When Alton Carter was a child, surviving to adulthood was by no means a given. Surrounded by addiction, poverty, abuse and neglect, rising to be nationally-recognized success as an adult was beyond a long shot.
But, Carter did overcome those barriers, and now spends his days speaking to schools, prisons, businesses and civic clubs about how failure can be crafted into success.
Carter, national speaker and author of the books “The Boy Who Carried Bricks” and “Aging Out,” spoke to about 400 students last Friday at Emerson Middle School in Enid, Okla., a district where the vast majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and rates or opiate abuse, addiction, poverty and childhood hunger significantly exceed national averages.
The students were uncharacteristically attentive as Carter related lessons he learned while growing up in nearby Payne County in 17 foster homes, three youth shelters and a boys’ ranch.
“My mom cared more about prescription drugs than she did about caring for her children,” Carter told the students.
He told of repeated trips to the doctor for ailments brought on by living in squalid conditions at home, including he and his siblings having to have cockroaches removed from their ear canals.
Conditions at home caused Carter to lash out and fall into disciplinary problems at school.
“I’d go to school angry,” he said. “I was mad. I’d bring that pain and suffering and I’d give it to people, like you, who didn’t deserve it.”
His life in state custody started one day when he and his siblings were picked up by a case worker while they were walking home from school. That first night in a youth shelter was a turning point for Carter.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the first time I’m going to sleep in a bed by myself,'” Carter said, “and the next day I remember thinking, ‘This is the first day I’m going to eat three meals.'”
When his mother lost custody of him and his siblings, Carter said he met another turning point.
Seeing his mother be dragged screaming and crying from the court room, he vowed, “Never in a million years will a judge tell me I’m not fit to be a father.”
After being taken from his mother’s custody, there were more troubles ahead for Carter. He was put in the care of an alcoholic uncle who abused him, forced him to drink whiskey and made him panhandle for money to buy more alcohol.
Carter credited a teacher with helping him survive that period, and showing him “we have a choice, and we get to decide how we treat people.”
“Miss Thompson loved me enough that she gave me confidence,” Carter said.
That confidence enabled Carter to call the police after his uncle, in a drunken rage, threw him down a flight of stairs, breaking his wrist.
When his family turned against him for reporting the abuse, he again tapped into his confidence. He ran away from home, slept overnight in a park, then walked to and turned himself in at Child Protective Services.
He faced more obstacles after being sent to a boys’ ranch, run by an abusive and racist man. Carter said he started taking that abuse out on others, mocking and ridiculing younger children “because I wanted them to feel my pain.”
Through that experience, he said he learned the importance of lifting up, rather than denigrating those around us.
“We need to spend every bit of our energy saying positive things about people,” Carter said, “and when we do that, it says a lot about us.”
Carter managed to overcome his obstacles to become the first member of his family to graduate from high school.
He went to college on a football scholarship, but dropped out when the old self-doubt and anger resurfaced. He spent four years homeless on the streets of Stillwater.
Carter said there was one desire that helped him climb back out of homelessness, to attend college and become a police officer.
“My motivation to do something different was to not be like my family,” he said.
Carter broke that mold when he and his wife, Kristin, had their two sons, Kelton and Colin.
“I was the first male in my family to see their kids be born, to change their diapers, to take them to school, to do all that stuff,” Carter said to an eruption of applause from the Emerson students.
“Every other male in my family ran out on their responsibility,” he said. “I was going to be different.”
Carter urged students to not allow circumstances out of their control to dictate their course in life, and urged them to look to their teachers for support and guidance.
“Teachers saved my life,” Carter said. “Every foster home I was in, and in every youth shelter, there was a teacher there who meant my life to me.”
Carter concluded by telling students survival in tough circumstances is a choice.
“Get in line to stand up for those who are neglected or abused,” Carter urged the students, and “figure out what you can do to make a positive change in your school.”