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I'm Possible: Jumping Into Fear and Discovering a Life of Purpose
by Jeremy Cowart
Learn More | Meet Jeremy Cowart
THE LOST BOY
A lot of parents will do anything for their kids, except let them be themselves.
Not long ago, my mom told me that when I was in the third grade, my school’s guidance counselor called to say she was concerned about me because I didn’t make eye contact and I talked with my head down.
This news surprised me for three reasons: One, that conversation happened more than thirty years ago, and my mother only recently decided to mention that the conversation took place. Two, I didn’t know that my school had a guidance counselor. And three, I had always tried my best to stay off the radar of my teachers (and of the guidance counselor I didn’t know I had). Until that conversation with my mom, I thought I’d succeeded.
Back then, in other words, school wasn’t my thing—and for good reason. Stick a quiet kid with a loud mind in the middle of a classroom, ask him to sit still and focus—and guess what will happen. He’s bound to feel like a mismatch. He’s bound to avoid eye contact. His teachers are bound to think he’s not too bright. His counselors are bound to call home.
It was the same every year, every grade. My classmates seemed to be perfectly content sitting at their desks, learning about multiplication or constellations or North American colonization, even raising their hands to ask questions or offering to read aloud, but I always felt two steps behind, always on the outside, trying my best to look in. And no matter what subject we were covering, a couple of minutes into any lesson, I’d be crawling out of my skin, staring out the window and itching to get outside.
Wouldn’t that tree make the perfect spot for a tree house?
It would be awesome to throw my G.I. Joes from up there.
Maybe I could fly paper airplanes from the tree house too.
Can a G.I. Joe fly in a paper airplane?
I need to find some camouflage paper.
Day after day it was the same old story. Day after day I received papers with Cs and Ds written in red ink at the top. Day after day I’d be reminded of my mediocrity. And at the end of every day, I’d walk through the front doors of my house, defeated about all the things that had gone over my head, and I’d tell my parents, “I can’t do this.”
“You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you,” my dad would respond. And though I knew he believed it—it was in the Bible, after all—I didn’t.
In the third grade, I brought home a report card that included an F or two, and I figured my parents would finally come to terms with the truth—I really couldn’t do this. I finally had the proof that I wasn’t smart enough, that I couldn’t succeed. They didn’t buy it though. Instead, they were quick to point out that my report card also had Bs and Cs, and they congratulated me with a bouquet of balloons. “You can do it,” they said over and over.
Aside from the curse of academia, being raised in Hendersonville, Tennessee—once famous for being where Johnny Cash lived, but now famous for being where Taylor Swift went to high school—was idyllic. My upbringing was picturesque in both the scenic and the domestic sense. I was the youngest of three boys, and despite (or perhaps because of) the age-mandated pecking order, I did my best to keep up with my older brothers, Mike and Benji. I held my own, more or less. And sometimes I tried to prove myself by jumping first off the highest cliff into Old Hickory Lake, climbing the largest tree to scout the perfect spot for our fort, being the first to venture into the town’s “haunted house” at Halloween (which is saying something, because in the 1980s people could jump out and grab you without the fear of lawsuits), or sticking my head inside the hollow of a big tree.
My brothers and I were a rambunctious trio, always getting into something, but my parents softened our edges through the introduction of music. I guess my dad sensed some natural talent in the three of us. Using a few of his connections in the Christian music industry, he got us into a kids’ group that sang backup when musicians needed children’s vocals for their albums. And so, for close to ten years, we’d often make the thirty-minute drive from Hendersonville into Nashville to sing backup for artists like John Denver, Willie Nelson, Alabama, Sandi Patty, Amy Grant, Wayne Watson, and Michael W. Smith. I built a solid discography as a backup singer, but that career tanked when I hit puberty and no longer sang like a soprano.
We spent much of our childhood in those music studios. After we finished our parts, we’d make our way back to the lobby, where we’d wait for Mom to pick us up. While we were waiting, I’d often look out the big glass doors to the street and lose myself in the questions that bombarded my mind.
Do those tourists wish they were musicians?
Did those homeless people have moms who picked them up from activities when they were little?
Should I give them some of the money I just made from singing backup?
Would they want to come to our church on Sunday?
Maybe we should get some homeless kids to join our group.
“Earth to Jeremy,” one of my brothers would say, claiming it was the third time. In the car they’d tell Mom that I’d drifted off again, that I’d been daydreaming. She’d just smile into the rearview mirror, never judgmental, and tell me it was okay to have an active mind.
