Interview of Aaron Wheeler
Aaron Wheeler grew up in a Virginia town so small, you could assess population growth by whether there were two or three stoplights.
As an African American, Wheeler learned early about racism. “I was age six and with my friend David, who’s white. Other kids started calling me by the N word. At that time, I didn’t know what it meant.”
His parents explained what the word meant and gave him the conversation they would continue to have throughout his life. Wheeler explains, “My parents let me know that virulent racism exists and that as a black male, I had to be extremely cautious and careful to avoid becoming a victim of a hate crime.”
His parents preached caution and care especially when dealing with the police. For reasons that would later become apparent, Wheeler was taught to fear the men in blue.
Wheeler excelled in elementary school and he and his parents began to think of a scholarly path for him. He persevered in this belief even after a white schoolteacher told him he was too dumb to aspire to anything beyond menial work. According to Wheeler, there was some good news in the teacher’s racist remark. “She motivated my mother to become a teacher.” He continued to say, “Now, my mother is acknowledged for being one of the best teachers in the state and helps other educators to bring the best out of their children.”
Even though his family tried, they couldn’t protect him from all forms of hate. In sixth grade, Wheeler and a group of friends were accosted by a group of white male adults. They jumped out of trucks sporting Confederate flags, spewing the N-word and brandishing long steel wrenches. Soon the police arrived but not to Wheeler’s rescue. “A white cop looked at grown men about to assault children and allowed them to go free. Then he put a gun in my face and started shouting at me and my friends to get on the ground.”
Fortunately for Wheeler, another white cop showed up who knew him and deescalated the situation.
In high school, Wheeler continued to do well academically. However, he also developed a distinctly different talent. Notwithstanding his warm smile and gentle nature, Wheeler demonstrated great aptitude on a football field for knocking large people down.
But even on the gridiron, just like in his everyday life, racism continued rearing its ugly head. Opposing team fans often showered Wheeler and his black teammates with the N word. The coaches said, “That’s just how things are done down here.”
Aaron took his anger and frustration caused by a life of racial hatred and poured it into football. He later received a scholarship to play linebacker for a college in Tennessee.
Despite carrying up to 230 pounds on his five-foot 11-inch frame, Wheeler had low body fat and great speed. Wheeler downplays his prodigious strength and achievements. “My dad was the real beast in our family,” he says.” “At his peak, he could bench 475 lbs.” He adds, “My athletic achievements were the worst in my household. My mom set records in track and field and my sister ended her cheerleading career as one of the top cheerleaders in the country. I wasn’t naturally athletic, so I had to work really hard to try and keep up with their accomplishments.”
Unfortunately, racism followed Wheeler to college. After football practice one day, he stopped for a bite to eat. While sitting in the Burger King parking lot enjoying his Whopper, a police car pulled up. A white cop jumped out of his car, pointed his gun at Wheeler’s head and began screaming at him. Fortunately, Wheeler’s parents had taught him well. “I knew that if I even so much as twitched, it could have been my name amongst the numerous others being shouted in protest. Another mother crying while demanding justice and another broken family missing their child.”
Eventually, the cop settled down. Once identification had been made, the cop explained that the people in the bank across from Burger King mistakenly suspected Wheeler of casing the bank for a robbery. Neither the officer nor the bank employees offered an apology.
Wheeler recalls sharing this experience with one of his professors, breaking into tears and sobbing as he described the incident.
Wheeler’s dreams of a professional football career were dashed after concussion side-effects began to show themselves outside of the football field. “I started blacking out during class and the rest of my body was breaking down.”
Wheeler went on to graduate with a double major in Pre-Medical Biology and Sociology – with an emphasis on race relations in America.
Years later, a chance encounter with Stakeholder Centered Coaching (SCC) founder Marshall Goldsmith and an introduction to Frank Wagner led him to his present career as an executive leadership coach.
One might think that with all the racial hate he experienced, Wheeler would be an embittered man. The opposite is true, however. “I look for the positives,” he says. “I love helping people find their passion in life and be good to others.
“I know evil and hatred, but they don’t define me.”
Wheeler adds that he’s especially grateful to the SCC community and methodology. “I’ve been given the tools and training I need to help others maximize their effectiveness and find success and satisfaction in their lives.”