Ray's Story

Ray's Story
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli / Unsplash

Life's most impactful moments come when you least expect them.

I first met Ray when, like all cool kids, I was working in my high school guidance office during 4th period. Ray came in often to talk to his guidance counselor. At first there was an awkward silence between us, but we saw each other often enough that we started talking.

We couldn't have come from more different backgrounds. I was the stereotype for a middle-class white kid. My parents were high school sweethearts, and my mom stayed home with my brothers and I while my dad worked. I was in honors classes, played sports, tried to stay awake during church, and went to bed at a reasonable hour.

Ray was a Black kid from the neighborhood near our school. His dad wasn't in his life and his mom only occasionally was. He was passed around to grandparents and other family members, and as he put it, he was more comfortable on the street than in anyone's house.

The first 17 years of my life were spent with people exactly like me. Ray was my first experience with anybody from a different background.

And it wasn't just our backgrounds that were different. I played varsity golf and baseball in front of precisely zero fans and scouts (humblebrag, I know). Ray was a STUD on the football field, and played in front of packed stands and scouts from around the country. A running back who earned a full ride to a D1 college, he set just about every school rushing record and challenged many state-wide records. The playbook consisted of one play: hand it to Ray and find someone to block.

One Monday, Ray came into the guidance office. It was days after another insane performance on the football field. As he plopped his grown-man-sized frame on the flower-patterned couch in the office, I said, "I hope you know I'd give anything for your athletic ability."

His response? "I hope you know I'd give anything for your brains."

Not long after that conversation, Ray and two of our classmates were involved in an attempted robbery of a drug dealer. Drug dealers were known to carry cash but not guns.

This one carried a gun.

One classmate was shot and killed, and Ray and the other were charged with and pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He never graduated and his scholarship was revoked. Last I heard, he violated probation a few times and was in and out of prison.

No question, Ray screwed up. He was in a spot he shouldn't have been and things got out of hand. Another kid's life was unnecessarily snuffed out and Ray had a hand in that. I bet it's a burden he carries with him daily.

But he never had a chance. Find the highest character person you know and give them Ray's circumstances. I bet their life doesn't turn out much differently.

At the time, I shrugged off our conversation in the guidance office. But in the ~20 years since, I've realized it was my first oh shit moment. It was the first time my brain twitched a little. And that twitch was a split second feeling that how I grew up and what I was exposed to weren't real.

The reality is that some of us won the genetic lottery, and others didn't. Had I been born 5 miles west of where I was to parents of a different race, my life would have been completely different. To think it would've been the same is just insanity.

I had every opportunity afforded to me. Ray desperately wanted to do better, but he just didn't know how to. My road was paved ahead of me. He was trying to ride a unicycle in quicksand while blindfolded.

We just commemorated and celebrated Juneteenth, and I found myself thinking about Ray. We have come a long way as a country. But man, we still have a lot of work to do before someone like me and someone like Ray have anything close to a level playing field.

I don't have any answers here. Other than to say it's going to take government, nonprofits, and business. In business, paper ceilings, embedded education and experience differences, and the massive influence of the wealth gap are real barriers to someone like Ray (or Ray's parents) having a chance.

It's also going to take us as individuals. Too often the issue becomes political. DEI, wokeism, social justice warriors, privilege, and affirmative action. And I'm sure I'm missing about a hundred other loaded words. All of which are inflammatory, whichever side you’re on. And too often, we use the politics as an excuse not to engage.

But this isn't political. It's simpler than that. We're the wealthiest, most advanced country in the history of the world. Opportunity shouldn't depend on a roll of the dice. The genetic lottery shouldn’t determine which seat in the guidance office is yours.

I'm beyond uncomfortable talking about this. I'm out of my league and probably wrong or misinformed on 90% of what I'm saying. But talking about it is the least we can do.

It's what we owe Ray and the thousands (millions?) of kids just like him.