My parents always encouraged us in the arts. At one point, sensing that I might have musical talent, they asked if I wanted to take piano lessons. I jumped at the chance, eager to play my favorite songs. So they signed me up, and I sat through a lesson. Then another. I made it through a month or two, but I still couldn’t plink out the simplest songs in the book. Too much was going on in my head.
Fingers, keys, sheet music, foot pedals, turn page, mind the metronome, wrong finger, C sharp not B, turn page again. Overwhelmed doesn’t begin to describe it. I was lost. I’d go home and tell my parents once again, “I can’t do this.”
“You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you,” I’d hear back.
Still, I couldn’t seem to escape mediocrity or outright failure, even at church. On Sundays I’d watch the other kids take notes and ask questions as I sat there with no clue as to what the pastor was talking about. On Wednesdays at youth group, we had to recite Scripture from memory, and all I wished was that the verse of choice would be Philippians 4:13 because, thanks to my dad, I knew that one by heart. It never was, though, so each week I hid in the back and avoided making eye contact with the youth minister when he called for volunteers. (As an aside, hiding was the one thing I was pretty good at.)
Even though doubts about my intelligence followed me there, church wasn’t all bad. In fact, it offered me a consistent refuge. Not only was there the loving presence of God; there was also good-for-the-soul worship music, all my friends, and above all, the basketball hoop. I played basketball in the church gym for hours on end, just a skinny white kid trying to emulate Michael Jordan every day after school.
And while we’re on the topic, now is as good a time as any to make this confession: I was obsessed with Michael Jordan as a kid. From the first time I saw him on television, I knew that man was art in motion. I watched as many games as possible, read every interview I could get my hands on, and mostly wore clothes with a Chicago Bulls logo. My room had red-and-black bedding, and the walls were covered with Michael Jordan posters. If you’re a child of the eighties or nineties, you might expect that the famous “Jumpman” poster was my favorite, and you would be right. I loved that poster so much, in fact, that my parents had a gold necklace made with the Jumpman silhouette embossed on it long before it became his personal brand logo. It hung around my neck every day. It was my prized possession.
I wasn’t that great at basketball, however; I was just mediocre, which was pretty frustrating considering how much time I put into playing. And when I’d experience a particularly disheartening loss after a pickup game, I’d head home and say to my parents, “I can’t do this.” And just as you might suspect, my parents would correct me.
“You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.”
As I grew into adolescence, I kept walking down the road of “average”—average grades, average singing voice, average piano playing, average spiritual depth, and average basketball skills. It seemed I was average at most things until seventh grade. That’s when everything changed.
I was enrolled in an elective art class, and we were assigned one of those projects every art teacher makes you do, a two-point perspective drawing using vanishing points. The teacher explained the concept, showed us an example—a road converging to a point on the horizon—and told us to create our own drawings. And before I had the chance to consider what two-point perspective I might create, an image came to me—a New York City street corner where two streets converged, the cityscape vanishing in the background. I set to work on it before the teacher even finished the lesson and didn’t look up until the bell rang. Over the next two days, I was more focused than I’d ever been in any class, and when I finished the drawing, I brought it home to show my parents.
They just stared at it.
“Did you trace that?” my dad asked.
“No,” I said.
My mom and dad looked at each other, then at me. They were speechless for a few moments. Then they proceeded to act like I’d won the World Series. They celebrated me, hugged me, said how amazing the drawing was. They wondered where I’d gotten that kind of talent—there weren’t any visual artists in the family, not really. And as they celebrated my work, something like relief washed over me. Maybe I wouldn’t be average after all. Maybe there was something I could do.
In art I’d tapped into something, a hidden, natural talent. And when I was making art, I had no problems focusing. I could pour myself into my work for hours, could become so lost in an idea that I’d lose track of time.
My parents saw my talent and passion, and they went all in to support it. For my birthday that year, they surprised me with what I still consider to be one of the best presents I’ve ever received. I walked into my bedroom, and there it was in all its glory—a black wooden drafting table with boxes of oil pastels and colored pencils sitting under a big bow. I sat down and started exploring all the art supplies. Within minutes I’d tuned out the rest of the world.
I spent countless hours at that desk, lost in colors, contours, light, and shadow. And I always felt content sitting still at that desk, the speed of my mind finally finding an outlet through my hands.
What if I add more of a shadow here?
Would this roof look more realistic if I added shingles?
Should I draw all the leaves a different shade of green?
I need to work on perfecting face asymmetry.
