His Name Is Adam
Updated: Jan 11
His name is Adam.
I’m not changing his name for this.
There are other Adam’s out there whose stories are just beginning, there is still time to make a difference for them.
My brother is a real person, not a statistic, or a character in a fictional story.
He remembers … a lot.
Adam was just released from prison at the beginning of December where he has lived for the past 5 ½ years of his life, and I wanted to spend some time with him. I wasn’t planning on it, but our visit turned more into an interview. I wanted to understand my little brother better. I say “little brother”, but ever since we were teenagers, he has always been much taller than me.
We sat in a small kitchen, in the home where Adam is now living. I had made us some chicken soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and we talked. I looked at my brother, now in his forties with a lot of gray hair, and I realized, this man, who has been through so much, has a lot to teach the world.
I thought I knew all the details of his life, but what surprised me was how two people can grow up in the same house and not really know what was going in the other person’s life. I was touched that he felt safe enough with me to share, but even more so, that he was willing to share so that maybe he can help another little Adam out there somewhere. I hope that happens. With all of my heart, I hope Adam’s story can help someone else.
I need to start the same way Adam’s life started – with some cold, hard facts: Our dad died when I was 5-years-old and Adam was 2 ½ years old. At the time of our dad’s death, our mom was 3 months pregnant with our little sister. Our mom did what she could to stay home with her little kids. What that meant, however, was that we lived in very impoverished circumstances. It was not uncommon for us to not have running water, or running hot water, or electricity, or a phone, or a working car, or food in the cupboards, or a lot of stuff. I’m not sharing this with any note of self-pity whatsoever. Those were the facts of our day-to-day life. Those experiences are part of who we are. There’s no way around it.
Strangely, most people probably had no idea that our lives were like that. My mom kept us in clean, well-kept clothing. We didn’t wear new or stylish clothes, but they weren’t raggedy in any way. Our aunts, uncles, grandmother, and people at church were often helping us out in the ways that they were able. We lived in a safe, lower-middle-class neighborhood. When our dad died, our mother was able to use some money to buy a house, something she truly wanted. She didn’t want apartment life for us. She wanted a backyard with grass, and a place for a garden, and privacy. Our mom loved privacy.
So, on the outside, it might have looked like everything was working for us … but it wasn’t. Our mom was often very sad and lonely, but she loved us, and we knew that she loved us. She wasn’t perfect, none of us are. I don’t know why things were the way they were, and she is gone now, so I can’t ask. It doesn’t really matter though, I truly believe she did her best and I’m grateful for all that she sacrificed for us.
Home wasn't an easy place and, for Adam, neither was school.
Adam first discovered that his learning style was different in kindergarten. One of his most vivid memories of that early time was a day when the teacher was teaching the students how to draw circles. Nowadays drawing a circle is mostly taught in preschool, but the curriculum was different when Adam was in Kindergarten.
He distinctly remembers that the teacher drew a circle on the chalkboard to show the students exactly what to do. She started near the top of the chalkboard, and with a downward motion, drew the circle ending back up at the top where she had started, a perfect circle on the board.
Adam couldn’t do it.
He just couldn’t make his circle look like the teacher’s circle.
His little brain came up with another solution. He started at the bottom of the paper and drew his circle with an upward motion, rather than downwards, ending his circle back at the bottom where he had started. He was pretty proud of himself and was eager for the teacher to see what he had done.
She saw what he had done.
The teacher could see that Adam had started his circle at the bottom of the paper. Little Adam sat there with anticipation of his teacher’s approval and was shocked when instead of praising him, she held up his paper for the whole class to see and told the class that Adam had drawn the circle incorrectly and that she hoped no one else would start their circle at the bottom instead of the top.
I had never heard that story before and I was speechless and utterly heartbroken. All I could say was, “Really?! That happened in Kindergarten?!”
Adam kind of laughed and said “Yup. That was the first time I cried in school.”
I don’t even know what to say about that. I am shocked that a teacher would be that picky and I would like to say those were different times, and they were, but I’m kind of guessing things like that still happen.
