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Life Stories

The Power of Believing in Myself

As an educator, I transformed a chaotic classroom, as a son, I learned to love my mother, and as an individual, I learned to believe in myself. I’m Lance Powell from Atlanta.

Lance Powell in Decatur, Georgia. Photo by Anthony Wallen.

Living Buddhism: At your middle school, you’re known for teaching classes in which students dramatically improve their writing, reading and speaking. As the young men’s leader for South Zone, an area spanning Georgia, South Carolina and southeastern Tennessee, you travel long distances to personally encourage the young men. What drives you?

Lance Powell: Many youth in South Zone are struggling to believe in themselves. One reason I bring such passion to my classroom and to my leadership is that I understand that struggle very well.

Bullied as much at home as at school, I didn’t have a happy childhood. I have a speech impediment and, what’s more, I’m gay—something that, in my mother’s mind, disqualified me from salvation. My mother was not a lovey-dovey person. She raised me on her own, and whole years passed by in which I did not hear the words “I love you.” The words I heard most often were “You’re worthless.”

Tell us about your encounter with Buddhism.

Lance: It was the summer of 2011, one month after receiving my undergraduate degree. I’d pursued academics rigorously, driven by the hope that academic success would somehow make me feel worthy. But upon graduating, I became depressed. I was underemployed and spent the bulk of my time in bed on the internet, where I got to talking with an SGI member. It was, she said, the most life-affirming philosophy she’d ever encountered—a practice that had the power to help anyone achieve their dreams, no matter who they were.

Impressed by her enthusiasm, I decided to give it a go. Two weeks later, I received a message from my aunt, whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time. She wanted to know how I was doing—she and other family members had been trying to reach me for years but had been unable. Through her, I was connected with other family members whom I hadn’t ever spoken to—my paternal grandparents among them. Not only did the rest of my family not hate me—as my mother had hinted—they cared about me.

A week later, I walked up the steps of the Atlanta Buddhist Center. Here goes nothing, I thought, sure I’d be the only Black guy in the room. But as it happened, the meeting looked very much like the rest of Atlanta, and it overflowed with warmth.

You went on to accept district leadership, didn’t you?

Lance: That’s true. I received the Gohonzon the winter of 2012 and accepted district leadership in the spring of 2013. With this, the pace of my life picked up. Speaking with my father’s side of the family, I realized that I did have a dream, a dream that had been pursued by his family for four generations: teaching. Chanting about where I wanted my life to go, I started moving in that direction and applied to Mercer University in 2013 to pursue a master’s in education. But obstacles immediately hit.

What did you encounter?

Lance: I ran up against my worst tendencies to shrink away from hard work and coast on the efforts of others. Early on in my Buddhist practice, I experienced the unforgettable sensation of having these tendencies exposed, of a mask being ripped right off of my face.

My practice was flaky at best, and my approach to faith reflected my approach to life. In my final exam for my master’s, I was asked to teach several classes together with an assigned teacher. I didn’t prepare much for the first of these classes, tried to wing it and botched it horribly. After, I talked nervously while my assigned teacher gathered her papers. She cut me off with a hard look. “I don’t think you have what it takes,” she said, and left.

That night, I started chanting serious, abundant daimoku to face my faults head-on and transform my destiny.

Sounds like a wake-up call.

Lance: It was. I went on to graduate, and then the real struggle began—I had to find myself a job.

In 2016, I went to the DeKalb County Job Fair. The fair opened at 7 a.m., so I was up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready, chant and catch the bus. I thought I’d be among a handful of early birds, but there was already a crowd of would-be teachers gathered.

Throughout the day, like fireworks, cries of victory were loosed at random all around: teachers getting hired on the spot. I went from booth to booth but left each one without any guarantees. It was hot. Toward the end, I stood sweating on the sidelines, watching people wander around as though at a loss while around them the booths were broken down and packed away.

Desperate, I closed my eyes and started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo under my breath. I felt myself calm down and my determination flare up from within. I opened my eyes and looked around. Right in front me, I realized, was a booth I hadn’t yet visited.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo …

I walked right up to the man there, my hand outstretched.

“Sir, my name is Lance Powell. I know I am the person for this job and would like to know more about your school.”

My heart was hammering. I’d never before promoted myself as “the person for the job.” As it happened, this man was the school principal. He seemed impressed by my enthusiasm, and we spoke at length but parted ways with no guarantees. I went home and continued chanting. Two weeks later, I got a call. It was the principal. He gave me the job.