Should I base a drawing on one of my Michael Jordan posters?
I sank into my art, creating or revising in every spare moment. The year flew by, and before I knew it, my birthday had come back around. I went out with my parents on the night before my birthday, and when I returned home, I was met by a dozen or so people yelling “Surprise” in the living room. When the shock wore off, I noticed that everyone in the room was wearing the same T-shirt, emblazoned with a drawing of Michael Jordan—one of my drawings. My parents had printed my artwork on the shirts, and everyone wore them as proudly as if I were an actual artist worthy of mass production.
Though I managed to get by with average grades in most of my classes, by the time I entered high school, I found a place where things came easier. In art class I was an above-average student for the first time in my life. I had a gift. A knack. Mrs. Kandros—my art teacher for all four years—encouraged me and taught me as much as I could take in about geometric forms, contour drawings, color theory, simulating textures, watercolor and acrylic paint, ceramics, portraits, and abstract art. And I could take in a lot where art was concerned. In fact, I was a sponge. I comprehended and retained what she taught, then worked diligently to apply it to my craft.
If only every class in high school could be art. I’d be valedictorian.
Though I was showing promise in art, I continued to struggle with the never-ending mandatory classes, like biology, Spanish, geometry, literature, and world history. “I can’t do this,” I’d say after receiving a less-than-stellar grade on a test, worksheet, essay, or lab.
“You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you,” my parents said. And now they had another way to encourage me. “You’re really excelling in art,” they’d point out.
My folks could have simply offered words, but they didn’t. They heard my frustration and set out to help me understand just what might be possible for my life. Years before, my dad had taken Mike to a learning center to take a fancy aptitude test that assessed his strengths and weaknesses. The test had helped Mike gain clarity on the direction of his life, and my parents thought it might help me sort out my own as well. So we made our way to Atlanta, Georgia, and I spent two days completing the Johnson O’Connor Aptitude Assessment. It was a tiring process, and when it was over, I was sure I’d failed.
Weeks passed. The results came in. And the truth was, I had sort of failed. Here’s a representative sampling of my scores:
And though you might be thinking this proves I really am a complete and total moron (which is what I thought at the time), consider my one high score:
The test confirmed what we already knew: I was an idea guy, a creative. I was wired to be an artist. And as I looked around my room at the artwork that lined the walls, this became even clearer. Sketches of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Michael Jordan, and my brothers’ faces. Random comics I had redrawn to figure out how to make the cape look like it was moving in the wind or how to make the raindrops look reflective as they bounced off the getaway car. Different Bible verses I had hand-lettered in original fonts. And in the middle of it all was a canvas with a large painted arrow pointing up, with hundreds of tiny arrows going in every direction inside of it. The day after getting my results of the aptitude test, my parents had that canvas framed.
I suppose my story isn’t unlike so many others—the story of an underwhelming, self-critical, self-conscious kid who believes he’s anything but special. I wasn’t good at the things other kids seemed to be good at. I lagged behind. And even when I discovered my propensity for art, even when I found something I excelled at, I still wasn’t sure what to do with it. After all, was art all that useful?
My parents did what all good parents should do. They encouraged me all along the way, helped me stay in the game, kept reminding me of my value as a person. And when I discovered my natural talent for art, they supported me and cheered me on. They gave me the tools I needed to dream, to discover what might be possible.
After all, what is a dream but a vision of future possibility?
What is a dream but a culmination of ideas?
And what is a dream if not the best vision of what we can be?
We all have dreams, even if they aren’t fully formed. It’s the job of family, friends, and mentors (like Mrs. Kandros) to help us discover our dreams. And in some small way, maybe it’s my job to help you discover yours. How? By reminding you of a few simple but profound truths.
You have potential, even if it’s hidden.
You have talent, even if you’re afraid to use it.
You can do all things, even if you don’t believe it.
All these years later, I have four kids of my own, all with different temperaments, talents, and tolerances. Now I can see just how extraordinary my mom and dad were (and still are) with their fidgety, imaginative, expressive, impulsive, artistic son. They could have tried to sway my interests, to push me to be better in school, but they didn’t. They knew the truth: I’d never change the world with math, science, or history, but I just might make a difference with art, creativity, and ideas.
And so, through the ups and downs of my younger years, my parents encouraged me to follow my creativity. They taught me the truth that shaped my life: I’m possible; my dreams are too.
But this isn’t a singular, personal, Cowart-sized truth. It applies to you too.
You are possible; your dreams are too.
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