Benjamin Raymond wanted to see whether the teens listening to his inspirational talk were truly his target audience — whether they were anything like him.
As it turned out, many were.
"Who in this room does not have a father in his life?" he asked the crowd of hundreds gathered Wednesday at West High School in southwest Bakersfield.
Scores of hands shot up.
"Who's been to jail to visit somebody?"
Again, dozens of silent hands rose above the crowd.
The 38-year-old entrepreneur, author and son-in-law of comedian-talk show host Steve Harvey came to Bakersfield to share his "journey" with hundreds of students who were bused to West High School from Vista West continuation school and other area schools Wednesday.
Some of the students are in foster care or are otherwise in the system. Virtually all of them face challenges many teens never face.
As a result, organizers asked that students not be identified in news coverage.
"My students have already read Mr. Raymond’s book, 'Playing the Game Without a Coach,'" said Vista West teacher Lynnetta Jefferson, who helped organize the event.
Jefferson said she hoped that by hearing how Raymond overcame his difficult past — which included a drug-addicted, mentally ill mother who lost him to the "system" when he was 6 months old and a father who lived much of his life behind bars — they would be inspired to make the most of their lives and opportunities as Raymond had.
Judging by the crowd of students who gathered afterward to shake Raymond's hand and capture a photo with him, it seemed his messages of self-control, hard work and determination hit home for many.
"Yes, I felt sorry for myself at times," he told the students. "Yes, I sometimes wanted to give up."
But giving up, he said, is not an option.
What turned it around for Raymond were his skills and involvement in sports. After returning to his mother for a time — and placing himself in foster care — he won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where he became the captain of the basketball team and earned two degrees.
In the years since, Raymond parlayed his skills and tenacity on the court into the business world, finding success in his Dallas-based insurance company.
One of his central messages Wednesday?
"Never let your history control your destiny," he told the students.
“The greater your struggle, the greater your reward.”
And the struggle was real for Raymond, he said.
“For me coming home was a lot of dark days. For me coming home, it was a lot of nights I didn’t know what I would get to eat," Raymond said.
“My dad wasn’t in my life. I saw my father at 7 — didn’t see him again for 20 years. I had my first conversation with my father in federal prison.”
The most pivotal decisions of his life, he said, included leaving home when he knew he had to — and “making the call” to find his father. And ultimately to forgive his father and reconcile with his mother.
He said each and every student in the audience will find themselves in a situation, maybe several, in which they will have to make a decision — a decision that could change their lives for better, or worse.
“You know the right answer,” he said.
Afterward, Raymond spoke about why he comes to places like Bakersfield to speak to young men and women who are trying to find their own way in the world.
"Hopefully my story inspired them not only to be better, but also, more importantly, to share their stories," he said. "A lot of these kids have something great inside them, and have gone through similar situations as me.
"To be able to see somebody who looks like you, or who's gone through similar things, always inspired me to do better, and hopefully that was accomplished today."