Rick Rigsby – Make An Impact
In this passionate and life-changing speech, Dr. Rick Rigsby shares the three words that taught him how to enhance his life and make excellence a habit.
The wisest person I ever met in my life, a third-grade dropout. Wisest and dropout in the same sentence is rather oxymoronic, like jumbo shrimp. Like Fun Run, ain’t nothing fun about it, like Microsoft Works. You all don’t hear me. I used to say like country music, but I’ve lived in Texas so long, I love country music now. I hunt. I fish. I have cowboy boots and cowboy … You all, I’m a blackneck redneck. Do you hear what I’m saying to you? No longer oxymoronic for me to say country music, and it’s not oxymoronic for me to say third grade and dropout.
That third grade dropout, the wisest person I ever met in my life, who taught me to combine knowledge and wisdom to make an impact, was my father, a simple cook, wisest man I ever met in my life, just a simple cook, left school in the third grade to help out on the family farm, but just because he left school doesn’t mean his education stopped. Mark Twain once said, “I’ve never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education.” My father taught himself how to read, taught himself how to write, decided in the midst of Jim Crowism, as America was breathing the last gasp of the Civil War, my father decided he was going to stand and be a man, not a black man, not a brown man, not a white man, but a man. He literally challenged himself to be the best that he could all the days of his life.
I have four degrees. My brother is a judge. We’re not the smartest ones in our family. It’s a third grade dropout daddy, a third grade dropout daddy who was quoting Michelangelo, saying to us boys, “I won’t have a problem if you aim high and miss, but I’m gonna have a real issue if you aim low and hit.” A country mother quoting Henry Ford, saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” I learned that from a third grade drop. Simple lessons, lessons like these. “Son, you’d rather be an hour early than a minute late.” We never knew what time it was at my house because the clocks were always ahead. My mother said, for nearly 30 years, my father left the house at 3:45 in the morning, one day, she asked him, “Why, Daddy?” He said, “Maybe one of my boys will catch me in the act of excellence.”
I want to share a few things with you. Aristotle said, “You are what you repeatedly do.” Therefore, excellence ought to be a habit, not an act. Don’t ever forget that. I know you’re tough. I know you’re seaworthy, but always remember to be kind, always. Don’t ever forget that. Never embarrass Mama. Mm-hmm (affirmative). If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. If Daddy ain’t happy, don’t nobody care, but I’m going to tell you.
Next lesson, lesson from a cook over there in the galley. “Son, make sure your servant’s towel is bigger than your ego.” I want to remind you cadets of something as you graduate. Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. You all might have a relative in mind you want to send that to. Let me say it again. Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. Pride is the burden of a foolish person.
John Wooden coached basketball at UCLA for a living, but his calling was to impact people, and with all those national championships, guess what he was found doing in the middle of the week? Going into the cupboard, grabbing a broom and sweeping his own gym floor. You want to make an impact? Find your broom. Every day of your life, you find your broom. You grow your influence that way. That way, you’re attracting people so that you can impact them.
Final lesson. “Son, if you’re going to do a job, do it right.” I’ve always been told how average I can be, always been criticized about being average, but I want to tell you something. I stand here before you before all of these people, not listening to those words, but telling myself every single day to shoot for the stars, to be the best that I can be. Good enough isn’t good enough if it can be better, and better isn’t good enough if it can be best.
Let me close with a very personal story that I think will bring all this into focus. Wisdom will come to you in the unlikeliest of sources, a lot of times through failure. When you hit rock bottom, remember this. While you’re struggling, rock bottom can also be a great foundation on which to build and on which to grow. I’m not worried that you’ll be successful. I’m worried that you won’t fail from time to time. The person that gets up off the canvas and keeps growing, that’s the person that will continue to grow their influence.