Adam’s self-esteem was continually beaten on. Even in the early grades, Adam knew that his teachers didn’t understand him and no matter how hard he tried to do things their way, he never measured up to their definitions of success.
Unfortunately, life wasn’t easier in other ways as well. A little boy growing up without a dad is a hard thing. It’s not an impossible hardship to overcome, but it is difficult, and Adam’s experience was no exception. We went to the same church congregation with many of the other families on our street and neighborhood. One of the dad’s coached a t-ball team. My mom knew Adam needed some positive male interactions so, somehow, she found the money to sign him up for the team.
Adam was not good at playing ball.
I remember that as well.
I remember going to his games and Adam would sometimes hit the ball, but never make it past first base.
We both recalled those games – the other boys yelling at him and telling him what a terrible player he was.
The dads were also yelling. If I hadn’t witnessed it for myself, I would have a hard time believing it is true. These were the same men and boys we attended church with on a regular basis, and, unfortunately, the negative comments didn’t end on the ball field. Adam distinctly remembers boys teasing him at church because his dad had died, making fun of his clothing, and making him feel very unwelcome. He also remembers the dads hearing the teasing and not telling their boys to stop.
I hate writing that. I wish it wasn’t true. Maybe that’s why I have those same memories of his life. Maybe I witnessed that happening so that I could be a second witness of this for him. It seems impossible that grown men would allow their sons to behave in such a way, but I saw it with my own two eyes and felt the pain in my heart way back then, a pain I remember. A pain that Adam remembers.
It didn’t help that Adam was extra energetic and had a hard time being still or following directions and behaving like the other boys. What I think is that the men thought Adam was behaving that way on purpose, just to be obstinate - to make life hard on everyone around him.
Adam could be very hard to live with at times. He was always creating the most glorious messes at home, destroying some of our mom’s beautiful things because of his insatiable curiosity to take everything apart and try to put it back together again. I can’t tell you how many radios, tape recorders, toasters, and other objects he broke because he decided to take the thing apart to see how it worked.
He seemed to live in his own world where rules and consequences never existed. It always amazed me how shocked he would get when he would get in trouble as if he didn’t even know that he had been misbehaving.
By 2nd grade, Adam started being the angry kid at school. He got in fights. He talked back to the teacher. He remembers having a regular seat in the office as he was often waiting to talk to the principal.
Adam stopped there in his narrative to share that even back then, he knew he wasn’t truly angry. He knew he was sad and depressed; however, he also knew that anger got him results. If he cried, the teachers told him to stop. If he didn’t say anything, he was just bullied more - by teachers and students. So, he chose to display anger.
Oh, our mother was so frustrated and worried.
Adam would come home with a note from the teacher about his bad behavior, or she had talked to the teacher on the phone earlier in the day, or he had been kicked out of cub scouts, or he had destroyed another object in the house, or he had set something on fire, or he had caused a problem with the neighbor boys, or he had climbed the back fence again even though the neighbor had made it clear he better not ever do that again … the list goes on and on and on and our mother just didn’t know what to do.
One day, in a fit of frustration, both Adam and our mother melted into tears. Both of them not knowing what to do about a particular situation. My mother just held him and said, “Oh Adam, what am I going to do with you?”
I remember that day. Do you know what that little Adam said? He replied, “Just love me, mom, just love me.”
And she did.
Sometimes she was the only one.
I’m sure you can imagine how our mother was blamed for Adam’s behavior. It was not uncommon for me to get lectures from Adam’s teachers that I should give my mother the message that Adam needed shape up, that she needs to be a better mother and teach him how to behave. I could never figure out why I was getting these lectures. The only thing that made sense to me then was that I was the oldest child and I wasn’t a behavior problem, I was always kind of looked at as the other parent in the single parent family and so I guessed that was why I got the lectures too.
While I’m typing this, I have to say again that if I hadn't experienced all of this for myself, I wouldn’t have believed half of this story. Fortunately, for this, I was there, and I know all of this did, indeed, take place. This is true stuff and it's sad and unfortunate.
