I have kept a file of all the rejection letters I’ve ever received. Two novels, dozens of short stories, even several poems all rejected by one agent, publisher or publication or another. In my emails, there are probably thousands of other examples of my ideas or proposals being turned down. Of course, there are also those instances where I never even received a reply. This says nothing of the slew of personal rejections that have amassed between my socially awkward high school years until I met and married my lovely wife.

We are told not to take rejection personally. But it clearly is – maybe just not in the way we typically think.  

When we offer some part of ourselves to someone else and they turn it down, they aren’t saying we aren’t good enough. They are saying “This isn’t good for me right now.” 

It isn’t personal to us, it’s personal to them. 

Our only option is to move on and offer what we have to someone else. Someone who might need or appreciate it, because what is meaningful to us has meaning to them.

Recently I wrote the piece below and submitted it to the Boston Globe. They rejected it  Disappointing but what are you going to do?  Instead, I shared it with a few people familiar with my hometown of Chelsea.  A smaller but more appreciative audience. Perhaps some of you will appreciate it too.  

If not, no worries.  I won’t take it personally. 

Two Little Boys from Chelsea

I grew up in Chelsea, but have spent all of my adult life living in and around New York City. It has become a running joke that whenever I meet someone from the Boston area and ask them where in Boston they’re originally from, they reply… Newton. When I say “I’m from Chelsea,” a bewildered look comes over their face, followed by, “How did you get out?”

I can appreciate where they’re coming from. After all, despite Chelsea being the birthplace of Horatio Alger, most associated with the phrase “rags to riches”,  journeys like mine have been the exception not the rule. Still I take offense to those comments and looks that cast dispersion on the place that I still call my hometown.

People presume that I wanted to “escape” or that I must have worked extraordinarily hard to overcome the circumstances of my childhood. Neither are particularly true. I loved growing up in Chelsea, despite my hardships, and if hard work alone would have been the ticket out, then you would know me as the boy who succeeded Williams, Yaz and Rice in left field for the Sox. After all, that is what I worked hardest to do.

The reactions I get are a reflection of the misguided views we have when it comes to social mobility. Too often, we look at places, like Chelsea, as a sum of its deficiencies, overlooking its assets. Our blindness prevents us from supporting them.

In my own case, my mother was a bartender who raised three children on her own. We were poor, alcoholism was all around us, as was the verbal and domestic abuse that often followed nights of drinking.  

My mother did her best to protect us from the worst of it and we had many moments of joy, often backed by the music of Neil Diamond. I played little league at no cost, thanks to the sponsorship by a local bar. I had free breakfast every day at school and lunch during the summer. Never knowing that these were government programs. We shopped at the Salvation Army which might have well been Old Navy for all I knew.  I would go with my mother to the welfare office where she would receive her benefits, shop using food stamps – the stigma of both foreign to me at the time.  As she worked nights, there was a patchwork group of neighbors and friends who would look after us. We were rich in social capital. My older brother and sister helped keep me out of trouble.

When my mother would empty the purple Crown Royal bag full of coins representing that evening’s tips, it was like a pirate sharing her loot. When I would sit on the booster seat at Ralph’s barber shop and be rewarded with a lollipop for sitting still, it was as if I were a prince on his throne. The smell of talcum powder still makes me feel important.  

As a young boy, my mother called me her “Little Professor.”  A nickname born from my glasses and propensity to read. She knew no one at the time who had ever gone to college, yet this seemingly innocuous nickname set the expectation that I would.  Eventually I did and after a winding career path, I now have actually become one.  Teaching, among other courses, The Economics of Social Mobility.

Later this week, I will return to Chelsea, virtually anyway, to do a story time and author talk at the Chelsea Public Library.  It is for my new children’s book, Three Little Engines.  It is a modern retelling of the classic Little Engine that Could  story.  

I read recently the tragic story of a child from Chelsea who had been struck by a car and killed in front of his home on Bellingham Street. Doors down from where I once lived.  A resident was quoted as saying, “it’s different here in Chelsea, we live in the streets.”  Reminding me of the many stick ball games I played on that same street, running dangerously between and around cars both parked and moving. A stark reminder of the role that chance also plays in our lives.

During the reading, I will think of that little boy and the boy I once was. I will go beyond the advice offered by the original engine that could – to believe in yourselves (I think I can, I think I can) and underscore how important it is to also believe in AND help each other. Lessons that I first learned in Chelsea.

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