am here to challenge how you think. I am here to challenge how you think about success. I am here to challenge how you think about a career. And I am here to challenge, maybe before our time is up, how you think about yourself, your future, and your decisions.”
At this point I moved from the podium to the dry erase board and asked each group to define those words for me. For success I got words like money, possessions, pride, power, influence, achievement, goals, happiness etc. For the word career I got words like long term, money, job, passion, retirement, job security, internship, education etc. The kids were right where I hoped they would be and I expected they would be.
I asked the kids if they had all seen those mayhem commercials by allstate. That guy is standing in that tree jumping on the braches saying shaky, shaky and the branch falls on the car. Or the one where the teenage girl is driving that big pink suburban while texting and runs into that lady’s car.
“This is kind of why I am here today. Life can sometimes throw mayhem at us. Life can sometimes present situations that whether we create them or someone creates them for us, those situations can be bad. We can create mayhem for ourselves or we can create mayhem in other people’s lives.”
At this point I grabbed a handful of lemons and walked down level with the kids who were seated in choir risers.
“I told you a minute ago some simple information about myself. But I have something more to share with you today. In a minute I am going to be very honest with you. In a minute I am going to share with you something that a few years ago my best friends did not know about me. In a few minutes I am going to tell you something that even a year or two ago I couldn’t comfortably talk to my husband about. I am asking the same thing of you. I don’t want details, and I am not asking for details, but I am asking for honesty. I am going to ask you some questions and all I ask is that if that question applies to you, raise your hand.
Yes, I am holding lemons. Yes I AM going to be throwing these lemons at you, and yes I DO have a reason for that. We all have something. When I ask you the question, "Is there something in your past that you are ashamed of?” we all have something. (Hands go up and I toss a few lemons at the kids. They think it is great fun and the more questions I ask the more hands go up—they all want a chance to catch one of those lemons.) Three of four lemons tossed out at questions like, is there something in your past that embarrasses you? Have you ever taken advantage of another person? Have you even been taken advantage of? And I get serious. Guys when I asked you those questions, whether you raised you hand or not, you all thought about something. That thing you thought of, for the sake of conversation, we are going to call those things lemons today. I realize it is a cliché and kind of silly but bare with me and you will see how well the analogy fits.
I told you earlier some basic information about myself. I was 25 years old and had done everything I was supposed to do. I had checked everything off my list that I had created for myself, in my own mind, as to how to achieve success.
When I was your age I thought I had it all figured out. I was in the top of my class, I was a good student. I was also socially active. I was a cheerleader. I was even 2nd best NCA mascot in the nation my sophomore year. I was student council president. I was accepted to Baylor, and I thought I was well on my way to achieving success. I graduated from Baylor with good grades. I got a job as a teacher. I was happily married to a well-educated man and we owned our own home. We had 2 new vehicles and everything else that we were told that if we strived for and achieve that we would indeed be successful…
But something wasn’t right. Here I was 25 years old with everything I wanted. Two good incomes and the ‘world’ at my fingertips….but still something wasn’t right. I found myself at 25 years old standing in front of the mirror and I realized that I had a ‘lemon’. I had been living a lie. I wasn’t necessarily telling lies to people around me, but I wasn’t being honest. I wasn’t sharing who I truly was. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I was taken advantage of, and I was ignoring it.
This is where I am going to be honest with you. This is where I am going to tell you that thing that kept me from feeling successful. This is where I am going to share my lemons with you. But first I want to show you something. (I had 2 bags of lemons. One of which had been in fridge for a week and one of which had been on my porch.)
I picked up both bags and told the kids. I bought these bags of lemons last week. This bag has been in my fridge. I would take it out every now and then to be sure they were ok and fresh. These lemons have been taken care of and not ignored. I put down the fresh bag. I was still holding the rotten bag. This bag of lemons…well. I took this bag of lemons and I hit it on the steps, threw it up against the side of the house…STOMPED on it, smashed it and left in on the front porch all week. Would you make lemonade out of these lemons?”
Of course all the kids said no. I asked why. They told me it was rotten. I agreed.
“This bag of lemons is rancid, rotten, nasty, stinky, and gross. There are some bugs crawling around in here and there is no way I would eat these lemons.
I had a bag of rotten lemons.”
I took a deep breath and I said…
“I am a survivor of 11 years of incestual molestation at the hand of a distant family member. (You could have heard a pin drop.) All of the silliness, sarcasm, and goofing off instantly stopped. The kids that had been texting put down their phones. Those that had been doodling put down their pens and all eyes were on me. I officially had their attention.
For 11 years I was someone’s garbage can. For 11 y ears someone used my body in a way that they DID NOT have permission to. For 11 years someone took advantage of me. For 11 years I was being handed a rotten stinking mess of rancid lemons. For 11 years I was a victim. I was 25 years old before I was able to look in a mirror and say, WOW what happened to me was a BIG DEAL. I was 25 years old before I could admit to myself, "What happened to me was NOT okay". I was 25 years old before I could admit that that did not just happen to everyone.
This is why I am here to talk to you today. When I asked you at the very beginning today if you were ashamed of something, when I asked you if you had been taken advantage of, when I asked you if you had taken advantage of someone else…you all thought of SOMETHING. It doesn’t have to be as big and as shocking as mine. Mine is kind of biggie. Yours could be small or it could also be something big. It could be one-time drug use. It could be drug addiction. It could be premarital sex. It could be teenage abortion or it could be as simple as cheating on a test last week. But the point is that all of you thought of something. You all had something on your mind.