By the time he was in 4th grade, the whole school knew that Adam was the troublemaker and his reputation preceded him. He was also known for not being very intelligent, but he never stopped trying (a sign of true intelligence, by the way.) He could not make his letters look smooth and rounded like the other kids and his handwriting was illegible. His teacher was constantly making him rewrite his assignments over and over. One day he figured out that if he wrote his letters in a box style, with straight lines, the letters were more legible. He was, once again, very pleased with himself.
I’m sure you can imagine how our mother was blamed for Adam’s behavior. It was not uncommon for me to get lectures from Adam’s teachers that I should give my mother the message that Adam needed shape up, that she needs to be a better mother and teach him how to behave. I could never figure out why I was getting these lectures. The only thing that made sense to me then was that I was the oldest child and I wasn’t a behavior problem, I was always kind of looked at as the other parent in the single-parent family and so I guessed that was why I got the lectures too.
Adam said he was never really the same after that. His anger intensified, and the school demanded that Adam go to counseling. My mom would take him kicking and screaming and Adam would never say a word to the counselor. Not one single word. They would sit there in silence for every session.
The counselor suggested that Adam be tested for a learning disorder that was getting more noticed, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Adam was diagnosed with ADHD and was quickly put on Ritalin to control his behavior. This was back in the early 80s and ADHD was highly misunderstood at that time. I have memories of sitting in meetings with my mom and school officials where she was told the ADHD was because of her poor parenting and the amount of sugar my brother was eating. I can barely bring myself to think about how she must have felt after those meetings.
Adam was now in the 5th grade with the least understanding teacher he had ever had. She demanded that Adam be put on this medicine or he could not be in her class. He took the medicine. She was happy; he was not. The medicine made him feel sick, unable to sleep, and unable to eat. But it also helped him focus more. On the days when he had forgotten to take the Ritalin, the teacher noticed immediately and would announce to the whole class, “Adam didn’t take his medicine today so it’s going to be a bad day for the whole class.”
By some miracle, a man came into Adam’s life at that time. He was exactly who Adam needed. As a way of earning more money, our mom had decided our family would take on three paper routes. Adam loved the paper route. He loved throwing the newspapers in just the right spots and serving his customers, he mostly loved his paper route supervisor, Bill Jackson. We all loved Bill and I hope someone from Bill’s family will read this story and know what a blessing Bill was to our family.
Bill saw something in Adam that no one else ever had. He totally believed in him. Adam sensed that almost immediately and this motivated Adam. Adam worked so hard for Bill. Bill would take Adam on extra paper route runs and used him as his personal assistant on many errands. Adam even qualified, 4 times, for trips to Disneyland with the newspaper company because he worked so hard and so well with Bill.
Adam got a little teary-eyed as he remembered Bill.
So did I.
Adam’s positive relationship with Bill gave him the courage to talk to other men. When Adam was about 12, he noticed an older gentleman down the street building a house, a 4-plex actually. Adam stopped one day to watch him and asked if he could help. The man said, yes and then proceeded to teach Adam how to build a house. Adam ate it up. He noticed that he could read blueprints and follow those directions with ease.
Remember the boy who took everything apart? Now he was being taught how to put everything back together. He discovered that he was not only good at building, but he also was talented, and the man made sure that Adam knew how talented he was. The man continued to find jobs for Adam to work on and Adam continued to flourish under his mentorship. Adam can’t remember the man’s name, and I have no memory of the house of which he is referring. Whoever he was, he played an important part in a young boy’s life.
Both Bill Jackson and the man down the street taught Adam how to work. Those are Adam’s words. Adam learned that he liked working and he liked working hard. He liked setting a goal and reaching that goal. He liked doing things with his hands and using his talents. He started feeling a little better about himself.
Except for at school. School didn’t get better.
In middle school, Adam was put in resource classes to help him because he had fallen behind in all of his classes. He hated the resource classes. He hated being made fun of by the other kids at church and at school. He hated being in the “dummy” classes. He simply hated school.
He started refusing to take the Ritalin.
As soon as he stopped, he started gaining weight because the Ritalin had taken away his hunger. He gained a lot of weight very quickly and was soon also being teased because of his weight.
I remember that too.
