Growing up the son of Jamaican immigrants on the tough streets of the South Bronx, Colin Powell had no inkling he would one day become the secretary of state or chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
In fact, like most teenagers, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, Powell told the Yorktown High School student body during an informal and wide-ranging speech last Thursday.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when I was your age,” said Powell, who spoke during the school’s Respect for Others, Community and Self program. “I didn’t have the slightest clue.”
At the City College of New York, Powell studied geology, even though he “didn’t have the slightest interest in rocks.” But Powell found his calling in life when he joined the ROTC, and went on to have one of the most distinguished military careers in the later half of the 20th century.
Powell told the students that it was normal for them not to be set on a specific career path, but urged them to work hard at achieving their goals and believe in themselves.
“Take maximum advantage of the path you’re on and take maximum advantage of the opportunities this high school affords you,” Powell said.
One of the most important lessons Powell said he ascertained during his 35-year military career was the capacity to learn from his failures.
“Things are going to go wrong during your life,” he said. “You have to have the ability to handle failure and disappointment.”
AFTER SPEAKING FOR several minutes, Powell spent most of the hour answering students’ questions. Many of the queries centered on the government’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.
If America had sent in more troops during the initial invasion and exerted greater political pressure, “we might have been able to stop the insurgency before it started,” said Powell. He spoke the day after more than 100 Iraqis died in widespread sectarian violence following the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine.
Powell emphatically defended the decision to go to war, citing the “terrible” regime of Saddam Hussein and the desire to “give the Iraqi people the peace and freedom they deserve.”
In one of his most forceful remarks of the day, Powell said that the military should not begin an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but expressed hopes that the number of soldiers in the country could be reduced by the end of the year.
The United States armed forces “should stick with [the Iraqis] until they put in place a sufficiently strong military and police force to deal with the insurgency,” he said.
Students asked Powell an array of other politically-minded questions, including his stance on sending troops to Darfur and his position on immigration.
Powell ruled out a run for the presidency in 2008, to the disappointment of many in the audience who will be eligible to vote for the first time. “I’m still the soldier I was 50-odd years ago,” he said. “I have no passion for political office.”
ONE OF THE LARGEST rounds of applause for Powell came when he stated that he was not a Yankees fan, detailing how he was a die-hard New York Giants supporter before the team moved to California, “breaking” his heart. He also asked one student if she would like to drive his silver Corvette.
Following Powell’s speech, students broke into small discussion groups to talk about how they can foster a more inclusive school community.
School officials praised Powell for both his inspirational speech and approachable manner.
“The reason we invited him is we felt that his whole career and message reinforces everything we’re trying to teach our students about the idea of respecting yourself and helping others,” said Mike Palermo, a Yorktown social studies teacher.
Fanuel Gebremedhim, who attends Wakefield High School, said Powell serves as an inspiration to all students who are either immigrants or first generation Americans.
“I see myself in his shoes,” said Gebremedhim, who was born in Ethiopia. “It was great to see him in person. He wasn’t pretentious when I talked to him.”