Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It takes the community

A proverb from the Nigerian Igbo culture states, “It takes the community to raise a child.” Dan McCoy’s upbringing and rise to success in his chosen vocation as a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is evidence of that truism.

From his birth, Dan was surrounded by a community of love and support. His family, his church, his teachers and coaches, and his friends combined to form his community. He went on to attend college in Indiana, forming a similar community there. And now, he’s developed a community of support in New York.

Each of us learns to function within a community, although not all of them are as healthy or as nurturing as Dan’s. Some of us succeed despite our dysfunctional upbringing. Others never seem to take advantage of the opportunities they’re given, despite having a supportive community. Dan succeeded, in large part, because of his community. But his suvvess is also due to his tenacity—he refused to give up when hit with roadblocks; he kept showing up.

I’ve known Dan most of his life, and I count myself as a small part of his community. I babysat him when he was a child, and I was in college, taking classes from his dad. When he was in high school, I was among his church youth group sponsors and in the audience as he performed in musicals. I hired him for one of his first paying jobs—as editorial cartoonist at the Woodford County Journal. I’ve always been a fan.

And as I talked to various people for the story featured in this week’s Journal, I heard from more people in his community. Person after person said they had always seen his talents at writing and drawing, his ability to make people laugh, and a spark that drove Dan to face challenges head on.

As Dan’s mother, Ginny, recalls, “Dan was like every child in that he wasn't perfect, but he was a joy. He started out with two big brothers who read to him and talked to him constantly, so it was inevitable that he turned out to be highly verbal.”

Big brothers, Robert, 13 years older, and John, 10 years older, started reading to Dan literally from his birth. Childhood trips were usually visits to grandparents in Indiana or vacations in Michigan for fishing and communing with nature.

From a very young age, Dan began expressing himself through his art. It was how he would pass the time in church, on long car rides and at grown up meetings his parents attended.

“He drew comics all the time and developed full length illustrated stories,” says Ginny. “Often the people sitting behind us at church would want to see the comic after the service was over.”

Dan had a built-in audience who paid attention to his talents and achievements—a ready-made fan club cheering him on. He noted in his interview that Eureka is a good place to be raised—a warm, safe environment in which to learn, grow and thrive.

Eureka does do a good job of nurturing its young. We give them opportunities to shine on stage, on the athletic field, in the classroom and many more arenas. Many of our young people thrive in such an environment.

But we lose some kids, too. They fall through the cracks we inadvertently make when we don’t pay attention to a child’s talents and energies. The flip side of a strong, loving and encouraging community can be one that is cold, unforgiving and judging.

A person who grows up on these streets not only has to keep up their reputation, achieve their own goals, and overcome the obstacles to ‘make something of themselves,’ she must also live up to—or live down—her parents’ reputations, achieve her grandparents goals, and overcome obstacles created long before her birth.

We as a community need to work on this tendency to remember each mistake made and hold future generations accountable for them. We need to treat each new child as the uniquely made individual they are and give them chance after chance after chance to get it right…and love them anyway if they never do.

But I digress. We’re not talking here about when we fail to nurture a child into the world with all our love and encouragement journeying with him. We are here to celebrate yet another success! Dan has taken on the world—at least the world of comedy writing—and hit it big!

Still humble by nature, Dan expressed his lingering self-doubt as we ended the interview and were saying goodbye. He looked at me and said, “I hope (the people of Eureka) don’t think I’m stomping all over their values.” I don’t recall just what I said then, but I don’t think my words were very reassuring.

It was only later, as I was writing the story, that I thought of an appropriate answer to his concern. Those who know Dan well won’t think he’s left behind all he’s learned from having grown up here. Quite the opposite—he’s one among many ambassadors from Eureka Ill, spreading the spirit of community across the country and to other parts of the world.

This post first appeared  as  a Frankly Speaking column in the Woodford County Jorunal, January 26, 2012.

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