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The Woman Who Helped Him Achieve His Dreams

He’s an expert in positive thinking—and in this inspiring story, he honors the woman who helped him achieve his dreams.

Positive thinking expert Kevin Carroll and mentor Miz Lane

WHY NOT?! I must’ve said that a million times growing up. My grandparents raised me in a Philadelphia suburb, and whenever I couldn’t have something I wanted, I’d say, “Why not?!” even though I knew the reason: There was no money for extras. To me, Why not?! were words of complaint. It wasn’t until I met Miz Lane, the schoolteacher across the street, that I learned Why not?! are two of the most powerful words in the English language—the words of possibility.

No one expected me to amount to much. Not my parents, who abandoned my brothers and me. Not my grandparents, who loved us but were too overwhelmed with keeping us fed and clothed to think beyond the basics. Not my teachers, who saw a kid more interested in sports than books. And certainly not me. The only place I didn’t feel lost was the playground. I was small but fast and good at playing ball.

My grandparents’ neighborhood was one modest square block in an otherwise affluent area. Miz Lane and her family moved in when I was nine. Her son, Norman, and I were both little and scrawny. People said we looked like brothers. One day Norman and I got into a sandlot fight (the “you’re the new kid on the block” fight). After an unimpressive pugilistic moment (by our neighborhood standards), he asked, “Want to come over for peanut butter and jelly?” I sure did!

The first time I stepped inside the Lanes’ house, I could tell it was different. There was a warmth to it, a warmth I’d never known. And it came from Norman’s mom, Miz Lane. She sat us down and fixed us PB&J sandwiches. I depended on the free lunch program at school, so that was a real treat.

Miz Lane must have sensed that I was hungry for more than food. She asked about me. What was my favorite sport? Did I like to ride bikes? “You come over anytime,” Miz Lane said.

I did, almost every day. Norman got to be my best friend, and the Lanes’ house was my refuge, especially after my grandmother died when I was 10. That summer, Norman went away to camp. I still dropped by. Miz Lane would fix me a snack. I’d help her do the dishes. She’d comb my hair (I was sporting an Afro then). It took a while to work through the kinks, and that’s when we had our best talks. She’d have me read from Miss Manners or the encyclopedia. She never stopped teaching, not even during summer vacation.

One day that fall, I told her, “I’m thinking about trying out for the school play.” Not that there was any chance I’d make it. “Why not?!” Miz Lane said. “You’ll never know how good you are until you try.”

I was stunned. No one had ever had that kind of faith in me before. The next day, I tried out. To my surprise, I landed a role. I raced straight from school to Miz Lane’s. “They chose me!”

“Why not?!” she said. Her smile told me she knew I’d had it in me all along.

“Why not?!” Miz Lane asked when I mentioned learning the cello. “Why not?!” she demanded when she urged me to take college preparatory courses instead of vocational classes. “Get ready for college. Don’t let others define your possibilities.”

Norman and I went away to college. He graduated. I didn’t. Maybe it was because I missed Miz Lane’s daily wisdom. My girlfriend and I had a baby. I dropped out and moved back in with my grandfather. I got a job as a stock boy. At first, I was too embarrassed to visit Miz Lane. I felt I’d let her down.

I’d let myself down too. I wanted to do bigger things. But how? I had no money, no degree, a child to support. All of a sudden, I heard Miz Lane’s voice in my head, clear as a bell: Why not?!

I enlisted in the Air Force and went to tell Miz Lane. “I’m going to make something of myself,” I said. She hugged me. I’d never felt so proud.

The Air Force trained me to be a translator and stationed me in Germany. My secret dream was to play pro soccer. I was a good player, still fast, and I made the Air Force team.

The day before a big playoff game, I got word that Norman died in a car accident. I dedicated the game to my best friend. In the second half I jumped up to kick the ball. I landed funny. My knee buckled. Just like that, my dream was finished.

I went back to Philly for Norman’s funeral on crutches. Soon as Miz Lane saw me, she cried, “From now on, you’re my son.”

It was a responsibility I had to live up to. “I’d like to stay in sports, go back to school to study athletic training,” I said. Guess what Miz Lane said. “Why not?!”

At St. Joseph’s University I was the head athletic trainer by day and a student by night. At graduation, Miz Lane’s smile told me again: I knew you had it in you.

I got a job as the Philadelphia 76ers head athletic trainer. A few years later I landed an executive position with Nike. I thought I’d hit the jackpot. So I was taken aback when Miz Lane said, “I know there’s something bigger waiting for you.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Your story is an inspiration to everyone in this neighborhood,” she said. “You need to write a book to show other people how they can do what you did.”

“I can’t write a book!”

“Why not?!” Miz Lane said. And as usual, she was right.

In 2005 I wrote Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, a book about finding and following your dreams. Now I travel the world, talking to business groups and most importantly, to kids. If I could make something of myself, I tell them, they can too. It’s my way of following in the footsteps of the best teacher I ever had. Why not?!

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