Back in the ’70s, to help me make this point, let me introduce you to someone. I met the finest woman I’d ever met in my life. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Back in my day, we’d have called her a brick house. This woman was the finest woman I’d ever seen in my life. There was just one little problem. Back then, ladies didn’t like big old linemen. The Blind Side hadn’t come out yet. They liked quarterbacks and running back. We’re at this dance, and I find out her name is Trina Williams from Lompoc, California. We’re all dancing and we’re just excited. I decide in the middle of dancing with her that I would ask her for her phone number. Trina was the first … Trina was the only woman in college who gave me her real telephone number.
The next day, we walked to Baskin and Robbins Ice Cream Parlor. My friends couldn’t believe it. This has been 40 years ago, and my friends still can’t believe it. We go on a second date and a third date and a fourth date. Mm-hmm (affirmative). We drive from Chico to Vallejo so that she can meet my parents. My father meets her. My daddy. My hero. He meets her, pulls me to the side and says, “Is she psycho?” Anyway, we go together for a year, two years, three years, four years. By now, Trina’s a senior in college. I’m still a freshman, but I’m working some things out. I’m so glad I graduated in four terms, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan.
Now, it’s time to propose, so I talk to her girlfriends, and it’s California. It’s in the ’70s, so it has to be outside, have to have a candle and you have to some chocolate. Listen, I’m from the hood. I had a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine. That’s what I had. She said, “Yes.” That was the key. I married the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my … You all ever been to a wedding and even before the wedding starts, you hear this? “How in the world?” It was coming from my side of the family. We get married. We have a few children. Our lives are great.
One day, Trina finds a lump in her left breast. Breast cancer. Six years after that diagnosis, me and my two little boys walked up to Mommy’s casket and, for two years, my heart didn’t beat. If it wasn’t for my faith in God, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If it wasn’t for those two little boys, there would have been no reason for which to go on. I was completely lost. That was rock bottom. You know what sustained me? The wisdom of a third grade dropout, the wisdom of a simple cook.
We’re at the casket. I’d never seen my dad cry, but this time I saw my dad cry. That was his daughter. Trina was his daughter, not his daughter-in-law, and I’m right behind my father about to see her for the last time on this Earth, and my father shared three words with me that changed my life right there at the casket. It would be the last lesson he would ever teach me. He said, “Son, just stand. You keep standing. You keep stand … No matter how rough the sea, you keep standing, and I’m not talking about just water. You keep standing. No matter what. You don’t give up.” I learned that lesson from a third grade dropout, and as clearly as I’m talking to you today, these were some of her last words to me. She looked me in the eye and she said, “It doesn’t matter to me any longer how long I live. What matters to me most is how I live.”
I ask you all one question, a question that I was asked all my life by a third grade dropout. How you living? How you living? Every day, ask yourself that question. How you living? Here’s what a cook would suggest you to live, this way, that you would not judge, that you would show up early, that you’d be kind, that you make sure that that servant’s towel is huge and used, that if you’re going to do something, you do it the right way. That cook would tell you this, that it’s never wrong to do the right thing, that how you do anything is how you do everything, and in that way, you will grow your influence to make an impact. In that way, you will honor all those who have gone before you who have invested in you. Look in those unlikeliest places for wisdom. Enhance your life every day by seeking that wisdom and asking yourself every night, “How am I living?” May God richly bless you all. Thank you for having me here.
Reconnect with your dreams and jumpstart your personal transformation with Goalcast’s new inspirational ebook, Explore Your Potential: Start the Journey to Your Dream Life.
Transformation doesn’t just happen. It takes a plan and a support system. This how-to guide is full of the top wisdom, tips, exercises, and success stories to inspire an old dream or create a new one.
Check out a teaser of what’s inside.
“Children of the Sea” opens with an undisclosed man writing a letter to his beloved. Currently at sea on a boat with 36 other people, he looks at the sky and relives memories from their childhood. Looking around the boat, he notes that its sails are white bed sheets spotted with blood. They remind him of loss of innocence and his lover’s refusal to have sex with him. He tells her he was fine with her decision and that he just wanted to be close to her. The man ruefully remarks that his lover’s father will probably marry her off, now that he (i.e. her lover) is gone. He begs her not to marry a soldier, because “they’re almost not human” (Danticat 2).
Back in Haiti, the female letter writer despairs about her life. The sound of bullets floods the streets day and night. The schools have closed, the old president has fled, and the army has taken over. No one dares to leave their house. The girl’s father orders her to destroy tapes from the male letter writer’s controversial radio show, but she keeps a few. The other members of the male letter writer’s youth federation group have disappeared, and are presumed to be either dead or in prison. It becomes clear that the male letter writer fled Haiti via boat in order to avoid the same fate. His lover shares that she no longer draws butterflies because black ones warn of death.
The man reveals that their boat is bound for America, specifically Miami. He wonders how much farther they have to go and prays that they don’t hit a storm. He also writes about the other people onboard the boat. One of them is a pregnant girl with razor mark scars on her face. Seeing her makes the male letter writer happy that there aren’t young children on the boat, because it would break his heart, “looking into their empty faces” and remembering “the hopelessness of the future” in Haiti (Danticat 3). Other characters aboard include some Protestants who see themselves as Job or the Children of Israel. They say, “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” which causes the male letter writer to ask what more there is to take from him (Danticat 4).
Meanwhile in Haiti, the bodies of the male letter writer’s fellow radio personnel have been released. Madan Roger, the neighbor of the female letter writer and her family, goes to collect her son’s body. All that remains his head. To show what was done to her son, she carries the head all over Port-au-Prince. Once she arrives home, the macoutes stationed outside of her house taunt her and ask if the head is for her dinner. It takes a crowd of people to stop Madan Roger from attacking the militiamen. The female letter writer says events like this make her want to never leave the house again. She wishes there was a way she could know for certain if the male letter writer made it out of Haiti safely. She promises to continue writing the letters so that when they are reunited it will be as if they lost no time.
The first real day at sea sets in. Everyone onboard is sick, and their skin begins to burn from the sun. One man laments that soon they will be too dark to be mistaken for Cubans. The last time he tried to escape, he was on a boat with Cubans. Once they met with the US Coast Guard, the Cubans were taken to Miami while the Haitians were sent back to Haiti.
The pervasive smell of the sea is causing nausea. The male letter writer says it may be hard for his lover to understand, since she was raised in a "well-guarded house” with her genteel parents (Danticat 6). He’s jealous of her upbringing, and thinks that perhaps if his upbringing were similar then he wouldn’t have gotten caught up in Haiti’s political troubles. The pregnant woman, whose name is Célianne, is ironically the only one unaffected by the sea smell. She eats nothing and just stares into space, rubbing her belly. One night she wakes up screaming because the boat is leaking under her sleeping spot. The captain of the vessel plugs up the boat with some tar and hopes that the Coast Guard finds them soon.
The father of the female letter writer discovers that she didn’t destroy all of the radio tapes. He yells at his daughter, accusing her of being crazy and selfish. The female letter writer argues, and the situation escalates until the man begins to slap his daughter. Finally the girl’s mother steps in and takes her husband away. The female letter writer wishes one of the macoutes’ bullets would hit her.
The tar is holding up and there haven’t been any new leaks in the boat in 2 days. The male letter writer’s skin has turned very dark. He tries to buy a hat from one of the women on the boat with his remaining Haitian currency, but his money is worthless out in the middle of the ocean. The man realizes that he forgot where he was. He frequently dreams about a heaven that’s at the bottom of the sea. In one of these dreams, his lover was there with his family. He tried to speak to her, but only bubbles came out of his mouth.
If he could talk to the female letter writer, he would hear of the new atrocities being committed in Haiti. The macoutes are forcing mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, to sleep with one another. There are already stories of young women carrying their father’s children. The father of the female letter writer lives in fear of this happening to his family and plans for them to flee Port-au-Prince for Ville Rose.
The woman is still not speaking to her father because she thinks he’s partly to blame for the forced exile of her lover. Her mother tries to intervene and explains that her father never approved of the male letter writer because the young man wasn’t a social climber: he couldn’t provide anything for the female letter writer that she didn’t already have. The girl reasons that all she wants in a mate is love.
On the boat they are telling more stories and the male letter writer explains how the “Krik? Krak!” exchange works: someone proposes to tell a story by saying 'Krik?', and the audience accepts by answering 'Krak!'. They also listen to Bahamian radio stations using a transistor someone brought along. A woman says they treat Haitians like dogs in the Bahamas, even though they look the same and “had the same African fathers who probably crossed the seas together” (Danticat 8). The male lover wonders if the sea every ends, or if it’s endless, like his love for his beloved.
One night the macoutes go to Madan Roger’s house to interrogate her about her son’s involvement with the youth federation. At first the woman refuses to tell them anything, instead insulting the men and their mothers. However, the macoutes are relentless with their questions, and eventually Madan Roger caves. The men begin to beat her brutally with their guns, cracking her bones. The mother of the female letter writer tells her husband that he should go help Madan Roger, but he refuses. He says that tomorrow they will leave Port-au-Prince, and they cannot jeopardize their own safety. He argues that what is happening now has happened before in Haiti, and it will happen again.
The next day, a rumor is circulated that the old president is coming back. People are rushing to the airport to meet him. The female letter writer’s father says they will not stay behind in Port-au-Prince to see if this is true or not. Her mother says that the people going to the airport are “just too hopeful, and sometimes hope is the biggest weapon of all” (Danticat 10). Her father is determined to get his family to safety, and races out of the city.
Célianne has a beautiful baby girl, but the baby has yet to cry. The other passengers are calling the baby ‘Swiss’, because that was the word written on the knife they used to cut its umbilical cord. They also begin to speculate about how Célianne got pregnant in the first place. The boat has begun to crack heavily, and water is seeping in steadily. Nonessential belongings are thrown overboard to lighten the load. The captain whispers that something may have to be done with the people that never fully recovered from their seasickness.
The mother of the female letter writer turns out to be right: the old president didn’t return, and the people who went to greet him at the airport were arrested and shot at by the military. During dinner one night, the female letter writer tells her father that she loves the male letter writer. He says nothing in response and finishes his meal. Later on, the female letter writer and her mother talk about love, family, and relationships. The mother tells her daughter that sometimes you must choose between your father and the man you love. The woman learns that her own father was a simple gardener from Ville Rose and did not have the approval of his wife’s family when he married her.
Back on the boat, Célianne refuses to toss the body of her stillborn baby overboard. The male letter writer finally asks Célianne about the baby’s father, and she shares the horrific story. One night a group of macoutes came to her home where she lived with her mother and brother. They forced her brother to have sex with their mother at gunpoint, then tied Célianne up and took turns raping her. When they were done, they arrested her brother for committing moral crimes and took him away. He was never heard from again. That same night Célianne cut up her face to hide her identity. She didn’t know she was pregnant until her belly began to grow. She heard about the vessel leaving for the United States and decided to join it.
In Ville Rose, the female letter writer is finally settling in. There are many butterflies in the area, but none of them has landed on her hand; she hope this is a sign that her lover is safe. Her mother shares with her why her father has been so surly lately. The macoutes were going to come for the female letter writer and accuse her of being a member of the youth federation. In order to save her life, her father sold all of his land and property, including his inheritance from his own father, and gave the money to the macoutes. The female letter writer has no words, and doesn’t know how she can thank her father for his sacrifice.
On the boat, Célianne finally throws her baby’s corpse overboard. Shortly after it sinks below the waves, she jumps in after it, committing suicide. Everyone is in shock, but fear of the sharks in the area prevents a rescue mission. Besides, the boat is flooding in earnest now, the tar no longer holding up. Everything must go, including the notebook the male letter writer has been using for his letters. Though the other passengers remain hopeful that the Coast Guard will find them before the boat sinks, the male letter writer isn’t as optimistic. He imagines himself living as a child of the sea among others “who have escaped the chains of slavery to form a world beneath the heavens and the blood-drenched earth” (Danticat 29).
