red rubber ball

Kevin Carroll – Priceless Discipline

by Bernie Swain

Kevin has been an inspiration to everyone from CEOs and employees of Fortune 500 companies to schoolchildren. His life and the lessons he learned teach us to embrace the spirit of play and creativity.

The year was 1964. The place was my first-grade classroom in Philadelphia. I was sitting at my desk when the teacher was called out of the room. After a couple of minutes, she came back in and walked over to me, leaned down, and told me in a soft voice that my mother was waiting for me outside.

I walked out to the corridor. There was Mom, looking anxious and harried. She led me out to her car, where my older brother and my baby brother were sitting in the back seat. I joined them.

Mom got behind the wheel, and we began our journey without a word of explanation. My brothers and I looked at each other, nervous and perplexed, but we didn’t say a word.

Mom had a rule: no questions allowed. She was the adult. She made the decisions; that was that. At this point in our young lives, we were used to her erratic behavior. After all, we knew she was a drug addict. Our lives were chaotic, and we moved all the time, usually because Mom was chasing drugs, a new man, or both.

We sat in silence as Mom drove south, past Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and into Virginia. We passed a sign telling us we were entering Bowling Green, and a few minutes later we pulled into a trailer park.

Mom hurried us into a single-wide, told us she would be back soon and left. We waited dutifully. The next morning, there was still so sign of her. We scavenged the meager contents of the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets. Another day passed. Two days turned to three, three to five. We were out of food and getting scared. I decided enough was enough, and I told my brothers that I was going to get us out of there.

I went outside and walked to a nearby trailer where I banged on the door. A woman answered and I asked her if she would please call my grandfather, PopPop. My grandparents told us if we were ever in trouble to find a responsible adult and ask them to call. I still remember the number.

She drove us to the bus station and we took the bus back to Philadelphia where my grandfather met us.

My PopPop and MomMom were Lou and Winnie Carroll, and they did the best they could, but they were getting older. PopPop was a social worker, and MomMom was a something of an entrepreneur.

She had all kinds of ventures going, from being an Avon lady to having her own seamstress business. I learned a lot from watching her: She would get an idea, and then she would doggedly turn it into reality.

This set a powerful example: Be methodical, take one step at a time, and you will reach your goal. MomMom passed away when I was 10, and from then on PopPop raised us alone.

We had a ritual every Sunday: After church, we would pay a visit to my Nana Carroll, my grandfather’s Mom, and my great grandmother. She lived not far from us and was a full Cherokee, originally from South Carolina. She was pretty old at that point, and she spent most of her time sitting in a rocking by her front window, watching what went on outside.

After church, before we could go out to play, we had to pay our respects to Nana. PopPop would pull up in front of her house, but we dreaded getting out of the car. We knew what was waiting for us: stillness. PopPop would chuckle as he herded us towards the house, saying, “Now, boys, you know you have to go see her, so go.”

We’d make our way up the front steps. There was one step that creaked, and that alerted her that we were coming. The door to her parlor would always be cracked just a little. We’d knock gently, and she would say a firm, “Come in.”

There she was, sitting in her rocker, a beautiful woman with two long black braids, caramel-colored skin, and eyes that looked like they’d seen it all. Nana radiated a quiet strength and had a sense of contained energy. I was in awe of her.

We’d cross the room to her chair, and she’d give us a little smile, “How are you all doing?”

“We’re doing fine, Nana Carroll.”

“I know you want to go out and play, but you know what you have to do first.”

“Be still.”

“That’s right, so have a seat.”

We’d sit on the floor at her feet. She would touch each of us on the head, one-two-three, then say, “Okay now, let’s just be still for a little bit.”

I was six years old, and the last thing I wanted to do was be still. I wanted to be outside, running and playing. But I’d sit there, her hand sometimes resting on my head, and eventually, I settled down.

That’s when I would start to notice things that I hadn’t before: the color of the sky out the window, the nicks on her old rocker, the sounds of balls bouncing off fences, birds singing, car doors slamming, the texture of Nana’s fingers, her clean powdery smell.

I didn’t realize it then, but Nana Carroll was teaching me the lesson that has served me better than any other: the power of being present, in the moment, listening and seeing, alert and attuned, observing nuances and subtleties, actively responding with respect and honesty. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how important Nana’s training had been to my life, and just how valuable a tool it is.

I was in my late thirties, driving home one evening after a long but satisfying day at work when it hit me, and I actually laughed out loud – Nana Carroll knew exactly what she had been doing. As I’d sat squirming at her feet, she had instilled a priceless discipline and skill in me. I smiled as I drove and said a silent, “Thank you, Nana.”

What I learned from Nana has served me not only in my career and personal life, but in my small everyday interactions with bank tellers, waiters, and car mechanics. Listening to people means respecting them. And respect is a cornerstone of leadership. It turns “me” into “we.”


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