Why I Didn’t Disappear

Sam Adams, mayor of Portland, Oregon

Sam Adams, mayor of Portland, Oregon

Published in When You Were Fifteen, by Sam Adams

At fifteen, life was difficult. There was a reason for that.

I lived with my Dad. He was a heavy drinker. Our home life in Eugene was infused with alcohol. It was an often violent place.

Once, a friend and I were on a binge. We got into a conversation about the meaning of life. We summarized life as, “booze and social mix.”

Things felt pretty bleak.

My Dad and I had a combustible relationship. I had to get out of his house. I feared for my safety. So I moved out. I lived largely on my own at fifteen.

Right away, I felt better. I joined the cross-country running team and worked on the school newspaper. I got a job at Mr. Steak. I realized that I had incredible opportunities, in spite of my circumstances.

There were two teachers at school who kept me going: Sue Addicott and Byron Dudley. They didn’t fawn all over me. I would not have liked that. They just showed a little extra interest.

They’d stop me in the hall once in a while and tease me. They teased me in a way that made the point clear – they expected me to do something with my life.

And because they showed that little extra interest in me, I realized that I should show a little extra interest in myself. It didn’t take much. I didn’t grow up in a home with a lot of positive feedback.

Sue got me into photography. It turned out that I was pretty good at it. Sue didn’t pull punches with her criticism, but she always encouraged me. She told me: pursue what you like until you find something else. I’d never experienced that kind of support. I surprised myself when I won a statewide photography award.

Byron was the faculty advisor for the student government. My knees shook when I had to speak in front of any group. But Byron said something like, “You’re stubborn but in a good way.”

Now I’m on the Portland City Council. I am still stubborn about getting things done. When I was fifteen, me serving on a city council would have seemed impossible. Byron nudged me to try out abilities I didn’t even know I had.

If it hadn’t been for Sue and Byron, I would have disappeared. My siblings weren’t so lucky. They didn’t have the help I did to get through. They’re all right now, but they struggled for a long time.

My life could have gone bad, but Sue and Byron made the difference. I knew they were there, keeping an eye out for me, and helping me to see beyond the problems in my family to all the possibilities in my life. I think every kid deserves at least one adult who believes in them like Sue and Byron believed in me.