How One Man Went from Poverty and Prison to Purpose-Driven

A gripping memoir inspires hope and optimism.

Posted Apr 14, 2020

"Mine is a tale of poverty, violence, and imprisonment that eventually ends in redemption and a life worth living. It is a story of a man who went from having no hope, to becoming an ambassador of it for countless others—from individuals who fought through life just like me, to some of the richest and most powerful people in the world."

Andre Norman grew up in the hood of Boston. As a young boy, he witnessed countless times his mother being hit and abused by his father, who left them without word or explanation when Andre was in second grade. When Andre's mother re-married shortly thereafter, her new husband beat her as well. It was a vicious cycle of abuse, one that taught young Andre that it was okay to hit people, that he was going to have to protect himself, and that he didn't have to explain himself to others. 

With the help of his elementary band teacher, Mrs. Ellis, Andre began playing trumpet in school. Unlike the other teachers, Mrs. Ellis saw potential in Andre. She defended him against the other teachers, who only saw poverty and crime in Andre. Because of her investment, Andre prized her. He also began to prize the trumpet, and it became an important aspect of his identity, and thus his future. He played his trumpet a lot.

However, when he transferred to junior high a few years later, he was pressured by some of his criminal friends to "throw the trumpet away" or Andre couldn't be their friend. Wanting to be accepted, Andre threw his trumpet into a garbage dumpster. With the trumpet gone, he no longer had a sense of purpose or identity related to school. His only purpose moving forward was to be "cool" and fit in with his friends, which meant increasingly criminal behaviors. 

From Andre's perspective, looking back, he believes that quitting the trumpet at age 14 was a crucial decision, a turning point for him. Had he decided to maintain his trumpet and abandon those friends, rather than vise versa, he believes his future would have been fundamentally different. That trumpet was his purpose and hope for a better future. By throwing away his trumpet, there was an immediate shift in his identity. He now fully embraced the criminal culture all around him and let go of the idea that his future would be any different than what he was accustomed to. He let go of the hope that Mrs. Ellis had given him. 

As Andre explains, "Bad people don't go to prison. Quitters do." Andre quit the trumpet, then over time, he got better and better at quitting on everything in his life. Confidence is built by completing tasks and goals. By continuously quitting pre-mature, one's confidence and hope for a better future can be eroded. 

"Bad People Don't Go to Prison, Quitters Do."

"When your doctor prescribes you an antibiotic to be taken for 30 days, do you stop at day 20? True, you don't feel sick anymore with only 10 days left. Why not stop there? If you're going to fix your situation, you have to be in this for the duration. You can take no shorts if you hope to find resolution. You will see that my journey not only took resiliency, but the willingness to accept help from others."

By age 18, Andre was in prison for having robbed a drug dealer. Once in prison, he fully embraced the rough culture, seeking to become atop the internal hierarchy. By six years into prison, he was in solitary confinement for attempted murder. One day, when angry and considering to kill a few of the men in his solitary confinement unity, Andre had what he considered to be a spiritual experience. It dawned on him that if he were to go through with killing these men, that he'd forever be locked up. Yes, he'd be the "top guy" in the prison hierarchy, but for what? What good would it do him or anyone else for him to be that guy?

Andre was having an identity shift, which research has found incarceration can do. Andre began to question his goals and purpose. Rather than being bitter and angry about his past, Andre began to consider his future. Research shows that spiritual experiences can increase the sense of control one has over their life. That's what Andre was feeling for the first time since his trumpet. He decided to set a new goal, which was to attend the only college he'd ever heard of, Harvard. 

It took eight additional years to get out of prison. But with his new goal and purpose, Andre had a new identity. He sought professional help from counselors and mentors. He learned how to read and write. Once he got out, it took an additional decade. But Andre became a professional public speaker and even got a fellowship at Harvard. 

Conclusion: The Need for Hope

I learned about Andre's story by reading his memoir, Ambassador of Hope: Turning Poverty and Prison Into a Purpose-Driven Life. I found the book incredibly meaningful, especially in light of research on hope theory, which shows that in order to have hope:

  • You must have a goal.
  • You must believe there is a path to your goal.
  • You must believe you can do something about it ("high-hope" people believe their actions matter, and that they can make things happen).

In order for hope to exist, you must have a future in mind. You must believe that things can change and that your actions matter. Some have argued that you cannot have “motivation” without “hope.” Why would you be motivated if you weren’t hopeful? It doesn't seem you would be.

Hope is incredibly important. It is also something that can be lost, both in yourself and those you love. As for myself, I've recently had family issues with someone close to me who's been struggling heavily with addictions. It can be difficult to maintain hope when someone has quit on themselves and everyone else so many times. 

Reading Andre's story gave me hope. Knowing that someone like Andre can make such a turn-around gave me hope that my loved one can do likewise. Although nothing has immediately been solved, I'm now more motivated to try and to keep supporting and encouraging. And that has made a big difference.

References

Fiori, K. L., Hays, J. C., & Meador, K. G. (2004). Spiritual turning points and perceived control over the life course. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 59(4), 391-420.

McCuish, E., Lussier, P., & Corrado, R. (2018). Incarceration as a turning point? The impact of custody experiences and identity change on community reentry. Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, 4(4), 427-448.

Sitzmann, T., & Yeo, G. (2013). A meta‐analytic investigation of the within‐person self‐efficacy domain: Is self‐efficacy a product of past performance or a driver of future performance?. Personnel Psychology, 66(3), 531-568.

Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. Simon and Schuster.

Snyder, C. R., LaPointe, A. B., Jeffrey Crowson, J., & Early, S. (1998). Preferences of high-and low-hope people for self-referential input. Cognition & Emotion, 12(6), 807-823.

Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2002). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family.