Calvin Sims, a computer consultant earning a six-figure income, was riding in a chauffeur-driven limousine on his way to speak to an international banking conference in Zurich, Switzerland. He was thinking how strange it was that he, an unwanted poor boy from the slums of Atlanta with a ninth-grade education, should have arrived at this place in his life. A thought occurred to him: “When you talk to people and tell them what they are capable of, they will believe you. You are the proof.”
Upon returning home, Calvin dedicated himself to reaching young men and women who society had said were unreachable. He founded StoryTellers of the American Frontier, a non-profit organization designed to use storytelling—especially the stories of the American cowboy and cowgirl—to inspire young people. These days, Calvin spends more of his time on horseback than riding in limos. Dressed in full cowboy gear, he visits schools to talk about old-fashioned values like integrity, character, and respect for education. At Calvin’s Teaching Farm in Newborn, Georgia, groups of young people from schools, the juvenile justice system, churches, and other organizations gather to participate in inspirational programs and eat great food cooked over an open fire. Calvin is the author of six children’s books. His most recent, Lawman: The Bass Reeves Story, tells of a man born a slave in Texas who grew to be regarded as “the greatest lawman in the West.”
Calvin and his wife Diana are the proud parents of seven children and grandparents of nine.
Calvin Sims Speaks
My childhood ended very early. When my mother went to work, she would often leave me in the care of her best friend, a wonderful woman I came to know as Momma. One day while at work, my mother took sick. She was rushed to the hospital, where she died. I think she probably had a brain tumor. I was four years old.
No one from my family ever came to get me. I had four brothers, all of whom were at least twelve years older than me. My mother had been married twice. She bore two sons with each husband. As I’ve put the scattered pieces of the story together, I have figured out her marriage to husband number two was in trouble and they were separated when she conceived me. I was not her husband’s child.
My biological father disappeared, and my mother’s family turned their backs on me. I never left Momma’s home until I was 16. Soon after leaving, I joined the Marines. It was during the Vietnam War, but I was convinced that my chances of survival in Vietnam were better than they were in Vine City Bottom. Vine City was the most violent, poverty-stricken neighborhood in Atlanta during the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was so bad there that I looked up to and envied the people who lived in the projects. At least there, there was some effort at maintenance—when a window got broken, it was eventually replaced. But we were so poor that in the summer, we simply stopped paying our gas bill and let the gas be turned off. I don’t remember a weekend that there wasn’t gunfire in the neighborhood.
Right after my mother’s death, my life seemed pretty good. Though I had no contact with my biological family, my new foster family was sympathetic to the toddler who had lost his mother. I was showered with toys and affection. My fifth birthday was like something out of a fairy tale. The Davy Crockett TV show was all the rage, and I got everything from the coonskin cap to a toy version of “Betsy,” Davy’s trusty rifle that had killed many a “bar.”
I have no memory of feeling grief at my mother’s
passing. Perhaps I did not understand, or perhaps I was distracted by my new-found fortune. My pleasant life lasted less than a year, or until one of my foster siblings had a child of his own. Gradually, I became the stepchild, the unwanted little orphan. I remember one of my foster siblings asking me if I knew what a “bastard” was. I had no idea. Apparently, everyone was in on the humiliating secret except me. I did not know what a bastard was, but even at the age of 6, I came to realize that I was one and that it was not a good thing.
I became obsessed with finding out what a bastard was and what it had to do with me. The definitions I read in dictionaries were confusing. The whole concept did not make sense. From what I read, it seemed that the blame for adult behavior rested on the shoulders of the child, while the misdeeds of the parents who conceived that child were not addressed. Words like “illegitimate,” “bastard,” and “born out of wedlock” all referred to the child, who was innocent. Where were the words that described the adults who had created that child?
Soon, my life became one long string of humili- ations. No one felt sorry for me any more. I seemed to be in the way. While my foster mother was almost always away working, my so-called siblings missed no opportunity to let me know that I was not a part of their family. Their children were royalty, and I was a peasant. I became the target of physical and psychological abuse. By the age of 8, I was being molested by each of my four foster siblings, all of whom were in their 20s.
My reaction was one that I would later learn is common. I kept quiet, accepting the abuse as a fact of my life. Perhaps the most awful thing about child abuse is the way abused, neglected and/or molested children react to this cruelty. Most children internalize their mistreatment and blame themselves. They believe it is their fate to suffer in silence. If they object, they think, they will only expose their shame to the world.
I moved through life in a haze of confusion until I reached third grade and found myself a student of the dreaded “Mrs. Moore,” said to be the meanest teacher in the school. Little did I know that I would sing Mrs. Moore’s praises for the rest of my life.
Mrs. Moore noticed me. She saw a sad little boy who loved school, but seemed to never want to go home. She decided to do something that would change my life. She gave me a book, Ivanhoe. It was an exciting novel about heroic characters who risked everything in order to do right, defend the weak, and prove themselves worthy of love. I devoured Ivanhoe. Mrs. Moore told me that if I was ever unhappy with the world around me, I could escape into a good book. Through books, I could leave Vine City and meet kings and queens and scientists and warriors. I could not only travel the universe; I could even travel through time.
I discovered through books that there was a vast world out there that was different from the world I lived in. I learned there were people who were different from the people that I lived with.
I learned about character and integrity. I learned about honor and loyalty and faith. I learned that an individual could affect the world around him. I learned about men who drew together not to prey on the weak, but to live by a code of honor. They were men like Atticus Finch, the father in another of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, a mild- mannered attorney who defended a wrongfully accused man, became my ideal of a good man, as well as a good father. I saw that his son, Jem, was going to grow up to be as good a man. Although Jem’s little sister, Scout, pestered him like a plague of locusts, he loved and protected her. Everywhere I looked in my world, I saw the opposite of men like Atticus Finch. I saw men who lived to exploit the weak. They rejected their responsibilities. They profited from the misfortunes of others. They seemed weak and cowardly to me. As my values grew more different from the ones I saw around me, I found life even more difficult.
Naturally, the young people growing up in that environment absorbed what they observed around them. Like most small children, I was bullied constantly and forced to hand over my lunch money on a regular basis. But one day, that all changed.
As I was walking to school, the lead bully in the neighborhood approached me. He was probably 12. As usual, he stuck out his hand for me to place my quarter in his palm. But when I reached into my pocket, I found only lint. During that moment, I remember seeing two distinct visions. First, I saw my quarter lying on the kitchen table where it was placed each morning and where I had left it. Then, I saw my life flash before my eyes. I knew that I was about to die.
I had read in one of my books that when you are up against impossible odds and about to be attacked, the only thing to do is hurl yourself headfirst into battle. I decided that since I was about to be beaten, I would strike the first blow. I had never been in a fight, but I had seen plenty. I did what I saw others do. The bigger boy was confidently facing away from me talking to his fellow bullies when I caught him with my fist right under his jaw. His jaw broke.
As he lay on the ground, writhing in pain, his startled friends announced that they were going to kill me. I was like a deer caught in the headlights, too frightened to run. Suddenly, the older men—the winos, who were standing on the same corner—intervened. They were slapping each other on the back and hooting and hollering about what I had done. They started calling me “Joe Louis” after the famous Black boxer. They informed the other bullies that they would have to answer to them if any one of them touched me. They assured me that if anyone ever bothered me, to just let them know.
From that moment on, I had nothing to fear on my way to school. In that way, my life was better. But I still lived in that house. The abuse at home continued. I would do whatever I was told, then find somewhere to hide with a book. I would read to keep from seeing the world I lived in. When I watched TV as well, I would see normal families where the children were loved and protected by both father and mother. In Vine City, even having two parents was a rarity.
Relatively safe on the street now, I began to explore the world beyond my front yard. I befriended many of the boys who had tormented me. Because I had defeated an older boy, I became something of a leader. This made me feel wonderful. Now I had people who actually looked up to me, who listened to what I had to say as if it were important. I had discovered what is perhaps the most addictive substance on Earth: Acceptance.
We boys formed a strong bond that was more powerful than a family. I don’t know what the other boys were going through at home. We didn’t talk about it, but somehow we knew that we were all going through something. Something that wasn’t right. We were living in a sick society and struggling to survive.
Together we felt strong, almost invincible. We started to steal things. We became more aggressive. I went from being bullied to being a bully. Our numbers grew as young boys our age opted to join us rather than to oppose us. Before long, we caught the attention of certain adults in the neighborhood—the real gangsters.
While we were shoplifting, these men were robbing, burglarizing, running prostitutes, dealing drugs, and stealing cars. These were the closest things we had to heroes in our world. We mimicked them and emulated them as best we could. We tried to dress, walk, and talk like them.