The female letter writer finally finds the words to thank her father for saving her life. As he waves away her gratitude, his hand moves quickly in the air, resembling a black butterfly. The woman tries to run away from the sight, but it is too late. The news comes via radio that another boat has sunk off the coast of the Bahamas.
The first story in Krik? Krak!, “Children of the Sea” is a tale of loss and the everlasting power of love. It establishes the historical and political landscape in which most of the book’s stories are set. Though no date is explicitly given, a plethora of little details sprinkled throughout the story, when considered within the context of Haitian history, suggest that the story takes place in 1957. The most important detail is the presence of the tonton macoutes. The militia of Haitian dictator François Duvalier, the macoutes helped Duvalier gain and hold onto power during the corrupt 1957 Haitian elections. Once Duvalier was elected to the presidency, the old president was ousted and fled Haiti. Anyone found to have materials supporting the old regime could be arrested and persecuted. That is why at the beginning of the story, the female letter writer and her parents destroy and/or hide their buttons and posters supporting the old president.
Life in Haiti under the Duvalier regime was violent and dehumanizing, a fact that is at the center of “Children of the Sea.” Through the alternating perspectives of the narrators we hear stories of senseless violence and horror. Parents were forced to copulate with their children, mothers walked the streets with the dismembered heads of their children, people were bludgeoned to death with guns, etc. Above all, political and intellectual freedom were nonexistent, causing many Haitians to flee their homeland. As we see in the main storyline of “Children of the Sea,” these dire circumstances heavily influenced the lives and decisions of Haitian people. Perhaps this will be a trend in all of the Krik? Krak!stories.
In addition to setting the scene, “Children of the Sea” also introduces many of themes that are present throughout Krik? Krak!The theme of brutality is central. The macoutes perform unconscionable and senseless acts of violence and terror on pedestrian Haitian people, purportedly for the sake of preserving power and order. While some Haitians, like the male letter writer, have the means to attempt fleeing the country, most must stay behind and withstand the atrocity. Some of them hope that things will improve, that the old president will return and end the violence. Unfortunately, events keep happening that suggest this hope is ill founded. For example, the male letter writer manages to board a boat to safety, but it begins to sink soon after departing. And yet, the other passengers remain hopeful that the Coast Guard will find them before they drown. This ability of characters to continue to hope in the face of adversity is another recurring theme of Krik? Krak!
The theme of love is exhibited in the refreshing structure of “Children of the Sea.” The story is told in the alternating perspectives of two lovers. Driven apart by the man’s anti-Duvalier radio show and the woman’s disapproving father, they promise to write letters to each other. That way if they are reunited, it will be as if they were never apart. The writers have no way of knowing if they will ever be able to exchange letters. Despite the possible futility of the exercise, they continue to write, driven by their love for one another. This is just one example of love’s many forms in Krik? Krak!Another is the love parents have for their children, such as Célianne’s for her unborn baby and the love between the female letter writer and her father.
On the boat, the theme of national identity is also alluded to during conversations about the Bahamas and Cuba. Despite Haiti’s geographical and cultural nearness to both of these countries, Bahamians, Cubans, and Haitians all see themselves as drastically different from each other. By highlighting these beliefs in her work, Danticat questions the importance we place on national identity and borders.
Aside from a multitude of themes, other literary elements used effectively in “Children of the Sea” include similes and exposition. Two particularly striking similes involve the macoutes and the male letter writer’s love for his beloved. The macoutes are compared to vicious vultures that swarm around the Haitian people as if they are rotting carcasses ripe for devouring. And the male letter writer describes his love for the woman as being as endless as the sea. This is particularly poignant, considering it is the sea that keeps the star-crossed lovers apart. The exposition occurs when the male letter writer explains what “Krik?” and “Krak!” mean, and how they are used in the storytelling process. This is a key explanation, since the title of the work is Krik? Krak!