Author's Note: I wrote this in 2008 after my mentor and friend Nathan Woods was killed in a car crash. He was and still is a tremendous source of inspiration to me and the reason why I love education outreach so much. RIP Bionik. Know you are missed.
Recently I lost one of my closest friends and the best mentor anyone could hope to have. His name was Nathan Woods but many knew him by his on-stage moniker, Bionik Brown. An accomplished rapper and educator, Mr. Nathan awakened a side of me I had never known. Somewhere between the trips to the Ninth Ward and the richest parts of New Orleans, I found a calling: education. These kids weren't all that different. Take away the socioeconomic barriers and a kid from the Ninth Ward could rival a kid from Uptown intellectually. It didn't matter whether the kids were rich or poor, black or white, from broken or separated families. No, what mattered was their desire to learn. Mr. Nathan summed it up with only a few words, "You see, these kids need a chance but they ain't got none. That's why we go here, to give those kids a chance."
From that point, I knew what I wanted to do. I want to give those kids a chance. It may sound corny, but sometimes corny works. I'll never forget the time we pulled up to the Louis Armstrong library in the lower Ninth. It was my first time in the Ninth Ward and obviously I was nervous having had all the stories about homicides and robberies pounded into my head. We unpacked, set up our presentation, and began to talk about World War II. Immediately, the notion of these kids not knowing two from three vanished. Here were articulate, smart kids who asked smart questions. Hell, the questions they asked were better than the coddled Uptowners we had the day before. It didn't make sense in my brain. It was supposed to be the other way around. They were supposed to be the immature brats we catered to before, but they weren't. Walking out, I made a comment about how great our group was and Mr. Nathan began talking about the broken school system and how the kids in there were never going to live up to their full potential. They had the brains, they just didn't have the drive, not after seeing their friends and family driven off the straight and narrow by the bastions of poverty.
I sat there silent until we got over the bridge and made up my mind right then and there. This wasn't just a cause I was fighting for. It was a ministry I was being called to. In middle school, I was the know-it-all showoff, always shunning other people for myself. God, I acted so aloof back then. Was it grade school preteniousness? Maybe. Was it to please my parents? Probably. I think it stemmed from the constant message that my parents always said to me, "Paul, you have to be the best," only I added, "and leave everybody in awe of you." This act continued into a good part of eighth grade until I started on those Red Ball Express trips. After that, it was a complete 180. Mr. Nathan saw a chance in me and took it. For that, I will forever be grateful. He taught me how to be humble by being humble himself. He never told me he was a rapper. I just knew him as an education coordinator at the D-Day Museum. He laughed whenever I showered praise on him, brushing it off with a quick comment. I soon learned to emulate that, and before I knew it I was who I wanted to be. I started looking at children as more than crying annoyances I had to babysit. I saw my own childhood in them, all that time I left behind trying to press forward.
It started like that. Before you knew it, I was volunteering at VBS and getting more involved with Sunday School. The more time I spent around kids, the more of my childhood I was getting back. I know I can't get it all back, but the three or so hours I put in during VBS were always the best times of the year. I could let all of my grown-up worries evaporate and celebrate what a wonderful and awesome God we had that was letting me do all this. Before, when people told me I acted like a child I put on a straight face and stiffened up, trying to act more like an adult. Now, all I do is laugh and invite them to join in. Everyone has a little bit of their childhood left in them, and all I want to do is let that piece out and make this world a better place. In all of the worrying about gas prices, hurricanes, and stocks it sure feels good to run around and play tag for an hour or two, don'tcha think?
Mr. Nathan, you taught me to be a more humble and open minded person. You always felt I had promise and I'll be damned if I don't let you see that side of me. It hurts not having you around anymore, but I'm sure you love the collaborations with Jesus. Just make sure I get the first cut, OK?