I, however, had a dilemma. I did not really want to be like these men. Alone with my books and my thoughts, I still idealized a very different kind of man. Nor did I really want to do any of the things that we did—the stealing, the break-ins, the bullying. I felt trapped. I hated what I was becoming, but I had found a group of people who accepted me.
I really wanted to go to school and get an education and get out of there. I thought if I got out of Vine City, I might be able to work in a factory. When I was really flying high, I dreamed about becoming a teacher, but that was such a lofty goal I quickly dismissed it. It was as if I said I was going to become President. For the most part, though, I did not think of education as a means to a particular job or income. I just hungered for the knowledge it would give me. Even as a youngster, I had realized that knowledge gave me power. Because reading had given me an enormous vocabulary, I could slyly insult people, make fun of them, without them knowing I was doing it.
The other boys didn’t know I read in private. I could be kicked out of the gang if they knew that I spent much of my time reading. I had to sneak away to go to the library. Everyone just laughed at the way I talked and the “big ole words” I used sometimes.
But finally my language got me a different kind of attention. A particular man approached me. He was the top gangster in the neighborhood. He was like the Mayor of Vine City. Nobody would dare pull any criminal activity in the area without going through him first. He said that he had heard that I was smart and that I knew Shakespeare. I was nervous and not sure how to answer him, but I admitted that I had read some Shakespeare.
Some of the men standing around began to laugh scornfully. “Who??” they said. He shot them a glance, and they were quiet. He asked me if I knew any of Shakespeare’s work by heart, so I began reciting Hamlet’s famous speech, the one that begins:
“To be, or not to be? That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and, by opposing, end them …”
When I stopped, he started laughing; so did everyone else. But this time they were not laughing at me. They were laughing in a kind of disbelief, but in admiration, because they had never seen anything like that, not around there.
I began to spend a lot of time with this guy. I was
like his little mascot. He took me out and bought me sharp clothes. He had me carry his rolls of cash and his handgun. My job was to stay near him so he could get his gun and money when he needed them, but so he’d be clean if the cops searched him. I was nine years old.
My foster siblings knew what it meant that I had become sidekick to this man. If the word got out what they had been doing to me, they would literally disappear. The molestation and abuse stopped suddenly and completely. They still did little if anything to help me, but at least no one ever touched me again.
Now, I could go to school in the open. It was accepted in the neighborhood that I was a young man who had a lot of book smarts as well as street smarts. The gang leader had made it clear that the best gang- ster had both. He also made it clear that no one was to touch a hair on my head.
I had achieved a status where I no longer had to be a bully. But I still found myself doing things that really made me feel bad, just to fit in. While I no longer had to worry about being assaulted, I was still addicted to acceptance. If I couldn’t come up with some excuse, I continued to go along with the crowd when they did some criminal activity. Later, when I was alone, I was tormented by what I had done.
Each time, right before I did something that I would later regret, I felt as though I was standing at a fork in the road. Each tine in the fork represented a path that I could take. When I chose to do the thing that I would later regret, I was choosing the path that led to acceptance. That path became harder and harder for me to take as I matured and learned to think for myself.
Doing things opposed to my own values in order to be accepted by the crowd was so contrary to the way I imagined my heroes would behave. Such behavior seemed weak and worthless when I thought about men like World War II Commander Dwight David Eisenhower, who later became president, or frontier lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Bass Reeves. Even the simple TV characters like Ward Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver or Dr. Stone on Father Knows Best were like giants to me. These men provided for their families and supported them. They didn’t base their actions on being accepted by others. They were the ones who set examples for others to follow.
Gradually, I began to see that while one path at the fork of the road led to acceptance by others, the other leads to self-acceptance—and, more importantly, to self-respect. I began to understand that self-respect is of supreme importance. Any other form of respect now seems superficial to me. The respect that I had been seeking from others is a cheap and fragile thing. It can be lost in the blink of an eye. Others can snatch it away at any time. Yet self-respect is mine to keep as long as I choose the right path when I stand at a fork in the road.
And what is that right path? It is the path that leads to doing the right thing, the honest thing, the kind thing. It is the path that leads to helping others, rather than thinking only of myself.
Today when I stand at a fork in the road, I no longer look for the path that will lead to acceptance by others. I look for the path that will make me respect myself later, when I am alone with my thoughts. As I choose my path in life, I think of the little boy I was. I try to be the man that little boy needed in his life—the man he could look up to.