There can be a silver lining to life of abuse

This past spring, for the first time in the history of the all-male, predominantly African-American Morehouse College, a white student was selected as valedictorian.

Being selected as valedictorian is an extraordinary honor. It would appear that given his family circumstances, Joshua Packwood, 22, might have had a totally different trajectory,

He was born into a dysfunctional family in Kansas City, Mo. His community was ethnically and racially diverse. Most families worked hard to make ends meet or were on some sort of public assistance.

Not having familial support, Joshua was forced to become independent at an early age, spending as much time away from home as possible.

Joshua’s mother, an alcoholic, married another when he was in high school, and his home life became unbearable. He left home and was taken in by the family of an African-American friend, which provided the support and encouragement missing in his birth family.

Living in this supportive environment, Joshua excelled academically and participated in sports and community service.

Admissions counselors from Morehouse had visited his school and, after listening to them describe the school, he decided to apply. When the big envelopes with acceptances arrived that spring, many doors opened for Joshua, including acceptances to the Ivy League.

Declining the Ivies, he chose Morehouse, receiving a partial scholarship.

A member of the small white minority on campus, he initially stood out as an oddity. However, he soon made friends and became active in many facets of college life.

Over the course of his undergraduate education, he became involved in student government and spent a summer working on Wall Street and as a model to supplement his scholarship. He maintained a 4.0 grade point average all four years of college.

Joshua is a Rhodes scholar finalist.

In his valedictory, Joshua noted, “None of the Ivies, no matter how large their enrollment is, no matter how many Nobel laureates they have on their faculty, none of them could’ve provided me with the perspective I have now.”

Next in line at Morehouse is Joshua’s brother, John, who will follow in his footsteps this September in the class of 2012.

Reading about Joshua and later seeing him interviewed on television filled me with admiration and respect for this accomplished young man.

Children lacking close relationships with parents can develop a color-blindness and lack of prejudice that many in our society lack.

My own childhood experiences were similar to that of Joshua. As a child, my brother David and I sought respite and care outside of the home.

The people most likely to open their hearts to us were most often either discriminated against or on the fringes of society.

Clarence was the African-American caretaker at a hotel where I spent my summers, and what a teacher he was. A devoted Christian, husband and father, just sitting next to him was comforting. Time spent with Clarence made up for all the years of my life never speaking to my own birthfather.

When I was 14, prejudice based on race intervened. People began to talk and think our relationship was more then paternal. The proprietors of the hotel warned us not to be seen together.

My heart was broken. It was as if another parent had died.

Several years later, I began to work as an apprentice at a professional theater, the North Jersey Playhouse. Many of the staff and actors were homosexual.

At age 15, I learned to love my new friends. They encouraged me, were accepting, even planning a surprise sweet 16 party, which, otherwise, would have been out of the question.

Reticent to discuss my past unless prodded, one such discussion is particularly memorable. As a student teacher in San Francisco, I was fortunate to work under Dr. Alexis Aquino, a master of her craft and insightful about the needs of children.

If the course of a conversation, she asked about my childhood — a perfectly normal question.

Then, dreaded silence. Who would want to relive memories, no less discuss a past rather forgotten.

After a brief description of what it felt like growing up with food locked in cabinets, not being permitted to speak to my brothers, walking to school with shoes minus the heels and soles, I began to speak of the people that had stood up for me, how much I loved them, and how they taught me to look beyond values based on skin color, social class and other such qualities or characteristics.

Alexis responded that my background, though certainly difficult, was blessed with remarkable people, and experiencing tolerance and acceptance enriched my life in comparison to those that were more sheltered.

Her response to me lightened a burden as I began to open up about the marvelous people I had met along the way. And I truly believe if one looks, there is always a sliver lining-despair, and the experience of abuse and depravation should never define who one is.

Strength and the ability to take risks can stem from a childhood of adversity.

Joshua and many others from dysfunctional families have been able to move beyond the circumstances over which they had no control to lead productive and responsible lives.