As I write this, I am sitting in my new office at the Studio. And if you saw the view from my office, you maybe wouldn’t believe it. My office looks out at the Team Disney Building, which is the famous building with the Seven Dwarfs built into the facade, designed by Michael Graves. Just to its left is the original Animation Building where Walt Disney had his office.
If your idea of “making it” is acquiring the quintessential corner office, then I guess you’d say I’ve arrived. But every day, I take a moment to remind myself how lucky I am to sit in this chair. It’s too easy to take it all for granted.
The idea of taking things for granted is a particularly poignant theme for me these days, as I face challenges in my relationships with my daughters, Samantha, 12, and Rosie, 9.
In a neighborhood filled with mansions, we live in a modest 1500-square-foot home on a postage-stamp-sized lot. Having grown up in a family of nine, where we all shared one bathroom, my home suits me just fine. My kids, on the other hand, well . . . they think it’s quite terrible that we don’t have a swimming pool. Instead of seeing all that they do have, they mainly see what they don’t have. So I’m constantly asking myself, “How do I get my daughters to see how lucky they are?”
On my birthday this year, I decided I didn’t want any gifts, and I didn’t want a party. Instead, I wanted to spend the evening with my daughters — in a way that would help them see their world a little differently. It just so happened that a colleague at work had sent me an invitation to a charity event that would raise scholarship money for a small, private school in South Central Los Angeles.
Kids in South Central Los Angeles have few advantages in life. Most are relegated to public schools that have dropout rates of over 60 percent. But one little school in particular provides a glimmer of hope for the kids who attend. Nativity School is a tiny K-8 Catholic school located in a predominantly Hispanic and African-American neighborhood. By receiving a quality education — one that teaches moral values, not just academics — every student at this school stands a chance of reaching their full potential as a member of the community — instead of becoming one more failure statistic.
The keynote speaker at the event was Kermit Alexander, a former defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers (1963-1968) and for the Los Angeles Rams (1970-1971). Alexander grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He was recently featured on ESPN’s Emmy-Award-winning series, “Outside the Lines.” His story is both shocking and inspiring, and I felt my children ought to hear it.
After the event, I asked my daughters how they liked it. Their responses disappointed me. Samantha said she liked it, but she had no other comment. Rosie thought it was boring and too long.
“But do you know why I brought you to the event?” I asked.
By this point, Samantha was starting to feel exasperated.
“So we’d appreciate what we have and everything,” she sighed. “I know they don’t have as much as we do. But when I compare what I have with what my friends have . . . it’s hard for me.”
She understood why I had brought her to the event, but I was disheartened by her response. I knew my message hadn’t gotten through. She still viewed something about her life as “hard.”
I needed to try a different approach.
My daughters attend one of the best public schools in California. So I explained to them that most inner-city public schools in Los Angeles don’t offer the same quality education as the girls receive at their own school. I offered an illustration to help them see the difference between their school and the schools in South Central Los Angeles.
“Imagine two schools — one in the same district as your own school and one in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. If these two schools each have 100 students, how many students from each school do you think will reach their senior year and graduate?”
They shrugged their shoulders.
“In your school district, 99 of those 100 kids will graduate, and nearly all will go to college. But in South Central, only 60 out of 100 will graduate, and less than ten will go to college.”
Their eyes brightened. They were beginning to understand. So I repeated my first question:
“So, why do you think I took you to that event today?”
Samantha answered, “To show us how lucky we are to live in a good neighborhood. Because we get a good education, and we have a chance to do something that we want to do when we grow up.”
Eureka! She understood me.
In hindsight, I guess I was overly optimistic about what they’d immediately understand about all this. It’s not that they didn’t see the plight of inner city kids. They did see it, but they still had more to learn. I planted a little seed in their heads, and I shouldn’t expect it to germinate overnight. It may take days, weeks, or months for that seed to take root and break through the ground’s surface. My job is to be ready with the watering can.