By Brenda L. Holmes firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — Author Sam Bracken had a unique chance to speak with hundreds of Ben Davis High School students during the school’s annual Student Literacy Conference.
The conference is planned by BDHS media specialist Kathy Hicks-Brooks. She normally gets one author to talk to students. This year she was able to welcome seven well-known authors who specialize in adolescent literature.
“It was on my bucket list to put together a really big conference,” Hicks-Brooks said. “So I wrote some grants and got them all.”
Authors who attended the conference March 13 were Sharon Flake, Angela Johnson, Mike Mullin, Sam Bracken, Saundra Mitchell, and Jay Asher. Geoff Herbach joined the conference via Skype.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz also attended the conference to introduce Bracken.
“I’m a library media specialist,” Ritz said. “Reading has been a big part of my life.”
She encouraged the students to think about what they want to do in the future and be purposeful when choosing activities and summer jobs.
“And get those literacy skills,” Ritz said. “Reading allows you to go and do what you want to do. There is a difference in people who can read and those that do read.”
During one of the main sessions, Bracken grabbed the attention of the students and faculty by telling the story of how he grew up.
“When I was born, I was a product of rape,” he said. “I was unwanted.”
He read from his book, My Orange Duffel Bag, and the students listened as he moved through the years of his young life.
“When I was 5 someone poured lighter fluid on my arm and lit me on fire,” Bracken said. “My mom moved us to Las Vegas and she married Leroy Bracken. As I practiced how to write my new name, I was abused. Most of the time I didn’t know why I was beaten.”
He said if it had not been for a handful of people, he would have been dead, insane, or in prison at this point in his life.
“I didn’t know that my family wasn’t normal,” he said. “I was just used to terrible circumstances. I don’t blame my family. They didn’t know we could do better.”
He said he will be ever grateful to his mother for giving him life and for teaching him the importance of hard work.
“My mom always had two or three jobs,” he said. “But we were not a normal family.”
He challenged the students to do three things: understand their past, find humor in their lives, and be resilient and tenacious.
Then he told a story about one day when he was 9 years old.
“Me and my friend were playing war with our army men, a lighter, and a bunch of fireworks,” Bracken said. “We were melting our army men and didn’t realize we were on a fire ant hill. We put about three M-80s (fireworks) together and lit them.”
He said there was a pretty big explosion and the ant hill was disturbed. There were hundreds of fire ants covering his friend from head to toe.
“I was a pretty big kid,” he said. “So I carried him like he was my bride into the house and dropped him in the hallway. I went and banged on my mother’s door — she was sleeping.”
He said she came running out of the room and immediately made a paste with baking soda and began tending to the ant bites.
“It wasn’t until my friend said, ‘Sam your mom is naked,’ that this was an unusual interaction,” Bracken said. “I didn’t know it wasn’t normal for your mother to be walking around naked. She didn’t think to put clothes on to help my friend. You see, she did the best she could. And I did tell that story when I preached the sermon at her funeral.”
Bracken said whenever he would get into trouble or abusive activity started, he would go running.
“I ran everywhere,” he said. “And I got good at running.”
He became a track star in junior high school and then started playing football.
“I was 6’2” and 190 pounds in the eighth grade,” he said. “It was 1976 and I played at Woodberry Junior High School. Football was a violent outlet that helped me deal with some of my issues.”
He said one day after track practice his brother picked him up and took him on a drug bender. Bracken woke up two days later and went running.
“I started having chest pains and collapsed face down in the dirt,” he said. “I had an epiphany, or moment of clarity. In the dirt, I realized I had a choice. I didn’t know how, but I knew I could. I decided in that moment that I wanted to be a pro football player and a lawyer.”
From then on, he said, he started studying and working out. His grades went from a C/D average to straight As. He still had many trials, but he did go on to play football at Georgia Tech even after his mother kicked him out of the house when he was 15.
He didn’t play in the NFL, but he did have a chance to and decided to pursue other interests instead.
BDHS football players Timothy Fields and Chaz Stringer said his story was inspiring.
“I was surprised about how black his childhood was,” Fields said. “I thought it was interesting how he said his mother taught him about hard work but that she didn’t care about him. As the story went on, it all came to light.”
Stringer said the story was touching from beginning to end.
“It really showed true perseverance,” he said. “It’s almost unheard of how he did all that, especially when you hear about the drug factor.”
They said they could relate to how sports can help young people who may not have a strong family.
“I feel like our team is like a family,” Stringer said. “We have each other’s back and coach (Mike) Kirschner is always available to talk. I feel like the other players are my brothers.”
Fields added, “The coach kind of becomes like a dad to the players who don’t have dads. He steps in and he makes sure we all go to college. He’s really there for us.”
Bracken encouraged the students to check out his website — sambracken.com for inspirational videos and tips on how to make goals possible.