On Wednesday, January 8, 2020, Hillgrove High School hosted motivational-speaker Kevin Atlas in an assembly for the school’s Junior class. For more than two hours, Atlas spoke with students and gave them much to think about.
Despite many difficult circumstances in his life, Atlas has persevered and become what he is today. He told the crowd that he was literally born on Friday the 13th, and reminded them of this several times through his talk. He told of how his father died of cancer when he was young, and how he couldn’t read until third grade. Even after learning to read, he wasn’t a good student. But most noticeably of all, he was born without a left arm from the elbow down. With all of these life challenges bearing down on him, however, he said, “The day I became happy, was the day I stopped focusing on myself.”
Atlas is freakishly tall—6’11” to be exact—and wears a size 17 shoe. His height made him an obvious choice for the basketball team, but his middle school coach told him that “basketball was a sport for two-armed players” and cut him from the team. This forced Atlas to look elsewhere for play and he found it on an AAU basketball team where he excelled, and learned to use his partial left arm, what he calls his “nub,” as an advantage on the court. “What you hate about yourself is a weapon,” he said. “What makes you appear weak is your greatest strength. You’ve got to learn to accept your nub in life.”
Atlas described what happened next to a rapt audience of students, who were hanging on his every word. He took a backpack full of bricks and begin working out his left arm, adding bricks and reps when it got easy. “Do you know it takes 21 days to make a new habit,” he said. “After 21 days I was lifting bricks without even realizing it. It became a part of who I was.”
But his message wasn’t the typical “work hard, focus on the goal, and you’ll succeed” platitude that the students were expecting. Walking around the room and picking out three random students, Atlas struck a mini-conversation and complimented each student and gave them a hug. He told the audience that making Hillgrove a better place was really as simple as that. “Everyone wants to be appreciated and loved,” he said, “but how many of us are showing appreciation and love to others? The ripple effect of complimenting and appreciating three people a day will go a long way. It’s contagious.”
He went on to challenge the football players to begin attending concerts by the school band. “How many football games does the band attend?” he asked. “All of them,” was the reply. “And how many of their concerts has the football team attended?” he asked. The silence was obvious and everyone knew the answer, but the point was made clear. “Leaders don’t put themselves first. You need to support all the activities and kids at your school,” he said. “Show support to those around you. If not you, then who? It starts with you,” he said to a silent auditorium that was beginning to get the point. “Thank you very much,” Atlas said and concluded his talk to a standing ovation.
After the assembly, Atlas met with 25 or so student leaders in the Media Center. His message to this group was one of helping them think through how to implement a culture of encouragement and support at Hillgrove. “Being a leader,” he said, “is the best class that nearly no one offers. It’s not about how much you win [academically or athletically or otherwise], it’s about the environment you create.”
Repeating his earlier message to the student leaders, he reminded them that “it’s got to be personal. A personal invitation and a smile is far more effective than a poster and an announcement over the loudspeaker.” Winding down his time with them he said, “I didn’t choose the things that happened to me in my life, just as you didn’t choose things that have happened to you. But a big part of life is learning how to react to things that are outside your control.”
Principal Angela Stewart thanked Atlas for his time and his message and gave the student leaders a charge before dismissing them to the rest of their day. “This is your school,” she said. “Any changes you want to see here need to begin with you.” And with that, the students were tasked with making Hillgrove the place they want it to be.
Kevin Atlas hosts the Believe in You video series and the #believeinyouchallenge on Twitter. He will be visiting Sprayberry HS on Thursday, December 9, and Walton on Friday, December 10. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear him speak if you have it.