In this story from January 2007, the two-time Academy Award winner discusses the vital role parents, teachers, coaches and role models played in his life.
One of my favorite verses of the Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Powerful words, aren’t they? They remind me of how important it is to give children a firm foundation. Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor. I’ve had that push in my life, going back as far as I can remember. Here’s how mentors can make a difference. Here’s what they did for me.
Start dreaming. The first push outside my own home came at the Boys Club in Mount Vernon, New York. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. My parents couldn’t always be home when I was done with school. They were too busy working. My mother worked in beauty salons. My father was a preacher. He had a couple of churches—one in Virginia, the other in New York. In addition to that, he always had at least two full-time jobs.
From the time I was six, the Boys Club was my whole world. I learned how to play ball there and how to focus and set my mind on a goal. I learned about consequences and the difference between right and wrong. At the heart of the place was a force of nature named Billy Thomas. He made each of us feel like we were something special.
I was so impressed with him that I started to imitate him. I would walk like Billy and try to shoot a foul shot like Billy. I would try to sit like him and treat others with respect like he did. I even practiced signing my name like Billy. There was a real flourish to his handwriting and I used to copy it so much I can still see it in the way I sign my own name today.
One of Billy’s great innovations was to hang college pennants from the walls of the club’s main hall—one for each school his “kids” went on to attend. The deal was, when you graduated from high school and went away to college, you had to send Billy a pennant, and he’d put it up proudly on the wall for the rest of us to see. Boston University, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Marquette. Schools I’d never even heard of. I used to look at these names and think, Man, anything is possible!
Gus Williams, a great ballplayer from my neighborhood, was a couple years ahead of me. He went out to USC on a basketball scholarship and I can still remember standing out in that hallway, looking up at his USC pennant, thinking, If Gus can make it, then I can make it too. I’d never been anywhere—didn’t even know where California was—but if a guy from Mount Vernon could get a scholarship to a great school, why couldn’t I?
Get to work. On Third Street in Mount Vernon there was a barber shop called the Modernistic, run by a man named Jack Coleman. I started working there at the age of 11 or 12 because I wanted to make some money. Jack Coleman took me on as a kindness to my mother, I’m sure, but I thought it was the best job in the world.
I was Mr. Coleman’s clean-up guy, but the real money came in tips from customers. They’d step out of Mr. Coleman’s chair and I’d be on them with a whisk broom, brushing off their collar, saying, “Man, you look good. Is there anything I can do for you?” There were rewards all day long, especially if you were respectful and solicitous.
I also got to see how hard Mr. Coleman worked to make his business run. He wasn’t just the head barber. He was like the Modernistic’s master of ceremonies, presiding over a wonderfully eccentric parade of souls. He was a strong individual and true to his word. The shop used to close at six-thirty so the barbers could get home to their families. I’ll never forget what he said once when someone walked in there at six-thirty-five. “Am I late?” he’d asked. “No, you’re early. You’re first,” Mr. Coleman said. “You’re the first one up tomorrow morning!”
See a whole new world. For high school I got a modest scholarship to a prep school called Oakland Academy in upstate New York. There were only about six of us inner-city kids—kids who might be labeled “troubled youth.” Truth was, we weren’t troubled so much as we were caught between school and the streets. I never knew how my mother managed it, scraping by to meet the tuition balance.
Years later I was shown the old accounts ledger from Oakland, and there next to her name were the oddest numbers: sixteen dollars, thirty-seven dollars, one hundred nine dollars. I looked at those figures and saw my mother, breaking her back to lift me up, one small payment at a time.
At Oakland I had an English teacher named Mr. Underwood. He always had us start the day by reading The New York Times. In the beginning I’d just thumb through the sports pages, but over time I started to read some of the other sections. That opened up a whole world to me. I started caring about what was going on outside my own small protected environment. Vietnam was winding down, Watergate was ramping up, people were struggling to make ends meet—and I was soaking it all in through the morning paper.
Look for guidance. I ended up staying close to home when it came time for college. I went to Fordham University in the Bronx. At first I thought I wanted to be a doctor, then a lawyer…then maybe a journalist. Midway through my junior year I was asked to leave Fordham for a while until I figured out what I wanted to do—which is a nice way of saying I was on academic probation. But before I left I took this public-speaking class. I’d heard it would be an easy B.
I don’t even remember the name of the old guy who taught that class. I just remember his legs were always wrapped in Ace bandages that would come unraveled. He might have looked scattered, but his mind wasn’t. What he really loved was Shakespeare. One day he asked me to do a scene from Hamlet. I was terrified. I didn’t think I could do it, but he must have seen something in me that I didn’t see in myself. At the end I was ready to race out of that classroom as fast as I could. I promised I’d never to do something like that again.
But that summer I was a counselor at camp and I performed on stage with my kids. We did skits, and I started to really like being onstage. Maybe this was something I could do. After a performance a man came up to me and said, “Have you ever thought about being an actor?”
“Well, you know,” I said, playing it cool, “took a class in college. Played Hamlet.”
Believe in yourself. My second go-round at Fordham I switched to the school’s midtown campus where they had a real drama program, and I became passionate about acting. Bob Stone, my English teacher, was involved in the theater program and knew his stuff. He’d been on Broadway with stars like Paul Robeson and Jose Ferrer and had accomplished a lot. I told him I was serious about becoming an actor and he encouraged me. More than that, he believed in me.
After I appeared in a student production of Othello he wrote a letter of recommendation for me to grad school. What he basically said was, “If you don’t have the talent to nurture this young man, then don’t accept him.” I must’ve read that letter a hundred times. Each time I thought, Wow! If he thinks I’m that good then I’m going to have to live up to those words. He put a fire under me.
For years I kept that letter in my pocket—still have it. Whenever things became tough, I read it. There were times I wondered if I’d ever catch my first break, but Bob’s words kept me going. I kept telling myself, It’ll all work out; something big is coming. Yes, I worked hard, I made some sacrifices until I finally made it. Yes, you could say I had some luck.
But I also had tremendous help along the way. That was a huge blessing from God. Behind every great success there’s someone and often more than one person. A parent, teacher, coach, role model. It starts somewhere. As the Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” There’s no reason it can’t start with you.
Excerpted from A Hand to Guide Me by Denzel Washington. Copyright © 2006 by Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Published by Meredith Books.
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