Changing “I can’t” to “I can”

8 Feb

I don’t like the words “I can’t.” I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I’m not old enough, I’m not smart enough, it’s too hard, I’m dumb. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

Those words haunt me. I am what my mother might call a “glass-half-empty” kind of person. As a rule, I tend to see the negatives before the positives. This is something that I am not very fond of about myself and I have made it my mission over the last four years or so to eradicate “I can’t” statements from my life. That math problem set? I can finish that. Those last two minutes on the treadmill? I can do those too. That argument I had with my sister over something silly? I can be the first person to admit I’m wrong.

Choosing to say “I can” isn’t easy. It’s more than just saying the words, it’s about changing your attitude. At President’s Prep one of my favorite students lives a life full of “I can’t”s. Not that I really blame him. His life is full of obstacles that I can’t even fathom. The first day that I met him he informed me that he was “stupid.” I loathe that word. I could see that he really meant it, he really believed that he was stupid. And why wouldn’t he? It was all that he had ever heard; from his mom, his stepfather, his friends, his teachers. He was struggling through his freshman year of high school with the reading comprehension of a 5th or 6th grader. As we worked through a reading assignment he told me that he couldn’t do this, even as he gave me several correct answers in a row. I told him that he COULD do this, that he was doing it right now. He continued to insist that he couldn’t and eventually stopped answering questions at all.

This continued for weeks. He resisted, I persisted. I banned the words “dumb” and “stupid” from our time together. Kate and the other tutors and I kept at him. It was tough, it was frustrating, it was disheartening.

Until he resisted a little less one day. And the next. And then he volunteered to read in one of his support classes. And got 100% on two vocabulary tests in a row. I still held my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop, until one day when I was quizzing him on words for an upcoming vocabulary test. I wanted to run through the words one more time, but he looked at me and said, “Alex, enough. I can do this.”

That’s when I knew that he was going to be ok. And so was I. He reminded me to stick to my “I can” promise. It reaffirmed that hard work, persistence, and compassion will always get you farther in life (and volunteer work) than doubt. And that was a lesson that I needed to be reminded of.


2 Responses to “Changing “I can’t” to “I can””

  1. Meg February 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Alex I absolutely love this post. I know the kid you are referring to and I am so glad that he is improving. This is because of his hard work and the great work of the volunteers!

  2. Dylan Frendt February 14, 2012 at 9:12 pm #


    I’m sitting here eating some hot soup and literally beaming at this post. You make such a difference in the lives of children and in the lives of all of the volunteers. You always put a smile on my face, always bring a fiery energy into the service of others, and are always there to lend a helping hand. Thank you so much for inspiring me and everybody else on the AmeriCorps/Volunteer Service Team. You rock, and I look up to you so much more than you realize. 🙂 You really are a role model.

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