Once Adam was in high school, he signed up for auto shop and found another talent. He loved that class and soon discovered that he was at the same level as some of his teachers in ability and skill, without even trying. His teachers were like Bill Jackson and the man down the street, they liked him and saw something great in him. They encouraged him and made him feel important and valued.
It didn’t take long though, for Adam to start ditching all of his classes except for auto shop. He said the auto shop teachers let him. He would literally stay in the auto shop all day long and he thinks his teachers understood why and decided not to push him to go to class.
By the end of 10th grade, Adam stopped going to school altogether. He was nearly 6-feet tall and stubborn as heck. My mom didn’t push him. She wasn’t happy with his decision, but as I look back over this story, I think I can see why she didn’t push him. Adam shared with me that he never felt safe at school. He never fit in; even the teachers made fun of him. In all honesty, why would he want to keep going? I understand his choice to drop out.
Once he dropped out of school, he started hanging out with other guys who had dropped out and were all working at an auto shop together. He started working there too, not for pay, just for a place to be.
It was here that he was introduced to Methamphetamines. He would use the drugs with the other guys. I had kind of suspected that was happening. My mom confronted him on so many occasions, but he always denied it. Always.
Adam noticed that the other guys were all strung out and high when they took the drugs, but he felt … normal. He felt himself calm down inside and he was able to focus. He realized, even back then, that he was taking a stimulant and it was working just like the Ritalin had.
Eventually, he just started working for the drugs, as a way of self-medicating, and he couldn’t deny the difference they made in his life.
He worked hard, and he kept working. In fact, he said he realized, again, how much he liked working. He out-worked everyone and was very, very talented in anything he tried to do. As he became more and more skilled at building houses and learning to repair more complicated engines, he discovered that he didn’t need books or manuals because he could actually see the working parts in his mind and knew exactly what to do to build the structure or fix the engine. Geometry became a game for him as he looked at blueprints and realized he could see the angles in 3-D in his own mind, sometimes seeing the whole structure built in his mind before he ever pounded in a single nail.
For the first time in his life, Adam truly felt smart and important, and he attributed that to dropping out of school and taking the drugs – he felt that he eliminated a very negative part of his life and added in something that could help him.
Adam made a name for himself, even at the young age and he started being hired for jobs in construction and mechanics. He continued to excel in his labors and started making a lot of money. During this time, he did a couple of stints in jail for drugs and theft but didn’t see the need to make any changes in his life.
That was when our mom died.
In February of 2000, when Adam was 25, our mother passed away and it threw him off his secure course of success. He struggled for a few years, his tools were stolen, he lost his job, he lost his house to debt collectors and ended up homeless with his girlfriend and their young son.
It was a hard, hard time.
He decided it was time to make some changes.
He wanted to stop being depressed and get back to working hard.
Eventually, he found another job and applied his same work ethic which helped him work up the success ladder very quickly. He started making a lot of money. A lot of money. But managing that money was not a skill he had ever learned, and he found himself in trouble with the law a time or two. My brother has a heart of gold and is sometimes too willing to help others out which meant he was often taken advantage of by those who saw him as an easy way to get money.
In 2012, Adam was in a situation in which a lawyer told him it would be better for him to plead guilty and do the time for a crime he was accused of, even though Adam insisted he was innocent. Not knowing what to do and not knowing where to turn, he decided to trust the lawyer's advice and was put into prison, his heart filled with bitterness and hate.
It nearly destroyed him.
For his son’s sake, Adam decided to do exactly what was told to him so that he could get out and be with his son. Adam did not want his own son to grow up without a dad as he had done, so in Adam’s words, he learned to “play the prison game.”
He followed all of the rules. He did whatever was asked of him by the therapists and those who had control over him. For reasons Adam didn’t understand, he was moved to a small 100-man prison facility in a small town. He was frustrated with the lack of opportunity in the smaller facility, but decided, once again, to “play the game.”
It didn’t take long for the prison officials to notice Adam’s ability to work hard. He was offered a small job working in the prison kitchen. Within no time, he had been appointed the head inmate chef and given the responsibility of creating menus, a shopping budget, and supervising other inmates.
