For weeks and weeks before November 16th, I and the rest of the Alignment Jackson team worked tirelessly to plan and execute the Career Exploration Fair. We called, emailed, and campaigned. We scheduled, strategized, and re-strategized up until the very night before. The morning of, I awoke two full hours before my alarm usually sounds with a double espresso-like energy. As I brushed my teeth and ironed my clothes, I went over the schedule in my head. While applying my make-up, I practiced my welcoming smile in the mirror and rehearsed my ‘buzz’ words for the event. “Interactive… Informative… Impactful… over 100 exhibitors… over 2000 students.” On the way to the Jackson Convention Complex, I continued this line of thinking as if it was my mantra. “100 exhibitors…. 2000 students.”
By the time I had finished setting up the registration table and assigning various jobs to our volunteers, the first bus load of students had pulled into the breezeway in front of the Convention Complex and were lining up to enter. “….2000 students.” We opened the doors for them and in they poured. The expressions on their faces ranged from sleepy to curious to excited and were accompanied by the echo of hundreds of shuffling feet. The volunteers and I handed each student an event bag. They continued to file inside and we hurried to greet each child, handing out bags is quick succession. As we finished one group of students, another would enter... bus after bus. It continued like that until all I could see were blurs of figures in colorful t-shirts.
It was only until my feet began to scream at me that I decided to take a short break. Instead of finding a soft place to sit, I decided to ignore my aching feet and enter the Exhibitor Hall. I was struck with how colorful and loud the scene before me was. In every direction was a conversation, a demonstration, or a game. I walked further inside and halfway through I began to give myself a pat on the back. “We did it! It all came together.” And then I heard it…
“I feel like committing a crime, bro.” I whirled around and nearly ran into the source of the young male voice I had just heard. The figure before me was two heads taller than me and had the stocky build of linebacker. Glancing at me, he continued to laugh with his friend standing next to him. I stood there for a second, cemented to floor, and watched them walk off into a sea of other students. Looking back on it now, I wasn’t just shocked at the laissez-faire way that the student had made such a statement. I was offended. I was furious! In the midst of all of these fun activities and potential networking opportunities, how could he have said that? Even in jest? Did he not know of all the work that was put into this event? I walked out of the Exhibitor Hall in a huff, just in time to greet the next group of students. So I plastered on the welcoming smile I had practiced and continued my earlier activity.
Because the student’s words still rang in my head, I began to repeat my buzz words again. “Interactive… Informative… Impactful. 100 exhibitors… 2000 students.” After a while, I was no longer upset and began to enjoy the experience again. So much so that on another break, I walked into the Exhibitor Hall filled with pride once again. I stopped at various booths. I was impressed with how well some students were doing in a game testing their financial literacy and laughed at how clumsily some students were navigating an obstacle course with a leaf blower. I high-fived a young female student who had done a great job as a news anchor and looked on in confusion as a group of students controlled a robot with some very sophisticated equipment. Just as I began to pass the Health Sciences booths, I saw the young man again. I moved closer and was struck with what I saw him doing. He was cradling a baby. The baby wasn’t real, a medical dummy used to teach people how to change diapers and perform CPR, but he held it as if it were. He rocked the silent baby as if it were crying and even made soothing noises. His friend, always by his side, laughed at him. The student handed the baby back to the exhibitor, turned to his friend and said something that made his friend stop laughing. I moved a bit closer and pretended to look for something as I eavesdropped on their conversation. Before they moved on, I heard, “Man, I’m good with babies.” As they moved away, I only heard bits of their conversation over all the ambient noise. “… little sister…. one day… can… doctor.”
I can’t be sure what he really said but in that moment, I began to imagine the young man’s life and how he might be in the future. Did he take care of his younger sister? Did he have a gift with children? Had he ever really committed a crime? Would he become a doctor one day… a pediatrician? Did he believe he could?
For the rest of the day, I glowed. The 2000 students I saw that day were not faceless figures in a crowd but individuals who each had something to gain from their experience at the 2016 Career Exploration Fair. Each student had stories and gifts of their own. If we piqued the interest of just one kid, the event was a success.
I hope the young man who held the practice baby becomes whatever he wants to be. I hope his experience at the Career Exploration Fair sticks with him.