I stand here before you today and implore you, whatever lemon you may have, I beg you, don’t let it rot and fester and stink. Don’t let that thing that you thought of sit in your past, ignored, and grow and grow and stink and stink and rot and rot or one day—someday you find yourself looking in the mirror…
You find yourself with this list of things that you have done that for some reason left you feeling empty. You find yourself wondering why that new car didn’t make you feel successful. You find yourself wondering why those name brand clothes didn’t fulfill that need inside of you. You find yourself as a doctor in a hospital wondering why you STILL don’t feel accomplished.
This is my challenge. I challenge you today to dare to believe that there are more important things than pride. I challenge you to believe that your career can be something more important than a job.
So I have been dealing with and coping with my ‘lemons’ for a few years now. Last year something happened that really began to make this all stir inside me. Last year a strong Christian role-model in my life past away. Last year I lost a woman whom I loved dearly. This was a woman that even though I wasn’t related to her, she might as well have been my grandmother. She was the woman in the community whose door was always open. She was the woman who would give you the coat off of her back. This is the woman who would have dinner waiting for my family in the refrigerator when we got off the bus from school. She was THAT woman. And she died last year. Aunt Lou passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. And these lemons were stirring inside me. I had not been ignoring them for a few years at this point, but I had yet to do something with them. And that is when I made my decision. That is when I found a way to make my stinking pile of nasty, rotten, rancid mess into something beautiful.
I am now a Christian children’s book author and illustrator.” (Ok, so this is where I nearly lost my composure. As I mentioned earlier I spoke to 8 different groups, and the experience was different each time. But this one group…oh my! At this point I had the attention of 30-50 teen-agers who so very movingly and kindly proceeded to give me a standing ovation. OOOOH, it was all I could do to not go into the corner and cry for a few minutes—but I was able to hold it together. I thanked them and moved on.)
“Now I have something else important, and completely unrelated to my childhood abuse, to share with you, but just as important for a point I want to make to you. Eight years ago I also survived an attempted kidnapping turned carjacking. My point in telling you this is that it and my childhood abuse have left me with a disorder known of as PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. I want you to know this because it is important for me to be sure you realize that I am not presuming to have it all figured out. I am not perfect. I am broken. There are still parts of me that are a complete mess—but I am still making it into something good and beautiful. And I ask the same of you.
Don’t wait til you think you have it all together. Don’t wait until you think you can paint a pretty picture with your life story. Life is messy. This world isn’t perfect. Dealing with stuff like this isn’t easy. You will never have all the answers, but you may have one that someone else needs to hear. You may have been through something that may inspire someone else. You may be going through something right then that you can go through WITH someone else.
I told you earlier that I was a teacher, and that my family had two incomes from 2 educated career fields. Well, today I stand before you as a stay at home mom. I work part-time at a preschool where my girls go, so that I can be there with them and so we can afford for them to go. I stand before you today and I only bring home $300 a month now. Granted, that isn’t our only income. My husband does work and is the provider for our family. But there was a time when money wasn’t a problem. There was a time when we had more than we needed. There was a time that I could wear all the designer labels, drive the new car, have the nice rims and big stereo---but not now. But you know what. I can look you in the face today and honestly tell you that I feel more successful today than I did 5 years ago.
My success is not defined by a paycheck. My success is not defined by my possessions. My success is not defined by my career. And neither is yours!
My challenge to you today is to find those lemons. Find them today. Don’t wait like I did and check all those things off your imaginary list, and expect them to fulfill you. Don’t leave that mess in your past ignored only to grow, rot and fester. I ask of you this one thing. No matter what your job is.
I don’t care if you graduate last in your class. I don’t care if you become a doctor or a lawyer of a burger flipper. Those things all do matter but they are not the MOST important. I challenge you today to make your career one of honesty.--one of truth--one of transparency. If you can do this one thing... If you can take your darkest, most embarrassing, saddest moment and make something good out of it then what better success can you have. If you can accomplish this one thing then there is nothing else that you cannot do.
I am not telling you to not go to school, or to not strive for a well paying career or to not buy a new car at some point---what I AM telling you is to not look for your success solely in those things. Do not expect those things to fulfill you.
I am not asking you to stand up in front of a group of 30 strangers and tell your life story. I cannot tell you how to deal with what hand you are dealt. I am not presuming to be an expert. All I know is how I have dealt, and how I have chosen to make good of my rotten mess—and maybe, just maybe my story can help you do the same.
I leave you today asking you this. No matter what job you have when you graduate. No matter how you think you will become successful—make your career one of honesty, truth and transparency. Turn those rotten lemons into something good and then, maybe then you will truly find a way to succeed.”
Oh what a glorious day. After each presentation I had 2-3 kids come up and shake my hand and thank me for being there. I had several girls come up and hug my neck. I spoke to two survivors and passed out my contact info to about 300 kids. One girl came up and told me she was also a Christian and thanked me for what I am doing. Oh God, my God I give you all the glory. I look back today at myself standing on front of those kids and I honestly cannot explain how I was able to do it. Only in Him can I find strength! Bless you all and I hope you saw His glory and work in this as much as I did.