By Peter Nevland
Penguins curl their bulbous toes to avoid exploding landmines. “Give me any topic, and I can connect this introduction to it.”
The class members took a second to process my challenge and then began firing away…
“Ice Cream,”… “He loves me,”… “A Rocket Ship to Jupiter!”…
Ideas grew in my brain as easy as frostbite in Antarctica. I then gave each of them an introduction that one of their other classmates had written and told them to connect to a topic they cared about. I’ve rarely ever seen such talent, especially from kids ages 14 to 16. Watching their faces come alive as new worlds flowed from eager pens was just part of my journey.
Two weeks ago, I was asked to come perform (I’m a singer, sort of a global troubador) at the Wizard Academy for a “World Changers” seminar meant to start a provocative and effective discussion on racism. When I got there, Roy Williams pulled me aside and gave me the lowdown on everyone there. “These people are some of the most intelligent, well-spoken minds we’ve ever collected, but their individual histories and racial contrasts are causing some pretty heated divisions.” He then proceeded to tell me each person’s background and the pieces that would be good to perform.
“No problem,” I thought. It always excites me to be a peacemaker.
I started with something light and funny, a piece called “Carrot Top,” which makes light of my red hair not being red enough. I transitioned into serious topics with “Size Matters”, a backhanded entrance to forgiveness. “Rashi & Me” & “George“, my story about hangin’ out with people completely different than me on the wrong side of town, came next. Then I finished off with a story about being rescued from boredom by “Oklahoma Rock”.
Something changed in the room . . . until a new offhand comment generated another tense discussion about words that can and can’t be used. I hung out with them until late that night, listening, contributing ideas where I could. Generations of injustice have left a mountain of conflict waiting to be unearthed. Their struggle will be more about friendship than issues. I was honored to be included.
Two days later I took off for my first trip to New Orleans. The city shocked me with its contrast. Downtown, no one would know that a hurricane had once submerged most of the city. The carcasses of whole neighborhoods and boarded up businesses a little further out told a different story.
My friend Daniel had set up this gig a couple months before, paid for my airfare and found funding to pay me for my time. He’d never put on a show before, and I’d never been to New Orleans, so with that combination a whopping 8 people were at the show. One of them was his 3-year old daughter. Three of them were boys from one of those destroyed neighborhoods next to the levees that celebrities have visited. They still live in virtual isolation, as the attempts to rebuild take longer than a videoshoot.
We had so much fun that night. An impromptu beatbox performance by one of the boys turned into a jam with everyone dancing, skatting & laughing. Daniel took us all out to get ice cream afterward, and we all agreed that letting 3 boys know they haven’t been forgotten was worth it.
After a plane ride back to Austin and a too-brief Sunday filled with hanging out with my friends, I went to work getting my 2-day, Young Writer’s Workshop ready. The arrival of Tuesday morning found me a bit sleepy, but I soon forgot my tiredness as the enthusiasm of six students and their parents propelled me throughout the day.
We talked about introductions, transitions, conclusions, editing, goal setting, the power of message, and how to let the audience draw its own conclusions. I knew something special had taken place when everyone eagerly raised their hand to tell me they had enjoyed the two homework assignments I’d given them the night before.
The next day I hoisted my weary bones from bed, packed my stuff, and stuffed my tallness into an airplane bound for Nashville. It was delayed… many times… for hours… before we left Austin. I arrived in Nashville after my connecting flight had departed and managed to squeeze onto a flight with two ladies I had befriended in line. The pact we had all made to make it to Nashville that night ended up with me performing “Carrot Top” in the airport parking lot at midnight before catching a shuttle to the hotel without my luggage.
The next morning my Adidas bag arrived with just enough time for me to squeeze out of my orange Reese’s t-shirt and shorts, into my MC clothes, and onto the stage for the first ever “Wizards on the Road, Boom Your Business” seminar. Once again, I forgot tiredness in the presence of so many people. I used my poems as segue ways, introductions & in my speaking. People told me they were brought to tears. I got new consulting clients and performance opportunities. All of the Wizard of Ads partners performed beyond expectations and had a great time. The business world will never be the same.
I’m home again in Austin, trying to fit so many people and amazing memories into the little room where I sleep and send out emails from my computer. Living the story, selling my writing, building a following never seems to happen as easily as the words flowing from my mind to a page. Somehow, my penguin toes danced around every landmine that threatened to rip my plans apart. Here’s hoping that every introduction you’re given will have you connecting to the inestimable value of people.
Peter Nevland received his Masters Degree in Materials Science and Engineering from the