An older, retired woman who loved to cook had taken the job as the kitchen supervisor at this facility. She was exactly who Adam needed at this time as she was another person in Adam’s life who saw something others had not. This woman told Adam to make a list of everything he wanted to learn how to cook. So, he did. He watched the Food Network and read food magazines and chose very ambitions menus to prepare for the other inmates.
This sweet woman was very patient as Adam learned. She helped him understand recipes and how to convert measurements for large groups of people. Nothing was impossible to cook for this woman and she made sure Adam felt of her great confidence in him.
Adam fulfilled his other duties in the kitchen as well. He created the weekly menus according to the budget that was given to him, and he supervised 4 other inmates as they also worked in the kitchen. He worked well with the other inmates and had their respect as he respected them.
Word soon spread that the inmate kitchen was having gourmet meals and Adam began to notice that street officers and highway patrolmen were making special trips to the jail just in time for lunch each day. He started cooking for bigger groups of people and, once again, in a very unlikely place, he felt important and smart and capable. He had learned a new skill and was doing very, very well at that skill.
Until one day a new guard came to work at the prison.
In Adam’s opinion, this new guard was trying to show her authority to the inmates by making several unexplainable decisions each day, one of which was to fire Adam as the head cook, in front of a whole kitchen full of other inmates and officers. Adam’s cooking teacher was very upset and begged that he get his job back. Other inmates were also upset. Adam was confused and broken-hearted.
Once again, someone in authority had made it clear, in front of others, that he was incapable of doing the work that was expected of him.
He felt like giving up.
By then, however, he had learned enough about himself to not believe the rude comments made to him by the new guard.
He decided to go downstairs and meet the man in charge of inmate education.
Once he did, he said something he never, ever thought he would say to a teacher, “Give me a challenge.”
So, this teacher looked up Adam’s educational background and discovered that he only needed 5 ¼ credits to get his high school diploma. He had done classes here and there each time he had been in jail for a few weeks at a time over the years, so he was almost done. The teacher challenged Adam to get those credits done and earn his diploma. He didn’t give him a time frame, and he told him he could do the classes in any order that he wanted. The teacher also told him that he would be with him every step of the way.
Adam took the challenge and in just 30 days, working all day long, 7 days a week, Adam finished those classes and earned his high school diploma.
The teacher was amazed! He praised Adam and even wrote a letter to the board of pardons telling them how hard Adam had worked and how impressed he was with Adam.
The next day, Adam went down to the teacher and said, “Now what am I going to do?”
“Well, what do you want to learn?” the teacher asked.
Remembering how mismanaging money was part of what led to his prison sentence, Adam said, “I need to learn how to manage money.”
The teacher told Adam that he trusted him to check out any book in the library or from the teacher’s personal bookshelf. Adam checked out books on economics, business finance, and personal finance and began reading. The teacher stayed close by to offer assistance, but mostly he just cheered Adam on as Adam began to realize what a good and capable student he can be. He had learned he was capable with things such as construction, auto mechanics, and cooking, but he had never been good at reading books and understanding what he was reading.
A beautiful thing happened in the basement of that small prison facility, with a patient, dedicated, positive teacher in the same room, Adam learned that he is a good reader and he can comprehend what he reads! It was a personal revelation he had needed all of his life. He felt smart, truly smart for the first time in his life and he felt like he could learn anything.
So, he did.
Adam read every book he could get his hands on.
He read and studied and read and studied and loved what he was learning.
The teacher got to know Adam really well. He remembered what a good supervisor Adam had been for the inmates in the kitchen and felt that Adam might be good at teaching the other inmates what he was learning. So, he asked Adam to teach a couple of classes on money management. Adam did so well, the teacher offered him a small job being a daily teacher of any subject that was requested.
Asking Adam to teach classes was the greatest motivator this teacher could have found to help Adam grow even more. Adam loved teaching and he found that he studied even harder as he prepared his lessons. His teacher was, once again, amazed at Adam’s talents. He told him every day that he is one of the best teachers he has ever seen and encouraged him to pursue a teaching career once out of prison.
