Xerxes Whitney on being yourself

David Briggs
Xerxes Whitney teaches and coaches middle school tennis, and is now pursuing motivational speaking.
06/13/2013

Xerxes Whitney recited the first poem by heart. His gaze was firm and straight beneath his tan pageboy cap, meeting this reporter’s eyes as he offered up the title poem of a self-published 1999 volume, What’s Your Name

It recounts his feelings about the first impressions people have upon meeting Mr. Whitney, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy—a condition that makes him, to quote a line of his poetry, “walk and talk funny”—when he was 18 months old, just over 40 years ago. 

Though he now lives in Sonoma, Mr. Whitney grew up in Inverness, and he will be back in the area this weekend for his first talk as a motivational speaker before an audience of friends and neighbors.

Though he’s spoken at many events throughout the years, Mr. Whitney had his first paid speaking arrangement at Western Washington University just a few weeks ago. He has a website and a promotional video on YouTube, and on Friday he will try out his program for West Marin residents at the Dance Palace. “I want to share it with all the people who knew me as a little kid,” he said last Sunday at the Blackbird.

Much of the writing in What’s Your Name was composed during a painful period of Mr. Whitney’s life, after his dream of coaching collegiate tennis was thwarted by what he says was discrimination against him because of his cerebral palsy. But he calls the roadblock, which led him to pursue teaching middle school athletics, a “godsend.” 

He teaches many more students than he would have as a college coach, he said. And he’s now embarking on a new career as a motivational speaker, making use of his life story and his journey to self-acceptance.

The heart of Mr. Whitney’s motivational philosophy isn’t to inspire listeners to pursue idealistic versions of themselves—though by all accounts he has accomplished numerous feats, including running five marathons. In fact, he said, ticking off a list of accomplishments to prove oneself to the world is neither sustainable nor ultimately satisfying. 

“Sometimes all that drive to validate yourself is too much work,” he said. “I achieved a lot in life to try to validate that I was a good person, but I don’t need to run marathons or accomplish or climb mountains. I can just be me, that’s part of the lesson here: accepting yourself.” 

He says finding one’s authenticity is connected to “appreciating the simple pleasures in life—just looking out over Tomales Bay or seeing an egret or whatever—seeing the endless beauty that’s around us all the time.”

Mr. Whitney’s determination to enjoy his life regardless of his cerebral palsy, which makes his speech difficult for some to understand and somewhat limits his physical movement, originated in his childhood. 

His sister, Dakota, and his father, Nick, said the family didn’t single him out for special treatment as a child. And because the family was competitive and sporty, Ms. Whitney said, “That was a big part of what we all did together… so he worked harder than anyone else to prove his disability wasn’t a limitation.”

When he was five, Xerxes attended Halleck Creek Riding Club in Nicasio, which offers horseback riding for those with disabilities, but he had no passion for it. “I distinctly remember wanting to play baseball instead of going to Halleck Creek,” he said, “because of my love of sport.” He soon switched to Little League. 

When he moved from Little League to tennis at age 13, his family recalled, he began hitting tennis balls against a wall at school—“a thousand a day,” Dakota and Nick said. His grandmother, Deborah, who originally taught him tennis, said he quickly surpassed her. 

“I tried to steer him in another direction,” Nick said of his son’s passion for athletics, “but he wouldn’t have it.”

On Sunday Mr. Whitney opened his 1999 volume to another poem, “The Playground,” which recounts his drive to pursue athletics. Though he read from the page this time, he looked up every few lines to make eye contact. 

“Just to play wasn’t enough as it was for the other kids/but to thrive and excel,” he read. “Couldn’t keep up with them/too fast, too coordinated, too much strength./it still didn’t matter/the passion still grew.” 

He sipped on his sparkling lemonade. (He never developed a taste for coffee, he said, because the hot liquid, in shallow, wide-mouthed cups, spills too easily.)

Mr. Whitney went from playing tennis at Tomales High School to playing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he also worked as an assistant coach and manager. 

Morgan Shepherd, a friend from the college tennis team, described Mr. Whitney’s tennis game as “very solid in terms of consistence and putting the ball in the right places, and crafty with what he does with the ball. He knows how to make the balls hit the right spot.”

He was also “super competitive,” Mr. Shepherd recalled. “He would always have a huge laugh” if he beat somebody or had a great point. “With Xerxes, we always understood, it was just hard for him to conceal his delight.” 

During college, at the prompting of his grandmother, he took speech lessons. He recalls that even he had a hard time understanding his answering machine at the time. He learned to speak more slowly, in phrases, and also worked on pronouncing M’s and B’s, which require bringing one’s mouth together. 

After he received his master’s degree from the University of Indiana, Bloomington, in 1995, Mr. Whitney set out to find his dream job: coaching collegiate tennis. He applied and applied, he said, but could not find a full-time job—he believes because of bias against his disability. 

He was at a crossroads. All the drive and momentum he had achieved could not secure him a position in the one field he wanted above all else. “Determination and obsession can actually be a curse in those situations,” he said. As with the job he so desperately wanted, one can store all one’s future happiness in the hopes of fulfilling a dream that does not come to pass.

Mr. Whitney spent a few years at this crossroads. He worked for his father’s Pacific Slope tree company, but the work was unfulfilling. He began writing and reading poetry born from his deep-seated frustrations at open mic nights at Smiley’s in Bolinas and a now-closed arts space in Marshall. 

In 1997, he set a new path for himself, albeit one still focused on sports, by accepting a position as the director of athletics at Tomales High. In 2000, he received a teaching certificate from Sonoma State University and became the sixth grade physical education teacher at Windsor High in Sonoma County. Instead of touching just a handful of students a year through college coaching, he has reached 2,500 kids during his 13 years at Windsor and at the camps he has led. 

A few years ago, Mr. Whitney also began meditating. Last November, he traveled through Thailand for three weeks. The trip included a 10-day silent retreat. “Spending that much time on your own, you get to really evaluate and see your life through a pretty clear lens,” he said. 

Ms. Whitney said that for her brother, who constantly has to explain himself and his condition to others, being forced to remain silent was perhaps another step on his road to self-acceptance. Both she and Mr. Shepherd agreed that the meditation has helped balance Mr. Whitney’s gregarious, effervescent nature. 

“He’s just a more balanced person. I don’t think you can maintain that level of working hard and being up… I just don’t think that’s sustainable,” Ms. Whitney said. 

Mr. Whitney read a third poem on Sunday, “We Are Always Trying to Look Good,” from his 2007 volume. It’s about the impossibility of burying one’s true self with the hope that one’s insecurities and vulnerabilities can remain hidden forever—a lesson he’s gleaned from his meditation practice. “Let your guard down/and start enjoying what/life has to offer/in all its forms,” the poem concludes. 

Mr. Whitney says he now feels he has the life experience to support a new path as a motivational speaker. “I want to share my stories in a way that will inspire people to make the most out of their lives and learn to accept who they are,” he said. “When you can truly accept yourself, you can really live life to the fullest—suck the marrow out of life.” 

 

Xerxes Whitney speaks at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 14 in the Dance Palace Church Space, in point Reyes Station. $10 at the door. For information visit xerxeswhitney.org.