High school can be tough.
You face unyielding pressures. You’re trying to figure out who you are. You might explore ways you fit in.
Above all else: Kids can be ruthless.
At least that’s my experience – both a decade ago and today.
As a preps sports reporter, I spend the majority of my time in high schools. And I’m telling you: Some kids laugh at you, they spit all over the place, they cough in your face and they can come up with the most heinous of insults, like a competition to see who can be meaner, right?
This isn’t every kid. This isn’t every school.
This is just high school.
So you’re a 14-year-old trying to navigate through it all – the good times and bad. Imagine having to do it without your parents.
James Walker did, and we can all learn something from how he made the most of the hand he was dealt.
I didn’t meet him until recently, so I don’t know what he was like at 14 having to deal with the deaths of both his parents. They passed away within two years of each other.
When Walker, Sanderson’s senior relief pitcher, came to meet me at the school’s main office last week, I couldn’t detect some of the previously noted behavior in this young man.
“Ms. Morgan?” he greeted me.
Walker was extremely polite, with a glowing spirit – not the first of his kind I’ve met in a high school. However, I knew part of his story at the time: Both his parents died a few years ago, he couldn’t make the baseball team until this season, he had obviously faced a major tragedy.
We chit-chatted through the wild, end-of-year high school hallways until we reached the small weight room office where I’d conduct the interview alongside his coach, Todd Laughlin.
I didn’t realize Walker’s reality would be so heartbreaking.
His father collapsed at one of his recreation league baseball games two weeks before he turned 13. He died from an aortic aneurysm three hours later.
Walker later spoke about the police officer who came to his door to tell him his mother committed suicide and was found in a hotel. After losing her husband, she began taking prescription medication to deal with depression.
Walker, the youngest of three brothers, lived with his grandparents after the losses.
He spoke passionately of his parents and baseball, saying he used their memory to get him through tough innings this season.
He admitted feeling as though he didn’t handle the blow as well as he could have. This was a 17-year-old high school senior divulging remorse for something that was out of his hands. He said he regretted how he let it affect his grades and his temper at 14.
When I was 14, I couldn’t keep it together, and I was fortunate to have both my parents in my life. I was dismissed from two high schools because of, let’s say, my former explosive temper. I had to spend the rest of my freshman year with my dad in Oakland, and my grades slipped. Sure, it was a lot going on, I had a lot of emotions, but I wasn’t faced with anything compared to what Walker went through at that age.
I was just a fussy teenager who needed an outlet. Any questions I had were eventually answered.
That wasn’t the case for Walker, who for years questioned why something so devastating happened to him.
So when I meet someone like him, a survivor of such suffering, it becomes an inspiration. I know at one point he didn’t have the grades to make the baseball team, his high school-long dream. I know he faced trouble at home following his parents’ deaths, which also kept him from the team.
But, in my eyes, he handled the unforeseen calamities like a champion.
He leaned on his support system, he picked up his grades, he gave baseball one more shot and he persevered. He made it through high school and constructed a post-graduation plan to take charge of his life.
It’s so easy to get caught up complaining about the little things that don’t go right in life, but take a page out of Walker’s book.
“I think I’ve come a long way in figuring out myself and dealing with situations as they come,” he said. “A lot of problems I’ve faced in my life are cleaning up what happened in the past. You can’t focus on what happened before, especially if it wasn’t your fault.”
That’s the key. Walker proves the benefit of focusing on what you can control, because there are so many things you can’t.
You never know what that approach may bring you through.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan