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Updated: Nov 9, 2019

Joe Martin in man by choice t-shirt

The most important lesson I ever learned about how to be a man I actually learned from a woman. I now consider it the #1 rule for being a manalways accept responsibility. For a moment, let’s forget the lesson we learned from Adam and Eve about placing blame. Because as a poor child growing up in the inner-city ghettos of Miami, I didn’t know who Adam and Eve were. And to be honest, I didn’t care.

All I knew is when I was bussed to Thomas Jefferson Junior High School at age 12 and I met white children for the first time, I realized something I had never known before: I was poor. Not only was I poor, it seemed I was poorer than every other child at my school, including the kids who were black, white, brown, yellow, and every other color of the ethnic rainbow. It traumatized me.

The Question That Changed Everything

Until that time, I didn’t know I was poor because I had grown up around poor people. I didn’t have anything to compare my “nothing” to until I arrived at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. I remember the long ride back home and getting off the school bus, starting to cry as I walked through the screen door into our less than 500-square-foot apartment. My mother asked me:

“Baby, what’s wrong with you? Did you get into a fight?”

I said, “No Mama; why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?” she asked.

“Why didn’t you tell me were poor?”

Surprisingly, she said, “I thought you knew.”

Then I asked a question that would change my life forever. “Mama, why are we so poor?”

The Answer That Floored Me

Her answer floored me. It taught me how to be a man and changed the trajectory of my life.

“Baby, I don’t really know, but maybe it’s something I did or didn’t do or something I should’ve done differently. But just because I’ve accepted being poor doesn’t mean you have to.”

Why did her accepting responsibility make such an impact on my life? Because she really didn’t have to. My mother easily and justifiably could have said any of the following:

“I was only 16 years old when I gave birth to you, and I didn’t know what to do or how to provide for you; I was just a child myself.”

“Your father walked out on you when you were only 2 years old, and I didn’t know what else to do.”

“My mother died when I was only 12 years old, so I wasn’t taught how to take care of a family on my own.”

“I had to drop out of high school to have you, so I couldn’t get a better paying job.”

“We’re young and we’re black and we live in the hood; it’s just too hard for black people to succeed.”

The Success Made Possible By The Answer

And I would have accepted any of these reasons as justification for our financial situation. But just eight years later, when I graduated from college at the top of my class, I reminded her of my first day at Thomas Jefferson.

“Joseph,” she said. “That day you came home from school with tears in your eyes and asked me that question, it almost crushed me. Because I didn’t know what to do or what to say to comfort you. So, I silently prayed to God, and asked Him what should I do? And a voice spoke to my heart and said, ‘Accept responsibility, Rose, and don’t blame anyone.’ So, I did, but I didn’t know why.”

Then I said, “Mama, I think I know why. Because if you didn’t accept responsibility and would have given me even one excuse, I would have used that same excuse for the rest of my life, and I never even would have finished high school, let alone graduate from college.”

Although I was the first in my family to finish high school and graduate from college, dozens in my family have followed in my footsteps and earned college degrees. But what most of them don’t know is that it wouldn’t have been possible if a woman didn’t teach me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned about being a man: always accept responsibility.

If you'd like to find out 200 more lessons I learned about being a man, then download a copy of my book, "Are You the Man?: 201 Lessons I Wish My Dad Had Taught Me."

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