I am great.

Let me tell you about the scared little boy who dared to write those words.

I had a somewhat traumatic childhood, but the year I turned eight, 1970, was especially memorable. A Tsunami of misfortune hit my family. My father lost his job and was out of work for more than a year. My mother began to show the first signs of severe depression. We moved from beautiful Arcadia, California to an inner-city Salt Lake City neighborhood into a dilapidated three bedroom, rat-infested home. (The house had been my grandmother’s and was left abandoned after her death a few years earlier.) With eight children, my parents struggled to make ends meet. Most days we ate gruel for breakfast–a thin cooked cereal made by boiling oatmeal in water. In addition, my Tourette’s syndrome first manifested that year and I was ticking like crazy. And I wet the bed every night, made worse since I shared the bed with my brother. I was constantly anxious and afraid.

The area in Utah we had moved to was a poor, violent, inner-city neighborhood. My first week at school I learned bad words I had never heard before and was constantly teased for how I dressed. I was beaten up three times that year and bullied more times than I can remember. My parents seemed somewhat oblivious to our suffering. They had their own problems. Struggling to pay bills, my father worked construction until dark each night and my mother, who was now suffering from severe depression, rarely left her bedroom. We children were pretty much on our own in a new place where everyone just seemed mean.

Once, while walking home, I came upon a man who was illegally burning garbage. As I watched him throwing more fuel on the fire, he noticed me. He must have been afraid that I might tell someone because he shouted at me, accusing me of starting the fire and, as he started toward me, told me he was taking me to the police to put me in jail. I ran away as fast as I could.

During this difficult time of life, I had a soul-crushing fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Covey. I’ll never forget two weeks before Christmas when she ridiculed those of us who still believed in Santa with the words, “Your parents lied to you. There is no Santa.”

Crushed, I went home and asked my mother if she had lied. My mother frowned. She said, “Santa is the spirit of giving.”

“But he has reindeer and brings Christmas presents down the chimney, right?”

She shook her head. “No. There is no Santa Claus.”

My heart sunk at the realization that my mean old teacher was right. Good was supposed to be right, not evil. After a moment I looked back up at my mother and asked, “Did you lie about Jesus too?”

That following spring, two days after being beaten up by an older boy and having my one treasure, a mickey mouse watch, stolen during the fight, I was turning in an assignment at school when, for reasons I can hardly fathom, I wrote next to my name:

Ricky Evans the Great

I don’t know why I did it. I knew I wasn’t great. I wasn’t even adequate. Everything around me testified to that. I was a cypher–a boy without worth. A little boy no one was willing to defend. A boy with no friends. But something about writing those two words next to my name made me feel good, if only for just a few seconds.

The next day we received our papers back. Mrs. Covey had erased the two extraneous words and written three of her own.

Shame on you.

Then she stood at the front of the class and lectured us on the sin of pride, a lecture meant to humiliate and further shame me–the boy who would be great.

That was more than forty years ago. I never had the chance to see Mrs. Covey again. Nor will I ever. She was old back then, I’m sure she’s long dead and buried. But if I saw her today I would look her in the eye and say, for that innocent little boy, “You were wrong, woman. That helpless little boy was fighting hell every day and, in spite of people like you, he not only survived, he went on to reach millions of people with his words. Ricky Evans was great. And you were just mean.”

There will always be Mrs. Covey’s in this world, erasers in hand, eager to erase the greatness from our lives. Don’t let them. Don’t listen to them. Be great. And never be afraid to declare it. Don’t wait for someone else to validate who you are, or you’ll be waiting a long, long time. The greatest victories are seldom public and successful people only remind failures of their failures. The crabs in the pot will always try to pull the other crabs down.