The teacher decided to push Adam even harder. He gave Adam 2 weeks to create a 30-day curriculum for automotive repair to teach to interested inmates. The teacher encouraged Adam to include other inmates in the writing of the curriculum and then he sat back and watched as Adam found one inmate who was good at typing and one who was good at organizing and another inmate who liked teaching as well. The four of them created a curriculum that became very popular in their facility sometimes teaching 30 men at a time.
I then asked him if he could talk to his 2nd-grade self, what he would say.ubmitted it to the state department of correctional facilities for accreditation – the accreditation was granted!
While teaching, Adam often remembered his public-school days. He determined to be different than his teachers had been. He took a personal interest in each of his students, paying attention to their learning styles and needs. According to his teacher, Adam demonstrated great patience and understanding as a teacher, helping inmates finish classes they had not been able to finish previously.
As I sat with my brother on that December day, typing and typing, I felt as if I was getting to know him for the very first time. I had only really known the boy who was always in trouble. It occurred to me that I was sitting in the presence of a very great individual, someone to be admired and learned from.
I asked Adam what message he would want me to give to teachers. He sat silent for a minute and then simply said, “One size does not fit all.” He meant that one teaching style does not teach everyone. If a child draws a circle beginning at the bottom of the paper, rather than the top, let him. A circle is a circle is a circle, no matter where the pencil is placed at the beginning. When a little boy’s self-worth is on the line, it doesn’t matter where the circle is started.
He offered more:
· Pay attention to how your students react to lessons.
· Find ways to help students be excited and involved in lessons.
· Find ways to involve all students in the class activity in different ways that work for them.
· Remember that all students can learn, they just learn differently.
· Every student has their own “normal”.
· Get to know each student personally, they will work harder for you if they feel that you care.
I then asked him if he could talk to his 2nd grade self, what he would say.
I detected a quiver in his voice, a struggle to hold back the tears as he said, “Find the way that works and stick to it no matter what anyone else says. You can’t change other people around you, you can only take care of what is inside of yourself.”
My last question was, “What do you plan to do with all of this?”
He didn’t even need time to think, “Help other guys like me.”
I have a feeling the world is about the change because Adam found a way that worked and is sticking to it.
So, there you go folks, there’s the story. It was hard to write. It is hard for me to write about the pain that little boy went through knowing that I lived in the same house as him and I probably wasn’t the most patient sister. Actually, there’s no probably about it, I know I wasn’t patient. I know I misjudged him too. I know I added to his pain.
He forgives me, and I will do all in my power to make sure his story is heard.
Do you know a child like Adam?
Do you have a child in your classroom, or your family, who is a lot like Adam? If you do, remember those innocent words he uttered so long ago when my mom, in great frustration said, “Oh Adam, what am I going to do with you?”
He replied, “Love me, mom, just love me.”
It’s cliché but it’s the truth – LOVE is all we need because love is patient, kind, forgiving, encouraging, and willing to stick it out even when it’s hard. All along, love was what he needed, and he is not the only one.
My brother's journey is not over.
He is now reshaping and reestablishing his life ... and it's not easy.
While others around him are sharing their great accomplishments, he's left with saying, "Well, I just got out of prison." and the conversation kind of ends there. No one really knows how much is contained in that one sentence, and not many will ever be willing to listen long enough to hear this story.
My request, as Adam's sister, is that if you ever get to meet Adam, or people like Adam, that you listen past that sentence. My request is that you sit down and let them talk and let them share. My request is that you calm your own fears long enough to see the real person behind the "ex-con" label. Adam still needs that same love now that he has always needed and there is still time to show that you believe in him.
He's at a point in his life now where he's going to go on without your support, he's learned not to rely on anyone and make his own way. What a difference it would make if he could know that there are people out there who see him for who he truly is and will cheer him on.
We can't erase his beginnings, but we can sure be part of a happy ending! We can do that for anyone and I hope that after reading this story all of us will be a little different than we were before ... at least, that's what I hope for myself.
Adam's request is that you share this with others. It's not easy for him to say that, but if this story can help others, it is worth the personal exposure. He hopes it will help someone somewhere.