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When I was in the third grade, my parents divorced. After that, my mother, my sister and I moved a lot. In fact, growing up, I lived in twelve houses in four states. While at high school, I turned to drugs as a means of coping with a stressful home environment. I began smoking marijuana every day and became best friends with a guy who had a very negative influence on my life. As time went on, my mom would find drugs, related paraphernalia and electronics stolen from school in my closet. These events would enrage her, triggering our mutual downward spiral.
One day, my mom looked me directly in the eyes and said, "If you keep on hanging out with your friend, you will end up in jail!" She picked a spot on a map and, four days later, we moved to Maine. I couldn't say goodbye to a single friend. But despite moving to a new town, my behavior didn't change in the slightest.
During my senior year, it took a serious run-in with the law to make me desperately look at where my life was headed and, even though I had grown up practicing Nichiren Buddhism, it was the first time in my life that I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo earnestly every single day. I had many realizations during this time. For example, I began to understand that everything I was experiencing in my external environment was a strict manifestation of my inner negativity.
Earlier in the year, my mother had encouraged me to apply to Soka University of America (SUA), a liberal arts college founded by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda that focuses on the study of global issues. Despite everything, I had always managed to take the most advanced courses at school, always earned straight A's and did well on my SAT entrance test. I wrote two admissions essays based on the humanistic values I grew up with as a child in a Buddhist family. These values were still an essential, yet perhaps dormant aspect of my life.
With my future at a crossroads, I was offered a full scholarship to attend SUA. This was incredible, especially since my parents couldn't afford to send me to college. related article Making Progress by Carroll Holland At the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights [Michael Sunderland] I am a writer and editor by trade and a social justice activist by instinct. I am grateful that the profound power of my 21-year Buddhist practice has led me to the right place at the right time for best using my determination and my capacities to help create a fairer world. I've been privileged to be part of two community
To my great good fortune, I was paired with a roommate who became a very positive influence on my life. During my first year, we had profound dialogues about many topics, including Buddhism. I became extremely interested in my classes and studied enthusiastically. I participated in school wholeheartedly. I met incredible individuals from around the world who are now my lifelong friends. I feel as if I grew more in this single year than I had done in all my previous 18 years of life.
During my final year at SUA, I began thinking about my next step after graduation. With deep appreciation for the education I had received, I chanted to go to the place where I could repay, to the greatest degree, my debt of gratitude to my parents, the founder of SUA and its donors. After chanting this way for several months, I found out about the "Teach for America" program.
Despite facing numerous obstacles during the application process, I was accepted and placed as a high school math teacher in the predominantly Latino region of southern New Mexico. I began chanting to be hired at the school where I could contribute the most. Shortly afterward, I was placed at a high school in a town located just across the border from Juarez, Mexico.
The community in this town struggles with the formidable challenges of poverty, drug trafficking, gang violence and teenage pregnancy, among others. I was assigned to an alternative school to assist students who fall behind on credits or get expelled from other schools. My job involves getting students excited about math.
Needless to say, I struggled immensely in my first semester. I often went to school feeling sleep-deprived, sick, inexperienced and clueless. Around this time I read Mr. Ikeda's guidance to young people entering the workforce:
"If you resolve to exert three times the usual effort, you'll become the driving force for growth and improvement in both your workplace and the community in which you live. Faith is what enables you to do so." related article Committed to Justice by Alvin Sykes Civil rights activist, Alvin Sykes says his practice and study of Buddhism strengthened his determination to fight for justice and deepened his belief in the power of dialogue.
I determined to win based on effort. From then on, I was always the first teacher to arrive at work in the morning and the last to leave.
As the semester progressed, I realized that what teachers refer to as the traditional "drill and kill" mode of mathematics education was not working for my students. I began researching alternative methods, such as the field of social justice mathematics, which teaches students to use math concepts as a tool to analyze the social inequities they experience in life. I also strove to use a discovery-based approach to learning that allows students to make their own creative discoveries of mathematical concepts.
During the second semester, I mustered the courage to visit some of my students' homes in order to meet their families and get to know them better. I was humbled to learn about the harsh realities they face in life and was inspired by their resilience. We built stronger relationships as a result. My students have taught me many lessons, including the importance of making a conscious effort to acknowledge, appreciate and praise the positive things that happen in the classroom and in life. I feel so privileged to have the great honor of working with them.
In hindsight, I feel that without the struggles I went through in high school, I never would have experienced the immense power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I never would have been able to encourage other young people struggling with similar issues, including my friends and students, and I never would have developed my character to the extent that I have. By advancing with faith as my foundation, I have been able to live the Buddhist principle of "changing poison into medicine." These experiences have become my life's greatest treasures.
From now on, I am determined to contribute to the development of value-creating education in America so that every young person can experience the type of education that I received at SUA—an exciting, joyful process of learning that nurtures creativity, hones critical thinking skills and equips young people with the tools to change their lives and societies. related article Buddhism and Human Dignity Ultimately, the Buddhist understanding of human dignity is rooted in the idea that we are able to choose the path of self-perfection.
I am also determined to respond to the hopes of my mentor SGI President Ikeda by creating a magnificent culture of peace in the United States—a culture in which young people who have suffered the most can become the happiest.
[Adapted from the June 14, 2013, issue of World Tribune, SGI-USA; photo courtesy of SGI-USA]
With Appreciation Comes Happiness
by Leonides Arpon, USA
Creating a World Where All Belong
by Sinéad Lynch, Ireland
by Nitin Upadhye, India
Embracing the Cycle of Life
by Gwen Harris, USA
The Deepest Loss
by Aiko Matsumura, Japan