What was your first year of teaching like?

Lance: Oh, horrible. I had one class, all boys in the seventh grade. They had no respect, throwing paper wads behind my back, calling one another names, calling me names. Within my first month, they were scheduling fights in my classroom, earning it the name “Seventh Grade Fight Club.” The other teachers started placing bets on how long I’d last. Fortunately, my district and young men’s leaders were rock solid; were it not for the regular encouragement I received from them, I’d have buckled for sure.

How so?

Lance: Well, for instance, at the end of one particularly difficult day, in which my seventh period boys shattered the classroom window, I just let loose to my young men’s leader about how I clearly didn’t have what it took to be a teacher.

He listened for a while and then slowed me down, reminding me that I practice the foremost philosophy in the world, with the foremost mentor.

Every day, I came home thinking, Shouldn’t I just find work somewhere, anywhere, else? But every evening, I’d get in front of the Gohonzon and chant—just to feel any hope at all. And chanting, I’d feel this glimmer of hope rise up in my life, and with it a willful kind of stubbornness.

I won’t leave, not yet; maybe I can change this school, maybe I have the power to do that.

Trying as it was, that experience made me chant and study, which impacted other areas of my life. For instance, it was bringing me and my mother closer.

In what way?

Lance: When I began my practice, I hated my mother. Of course, Ikeda Sensei talks all the time about the importance of appreciating one’s parents, which, I’m sorry to say, made me roll my eyes. But facing everything I was going through, facing my own tendency to shrink from responsibility, I began to feel that my relationship with my mother was not one I needed or wanted to run away from. She was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I began to call her every week, then multiple times a week, telling her about everything that was going on in my life and classroom. Mostly she’d listen, chiming in with a “Mm-hmm!,” “Good Lord!” or “Not in my day, never!

All told, I thought, getting off the phone one day, she’s still my mother.

Then, toward the end of the summer of my first year of teaching, I got a call from her. She was out of breath; she’d fallen in the bathroom and broken her leg. The person I was when I began my Buddhist practice would have frozen in fear; I would have run from that situation. Instead, I felt immediately: I need to go to her. I took the first flight to North Carolina.

That summer was supposed to be the one I faded into never returning to the classroom. When I did return, the other teachers were shocked. They’d be shocked again that year when my class placed in one of the highest rates of improvement, and they’d be shocked yet again when the same thing happened the next year. Flying home to care for my mother was a turning point for me, a clear refutation of my tendency to run from difficult opportunities to grow. I brought this back with me to the classroom and to my leadership.

What did that turning point look like in your leadership?

Lance: Many of the young men in South Zone are fighting for their happiness in the midst of conflicts at home, in their neighborhoods, in their schools. There are things I never would’ve understood about the young men throughout this zone had I not gotten my butt in a car with the young men’s and men’s leaders and gone with them to offer encouragement face-to-face.

In 2021, during the pandemic, my mother called. She had stage 4 breast cancer, she told me. Though a nurse by trade, she didn’t want anything to do with the medical establishment. Again, I went to her immediately to spend a month together. Near the end, she couldn’t talk much.

I think she knew that she wouldn’t live much longer. Though she could hardly speak, she struggled up onto her elbows in bed to get her face even with mine. “Lance,” she said. That’s all. She was beaming.

All told, she’s still my mother. A few days later, she peacefully passed away.

Recently, I went to visit a struggling young man. Together, we got in front of the Gohonzon and began chanting vigorous daimoku. He opened up about what he’d been through: his grandfather had passed away before his eyes. The reason he was so down when we got there was, I feel, because he didn’t think that anyone could understand what he felt. I told him that my mother had passed away before my eyes but that through Buddhism I’d been able to create the deepest value from that experience.

What would you like to convey to young men who are struggling to believe in themselves?

Lance: There’s so much I’ve been through—I was mugged the night before my final exam at Mercer but passed the exam. I was pulled from the school program due to a mental health breakdown but reentered and passed the program. So many times, I could have thrown in the towel. But because of this practice, I didn’t. I’d just say, stick with your district, stick with the Gohonzon, stick with Sensei and the Gosho. This spirit of endurance is what has allowed me to clearly perceive the power of my own life, which is the power to help others to perceive the same.

Lance will fellow members in Columbus, Georgia, April 2023.

From the June 2023 Living Buddhism

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